Nabatean agriculture

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The Nabatean agriculture is a treatise of agronomy written in the III-IVth century of our era in Syriac (Aramean) by Qûtâmä, and translated into Arabic at the beginning of the Xth century by Ibn Waḥšiyah (Ibn Wahshîya). The translation was achieved in 904 and dictated to a copist in 930, a date at which the translator was dead ; the copist finished his work on the basis of the translator's manuscripts.

This book suffered an eventful, and even scandalous fate, which leaves us puzzled about the way we consider our heritage.

Scholars have long disagreed about the writing date of the original work in Syriac (nowadays lost) : XIIIth BC. for Chwolson, VIIth BC. for Quatremère, Xth AD. for von Gutschmid, Nöldeke and Brockelman. Finally, the opinion of Renan, III-IVth AD., is now making consensus.

During all the Middle-Ages, the Nabatean agriculture was perceived as an esoteric and magical treatise, and as such a witness of pagan "idolatry", by both Muslims and Jews (including Maimonides). This idea was later adopted by European orientalists in the XIXth century, and as a consequence it was neither the object of a critical edition or of a translation.

In spite of that, Leclerc wrote in 1876 that a 'serious and complete study of this curious monument would have the greatest interest, not only for agriculture and natural sciences, but also for philology, ethnology and history'. In the Arab world, Ibn al-‘Awwām had nevertheless quoted many extracts in his Book of agriculture. But the work of Ibn al-‘Awwām was to be known in Europe only in the XVIIIth century.

The Nabatean agriculture also suffers from a rough mistake about its title. It deals in fact with Mesopotamian agriculture, nothing less. For Europeans, "Nabatean" leads to think of a small kingdom the head of which was Petra in Jordan, an arid place where the interest for agriculture is quite limited. It occurs that for the Arabs of the first centuries after Hegira, nabāt or anbāt used to designate all the populations who were speaking Aramean at the arrival of Arabs, in other words, everybody in Mesopotamia. Mohammed El Faïz showed very well that all toponyms quoted in the work are situated between Tigris and Euphrates.

Thus, The Nabatean agriculture represents the mesopotamian agronomical tradition, which developped by large independently from greco-latin agronomy. It is a document of outmost importance for the history of the Mediterranean area.

We can now rely on : a critical edition in Arabic by Toufic Fahd, which unfortunately remains confidential in the small group of Arabic-speaking philologists ; a serious analysis by Mohammed El-Faïz.

I still awaits being translated in a European language. It is certainly a difficult task, but let us hope that we will not need waiting a century more to see it.

Michel Chauvet


El Faïz, Mohammed, 1995. L'agronomie de la Mésopotamie antique. Analyse du "Livre de l'Agriculture nabatéenne" de Qûṯâmä. Leyden, E. J. Brill. 332 p. (Studies in the history of the ancient Near East, vol. 5). An essential book to understand the scope of the work.

Fahd, Toufic, 1993-1998. L'Agriculture nabatéenne. Traduction en arabe attribuée à Abu Bakr Ahmad b. 'Àli al-Kasdānī connu sous le nom d'Ibn Waḥšiyya (IV/Xe siècle). Edition critique par Toufic Fahd. Damas, Institut français de Damas. Tome 1, 1993 : 32 + 759 p. Tome 2, 1995 :17 p. + pp. 761-1511. Tome III, 1998. Articles et index arabes. 334 + 178 p. The first two tomes are the critical edition in Arabic. The third tome gives the index in Arabic and all the articles published in French by Toufic Fahd. One of them, Matériaux pour l'histoire de l'agriculture en Irak : al-filâha n-nabaṭiyya, gives many plant names (pp. 176-277).

Sezgin, Fuat (ed.), 1984. The Book of Nabatean Agriculture. Al-filâhâ al-nabatîya. Translated by Abû Bakr Ibn Wahshîya. Reproduced from MS 1989 Ahmet III collection, Topkapi Sarayi Library Istanbul. 5 vol. Frankfurt am Main, Goethe Univ., Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science. 1, 2-4, 5, 6, 7. It is a fac-simile of the manuscript, which is difficult to read even by Arabic scholars. Parts 3 and 4 of the manuscripts are faulty, and have been replaced in the edition by parts of other manuscripts : Beyazit MS 19053 et British Library Add. 22.371.