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.]


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.”

In 1978, while residing in the highland Yemeni valley of al-Ahjur, I saw almost the exact methods mentioned here in practice on spring-irrigated land. This was some seven centuries after al-Ashraf’s description. But this [p. 169] was for the cowpea (dijr or lūbiyā’) rather than fava beans, which were locally grown on rainfed land of the nearby plateau. The cowpeas were sown along with and alongside the sorghum in order to take advantage of the same irrigation. Fava beans appear to be more commonly interplanted in the southern highlands, around Ibb for example.

Considerably more information is provided by al-Ashraf in his discussion of the date palm, presumably a plant he was more knowledgable about and more interested in, if only for revenue purposes. (20) He distinguishes two main varieties, drawing mainly on the knowledge of their care in Zabīd, where he spent a considerable amount of time. The first is the thi‘l variety, a term I have tentatively defined as a variant for the classical thu‘l for a tooth or extra teat of any animal. (21) This is said to be the best variety with the best tasting fruit. It was only cultivated from shoots. The second main variety was known as the muwallad, which is said by al-Ashraf to come in three types: dakhr, miqṣad and dhābil. Unlike the thi‘l, this date can be planted from seed. Several pages are devoted to methods of cultivating and irrigating both varieties, followed by discussion of pollenation methods. The various stages of the date development are summed up at the end of the section. After two months the spadix (ṭal‘) appears, a process known as inflorescence; this is the time for pollenation of the female plants. Conveniently, at least in theory (I note that al-Ashraf adds in sha’ Allah at this point), this was the season for the so-called pollenating winds (al-riyāḥ al-lawāqiḥ). After another two months the unripe balaḥ stage is reached, followed two months later by the ripe ruṭab stage.

Dates were obviously an important cash crop in the Rasulid period. Ibn al-Mujāwir listed ten varieties for the Tihāma in the early 13th century, but there were surely many variety names which have not been recorded. (22) The modern historian Muḥammad al-Akwa‘ estimated at least fifty varieties in all of Yemen. (23) Dates were also important in the Aden area, most notably the farḍ date, which al-Afḍal (in the Bughyat) said was the best Yemeni date. The main date harvest in the Tihāma began around the middle of Tammūz (July), according to al-Ashraf’s almanac. Before this there was a [p. 170] holiday in the Zabīd area, starting the first Saturday in Ayyār (May) called sabt al-subūt, apparently named after the Jewish “Festival of the Weeks.” The last celebration of this holiday by al-Ashraf is discussed by the Yemeni historian al-Khazrajī, who notes that some 300 camel-borne litters were used to carry provisions and courtiers (including dancing girls).(24) Earlier in the thirteenth century Ibn al-Mujāwir described sabt al-subūt as a party season that went on for two or three months,including drinking of date wine (faḍīkh) and casual sex with slave girls under the palms. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who observed the festival a few decades later, was clearly impressed by the beauty of the local women. (25)


(16) I base this on the Glaser manuscript (pp. 110-112), adding material in brackets from the excerpts provided by al-Afḍal in Bughyat al-fallāḥīn. There is more information provided in the Jāzm copy, but I suspect some of it has been added.
(17) Bughyat al-fallāḥīn, f. 38a leaves out the .
(18) Bughyat al-fallāḥīn reads turba (soil), while the Glaser copy is marked bariya, also a term for soil; this phrase is missing from the Jāzm copy. Ibn Waḥshiya (1993:i:492) lists the types of soils for which it is suitable.
(19) Both Bughyat al-fallāḥīn and the Jāzm copy read placing one seed every two steps.
(20) This occurs on pp. 127-138 in the Glaser ms.
(21) See VARISCO, 1994, p. 191).
(22) Ibn al-Mujāwir, Ṣifat bilād al-Yaman wa-Makka wa-ba‘ḍ al-Ḥijāz al-musammāt ta’rīkh al-mustabṣir, edited by Oscar Löfgren, Leiden, 1954, p. 79.
(23) M. al-Akwa‘, al-Yaman al-khaḍrā’ mahd al-ḥaḍāra, Cairo 1971, p. 69.
(24) Al-Khazrajī, The Pearl Strings: A History of the Resuliyy Dynasty of Yemen, edited by J. Redhouse, London 1906-18. v.3, p. 142, v. 4, p. 291.
(25) Ibn Baṭṭüṭa, Riḥlat Ibn Baṭṭūṭa. Beirut, 1980, p. 247.

to be continued