Friday, January 09, 2009

Sayabiga and Rice Agriculture in the Middle East

The recent posts on irrigation provide an opportunity for a segue to the question of the Sayabiga that has been discussed earlier in this blog.

M. J. de Goeje in 1894 first suggested that the Sayabiga, mentioned in medieval Muslim texts, came from the kingdom of Zabag in Insular Southeast Asia. De Goeje was later followed by and expanded upon by G. Ferrand in 1934. I have located the kingdom of Zabag in the same pampang area discussed in some recent postings.

Now, the medieval records state that the Sayabiga were living along the Persian Gulf coast during the reign of the Sassanian king Bahram V (420-38). After the Muslim conquest, the Sayabiga along with a group known as the Zutt, who were probably related to the modern Jats of Sindh, were relocated by the Caliph to the marshlands around the present-day Shatt-al-Arab. The Zutt and Sayabiga, along with the Zanj from coastal southern Africa, worked on draining the swamps in this area.

The two groups, the Zutt and Sayabiga, were said to raise water buffalo that put the "lion to flight," and to have introduced rice farming into the area. Rice became popular in the area at the time and came to form the staple in the Shatt-al-Arab and nearby areas from that period until the present day. Later on, because of the problems with lions in Antioch, the Zutt and Sayabiga along with their water buffalo herds were moved to that region to rid the area of lions.

What is interesting is the rice agriculture system present today along the Shatt-al-Arab.

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The area around Basra and the Shatt-al-Arab in southern Iraq where the Zutt and Sayabiga were settled.

The irrigation system here is controlled by a system of mud dikes. The areas furthest from the river remained relatively dry and is planted with wheat and barley. The middle area, which was irrigated by the tides, is cropped with millet and maize. The area closest to the Shatt-al-Arab remains wet all the time and is planted with rice i.e. wet rice agriculture.

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Close-up of diked fields, some in disuse, along the Shatt-al-Arab. This area has been famous for its canals since medieval times.

Another interesting area of research here would be to compare tidal fishing methods to see if there is any sign of Sayabiga influence. Some of the fish traps like the valve room trap, the mud dam trap and the milan trap (see:, look quite similar to methods used far to the east in Pampanga.

There has also been a suggestion that oculi or boat's eyes painted on the bow as amulets and found on medieval Arab dhows were brought to the region by the Sayabiga (see Peabody Museum of Salem, The American Neptune, p. 42; also Waruno Mahdi "The dispersal of Austronesian boat forms in the Indian Ocean," IN: Roger Blech, Matthew Spriggs, Archaeology and Language: Artifacts, Language and Texts, Routledge, 1999, 162.)

Paul Kekai Manansala