Medieval Yemeni Agriculture and Science

Daniel Martin Varisco, Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science:
The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan.
University of Washington Publications on the Near East, No. 6.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, xv, 349 pp. ISBN 0-295-97378-1.

Reviewed by David A. King
(Director, Institut f. Geschichte d. Naturwissenschaften, Frankfurt)

Yemen Update 36 (1995):36,45

In this work Varisco turns his attention to the Rasulid almanacs, and using his unique combination of skills asan Arabist, historian, anthropologist, and ethnographer, he has produced a monumental study of one of these, drawing heavily on other almanacs for comparison. The Rasulid astronomical treatises, about which this volume is concerned, constitute an important corpus of sources for the history of science as well as for the history of Yemeni culture.

The eloquent foreword by the late Professor Robert Serjeant places the almanac of the Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf(datable to the year 1271), the earliest surviving Yemeni work of this genre, in its cultural context. Varisco in his opening chapters provides further details on the life and scholarly activity of al-Ashraf in the context of the Rasulids and their scientific interests The Yemeni almanac tradition is clearly identified as a small but highly important part of the Yemeni tradition in mathematical and folk astronomy. Over 100 Yemeni astronomical manuscripts dealing with the subject of these two levels have been identified and almanacs are contained in several of them. The almanacs belong very much to the folk astronomical tradition, but even then they were destined for a scholarly audience. The average Yemeni farmer would have known much more about local agriculture than is contained in these almanacs, and much of the information is of no practical use.

Varisco's book contains the Arabic text and a translation of al-Ashraf's almanac and a critical commentary on every aspect of its contents, drawing heavily on other almanacs, some of which Varisco has published elsewhere, others of which are still available only in manuscript form. The information in the almanac is arranged according to the days of the solar year. For example, three entries may be cited:

May 14: Entry of the sun into Gemeni... Rising of Capella. Availability of the sihla figs. Dates redden and yellow. Fresh ripe dates change color.

August 2: Dawn rising of [the lunar station] tarf and the setting of [the station] sa'd bula', the naw' of which is three nights for rain. Availability of broad beans in the mountains. First planting of bukr [sorghum] in Lahj.

September 13: First planting of sabi'i [sorghum] in the coastal region. End of the last sailing of Indian [ships] from Aden during the Great Season... Picking of grapes in the Sanaa region.

The detailed commentary in this book explains every concept mentioned in the almanac relating to calendars, festivals, astronomy, weather, flora and fauna,environment, commerce and agriculture, as well as medical problem sand sexual activity. Indeed not a stone is left unturned. Considerable attention is paid to lexicography and regional variants,and since much of the technical or regional vocabulary in the almanac is not to be understood from this text alone, other relevant material is masterfully cited where necessary.

What is clear from every page of the book is that the author is as much at home in the fields of Yemen (or theqat-sessions on long Yemeni afternoons) as in the study at his home on Long Island. This is not an armchair study of a medieval document, but rather a study which shows the fruits of the author's labors as an anthropologist and ethnographer in rural Yemen, as an Arabist in manuscript libraries all over Europe and the Near East,and as a historian well versed in the cultural and economic history of Yemen. This book is very much alive, in distinct contrast to much modern historical scholarship which is as dead as the people it deals with And even if one might tire of reading about Yemeni plants,readers will move to the edge of their seats or even stand up when reading about insects that can kill a camel or sexual practices that deflower and decapillate almost simultaneously.

A very few orthographical errors caught my eye, and may be noted here not least to save others from making similar mistakes. It is not necessary to provide hamzas andshaddas in editions of medieval texts, especially those that are written in Middle Arabic (see p. 17) and which do not conform to the rules of classical Arabic anyway. Here, however, we find some that are ill-conceived. Verbal nouns of the VIIth,VIIIth and Xthforms do not take an initial hamza (e.g., XII:22, IV:6,XI:12-12, and XII:19), and al-yamaniya as in the star namesal-dhira' al-yamaniya (X:24) and al-shi'ra al-yamaniya(XII:15) does not &emdash; for various curious reasons &emdash;need ashadda on the iy, any more than do riyah(IV:19) and al-thaniya (XII:27). The number writtenth-l-th is not thalath (p. 17) but thalath witha dagger alif after the lam.

The inadequacies of the "standard social science method" for bibliographical references (p. xv), using author sand dates, is well illustrated by the absurdities on p. 275: "The nineteenth-century traveller Osgood (1854:157) noted that ... Ibn Majid (1971:110) said that ... Ibn Battuta (1980:252) observed that..." There is no reason why sensible scholars should be slaves to such a barbaric system. Giving hijra dates for modern Arabic publications in addition to Western dates complicates and confuses the situation even further.

In the list of manuscript sources (pp.257-261) bibliographical references to catalogs &emdash; where available &emdash; or surveys &emdash; al-Hibshi (general), al-Sayyid(historical), King (astronomical) &emdash; would have been useful. Then, for example, the significance of the curious titles "Miqat" and"Taymur" as the earliest known Yemeni (or indeed earliest known Islamic) astronomical ephemerides would be clearer. The important study by G. Tibbetts on Arab navigation in the Red Sea (p. 296) was fortunately reprinted in 1981, and copies can still be found in the bookshops near the British Museum. A. Heinen's 1978 thesis (p. 274),which opened the doors to a new field of Islamic sacred cosmology,was published in 1982 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner). The articles"MATLA'" [rising points] and "Rih" [winds] in EI2have appeared since Varisco's manuscript was submitted for publication and contain some relevant material. Together with the articles "ANWA'" [divisions of the year], "LAYL WA-NAHAR"[division of the day and night], "MAKKA. As Centre of the World" [sacred geography] and "NUDJUM" [stars], these articles provide a guide for Islamicists to the main aspects of folk astronomy

I conclude with a quotation on the dust-jacket, this from Prof. A. I Sabra of Harvard University. His claim that "no library concerned with the history of science,economic and agricultural history, medieval technology, and anthropology can afford not to obtain a copy of this book" is as valid as my own unconditional praise for Varisco's achievement. Varisco has rendered a few pages of obscure medieval Arabic into an excitingly vivid and refreshingly lively tribute to the rich diversity of medieval Yemeni life and culture.

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