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The agrobiodiversity of the Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) in Siwa Oasis (Egypt): between what is said, written, and forgotten

Art. in Revue d’ethnoécologie, vol. 4 (2013). [Siwa #0]

Vincent Battesti

[Siwa #0]

 Original title:
L’agrobiodiversité du dattier (Phoenix dactylifera L.) dans l’oasis de Siwa (Égypte): entre ce qui se dit, s’écrit et s’oublie

Article published in Revue d’ethnoécologie Journal, Special Issue 4 (2013), “The Date Palm : Origin and Cultivation in the Middle East and in Egypt”, “Le Palmier dattier : Origine et culture en Égypte et au Moyen-Orient”.
Issue edited by Margareta Tengberg, Vincent Battesti, and Claire Newton.
ISSN : 2267-2419
DOI: 10.4000/ethnoecologie.1538
PDF File:

Research with the support of Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, NYU (New York University).

A handfulof of early amenzu dates in the hand of their farmer, in a garden of the palm grove of Siwa, Egypt, May 24th, 2013

 The situation

This article is actually a fairly new immersion for me in the intraspecific popular/local classification, means of a taxon, and in this case the date palm. I had previously assumed that the situation was simpler than it was in reality: a species cultivated by vegetative reproduction, giving many varieties or, more precisely, cultivars, each with its own name. This was jumping the gun: in the halftone light of this immersion into this local categorization of the date palm, I had to rethink some of my assumptions.


The purpose of this paper is to present results of research in progress about Siwa, the unique Berber Egyptian oasis, in the Libyan Desert, and especially the agrobiodiversity of one of its cultivated plants: the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.).

I first attempted to clarify the local categorization of this plant and its cultivars. There is broad con-sensus on the local Berber names for each part of the plant. In contrast, establishing a list of the dif-ferent landraces of date palm in Siwa is far more difficult, even although only about fifteen or so named types (cultivars or landraces) exist. I will attempt to explain the difficulty of this research from my standpoint as a social anthropologist, and how I had to dig through all the literature writ-ten about Siwa (since the end of the 18th century) evoking the local named types of the date palm. Combining ethnography with historical analysis of the literature on Siwa suggests the hypothesis that this agrobiodiversity has been quite stable over this period. This work also suggests that the local community made some early choices to move the (agricultural) economy of the oasis not towards self-sufficiency, but to focus on the export of a few elite cultivars. Siwa, with its multi-species crop-ping system, was perhaps not a lost oasis in the sands of the Libyan Desert. This is the first step of a two-stages work; the second, within an interdisciplinary research project, will examine samples of these date palms through morphometry of seeds and genetic structure of landrace populations to deepen the analysis of agrobiodiversity of the date palm in Siwa, at the North Africa and Middle East crossroad.

Des fleurs mâles (pollen) du palmier dattier dans les mains d’un jardinier de l’oasis de Siwa.
Vincent Battesti, 24 décembre 2010, Siwa.
L’agrobiodiversité du dattier (Phœnix dactylifera L.) dans l’oasis de Siwa (Égypte): entre ce qui se dit, s’écrit et s’oublie
in Revue d’ethnoécologie, 2013, vol. 4 (Le Palmier dattier: Origine et culture ancienne au Moyen-Orient et en Égypte)

 Update: this article was written to be published in Anthropobotanica journal. Unfortunately, this Journal had to disappear.
 Update: This article and all this special issue on date palm will be published in the excellent Revue d’ethnoécologie - vol. 4, next Oct. 2013.
 Update: Journal’s issue published Jan. 7th, 2014.

 Review of the issue

“This new journal began publication in 2012 with each number devoted to a specific theme. This fourth issue contains ten articles addressing the prehistory, history, archaeology and iconography of the date palm, and its domestication and cultivation as a key species of oasis agricultural development over time, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. The longest article is on the agrobiodiversity of the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, commendably documenting the antecedents of the contemporary date palm oasis. This fine book-length collection of date palm studies is a major contribution to the state of knowledge of this ancient and modern tree crop.”
Revue d’Ethnoecologie
Dennis V. Johnson
Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture. 26.11 (Nov. 2014): p1031.

Durch die libysche Wüste zur Amonsoase, p. 123
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Vincent Battesti , "The agrobiodiversity of the Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) in Siwa Oasis (Egypt): between what is said, written, and forgotten " (online), Anthropoasis |, page published 7 January 2014 (consulted 19 May 2024), available on: