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.]


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.

The text continues with a discussion of rental costs for ploughing with yokes (ḍamā’id) of oxen. The first ploughing of the cycle, when the ground is still hard, begins in December and January. The rate at this time for a morning’s work until noon is 1/4 plus 1/8 dinar, but only 1/4 in February since the days are shorter. During the sowing seasons in March through May the costs increase to 1/2 dinar until noon, 1/2 plus 1/4 until mid-afternoon (‘aṣr) and one dinar until dusk (maghrib). Here we see seasonal fluctuation based on both the amount of time and the demand.

In the Ta‘izz area there were two types of sharecroppers or agricultural workers. The term sharīk is used in the Daftar for someone who ploughs with his own bull, while the man who ploughs with the bull of the landowner is known as batūl, a general term in the southern dialects for a ploughman. For example, the share of the crop yield on good land in al-Sha‘bāniya for the sharīk, after tax, seed and harvest obligations are extracted, is a quarter. In al-Quṣayba, however, the share is only a fifth, although the difference is not explained. Details are given on the obligations of the sharecropper at harvest time, including the kind of meal he should be provided. The batūl, however, receives a fixed amount of grain as compensation in the coastal region; this is said to be 15 zabadī of white or Shurayḥī sorghum or 20 zabadī of red sorghum. He also receives a share (sahm) on good land of 1/20th after extraction of the tax, seed and harvest obligations; on medium land the share is 1/15th. Shares are further discussed for the measurers, threshing floor guards, threshers and winnowers.

The Daftar also provides important regional information on weights and measures. Take, for example, the common Yemeni grain and seed measure known as the zabadī (plural, azbūd). Officially this was based on the measure of dry lentils, but the precise measure varied considerably according to place. The Ta‘izz zabadī equaled roughly 40 grams, since 1 + 1/8 Ta‘izz zabadī was said to weigh 10 Egyptian raṭl. According to the Daftar, the Ta‘izz zabadī was equal to 4 + 1/2 Sunqurī zabadī, which was used for sale of food, rice, wheat, flour, raisins, sesame and milk in the coastal town of al-Mahjam. [p. 172] The Adeni zabadī was equivalent to 2/3 + 1/4 Ta‘izz zabadī + 1/2 qīrāṭ; the zabadī at al-Dumluwa fortress was 1 + 1/8 Ta‘izz zabadī; in Jibla the local zabadī was 1 +1/4 + 1/3 +1/16 Ta‘izz zabadī. It is obvious that knowing the measure of your measure was an important market skill.


In this lecture I have tried to give a flavor of the information potentially relevant on the state of agriculture in Yemen at the close of the 13th century. I suggest that more textual data on agricultural methods, economic production and trade can be found for this short time period than any other in Yemen’s pre-modern history. There is much scholarly work that can and, I believe, should be done. In Arabia Viridis I hope to document the basic details about agricultural production and local trade, but this cannot be done in isolation from research by colleagues who have other interests and skills. Let me conclude by summing up what I see to be the main methodological and comparative issues that my work thus far has brought up.

1. The agricultural treatises of al-Ashraf and al-Afḍal are compilations of men who knew both the local farming context and the scientific tradition that stems back to transmitted knowledge from classical Greece and, through Syriac sources quoted in Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Nābaṭiyya, to ancient Mesopotamia. A major priority in my work is to identify information which is clearly from the outside from what Yemeni farmers most did in certain regions. Some of the information is of such a general nature, of course, that it would have been learned from historical experience as easily as from diffusion through a text. Fortunately, much of the Rasulid commentary is linked to specific regions. For the rest it is largely a matter of looking at comparative information from earlier and later texts, as well as drawing on the contemporary ethnographic context. A major problem is that the study of the textual tradition about agriculture is not very far along.

2. A second major concern is the danger of assuming that the textual information available represents a kind of documentary on actual practices, as we would hope to have it in the modern sense. The texts, including the almanacs and tax archives, are pieces of a necessarily incomplete puzzle. This is the standard problem of historiography, but in the case of Yemen there is comparative help by observing some farming practices which [p. 173] may not have changed dramatically over centuries, survival of colloquial terms in regional dialects and potential archaeological study of Rasulid-era field and irrigation systems.

3. Reconstruction of the textual data, important as this is for future research, is not an end in itself. My goal is to work from the existing data to better understand the role that agriculture played in the economic and political systems of the Rasulid state. Fortunately, the Rasulids were bureaucratically inclined. Not only did the “state” (however that is to be defined for this peripheral post-caliphate dynasty) own and oversee agricultural production in some areas, an accounting system was in place to record customs and tax data, as well as the mechanics of state operation. It is also of interest to me that several of the Rasulid sultans took such a personal interest in agriculture and horticulture, from their texts and almanacs to the royal gardens near Ta‘izz and Zabīd. Did experimentation with new crops and new methods have a lasting impact in parts of Yemen?

4. A fourth major area that extends far beyond my capabilities is the role of Yemeni agriculture in the broader trade network east and west through the major port of Aden and the reported trade historically to Mecca. We know something about the physical points along the trading network, but piecing together the quantities of products traded and their prices is far more difficult. The daftar of al-Muẓaffar, along with Mulakhkhaṣ al-fitan of the 14th century and other scattered Yemeni manuscripts, offer a rich resource for probing in the way that Goitein did so well for Mediterranean-based trade. But here there is a need for scholars who work on the trading partners, including India, Southeast Asia, China and the East African coast, to provide relevant contemporaneous information to supplement and obviously complement the Yemeni texts.

Finally, I note with pleasure that the focus of this conference has been on Rasulid Yemen, a research venue that is clearly dear to my heart. Yet, I am surprised that outside of the individuals in this room there are so few scholars today who are actively working on such a richly documented period. Perhaps the results of this conference will inspire younger scholars as well as seasoned colleagues to forego the familiar haunts of Cairo, Damascus and (now it seems) Baghdad, to take a dhow ride to Aden or a camel caravan to Zabīd, at least mentally, and fulfill the goal of the organizers of this conference.


(26) M. Jāzm, editor, Nūr al-ma‘ārif, ff.87b-91a.