Tracing the History of Qāt
by Daniel Martin Varisco
Yemen Update 2020 #52-E2
Much has been written, pro and con, about the chewing of qāt leaves in Yemen. In addition to the economic and social problems over qāt, there is a historical puzzle. When and how did the plant Catha edulis come from Ethiopia, its botanical origin, to Yemen? Yemeni legend and folkore suggest that the stimulant qualities of qāt leaves were first discovered by a goatherd who noticed the effect on goats who browsed on the plant. A variant of this goat legend, told to me in 1979 by a poet from Huṣn al-‘Arūs, suggests that an Ethiopian came along to explain to the goatherd what was happening. The goat is one of the few animals that can be seen occasionally eating qāt leaves, but the story is surely apocryphal. Sometimes it is told for the origin of coffee, another stimulant brought from Ethiopia.
A legend seemingly more based in history is recounted by the Yemeni historian Yaḥyā ibn al-Ḥusayn, who claims that in the year 1543 CE the Zaydī Imām Sharaf al-Dīn banned the use of qāt in Yemen. But clearly the plant had to be cultivated earlier in order to be banned. How much earlier? The historical and linguistic evidence for the appearance of qāt in Yemen is meager and contradictory. The earliest reference in a historical text is by the non-Yemeni historian Ibn Faḍlallāh al-‘Umarī (died 1349 CE), who said the choicest leaves are "eaten" in order to increase mental alertness (dhakā'), improve memory, relax, and lessen the need for food, sleep and sex. Because this plant allows one to endure sleeplessness, it was used in traveling. This historian further describes the plant as having both large and small varieties with its leaves resembling those of the orange tree. There is no doubt he is describing Catha edulis.
Al-‘Umarī records a story related to him about Ethiopian Muslims who went to the court of the Rasulid sultan al-Malik al-Mu'ayyad (ruled 1296-1332 CE). They brought qāt plants with them to Yemen. As they were picking the leaves, the sultan inquired about the benefit. After it was explained that the leaves lessened desire for food, sleep and sex, al-Malik al-Mu'ayyad responded in alarm:
"What delight in the world is the equal of these. By God, I will not eat it. I do not spend for anything but these three things. So how can I use what comes between me and my delight for those things?"
If this encounter really happened, it is strange that there is no mention of qāt in any of the Yemeni chronicles for the period; nor is there any reference to qāt in the rather extensive Rasulid corpus on Yemeni plants and agriculture. If it has been introduced this early, it does not seem to have been widely planted until after the Rasulid era.
It is worth noting that al-‘Umari's anecdote about Yemen occurs in a discussion of the cultivated plants in the Ethiopian region of Ifat. There is a documented reference in Amharic for the year 1329 to an Ethiopian Muslim king who boasted that he would plant qāt in the capital town of the Christian king Amda Seyon. While more historiographic research on the recognition of qāt in Ethiopia is needed, it is probable that the stimulant properties were known by Muslims in Ethiopia by the first quarter of the 14th century before the plant was cultivated in Yemen.
The plant name qāt is unknown in the Arabic lexicons. Despite attempts by some linguists to derive the term from an Arabic root concerned with strength, there is no evidence that the plant name is originally Arabic. In Yemeni sources the term qāt is not recorded with a direct link to Catha edulis until the mid-16th century legal text of Ibn Ḥajar al-Ḥaytami (died 1565 or 1587 CE), who quotes earlier sources including a reference to its use in Ta‘izz during the reign of the Tahirid sultan ‘Amīr ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (reigned 1489-1517 CE). The earliest mention in Yemeni poetry appears to come from Muḥammad ibn Sa‘īd ibn Kabbān (died 1438).
It would make sense that a plant imported from Ethiopia into Yemen would have the name given it in Ethiopia. This is clearly what happened with Ethiopian teff, a grain which became ṭaḥaf in Arabic. But here arises a linguistic problem. The Amharic term for qāt is tchat, with cognates in all the Ethio-Semitic languages, Oromo and the Highland East Cushitic languages. Unfortunately, a direct transference from Amharic tch to Arabic q is not linguistically viable. Several scholars have been seduced into looking for scenarios to explain an Arabic origin despite the absence of textual evidence. Thus, linguist Chaim Rabin long ago assumed ancient Yemenis took the name to Ethiopia, since in the local Yemeni Azd dialect the q can become j or "tsh."
I solved the linguistic puzzle a decade and a half ago. Everyone, Arab and Western scholars alike, has been looking in the wrong place: written lexicons, rather than considering the ways in which plant names are communicated orally. The clues have been there all along. In the Egyptian text by Ibn Faḍlallāh al-‘Umarī, coped later by the famed Mamlūk historian al-Maqrīzī, the reference is not to qāt but to jāt. Indeed, the earlier author specifically says that the first letter in his transcription is pronounced between the Arabic jīm and the Arabic shīm.
So how did jat become qāt? In Egyptian dialect the letter j is often pronounced as a hard g, a linguistic shift also found in contemporary southern dialects of Yemeni Arabic. I propose that the Arabized Amharic plant name arrived in Yemen in oral form as gāt. We simply do not have any textual evidence about its arrival, nor is this unusual in the history of plant name diffusion. The earliest written record in Yemen is from the Zaydī north, where it is the letter q which is pronounced as a hard g and not the letter j. Legal scholars in the north wrote about a newly introduced plant called gāt, which they would have rendered as qāt in formal written Arabic. Hence the etymological trajectory of the term is Amharic tchat to Arabic jāt, pronounced as gāt and later written down as qāt.
The most likely vector for introducing Catha edulis into Yemen is the same as that for coffee. The Yemeni poet ‘Abdallāh al-Baraddūnī speaks for most Yemeni scholars in attributing the origin to Sufi mystics who used the plant for its stimulant qualities. A number of specific candidates have been suggested, including Shaykh ‘Alī ibn ‘Umar al-Shādhilī (died 1418 CE), who is said to have preferred drinking coffee to a concoction made from the qāt leaves. Archaeological evidence from Zabīd in the Yemeni coastal system indicates that individual drinking cups for coffee were being manufactured by the start of the 16th century, suggesting that coffee drinking was then becoming a social habit. Unfortunately, there is no comparable archaeological evidence for the earliest qāt chewing.
The spread of qāt into Yemen would have started in the southern highlands, since the shrub would not survive in the coastal heat of Aden. The Yemeni poet al-Baraddūnī suggests that Jabal Ṣabir, located just above the important southern town of Ta‘izz, would have been one of the earliest locations for major production, along with nearby al-‘Udayn and ‘Uṭma. Jabal Ṣabir is recognized today as producing some of the best qāt in Yemen and has been frequently noted as an important qāt-growing region by poets and travelers.
How would the earliest Catha edulis have been planted in Yemen? None of the Rasulid texts mention qāt. However, the introduction of both qāt and coffee occurred in Yemen at a time when detailed knowledge of planting, pruning and caring for non-Yemeni tree crops was already available. I assume that those who brought the first seedlings to Yemen would have had prior knowledge of how the plant was grown in Ethiopia at the time. There was no need to propagate a domestic variety, as might have been the case with fruits trees or even coffee, since it was only the natural growth of leaves that was desired. It is likely that the earliest cultivation would have been in small irrigated gardens near to dwellings. Before the evolution of a large market beyond the needs of the original Sufi users, there would only have been limited plantation for local use. It is possible, of course, that qāt shrubs could have been planted during the latter part of the Rasulid period and may not have been noticed by those writing texts, either agricultural or medical. The earliest history of qāt in Yemen was probably as a garden variety exotic which served a limited clientele with a personal devotional interest rather than a commercial one. Exactly when this happened is one of those mysteries yet to be revealed by diligent historical research.
For more information and details on the references cited, see my following articles:
2012 "Qât and Traditional Healing in Yemen," In H. Schönig and I. Heymeyer, editors, Herbal Medicine in Yemen, 69-102. Leiden: Brill.
2007 "Turning Over a New Leaf: The Impact of Qāt (Catha edulis) in Yemeni Horticulture," In Michel Conan and W. John Kress, editors, Botanical Progress, Horticultural Innovations and Cultural Changes, 239-256. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
2004 "The Elixer of Life or the Devil's Cud: The Debate over Qāt (Catha edulis) in Yemeni Culture," In Ross Coomber and Nigel South, editors, Drug Use and Cultural Context: Tradition, Change and Intoxicants beyond 'The West', 101-118.
Qāt (Catha edulis) bud in al-Ahjur, 1978
Qāt terraces near Jibla (1985)
Buying qāt in the Manākha roadside sūq (1987)
Irrigation of qāt from ghayl in al-Ahjur (1979)
Qāt and banana trees growing at 2500 m in al-Ahjur
Young qāt trees replacing sorghum in al-Ahjur (1978)
The above photographs were taken by the author between 1978 and 1987