An important late Syrian agricultural work is that of Rāḍī al-Dīn al-Ghazzī al-‘Āmirī
of Damascus (1457/58-1528/29), scholar and judge, who visited the Hijaz, Palestine and Egypt to observe their agricultural and horticultural practices and compare them with those pertaining in Syria, subsequently writing his Jāmi‘ farā’id al milāḥa fī jawāmi‘ fawā’id al-filāḥa
, ‘Complete guidelines for elegance in all the uses of agriculture’. The work covers all aspects of agriculture and horticulture, excluding animal husbandry, and seems to be based on first-hand knowledge as well as extensive use of the Andalusi Books of Filāḥa although, for Zuhayr al-Bābā, it is “deeper, more comprehensive and closer to modern scientific agronomic works than those that emerged in Al-Andalus.”30
According to Hamarneh, Al-Ghazzī “achieved the highest rank attainable in good farming and horticulture in the entire region during the late Mamluk and early Ottoman periods in Islam.”31
Certainly Al-Ghazzī was much admired in his own land, for no less than three explanations or summaries of his treatise were written in the late-17th and 18th centuries, two of which echo, in part, the title of his work. The first was the Kitāb ʿalam al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-filāḥa,
‘Book of the mark of elegance in the science of agriculture’, by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī
(1641-1731), mystic, theologian, poet, traveller, prolific writer on a variety of subjects and a leading figure in the religious and literary life of Syria in his time. Then followed the Risālat al‑bayān wa-al‑ṣarāḥa bi-talkhīṣ kitāb al-malāḥa fī ʿilm al-filāḥa
, ‘Explanation and summary of the book of elegance in the science of agriculture’, by Muḥammad ibn ʿĪsá ibn Kannān
(1663/4-1740/1) of Damascus, and finally the ʿUmdat al‑ṣināʿa fī ʿilm al‑zirāʿah,
‘The reliance of skill in the knowledge of agriculture’, of ‘Abd al‑Qādir al-Khalāṣī
(d. 1785/6?). No critical editions or comparative studies of these late Syrian Ottoman works seem to have been published so we don’t know how closely they follow and summarize Al-Ghazzī, or whether they include different or new information.
Finally, we should mention the few extant works of agricultural interest that we know from other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. In late-13th or early-14th century Maghreb the famous mathematician and astronomer Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn al-Bannā’
of Marrakesh (1256-1321) wrote, among his hundred works, the Kitāb al-anwā’,
an almanac in the anwā’
tradition. In it he quotes mainly from ʿArīb ibn Saʿd’s Calendar of Cordoba but refers also to Al-Khaṭīb al-Umawī (11th century), ʿAbd Allāh ibn Ḥusayn ibn ʿĀṣim (12th century), Ibn al-ʿAwwām’s Kitāb al-filāḥa
and a Kitāb an-nabāṭ
, possibly that of Abū Ḥanīfah al-Dīnawārī.32
While Ibn al-Bannā’s work is principally an astronomical calendar it includes the usual agricultural notices and advice for each month, making it one of the very few sources we have on medieval agriculture in the Maghreb and North Africa outside Egypt.
In the 17th century, two agricultural works, entitled Falāḥ al-fallāḥ,
‘Success of the farmer’, and al-Fuṣūl al-sanīya fī al-filāḥa al-Madanīya,
‘Sublime chapters on the agriculture of Madinah’, were written by the Madinan historian and scholar Muḥammad Kibrīt al-Ḥusaynī
, who died about AH 1070/AD 1659/60. The Falāḥ al-fallāḥ
consists of fifteen chapters, four of which are, unusually, devoted to water, wells and cisterns, the rest to the weather, soils, the cultivation of trees, crops and vegetables, and pest management. The Fuṣūl al-sanīya
is mainly a list of plants, vegetables and fruits, their times of planting, properties if eaten or used in other ways, the optimum conditions and methods of planting, and the different varieties of particular species. Late as they are, these two works furnish important information on agriculture in the Hijaz at this time. A little later, another work, also called Falāḥ al-fallāḥ,
‘Success of the farmer’, is attributed to Khayr al-Dīn ibn Ilyās
of the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah, but it is not clear whether this is the same work as Kibrīt’s, or an adaptation or summary of it.
This concludes our survey of the Arabic Books of Filāḥa and agricultural calendars. As we have seen, they were authored mainly in Al-Andalus, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, more or less in that sequence. It is striking that no works seem to have been written for other important agricultural regions in the Arabic-speaking Islamic world, especially Iraq (except perhaps the early-10th century ‘Book of Nabataean agriculture’, of which more later), Oman, the Maghreb, and Sicily. However, while there can be little doubt that hundreds of unknown manuscripts still exist, especially among private collections, it is unlikely that any surviving major work on Arabic agriculture remains to be discovered.
The Sources: Transmission of Knowledge
As we have seen, a crucial factor in the formation of the Sevillian school of agronomists was the acquisition of knowledge (and no doubt skills) by direct transmission from master to disciple, and among and between the loose circle of scientists and physicians who gathered in that cultural capital in the second half of the 11th century. Many of the Andalusi agronomists (and later Yemeni authors too) also acquired knowledge from local farmers, as well as from their own practical experience and experimentation in the botanical gardens, estates, farms and countryside of their homelands. Being learned men, the authors of the Books of Filāḥa and later Arabic works and almanacs also drew from a large corpus of agricultural literature that reached back to ancient times, from many different traditions, citing directly and indirectly from a multitude of earlier works. Whilst they acknowledged their debt to the ‘ancient sages’, and greatly admired them, they also refuted them when their own experience proved otherwise or when they simply thought they were wrong. In this respect the development of agronomy as a discipline was no different from that of any other branch of learning. Earlier texts were synthesized and systematized through a process of translation, commentary, critique and comparison and then tested against current practice, personal experience and experimentation. These ancient works provided, in large part, the theoretical framework of the humoural system by which the new agriculture was explained and organized as a formal science of agronomy, as well as describing the old cultural methods and techniques of practical husbandry by which the Arabs could measure their own. From a scholarly point of view, the chain of citations and inter-citations within the Books of Filāḥa provide a valuable and fascinating insight into the history of ideas and the transmission of knowledge.
Among the many literary sources admired and quoted by Arab agronomists were those from the Greek tradition, including Aristotle (384-322 BC), much cited by Abu’l-Khayr, and the physician and philosopher Bolos Democritos of Mendes in Egypt (2nd century BC), quoted by Ibn Wāfid, Abū ’l-Khayr, Ibn Ḥajjāj and Ibn al-‘Awwām;33
from the Carthaginian tradition, Mago, the ‘Father of Agriculture’, and from the Latins, Varro (116-27 BC), who transmitted material from Cato, the first Roman agricultural writer, and Columella (1st century AD) who hailed from Gades in Roman Hispania; from the Late Roman Near-East, Vindonios Anatolios of Berytos (4th-5th centuries AD), known directly from the Arabs and much admired by Ibn Wāfid, Ibn Ḥajjāj and Ibn al-‘Awwām;34
from a very rich Byzantine tradition they drew especially from Al-Filāḥa al-Rūmīya
, ‘Byzantine agriculture’, of Cassianus Bassus (6th/7th centuries AD); and finally the most influential of all, the early-10th century Al-Filāḥa al-Nabatīya
, ‘Nabataean agriculture’, translated by Ibn Waḥshīya
, which in part seems to reflect a late Babylonian or Chaldean tradition. In terms of practical husbandry, it appears that the classical sources were especially significant in matters of arboriculture, cereals, and olive and grape cultivation, the Near-Eastern sources on soils, manures and fertilizers, and the earlier Arab Andalusi sources on irrigation, grafting and pruning, garden vegetables and flowers. 35
Two of the above works were especially esteemed by the Arab agronomists, the first being Al-Filāḥa al-Rūmīya,
‘Byzantine agriculture’ (or Al-Filāḥa al-Yūnānīya al-Rūmīya,
‘Greek-Byzantine agriculture’), written by Qusṭūs ibn Askūrāskīnah (from the Greek title skholastikós
), also called Qusṭūs al-Rūmī, who is probably the Cassianus Bassus Scholasticus to whom agronomic works collected from Greek and Latin authors are attributed and who is said to have lived at the end of the 6th or beginning of the 7th century. Unfortunately, next to nothing is known about Cassianus Bassus, whose work is no longer extant in the Greek original nor in Syriac translation, but has survived in two Arabic translations, one made from the Greek in AH 212/AD 827 and the other made from a Pahlavi translation, the Warz-nāmeh,
and also as part of the 10th century Byzantine compilation, the Geoponica,
that also includes the works of Anatolios and a certain Didymos as well as fragments of Democritos.36
Judging from the number of extant manuscripts and frequent citations the Filāḥa al-Rūmīya
was an influential work. It is arranged in 12 parts, focusing on the months, their names, the seasons, constellations, animal husbandry, dendrology and arboriculture. Cassianus Bassus seems to draw mainly on his personal experience, then on named and unnamed earlier and contemporary Greek and Byzantine authors, on whose views he sometimes takes a critical stance, and lastly on the opinions of his contemporaries, especially farmers whom he knew.
The second is the controversial and enigmatic Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Nabatīya
, ‘Book of Nabataean agriculture’, certainly the most widely used source in the Andalusi Books of Filāḥa and the Rasulid Yemeni and Syrian texts, known also to Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas in the wider medieval world, and the subject of intense debate among 19th and 20th century scholars. That the ‘Nabataean agriculture’ was immensely popular and influential is borne out by the large number of extant early as well as late manuscripts (at least forty are known),37
and the existence of many abridgements and summaries over the years. As we have seen, Ibn al-Raqqām’s early-14th century Andalusi agricultural treatise is an expurgated version of the ‘Nabataean agriculture’, while the Egyptian Al-Tamār-Tamurī’s Al-Falāḥa al-muntakhaba
and the Syrian Dimashqī’s ‘Pearls gleaned from the science of agriculture of the Byzantines and the Nabataeans’ seem to be largely based on it too.
The Filāḥa al-Nabatīya
is thought to have been translated by Ibn Waḥshīya
in AH 291/AD 904 from ‘Old Syriac’ manuscripts of around the 5th century AD, with additional material from contemporary Aramaic-speaking informants. It appears to reflect the agricultural milieu of the non-Arab, indigenous, pagan, rural population of northern and central Iraq (the ‘Nabataeans’) around the time of the Muslim conquest, but includes material from the Greek Geoponica
and perhaps ancient Babylonian and Assyrian sources. Ibn Waḥshīya’s purpose, it seems, was to preserve the traditional knowledge and beliefs of the Mesopotamian peasant in the face of rapid Arabization, Islamization and urbanization.38
The Filāḥa al-Nabatīya
is a vast, rambling work of more than one hundred and fifty chapters of varying lengths, combining practical agriculture with a large dose of astrology, magic, folklore, myth, and story. After an introduction on his sources and the correspondence between plants and the heavenly bodies, Ibn Waḥshīya begins with olive cultivation and attributes of the olive, then deals with water, well construction, and irrigation techniques. There follows a section on all kinds of plants, trees, and especially flowers such as narcissi, water lilies, violets, and so on, together with curious information and superstitions about them. The next section deals with estate management and the duties of estate owners, managers, and workers, including knowledge of the signs of rain, the proper seeds for each time of year, an almanac arranged according to the Syriac months, harmful and beneficial influences of winds, the stars, and different types of soil and manures. Then follow chapters on the cereals, such as wheat and barley, culminating in the making of flour and bread. Thereafter the text discusses legumes such as broad beans and lupins, as well as onions, together with all sorts of historical and mythological details. The work concludes with seven fairly long chapters on fruits and herbs and what may be made with them, as well as the causes of differences in taste, colour, and smell among various plants, and the changes they undergo. In all, over one hundred and fifty cultivated and wild plants are described in detail.