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E - 177 : The Arab Agricultural Revolution moves to Sicily

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Irrigation in Egypt in the Faiyum Depression close to Cairo

My personal goal today was to write the blog on Calabrian and Apulian food I promised on Wednesday. Did not get far though. Red onions are considered a delicacy in Calabria but this does not excite me too much. There are lots of red onions in my garden in the South of France. I wondered what else I could do. Maybe looking for old recipes? This approach helped when preparing the texts for the 2019 sailing along Anatolia’s Mediterranean coast. Not successful either – if anyone has come across an old Calabrian or Sicilian cookbook, be it in Italian or English, please let me know.

Looking around for something specific, however, leads at times to unexpected results – as if my meandering was rewarded. I discovered which Arab words made their way into the Italian spoken in Sicily. They all relate to agriculture. Or more precisely, to irrigation: Catusu became Qadus (clay pipe), Fidenum - Fideni (sugar cane field), Fiskia – Fiskiya (reservoir), Margum – Marja (inundated field) or Noharia – Nuara (cotton garden). But why words related to irrigation, cotton and sugar cane? Tunisia, where the Arab conquerors came from in 831 AD, was not known as a center of competence for irrigation nor did sugar cane or cotton grow there. These plants and technologies came from far further east – from the Nile valley and Mesopotamia with the Tigris and Euphrates.

Saqyiah Animal Water Pump which allowed the Irrigation of Higher Grounds

Then I had a double epiphany. 900 – 1300 AD was the time of the Medieval Warm Period but also the time when the Fatimids controlled Northern Africa, Egypt, Palestine and the Levant. For the first time since late antiquity, their large Empire provided secure sea lanes, ports and the rule of law necessary for long-distance trading. Helas! As the more humid climate resulted more frequent precipitations and abundant rainfall swelled the rivers, irrigation became possible. This new opportunity was not lost on the Arabs who knew about intensive farming from their far flung empire. They brought the knowhow from Egypt to Sicily and Al-Andalus. Both became thriving agricultural hubs and were well known in the Arab world for their fertility. Plants and fruits last seen during Roman times were re-introduced and irrigation systems silted for hundreds of years were cleared and expanded. Long-distance trading in sugar, cotton and olive oil resumed to levels not seen for half a millennium.

The spread of newly or re-discovered plants and technologies is well documented In several contemporary Arab books on agriculture. The most well known The Court of Agriculture was written by Ibn Bassal in Toledo in the 11th century. It summarises his detailed knowledge of plants, trees, vegetables, fruits and herbs and how to cultivate them which he had accumulated during his extensive travelling across the Islamic world. Medieval Arab agronomists used his book to promote a more sophisticated approach to farming and even introduced crop rotation to revitalize depleted soils. Sugar cane for instance was an ideal plant to restore soils which had accumulated too much salinity. The ruling emirs took notice of this positive development and began promoting modern agriculture as well. In a society where 90% of the output came from the primary sector, improving productivity meant a higher agricultural surplus which then translated in bigger cities, a deeper division of labor, more trading, more taxes and last but not least more powerful armies.

Naranjas - A Page from Ibn Bassal's Book on Agriculture

The term of an Arab Green Revolution is debated in scholarly circles since 1974 when the American historian Andrew Watson introduced it. It was met considerably skepticism first. Many of the plants and technologies he used to make his case were already well known during Roman time. But archeological evidence proves him right. There was a surge of new plantations not seen before. Also, the life stock got healthier and bigger due to better feeding. Maybe it was less a green revolution as we know it from the 1960ies than a re-diffusion or re-discovery of old methods which could be put to efficient use given the now available irrigation. The new surplus in agricultural output definitely powered the economy and with it trade. It laid the basis for the later so important trading networks of the Genovese, Pisani and people from Amalfi.

Muslim Water Wheals near Cordoba - the Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir in the Back

Not much of this agricultural infrastructure built between the 9th and 12th century survived though. The return of a more arid and colder climate in the 13th century ended the Medieval Warm Period and converted Sicily and the south of Spain back to the arid landscapes as we know it today. A few exceptions along the Guadalquivir river remained though such as the water wheels of Albolafia or the Molino de la Alegria and de San Antonio. Also, the books of Ibn Bassal survived and were copied again and again. Their detailed description of herbs and plants (sugar was considered a medication then) made them useful for medical faculties and the books spread via Cordoba University to Christian Europe where they landed again in the hands of agronomists in the 18th century. Our own agricultural revolution was based on books like Ibn Bassal’s. Sometimes knowhow meanders – but eventually it will find its way to an inquisitive person who puts it to use again.

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