The Muslims And Irrigation

Irrigation agriculture and hydraulic technology are themes that reappear throughout this book. This is due not only to their undoubted significance in the economics of both societies but also to the fact that, as Jacques Berque wisely recognized in his study of Berber irrigation systems in the High Atlas, water distribution arrangements are so complex and idiosyncratic that they can be treated as historical documents and provide a rich source of information concerning the structure of society in general and the processes of ecological adjustment and technological diffusion specifically.(37) Furthermore, the role of irrigation in the economies of semi-arid states is so important that some authors have portrayed it as the central organizing feature of the society. Thus Karl Wittfogel portrays al-Andalus as "a genuine hydraulic society, ruled despotically by appointed officials and taxed by agromanagerial methods of acquisition."(38) In Wittfogel's conception, hydraulic societies are polities in which, through control of water sources, elites are able to exercise despotic control, through a bureaucracy which arises partly in response to the managerial and maintenance requirements dictated by a large-scale, hydraulically based agricultural economy and through manipulation of labor by various forms of coercion. In this context, he associates the polity of al-Andalus of the Emirate and Caliphate with those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and other ancient societies where flood control and irrigation on large rivers were a major concern of the state. Medieval Spain is of further interest to Wittfogel as. an example of a society that "crosses the institutional divide" from hydraulic to non-hydraulic society when, as a result of the Reconquest, the Christians, to Wittfogel the representatives of feudal norms of governance, conquered al-Andalus and fell heir to the physical structures of the irrigation system without having, he implies, the necessary institutional structures to perpetuate the system.

[69] Leaving aside for the next section the hydraulic implications of the Christian take-over of formerly Muslim-held territory, we find Wittfogel's views of Islamic Spain open to serious question, although they do raise issues of considerable importance. In the first place, the heartland of the Emirate and Caliphate was the Guadalquivir Valley, where large-scale irrigation from rivers, in the manner of the Tigris or the Nile, was not practiced and where state-controlled flood prevention measures were not needed. The sources record interest only in urban water supply projects, such as the canalization of water from the Sierra Morena to supply the Mosque of Córdoba, built at the behest of the caliph 'Abd al-Rahman III.(39) Systems that more closely approximated the eastern "despotic" model, such as those of Murcia, Valencia, and particularly Zaragoza and the Ebro Valley, were all in areas of peripheral interest in the Caliphate, the latter frequently escaping its control completely. Second, if any institutional divide was crossed with regard to the organization of hydraulic agriculture, it was crossed not with the loss of al-Andalus to the Christians but more likely with the dissolution of the Caliphate into the Party Kingdoms of the eleventh century. Indeed, recent historians of Andalusi agriculture have seen in the break-up of the Caliphate a positive spur to agricultural innovation and growth in response to a political structure that favored the development of regional economies.(40)

The plausibility of this conclusion, which is inferential, depends on how one interprets the issues raised by Wittfogel: if al-Andalus was a hydraulic society in the classical sense then the dissolution of the Caliphate could have had only a deleterious effect on the hydraulic structure itself, inasmuch as that structure must have been partially the creation of the state and needed the state's support to continue. If, as seems more plausible, there was no over-all investment in or administration of irrigation by the Umayyad rulers, then it is difficult to see how the dissolution of the Caliphate would have directly affected irrigation one way or the other.

Both of these arguments in fact tend to disregard a more basic point: that irrigation systems influence the power structure not through administrative or labor requirements but, in Robert Hunt's characterization, through the production of local surpluses which are then converted into tokens of power and prestige in the extralocal world.(41) The question is not who controls the water-source but who gets the benefit of agricultural surpluses produced as a result of irrigation-intensive agriculture. In the Islamic world the process of conquest and colonization jolted stagnant local economies, put money into circulation again, and caused a price [70] rise that provided a real spur to the development of craft trades and thus to urbanization. The beneficiaries of this development, the urban merchant class, were soon able to purchase land in the surrounding countryside and thus to establish a real dominance of the towns over the countryside.(42) This, and not the workings of a despotic bureaucracy run from the palace at Córdoba, was the process responsible for the creation of the typical urban-huerta landscape, a town surrounded by a belt of fields irrigated either from gravity-flow canals or by means of wells tapped by animal-driven hydraulic wheels. Once set in motion by economic growth and reinforced by technological innovations, the process was self-perpetuating unless interrupted by a major economic catastrophe. Al-Andalus was able to avoid the decay which began to afflict other areas of the Islamic world as a result of the disruptions of the eleventh century, because the flow of Sudanese gold was never cut off. Although the Umayyad superstructure diverted a great proportion of the wealth generated by agricultural surpluses to the building of monumental structures, there is no reason to believe that a comparable amount was not diverted in the eleventh century by tribute paid by the Taifa kings to the Christians. Therefore, I do not see any real break in the economic development of town/huerta complexes but rather a steadily growing process which in the eleventh century may well have been stimulated by the development of regional economies, to the extent that places like Valencia, Granada, and Zaragoza, which had been very small towns during the Caliphate, now came to emulate Seville, by a process completely analogous to that whereby the latter city had grown.

The irrigation systems of al-Andalus were of two kinds, although the huertas resultant from their development were quite similar both in structure and in economic function. First, there were systems where individual fields were served by canals bearing water delivered by gravity flow either from a river or from a spring. Second, there were other huertas where individual fields were served by wells, with the water raised to the height of the fields by an animal-driven hydraulic wheel. In addition, fields could be watered by current-driven wheels, lifting water from a river or a canal, combining the two modes.

These irrigation systems were characterized not only by the specific technologies utilized but also by the manner in which water was distributed to the users. These customary arrangements lend to each svstem a distinctive stamp and permit an analysis of their origins and organizing [71] principles. I must stress the inferential nature of the relevent data: there is little documentation surviving from the Islamic period and therefore our view of the irrigation arrangements followed must be developed on the basis of the rich documentation surviving from the centuries after Christians had taken over the systems, preserving Islamic customs, and from comparative study of traditional irrigation systems in contemporary Islamic countries .(43)

The distribution of water among the eight canals of the Valencian huerta is a particularly useful example because the underlying principles of the distribution arrangements are well documented and quite easily associated with a specific Islamic model. The river, now called by its Roman name the Turia, but in Islamic times known as the Wad al-Abyad (Guadalaviar, "White River"), was considered to be divided into successive stages, each stage representing the point of derivation of one main canal which drew all the water at that stage, or of two canals, dividing the water among them. At each stage the river was considered to hold twenty-four units of water. The twelve-base system, several other examples of which are noted below, is standard in many areas of the Islamic world and is clearly related to the hours of the day. A paradigmatic system, so structured, would envision a river divided into 168 units (representing seven days and nights, or 144 if a day of rest was customary).(44) The units were not, however, expressed in hours, but as simple proportions of a whole. Thus, in times of abundance, each canal drew water from the river according to the capacity of the canal; in times of drought, the canals would take water in turn, for a commensurate number of hours or a proportional equivalent. The same was true of individual irrigators (and herein lies the genius of the Valencia system): when the canal ran full, each irrigator could open his gate as he pleased, but when water was scarce, a turn was instituted; each irrigator, in turn, drew enough water to serve his needs (this style of irrigation was by submersion of the field, typically to a standard depth of an ankle). But he could not draw water again until every other irrigator in the system had his turn. Thus a relatively equal distribution was ensured, both in times of abundance and of scarcity, and no measurements of time or orifice of delivery were needed.

It is clear that this system is a close approximation of that of the Ghuta, or irrigated farm belt, of Damascus, where the Barada River is divided into stages where the river is held to be divisible into twenty-four qirats.(45) [72] The Damascus system, studied in the 1930's, does not reduce as easily as the Valencian to a division involving a one-week turn, but the organizing principle is clear nonetheless.

Yet if the river of Valencia was organized according to Syrian principles the process of diffusion raises some issues that are difficult to resolve. If the system was transplanted by elements of the Syrian contingents who entered al-Andalus with Balj ibn Bishr in the 740's, then one must posit an extraordinarily rapid process whereby nomadic troops from Arabia had settled in the 630's and 640's in irrigated areas around Damascus, learned the traditional distributional system (which was already old, judging by the permutations in the twelve-base structure which appear in the Caliph Hisham's division of the Barada in 742).(46) and transmitted it to their grandsons, who although practicing irrigators, volunteered to fight in the west with Balj. This scenario seems improbable, the more so since it now appears that many of the early settlers of the Valencian huerta were Berbers -- the Favara canal, second largest in the huerta, for example, derives its name from the Hawwara Berbers.(47) A similar pattern is observable to the south in the huerta of Gandia, where the Vernisa River is apportioned by a twelve-base system, whose complex permutations make it impossible to figure out the original rationale (once this was forgotten, as by Christian times it had been everywhere, infinite permutations were possible by doubling, halving, or otherwise changing the units). Moreover, the secondary canals tend to have names compounded with Beni, suggesting a typical Berber settlement pattern with individual tribal units controlling an entire canal.(48)

It is more likely that the Syrian model was imposed upon a population of Berber irrigators by an Umayyad governor, particularly during the early years of the Emirate, when the Syrianization of the landscape was a generalized phenomenon. This might well have occurred in the first quarter of the ninth century, when the Valenclan region was ruled by 'Abd Allah, a cousin of the Emir al-Hakam I, called al-Balansi ("The Valencian").

A probable factor in the willingness of Berbers to learn eastern styles of water distribution was the lack oi large rivers in North Africa; therefore, when they arrived in Spain, where river irrigation was possible on a scale that demanded a more complex kind of organization, the imposition of eastern norms was a logical and practical solution. Ya'qubi, a late ninth-century eastern author, describes Valencia as a region inhabited by Berber tribes who did not recognize Umayyad authority and who had a [73] river called the Shukr (the Jucar).(49) The irrigation systems of the Jucar were organized along generally "Syrian" lines.

The markedly public character of water in the Valencian-Syrian system is an inheritance from Roman law, as are the notions of allocation of water to individual farms in proportion to the area watered and the idea of controlling a limited supply of water by assigning more specific rights, organizing turns, and so forth. Other features of Andalusi irrigation systems, such as the responsibility of the individual irrigator for the maintenance of that portion of the main canal that abuts his property, were common to all Mediterranean irrigation systems and are found in the water law of Mesopotamia and other ancient societies. Regulations were enforced by elected or appointed officials who are known only by their names, surviving in Christian practice of the later middle ages-the sahib al-sdqiya, "master of the canal," possibly an urban official deriving his power from the qddi, and entrusted with the enforcement of traditional distribution arrangements and the overseeing of canal and diversion-dam maintenance.

Curiously, two of these officials became kings of Valencia during the Taifa period, a testimony to the power and prestige of the office and to the predominant role of irrigation agriculture in the regional economy.

Farther south, in the oasis-like communities of Elche, Novelda, and Alicante, irrigation water was also distributed in canals, but the distribution arrangements were markedly different. Early in this century the French geographer Jean Brunhes noted that water distribution arrangements in southeastern Spain seemed to group into two families. In places where water was more or less abundant -- the river systems of Valencia, Gandia, Murcia -- water rights inhered in title to the land and were distributed proportionally according to the system described above. But in Elche and other areas where the water supply was relatively limited (the sources were typically springs, rather than rivers), water rights tended to be privatized, alienable from land, and allocation was by fixed-time units which could be bought and sold.(51) Brunhes correctly identified a pattern in the distribution of irrigation systems according to climatic and hydrological factors. But he did not note the cultural dimensions of the phenomenon, for these oasis systems have a South Arabian profile. Thus the water measurement units in Elche are clearly identifiable with those of Yemeni systems, where the units represent time values ranging from portions of an hour to a full day.

[74] The Yemeni model seems also to have prevailed in the oases of the Sahara, a fact which contributes to a picture of Berbers learning Yemeni customs from Arab immigrants and then, in turn, transferring them to the Iberian peninsula. Not only the measurement units, but the techniques of measurement (for example, the sinking clock), as well as the officials who presided over the measurement and sale of water, manifest a pattern of diffusion from South Arabia across the Saharan chain of oases and into Islamic Spain. These patterns are clear in the systems that have been studied comparatively. Similar studies are needed of other Islam-derived Spanish systems, such as those of Murcia, Granada, and the Ebro Valley, all of which have analogous but highly idiosyncratic features.

The diffusion of specific models of irrigation arrangements with clear precedents in the eastern Islamic world forms the context in which the introduction of new crops is fully comprehensible. Yet the systems discussed do not form a complete picture of Islamic irrigation practices. Much land came under irrigation, owing to the development, not of surface water sources, but of ground water, on the basis of the diffusion of lifting devices, originally of Persian inspiration, throughout the Islamic world.

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