This is to note that I have received a research grant from the Qatar Foundation for a study of indigenous knowledge of the seasons and time-telling in the Gulf. I have created a separate webpage to indicate progress through updates on the progress. This page is at

Economy and Material Culture in the Early Islamic Empire
Bi-Weekly, Wednesday, 4-6 pm CEST Starting April 6, 2016

Islamic Material Culture

The Universität Bonn (Bethany Walker), the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich (Andreas Kaplony), The Bard Graduate Center in New York (Abigail Balbale), and Universität Hamburg (Stefan Heidemann) are co-operating in setting up a series of webinars in Archaeology of the Middle East, Arabic Papyrology, Islamic Arts and material Culture, and Numismatics of the Middle East.

Why Agriculture?

Why agriculture and the Early Islamic Empire in material culture? Not least Bulliet’s book about the cotton boom (2009) in the Early Empire has stimulated discourse about agriculture and elite culture of the Early Islamic Empire. The webinar tutorial explores different aspects of this agriculture boom in case studies from Central Asia to the Iberian Peninsula. We see a continuation and improvement in efficiency of established forms of irrigation from Late Antiquity to the Early Islamic Empire. The new Muslim elites turned into a landholding class establishing estates and luxurious mansions. The new imperial metropolises created an unprecedented demand in foodstuffs, which was answered by bringnig more land under cultivation and introducing more efficient ways of production. Food had to be transported, and maritime and river routes were established. While some of these developments can be explored through text, material culture and archaeology allows new ways to see this boom in detail. Guest lecturers will include Corisande Fenwick (University College London), Abigale Balbale (The Bard Graduate Center, New York), Sören Stark, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World), and Kristoffer Damgaard (Carsten Niebuhr Institute, Copenhagen), and Bethany Walker (Universität Bonn).

The webinar is part of the ‘Webinar Initiative in Islamic Material Culture’ jointly organized by the Bard Graduate Center, New York, Universität Bonn, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, and Universität Hamburg.
Prerequisites for participation

Spoken and written proficiency in English language. The course is open to all advanced students in B.A., M.A., and PhD programs of Islamic studies, historians, art historians, and archaeologists of the Middle East. All students need a computer, a reliable internet connection, and a headset. In a personal online short skype interview in early April 2016, we will check whether all technical assets are working. Students from Hamburg have to sign up in the campus system ‘Stine’ and to contact Stefan Heidemann as early as possible to register and get the necessary introduction to the technology. Students from universities other than Universität Hamburg are welcome and have to apply with a short CV and a motivation letter in English until March, 15, 2016. These will be emailed to Prof. Stefan Heidemann at: Preference is given to students from universities within the network of the webinar initiative “Islamic Material Culture”.

[Webshaykh’s Note: This study is perhaps a bit dated and overstretched, but it can help explain why Iraq and Syria still matter (well, sort of…). I sort of doubt all the handsome men were farmers back then… or could it be that handsome Turks turned the eyes of lassies in Ireland independent of their farming expertise?]

Most Britons descended from male farmers who left Iraq and Syria 10,000 years ago (and were seduced by the local hunter-gatherer women)

By David Derbyshire for MailOnlineUpdated: 13:37 GMT, 20 January 2010

Most Britons are direct descendants of farmers who left modern day Iraq and Syria 10,000 years ago, a new study has shown.

After studying the DNA of more than 2,000 men, researchers say they have compelling evidence that four out of five white Europeans can trace their roots to the Near East.

The discovery is shedding light on one of the most important periods of human history – the time when our ancient ancestors abandoned hunting and began to domesticate animals. (more…)

There is an extraordinary collection of 47 Magic Lantern slides from the 1930 Beloit College Logan Museum Expedition to Algeria by George L. Waite, the photographer and cinematographer. This is available in an online collection at the website of the Smithsonian Institution. Click here to access the collection.


Chalcolithic burial at Zeidan; Credit: Gil Stein, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

6200-year-old parasite egg may be first proof of early human technology spreading disease

Cambridge Research

Latest research shows that schistosomiasis, a disease caused by flatworm parasites, may have been spread by earliest crop irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia, suggesting early technology exacerbated disease burden.

The discovery of a schistosomiasis parasite egg in a 6200-year-old grave at a prehistoric town by the Euphrates river in Syria may be the first evidence that agricultural irrigation systems in the Middle East contributed to disease burden, according to new research published in Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by several species of flatworm parasites that live in the blood vessels of the bladder and intestines.

Infection can result in anaemia, kidney failure, and bladder cancer. This research shows it may have been spread by the introduction of crop irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia, the region along the Tigris-Euphrates river system that covers parts of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey. (more…)

The following is the abstract of a Yemeni MA thesis on agricultural crops in ancient South Arabia.

زراعة المحاصيل الزراعية في اليمن القديم
الباحث: أ / ليبيا عبد الله ناجي صالح دماج
الدرجة العلمية: ماجستير
الجامعة: جامعة صنعاء
الكلية: كلية الآداب
القسم: قسم التاريخ
بلد الدراسة: اليمن
لغة الدراسة: العربية
تاريخ الإقرار: 2009
نوع الدراسة: رسالة جامعية

موضوع هذه الدراسة “المحاصيل الزراعية في اليمن القديم” لا تتناول ماهية تلك المحاصيل فقط وإنما تتناول كل ما يتعلق بها من كافة الجوانب، من حيث البدايات الأولى لظهور الزراعة في اليمن القديم، والآراء المختلفة والمتباينة حول ذلك، وما كان يزرع من محاصيل آنذاك. وكذا بداية ظهور الري والاعتماد عليه في سقي المزروعات. بالإضافة إلى توضيح الوسائل المستخدمة في العملية الزراعية خلال تلك الحقب الزمنية. ثم تدرس باستفاضة المواسم الزراعية وفصول السنة وشهورها، بالإضافة إلى مصادر المياه المتمثلة بالأمطار وطرق الري المختلفة والمتناسبة مع هذا المصدر، منذ سقوطها على الجبال وانحدارها نحو الأودية وحتى وصولها إلى الأراضي الزراعية. وكذا المصدر الثاني وهو المياه الجوفية، وما يتطلب من حفر أبار لاستخراج تلك المياه من باطنها. كما تتطرق الدراسة إلى كيفية تقسيم المياه بين الأراضي الزراعية، والقائم بتلك العملية.

Here is a Youtube trailer for an environmental documentary film about Yemen, produced by Tony Milroy of Arid Lands and Sustainable Communities Trust for the Channel 4 series ‘Fragile Earth’.

Thimar is a new organization that promotes research on agriculture, environment and labor in the Arab World. Check out their website, which is still under production.]


The lands which formed a cradle of plant and animal domestication exhibit today the greatest ‘food insecurity’ of any region in the world. Stark dependence on imported food is often attributed, on the production side, to aridity exacerbated by climate change, soil salinity, and under-capitalized small land-holdings, and on the consumption side, to population growth and change in food cultures. Dominant political and economic interpretations would have us see the region’s food deficit as ‘natural’ (a result of aridity, population growth and the force of the market).

But this argument dismisses the centrality of economic, political and social policies. An important example is Syria, where changes in policy from the end of the 1980s have led the country by 2007 to face, for the first time in its history, major national food insecurity and growing rural child-malnutrition. A comparison with Iran since the late 1980s is telling. While Syria lost industrial production, scaled back support for agriculture, and failed to develop a national consensus about the relation between wealth distribution and population policy, Iran sustained the growth of its manufacturing sector, strengthened its programme of national food-security, continued to engage with pastoral producers, and opened a public debate on population and development which led to an effective family-planning programme operating through the country’s public primary healthcare service. (more…)

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