The large Siwa Oasis, situated in a deep basin in Egypt’s northwestern desert zone, just a few kilometers from the Libyan border, was once an important stop on the ancient date trade route. Today it is known for its archaeological remains from the time of the pharaohs, its embroidery industry and the rich agricultural traditions that are continued by the population of ten Berber tribes across 13 villages.
Around 5,000 hectares of land are cultivated in the oasis, uniformly subdivided into gardens and further partitioned into smaller hattia (plots) that share irrigation wells. The well water is brackish and only suitable for the cultivation of certain crops, including dates (the most important), olives, mint and sorrel. In the majority of cases there is a palm or olive tree planted in the middle of each hattia, although sometimes other fruit essences are also present. To create a new plot, the land must first be reclaimed. To do this, the topsoil is removed and the soil underneath is substituted with a mixture of sand and manure, and repeatedly flooded with fresh water. Medicinal herbs are planted first, followed by palm and olive trees, and other crops.
The Siwa Oasis producers offer both fresh dates and dried dates for commercial use. The three most important varieties are the local Siwi, Frehi and Azzawi. Another three varieties are highly valued for their qualities, but are produced in such small quantities that they are at risk of extinction: the Ghazaal (semi-firm flesh), Takdat (very soft flesh) and Amnzou.
Date palms start to produce fruit after around 10 years, and reach their maximum production between 10 and 25 years of age. On average, each plant produces about 50 kilograms of dates per year. Maturation periods vary: the Amnzou first bears fruit in September, the Siwi and the Azzawi at the beginning of October, the Ghazaal at the end of October and the Takdat between December and January.
Producers harvest the dates by hand, climbing the trunks with the aid of a belt made of palm fibers. Dates that aren’t eaten fresh are oven dried at around 70°C.
Dates are used in many local dishes, such as Elhuji (egg, olive oil and dates), Tarfant (bread, olive oil and dates) and Tagilla (flour, olive oil, water and dates). During Ramadan, they are eaten in the evening to break the fast.
The Presidium’s goal is to promote the oasis’s highest quality dates on the national and international market, protect heritage date varieties at risk of extinction and assist growers to control the entire production chain – from planting to export – and to certify the product as fairtrade and organic.
Siwa Oasis, Matruh governorate, Western Egyptian desert
Anwar Youssef Sahran
Siwa Community Development Environmental Conservation
tel. +20 464600010