Agriculture



Terraced fields below al-Saraha in valley of al-Ahjur; photograph by Daniel Martin Varisco

by Zaid Ali Alwazir, La Voix du Yemen, June 9, 2013

Agricultural policy describes a set of laws related to the local farming and imported agricultural products from abroad. These laws are supposed to be implemented to get certain results such as utilizing the land, operating it or stabilizing prices of imported and local products.

Since the start of the “youth revolution” in Yemen, talks about the political and economic reforms got increased without focusing on “the agricultural economy” as if it was not part of the general “economy”. Therefore, no attention was paid by reformers to this issue since their talks had been focusing on “the material economy” such as “taxes”, “Zakat” and others.

“Agricultural economy” is not given the required attention despite the fact that agricultural development would feed the budget with more income, boost up farmers’ capacity to give more and optimize their living standards to ensure their welfare. (more…)


Shit happens but Manure Matters. The latter is the title of a recently published anthology, edited by Richard Jones for Ashgate with details about the historical use of manure in Europe, India and the Arab World. My own contribution to the volume is entitled “Zibl and Zirā‘a: Coming to Terms with Manure in Arab Agriculture,” (pp. 129-143).

Here is the description of the book, as posted on Ashgate’s website:

This book brings together the work of a group of international scholars working on social, cultural, and economic issues relating to past manure and manuring. Contributors use textual, linguistic, archaeological, scientific and ethnographic evidence as the basis for their analyses. The scope of the papers is temporally and geographically broad; they span the Neolithic through to the modern period and cover studies from the Middle East, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and India. Together they allow us to explore the signatures that manure and manuring have left behind, and the vast range of attitudes that have surrounded both substance and activity in the past and present.

Contents: Why manure matters, Richard Jones; Science and practice: the ecology of manure in historical retrospect, Robert Shiel; Middening and manuring in Neolithic Europe: issues of plausibility, intensity and archaeological method, Amy Bogaard; (Re)cycles of life in late Bronze Age southern Britain, Kate Waddington; Organic geochemical signatures of ancient manure use, Ian Bull and Richard Evershed; Dung and stable manure on waterlogged archaeological occupation sites: some ruminations on the evidence from plant and invertebrate remains, Harry Kenward and Allan Hall; Manure and middens in English place-names, Paul Cullen and Richard Jones; The formation of anthropogenic soils across three marginal landscapes on Fair Isle and in The Netherlands and Ireland, Ben Pears; Zibl and zira’a: coming to terms with manure in Arab agriculture, Daniel Varisco; Understanding medieval manure, Richard Jones; Lost soles: ethnographic observations on manuring practices in a Mediterranean community, Hamish Forbes; Manure, soil and the Vedic literature: agricultural knowledge and practice on the Indian subcontinent over the last two millennia, Vanaja Ramprasad; Postscript, Richard Jones; Bibliography; Index.


Tax document of al-Malik al-Afḍal, mid 14th century CE

By Daniel Martin Varisco

[In 2003 I attended a conference in Rome and gave a paper which was eventually published in Convegno Storia e Cultura dello Yemen in età Islamica, con particolare riferimento al periodo Rasûlide (Roma 30-31 ottobre 2003 (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, 27, pp. 161-174, 2006). As this publication is virtually inaccessible, I am reprinting the paper here (with page numbers to the original indicted in brackets). For the previous part of this article, click here. The references are provided at the end of the first entry.]

ARCHIVING AGRICULTURAL ECONOMICS

Al-Ashraf’s Milh al-malāḥa provides a textbook survey of the mechanics of the agricultural system, but there is nothing on production costs, yields or the marketing system. Fortunately, some microeconomic details can now be filled in with information from the Muẓaffar archive, compiled from field reports sent to the Rasulid court between 691-95/1292-96 at the very end of al-Muẓaffar’s reign. Particularly valuable is a survey made in Ramadan 692/1293 from the lands of a shaykh Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Ḥawm (?) of Ta‘izz and shaykh Rashīd al-Dīn Manṣūr ibn Ḥasan in Mikhlāf Ja‘far, as well as some data from ‘Abadān. (26) Details are provided on fees and shares for ploughing and virtually every agricultural activity with special emphasis on the obligations in sharecropping agreements and regional differences.

For the Ta‘izz case, the grain yields of sown sorghum are said to be up to 400 fold (i.e. one zabadī of seed will yield a crop of 400 zabadī) on good land, 150 fold on middle-range land and only 90-100 fold on poor land. Sorghum is also important in Yemen for its stalk (‘ajūr), used as fodder and fuel. The stalk yield for the sowing on good or medium land will be three camel (?) loads, but reaches five loads on land of poor quality; the reason given for this is that such sorghum is grown mainly for its stalk value. [p. 171]

For wheat in Ta‘izz, the increase is 15 fold on good land, 10 fold on medium land and only 3 fold on poor land. Emmer wheat (‘alas), on the other hand, yields 10 fold on good land, 4 fold on medium land and 2 fold on poor soil. Barley is said to yield 10 to 1; this is sown only in the mountain areas and not usually on the best land. Information is also provided on the straw (tibn) yields. (more…)


below Manakha towards the Tihama

By Daniel Martin Varisco

[In 2003 I attended a conference in Rome and gave a paper which was eventually published in Convegno Storia e Cultura dello Yemen in età Islamica, con particolare riferimento al periodo Rasûlide (Roma 30-31 ottobre 2003 (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, 27, pp. 161-174, 2006). As this publication is virtually inaccessible, I am reprinting the paper here (with page numbers to the original indicted in brackets). For the previous part of this article, click here. The references are provided at the end of the first entry.]

PLANTING ADVICE: OF FAVA BEANS AND DATE PALMS

The bulk of al-Ashraf’s text provides details on how to plant and where to plant, as well as when to plant. While some of the information is clearly theoretical, as in the case of planting olive trees, much of it no doubt reflects farmer practices at the time in the coastal region and southern highlands, [p. 168] where al-Ashraf spent most of his time. To give an indication of the range of the advice, I will focus on two specific and important crops: the fava bean and the date palm.

Al-Ashraf follows the classical designation of bāqillā’, which is often shortened to gilla in Yemeni dialects. It would, if you pardon the pun, be foolish of me to lecture this audience on the significance of fava beans (most known today as fūl) in the diet. I will read a translation of the entire passage in the text, followed by comments from my own ethnographic observations. (16)

“Fava beans are planted in cool places of the mountain areas. They are not suitable for the coastal plain [nor the wadis in the cold mountain areas] nor very wild places. The best agricultural fields are in the excellent eastern land on which a lot of dew does not fall, (17) as well as in the good soil (18) which is fertilized by dung. It is ploughed for with an excellent ploughing. Most of it is planted between the sorghum plants in Nīsān (i.e., April). The beans can be eaten after three months from the day planted. It finishes producing and is harvested after seven months. There is also that which is planted as qiyāẓ at the end of Aylūl (i.e., September) in the midst of the sorghum plants. This can be eaten after four months. It finishes producing and, if it has yellowed and dried, is harvested after seven months. As for the manner of its cultivation, the seed is cast in the bottom of the furrow with a footstep between each two grains, (19) then covered with soil and packed down by foot. When the sorghum is harvested, irrigate whatever it needs of water after this in the same way as for the sorghum stalk, even for that which is meager, until its time finishes, as God wills.” (more…)


highland sorghum

[In 2003 I attended a conference in Rome and gave a paper which was eventually published in Convegno Storia e Cultura dello Yemen in età Islamica, con particolare riferimento al periodo Rasûlide (Roma 30-31 ottobre 2003 (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, 27, pp. 161-174, 2006). As this publication is virtually inaccessible, I am reprinting the paper here (with page numbers to the original indicted in brackets). For the previous part of this article, click here. The references are provided at the end of the first entry.]

IDENTIFYING THE MAJOR CROPS

Although al-Ashraf claims to have learned from the farmers themselves, his overall classification of crops and plants suggests that he is fitting that knowledge into a shared textual tradition of scientific agronomy at the time. Al-Ashraf inventories Yemeni production according to five main categories: zurū‘, qaṭānī or ḥubūb, al-ashjār al-muthmira, rayāḥīn, and khaḍrāwāt and buqūlāt. By zurū‘ (the plural of zar‘) al-Ashraf means the cereal crops of wheat, barley, sorghum, rice, two kinds of millet, eleusine (or finger millet) and teff, as well as sesame, cotton, lucerne, madder and turmeric. This goes beyond the English sense of cereal grains to cover the non-food crops of cotton and madder, both of which are reclassified as al-ashjār al-muthmira (flowering trees) in the later Bughyat. In classical Arabic terms, at least according to Abū Ḥanīfa, sesame is classified as qaṭānī. (12)

The second major kind of crop is labeled qaṭānī, which the author glosses as ḥubūb. This includes what we would today call pulses and various kinds of beans, such as chick peas, lentils, cowpeas, fava beans, endive, fenugreek, water cress, mustard, safflower, poppy, flax and black cumin. The term qaṭānī, according to Abū Ḥanīfa, is originally Syrian and refers to crops such [p. 167] as rice, chickpeas, lentils, sesame and most beans. (13) The term ḥubūb (plural of ḥabb) may refer to wheat, barley and the like, but has also been widely used in the agricultural texts for seed plants of various kinds. (14)

The third category, al-ashjār al-muthmira, literally refers to flowering trees and plants. (15) In order of presentation, al-Ashraf includes here dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, apples, plums, pears, peaches, apricots, mulberry trees, olives, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, betel nuts, carob, bananas, sugar cane, citrons, oranges, lemons, lebbek, christ’s thorn and Indian laburnum. The reference to olives is clearly textual, since this tree was not planted in Yemen; nor do I think betel would have been tried outside the royal gardens. The fourth category comprises rayāḥīn or aromatic plants and ornamental flowers. Of the nineteen specific plants mentioned, most are flowers (such as rose and jasmine), but the list also includes useful herbs such as basil, chamomile and the important dye of henna.

The final part of al-Ashraf’s classification refers to khaḍrāwāt and buqūlāt. This covers a variety of green and root vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, eggplant, carrots, cabbage, garlic, onions, radish, endive, mallow, colocasia, chard, spinach, purselane, celery, okra and asparagus. Among the ground “fruits” included here are melons and gourds, although grapes are considered flowering trees. Also included are several spices, such as ginger, mint, parsley, coriander, dill and cumin, as well as “medicants,” such as balsam, rue, fennel and Indian hemp.

FOOTNOTES:

(12) Ibn Sīda, al-Mukhaṣṣaṣ, Beirut, 1965, v. 11, p. 62.
(13) Ibid, v. 11, p. 62. In Kitāb al-Filāḥa al-Rūmiya (Leiden, Or. 414, f. 40) qaṭānī is defined as summer crops like rice which need the heat and water.
(14) Ibn Sīda, al-Mukhaṣṣaṣ, cit., v. 11, p. 49. For example, Ibn Waḥshiya, v. 1, p. 492 includes fava bean in the category of ḥubūb used for food.
(15) This term is used by Ibn Waḥshiya, v. 1, p. 367.

to be continued


Yemeni tribal farmer in al-Ahjur, Central Highlands

By Daniel Martin Varisco

[In 2003 I attended a conference in Rome and gave a paper which was eventually published in Convegno Storia e Cultura dello Yemen in età Islamica, con particolare riferimento al periodo Rasûlide (Roma 30-31 ottobre 2003 (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, 27, pp. 161-174, 2006). As this publication is virtually inaccessible, I am reprinting the paper here (with page numbers to the original indicted in brackets). For the previous part of this article, click here. The references are provided at the end of the first entry.]

VIEWING THE FIELD THROUGH AL-ASHRAF’S AGRICULTURAL TREATISE

I begin with al-Muẓaffar’s short-reigned son, al-Malik al-Ashraf Yūsuf, whose treatise Milḥ al-malāḥa not only defines the genre of Rasulid agricultural texts but is a primary source for the later, larger and more cosmopolitan Bughyat al-fallāḥīn of al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās, which has been studied in part by the late Professor Serjeant. (5) Milḥ survives in at least two copies, both defective; one is in the Glaser collection in Vienna and the other was discovered in southern Yemen less than two decades ago by ‘Abd al-Raḥīm Jāzm. This consists of seven chapters. The first deals with the knowledge connected to times for cultivation, planting and preparing land. The next five chapters are arranged according to the type of crop or plant, with elaborate details on how each is cultivated. The final chapter, which has not yet been found apart from quotations in the Bughyat, discusses agricultural pests. The information provided on crops is almost exclusively for Yemen, unlike the penchant of the later Bughyat’s author to quote extensively from earlier non-Yemeni sources such as Ibn Waḥshiya and Ibn Baṣṣāl. Indeed, there is no explicit mention of other texts in Milḥ.

After the obligatory salutation of thanks, al-Ashraf begins his treatise with a poetic quatrain:

Fa-hādhā kitāb jama‘atuhu bi-ḥasab al-ṭāqa wa-al-ijtihād
wa-ista‘tab ‘alā dhālik bi-rabb al-‘ibād.
Waḍa‘tuhu ‘alā ḥukm iṣṭilāḥ ahl al-ma‘rifa fī al-Yaman
ba‘d al-baḥth ma‘ahum fī kulli mā fīhi min ṣanf wa-fann.
[p. 164] “I compiled this book according to diligence and capability
and solicit for proof of this the Lord of all humanity.
I recorded it from the wise practice of those Yemenis who know
only after research among them for all that is within their classifying and artful show.”

(more…)


Rasulid polo players

By Daniel Martin Varisco

[In 2003 I attended a conference in Rome and gave a paper which was eventually published in Convegno Storia e Cultura dello Yemen in età Islamica, con particolare riferimento al periodo Rasûlide (Roma 30-31 ottobre 2003 (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, 27, pp. 161-174, 2006). As this publication is virtually inaccessible, I am reprinting the paper here (with page numbers to the original indicted in brackets).]

INTRODUCTION AND SOURCES

[p. 161] About seven and a half centuries ago the second Rasulid sultan, al-Malik al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf ibn ‘Alī, was thrust into power in his youth after his father’s murder, just about the time the Genoan Marco Polo was born. The overlap between the Italian merchant mercenary and mercenary descendant sultan is fraught with irony. Al-Muẓaffar, the untested state builder came to power just a decade before the overthrow of the Abbasid caliphate, which had blessed Rasulid rule as a buffer against the Zaydī imams of Yemen’s northern highlands, while the future Italian diplomat set out on his trek only a decade or so after the Mongols had destroyed Baghdad. Polo was destined to serve an aging Kublai Khan, returning to Italy in 1295, the very year that the seventy-year-old-plus Rasulid ruler died. When Polo referred to the immense wealth of the sultan of Aden, “arising from the imposts he lays” in the Indian Ocean trade, he meant al-Muẓaffar. Marco Polo and al-Malik al-Muẓaffar never met, except in print, but the world that they both embraced was centered on an important trade network linking the Mediterranean and Africa with Persia, India and ultimately the lands of the great Khan.

Fortunately for the Rasulids, the merciless Mongol warriors never reached Yemen, apart from a few individuals who later assisted a Yemeni sultan in compiling a “King’s Dictionary” also known as the “Rasulid Hexaglot.” (1) [p. 162] Yemen also escaped the incursions of crusading medieval knights, although the legacy of Saladin played a major role in defining its political fortunes until the arrival of the Ottoman garrisons and Portuguese galleons in the sixteenth century. My focus is on the zenith of the Rasulid era near the end of the long reign of al-Muẓaffar, the preeminent state-builder of the dynasty. By 1252 he consolidated his hold over the coastal zone (Tihāma), southern highlands and Aden, as well as achieving periodic control over Ṣan‘ā’, thus driving the Zaydī imams back to their firm base in Ṣa‘da. The sultan’s forces in the late 1270s took control, by land and by sea, of the important southern harbors at al-Shiḥr and Dhofar, two important sailing venues along the trade route to the Persian Gulf and India. In 682/1283, despite the Zaydī loyalties of many of the tribes, al-Muẓaffar was able to briefly take hold of Ṣa‘da, even striking coins there. Military success led to increased diplomatic recognition for the Rasulids; later delegations are described in the chronicles as arriving from Persia, Oman, India and China. Fortunately, al-Muẓaffar was an avid patron of architecture and learning, so that the material and written records of Rasulid activities are quite extensive. (2) (more…)


I note the presence of a fabulous new website devoted to the history of the Fayyum.

Rural society in Medieval Islam: ‘History of the Fayyum’

The ‘History of the Fayyum’ is a unique tax register, in Arabic, listing revenues from 130 villages and hamlets in one Egyptian province for AD 1245. It is the most detailed tax survey to have survived from any region of the medieval Islamic world, a Domesday Book for the medieval Egyptian countryside.

This website offers the tools for a quantitative and qualitative micro-study of society, economy, and agriculture of medieval Fayyum. It gives access to:

* Full fiscal and demographic data set, presented in 17 Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheets.
* Spatial representation of the data, presented in 14 Geographical Information System (GIS) maps.
* Extracts from the English translation and Arabic edition of the work.

It also includes resources for teaching the rural history of the Middle East, and a forum area for postings on the history of the Fayyum (available from September 2011). (more…)

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