Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Introduction of rice and tropical crops into Moorish Spain

Rice may have been introduced into Moorish Spain as early as the late 8th century. By the time of Hakam II in the mid-10th century, we learn from his secretary Arib bin Sa'id that tropical crops like rice (Ar. al-ruz, Sp. arroz), sugar cane (Ar. al-sukkar, Sp. azucar), ginger, banana, watermelon, oranges (Ar., Sp. naranja), lemon (Ar. laimun, Sp. limon) and other citrus were grown in Spain. This general type of agriculture involving these crops was known as filaha hindiyya or "Indian agriculture."

While I'm not aware of any detailed exposition of the transfer of rice agriculture across North Africa to Spain, the general spread of rice in the western Muslim regions during this period is linked with the Zutt and Sayabiga as discussed before. In the early 8th century, these groups were relocated from Mesopotamia to Antioch in Syria where up to 8,000 water buffalo were transported. As mentioned in the previous blog, at the ascension of Hakam II, there is some evidence of domestic water buffalo in Muslim Spain. The 9th century ruler of Egypt and Syria, Tulun, was said to have died from dysentery after drinking too much buffalo milk while in Antioch, so at least by this time we could expect the buffalo to have reached North Africa.

The rice agriculture of Spain like that of the Shatt al-Arab was of the wet paddy type in which the plant was raised entirely in submerged fields. These fields were built in areas that normally flooded, like the Albufera lake region in Valencia, using dikes, canals and in some cases terraces. Most of the rice and sugar cane fields were located on the eastern coast in areas like Valencia, Murcia and Andalusia. Also interesting is the apparent introduction of the use of verbascum as a fish poison during the Moorish periods. The use of verbascum fish poison appears in Arab literature in the medieval period known by the name mahi zahraj or mahi zahre.

Irrigated fields in the Albufera region, Valencia, Spain. Abundant rice and sugar cane fields can still be seen in some areas of Valencia and Murcia. Click image for full view.

Paul Kekai Manansala


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