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.]


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.”

The intent of the author, at least in verse, is to act as a conduit for the customary knowledge of Yemeni farmers. In this sense he plays here the role of ethnographer more than historian or scientist. I do not think that al-Ashraf was ignorant of earlier agricultural texts, especially for his terse first chapter, but in general the bulk of the information appears to be based on actual Yemeni practice. This is also true for the same author’s agricultural almanac for 670-71/1271, where most of the information is linked to specific regions (usually wadis) in Yemen.

The first chapter, which is only found in the Jāzm copy and may be an abridgement there, is short; only about 570 words. It is primarily concerned with the timing of agricultural activities. “Wa-awwal dhālik ma‘rifat al-sanna al-shamsīya” begins the chapter: “The first thing here is the knowledge of the solar year.” Here the author shows his knowledge of astronomy and time-keeping, something quite evident in his earlier al-Tabṣira fī ‘ilm al-nujūm. The names of the solar months, according to the “Syriac” terms, are listed along with their lengths. This leads into a brief outline of the formal model of the four seasons, defined in a zodiacal sense. Obviously, the Muslim lunar calendar, which Yemenis would have to know in order to practice their faith, was useless for determining seasonal activities. We take for granted that agriculture would be based on a solar calendar, since that is how our own almanacs are arranged. But I seriously doubt that most Yemeni farmers at the time used the “Christian” months (and by this I mean the scientific solar calendar of the day) or were aware of the Greek/Indian model of the zodiac. My own ethnographic research among Yemeni farmers in the 1970s, as well as that of others like Andre Gingrich of Vienna, suggests that local calendars were often based on local phenomena, especially the risings and settings of certain visible stars and useful shadow schemes. (6) Al-Ashraf is well aware of this, as can be seen in comments on local star calendars in the Tabṣira, but as a scholar he uses a scientific grid alien to most Yemenis as a frame for what they actually did.

[p. 165] “Wa-A‘lam an li-al-zirā‘a wa-li-ghirāsat al-ashjār awqāt min hādhihi al-fuṣūl”: “Know that there are specific times in these seasons for cultivation and planting seedlings,” continues al-Ashraf. This is the main point of his book: to systematize the practice of agriculture so that the timing will lead to the best yields and be appropriate to the type of soil. The next concern of the author is with the quality of the ground (arḍ). If you want to know the poor quality (radī’a) from the good quality (jayyida), suggests al-Ashraf, then dig a hole about half a meter deep, take some soil from the bottom of this and place it in a glass container. Then pour on this rain water or sweet, pleasantly scented water from a stream and make sure the soil is well absorbed. Set it aside until it clears. Then take a taste of the water and smell it. If the water is suitable (māliḥ), (7) so will the land be; if it is like fresh water (‘adhb), then the land will be so; if it is foul-smelling (muntin), the land will be of poor quality; if it is excellent (ṭayyib), so will the land be. This advice is not from Yemeni farmers, however, but stems back to the Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Rūmiya of Cassianus Bassus, a text known to al-Afḍal in his later Yemeni treatise. (8)

As Yemeni farmers surely knew then and certainly know now, land is only as useful as its fertility. Thus, it is not surprising that the author shifts from the natural quality of the soil to the use of manure (zibl, pl. zubūl), which he also calls sirqīn, a classical term I have never heard used in a Yemeni dialect. Here he is clearly drawing on textual knowledge, since the best of all types is said to be pigeon dung. (9) Indeed all bird dung, apart from that of waterfowl (especially ducks), is said to be good. (10) We are then given a list of dung types, presumably in descending order of quality: horse, mule, donkey, goat, sheep and cow with a note that pig dung is never suitable. (11) [166] This information was not given by Yemeni farmers. Pigeons are not raised for dung in Yemen, nor would there be enough horses and mules in the countryside to provide the raw material. While not stating it, the author is drawing from earlier texts like, I suspect, Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Rūmiya. In stating that the best mixture of manure is one part dung to three parts soil, the author also appears to be borrowing from the non-Yemeni tradition, although most Yemeni farmers would have applied mixed dung in some combination.

The final bit of advice is on the selection of the strongest, soundest and best balanced seed for planting; this should not have been infested by pests (not an uncommon occurrence when sowing seed is saved from previous years) or have been altered in some way. Similarly the best seedlings should be fresh, without dry leaves and not from a stock too old. Again, this is general information that could as easily have come from earlier texts as Yemeni farmers.


(5) For Bughyat al-fallāḥīn of al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī (died 778/1376), I have used the Cairo Egyptian National Library ms. zirā‘a 155. A translation of the chapter from the Bughyat al-fallāḥīn on cereals was provided by SERJEANT 1974., pp. 25-74. For Milḥ al-malāḥa fī ma‘rifat al-filāḥa of al-Malik al-Ashraf ‘Umar ibn Yūsuf, I have used both the Vienna Glaser Collection ms. no. 247 and the published edition by JĀZM 1985, pp. 165-207; note that this edition has several printing errors.
(6) For information on these calendars, see VARISCO 1993b, pp. 120-142 and GINGRICH 1994.
(7) The Jāzm edition reads ṣāliḥ for the first type of water, but I think this is an error for māliḥ (salty), which Cassianus indicates in Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Rūmiya, Leiden, Or. 414, f. 28. I correct his text to read māliḥ.
(8) Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Rūmiya, f. 28.
(9) This stems from classical tradition, e.g., Varro (died 27 B.C.E.) in W. D. Hooper and H. B.Ash, translators, Marcus Terentius Varro on Agriculture, Cambridge, 1979, p. 263, probably through Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Rūmiya, Leiden, Or. 414, f. 29.
(10) The exclusion of duck dung is also found in Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Rūmiya, Leiden, Or. 414, f. 28.
(11) This is clearly an Islamic injunction, since pig dung is included in the suitable list of Ibn Waḥshiya, Kitāb al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭīya, edited by T. Fahd, Damascus, 1993, v. 1, p. 361.


to be continued