Like the desert way of life they symbolize, the palm trees of Saudi Arabia are disappearing.

"They are letting them die and then cutting them down," Abdul Rahman Kabawl, director of the government's Department of Antiquities, told a visitor recently.

Kabawi, wearing a desert headdress and flowing robes, stood on a rampart of the old royal palace in the ruins of Dariyah, once the Saudi Arabian capital, and pointed toward the green palm groves of Wadi Hanifa, 10 miles northwest of Riyadh, the modern administrative capital.

"Land has risen so much in value," he said, "that the owners would rather see the palm trees go, in order to use the land for building. But this practice threatens our date palms."

A leading Riyadh journal observed in a recent editorial that the palm tree is "the emblem of our country and holds many meanings."

"It was our ancestors' only food and only shelter from the scorching sun," the editorial added. "The tree is now being eliminated from the green fields. One old man said he cried when he saw people uprooting the trees. It meant everything to him.

"Plants are being imported from far and near, while the palm has been ignored so much that some of our streets are totally deprived of them. The fruits of the palm provided food for those who fought for this country and protected if from threats. Honor this tree for it is dear."

Indeed; for centuries the date palm has been more than a symbol of Saudi life; it has been its very essence. The tree provided shade and rest; the trunk provided bark for rope and twine; the fronds were used for thatched roofs, the dates provided the people with food.

Now, as they become increasingly affluent, the desert Bedouin are moving to the cities, to drive taxis rather than camels, and to dine on imported meat rather than dates.

To find good dates nowadays, you often have to make your way to the farthest corner of the souks, or markets.

Yet a visit to the ruins at Dariyah gives the visitor a sense of what the palm tree meant to Saudi life, and why it is emblazoned above the crossed warrier swords on the official insignia of the kingdom.

For it is the date palm that gives both color and variety to the dull grayish brown hills and plains of the central Arabian plateau, and it is the date palm that made life possible for the wandering desert Bedouin. The date palm, which flourishes at the oases that appear here and there in the desert, meant food and shelter for the Bedouin.

At harvest time, the Bedouin would head for those patches of green in the desert, or for the palm fronds in the wadis, or valleys, not only to find surcease from the heat but to gather dates.

The dates would be packed aboard camels to sustain the wanderers until another harvest time, and they would be supplemented by milk and meat from herds of goats, sheep and camels.

The palm's place in the legend of the desert stretches back into history. It is the Saudi peninsula's most prolific and important tree -- the Phonenix dactylifera.

In the Koran's account of the birth of Jesus, his mother, Mary suffers birth pangs under a palm tree but is soothed by a voice that instructs; "Snake also to thee the palm trunk and there shall come tumbling upon thee dates fresh and ripe. Eat therefore and drink, and be comforted."

During the Arab conquest, the general, Chalid ibn Walid, cautioned "injure not the date palm, neither burn it with fire."

The palm tree was naturally adapted to flourishing on a minimum amount of water in the Arabian Peninsula, which has no rivers and scant rainfall.

Palms thrive on intense heat, which makes the date ripen, and the palm tree roots take nourishment from the brackish water far underground.

There are 7 million to 9 million mature palm trees in Saudi Arabia, 10 percent of the world's total, producting about 250 varieties of dates. Dates are the country's biggest agricultural crop, estimated at 252,000 tons a year.

Before the refrigerator and the freezer, dates were the staple of the population, rich in calories that provide needed energy. When other food was scarce, dates were fed to the prize Arabian horses and the Saluki hunting dogs.

It was the date palm that gave shape and substance to the oases of Saudi Arabia: the lovely Wadi Fatimah between Teddah and Mecca, with its small animals and birds, bananas and pomegranates: the vast Al Hofa oasis, one of the world's largest, now given over to the production of rice, and the Wadi Hanifa here, which once supported the capital of the kingdom.

The settlement here dates back to the 15th century, but the town acquired its importance in the mid-18th century when Dariyah became the focus for the religious fundamentalist movement of the Wahhabi sect, named for its founder, Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, who became allied with the founder of the saudi dynasty, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.

The city was sacked by the Egyptians at the instigation of the Ottoman Turks in the early 19th century because of a Saudi uprising against the Turkish rule.

At Dariyah today, springs nourish the winding strip of greenery and under the protection of the palm trees patches of melon and vegetables flourish. The produce is sent to the market at Riyadh.

Kabawi is overseeing the reconstruction of the old capital -- a collection of rundown palaces fashioned from brick and mud that were once surrounded by a formidable wall protecting them against invaders.

Because of the adobe-style construction, Dariyah, like many other Middle Eastern cities, has not stood up well to the depredations of weather and of warfare.

But remnants of the once-impressive architecture still stand, and the Saudi Department of Anti-quities is engaged in restoring many of the buildings to their former glory -- the palaces, school buildings, the mosque.

To protect the country's cultural past, the department is reclaiming and restoring other Saudi monuments, many going back before the Islamic conquest.

For instance, a restoration project is under way at Tarut, an island off the east coast. There are the remains of a civilization that shared the same culture as the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to 6,000 B.C.

Tarut was an important gulf trading post between Mesopotamia and the Tigris-Euphrates valley and Iran and the Indus valley far to the east. The artifacts of this civilization are similar to those of another civilization on the nearby island known today as Bahrain.

The artifacts being unearthed from the ruins at Tarut, which lies off the city of Qatib, are being protected and catalogued by the Department of Antiquities.

As part of the general conservation policy, Kahawi hopes to keep the oases intact -- and that means preserving the date palms from the encroachment of the developers.

Saudi officials and editorialists are becoming increasingly aware of the plight of the palm. Moves to stem the destructions of the tree are well underway.

For instances, in the eastern province, the government has instituted a campaign to plant palm saplings as part of a general reforestation program in the areas around oases.

Saudi officials say that the palm does not necessarily have to fight a losing battle to the developers, for sapling palms can still bring farmers good money and cities should begin planting them in order to provide green spaces that lower the fierce temperatures, reduce dust and beautify urban communities.

During a recent five-day period, in the eastern province, 6,000 saplings were planted by school children.

Here at Dariyah, Kabawi bemoaned the lack of attention paid to the passing of the palm and declared that Saudi farmers and developers should realize the need for conservation before the beautiful trees are destroyed.

The Saudi scholar strolled through the oasis, under the tall palms that provide shade against the burning sun, which hung like a fireball in the summer sky, and said:

"Our country is in the midst of a vast series of development projects. All this is well and good -- and necessary.

"But nevertheless, we must pay attention to our own antiquities and to our palm trees, and conserve them. After all, this is our heritage."