Al-Malik al-Afḍal

Bughyat al-fallāḥīn fī al-ashjār al-muthmirah wa-al-rayāḥīn, ‘The Farmers’ desired object for fruit-bearing trees and aromatic plants ’

Al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī ibn Dāwūd ibn Yūsuf ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Alī ibn Rasūl was the sixth Rasulid sultan of Yemen, coming to power at the death of his father in 764/1363.1 The date of his birth is not recorded, but he is not his father’s oldest son and he is rarely mentioned in the account of his father’s reign.  He also appears to have come to power at a relatively young age.  His eldest son was circumcized in 765/1364.  If one assumes that the son was approximately eight years old at the time, and that this son would have been born when Al-Afḍal was about 25 years old, then it is likely that Al-Afḍal was born sometime around 733/1331. The forty-three year reign of his father had weathered several rebellions, including problems from Al-Afḍal’s brothers, so that he took over at a time when the “thorn of depravity” (shawkat al-fasād), as reported by Al-Khazrajī (1918(5): 128), had weakened the sultanate.2 Within a year Al-Afḍal had quelled a rebellion in the Tihāma, circumcized his sons Al-Malik al-Ashraf Ismā‘īl and Al-Malik al-Manṣūr ‘Abd Allāh, and established his college (madrasa) in Ta‘izz.  In the fourteen years of his reign he appears to have spent almost every summer at Zabīd during the summer date harvest festival known as sabt al-subūt.

Al-Malik al-Afḍal wrote a major medieval text on agriculture, Bughyat al-fallāḥin fī al-ashjār al-muthmira wa-al-rayāḥīn, ‘The farmers’ object of desire in regard to fruit-bearing trees and aromatic plants’, with extensive quotes from the 6th century Al-Filāḥa al-Rūmīya of Cassianus Bassus, the early 10th century ‘Book of Nabataean agriculture’ of Ibn Waḥshīya, and the Andalusi agronomist Ibn Baṣṣāl. In addition, the author cites from the texts of his Rasulid predecessors Al-Malik al-Ashraf and Al-Malik al-Mujāhid (d. 1362) whose Al-Ishāra fī al-imara, ‘Instruction on [managing] the estate’, no longer exists. Al-Malik al-Afḍal also wrote a short but highly informative royal crop register for the year AH 773/AD 1371-2, the Faṣl fī marifat al-matānim wa-al-asiqā (?) fī al-Yaman al-maḥrūsa, ‘Section on the knowledge of planting times and tax assessments (?) in the protected realm of Yemen’, which provides an agricultural gazetteer for most of the coastal region or Tihāma, and the southern highlands, and the dates for planting a long list of crops, flowers and aromatic plants throughout Yemen. In addition our author penned an abridged version of his Bughyat al-fallāḥīn, written over the space of a day starting Sunday, 19 Rabī‘ al-Akhīr, 777/Sunday, 24 September, 1375, about a year before his death.

In both the Bughyat al-fallāḥīn and the abridgement Al-Afḍal mentions various exotic plants that he received as gifts.  For the year 768/1367 the chronicles record gifts sent by the Egyptian sultan and by the rulers of Cambay (Kanbāya) and Sind, the latter sending red, yellow and blue varieties of jasmine (full) (Al-Khazrajī 1981: 415).  More flowers, including white and yellow jasmine varieties and roses, as well as exotic birds arrived from the ruler of Calcutta in 770/1368. This included a white (abyaḍ) variety of jasmine as mentioned in his Bughyat al-fallāḥīn (f. 72v).  In the same year a delegation from Ethiopia brought him a number of gifts, perhaps including plants for his garden.   A delegation from Yemen brought back gifts from Egypt in the year 777/1375.  In the Bughyat al-fallaḥīn Al-Afḍal also mentions plants sent from India to his father, Al-Mujāhid.  Like his predecessors, Al-Afḍal continued to maintain royal gardens in the Ta‘izz area and at Zabīd.  His main residence in the highlands was at the fortress of Tha‘bāt, which also had a garden called Firdaws.  The Egyptian historian Al-‘Umarī (1974: 56) is full of praise for the garden at Tha‘bāt, reporting that it contained fruits from Syria and India and was the finest garden one could imagine.

In his last two years Al-Afḍal is reported to have undertaken various hunting expeditions, first looking for wild donkeys in Abyan and then in Wadi Rima‘ just before his death.  Al-Afḍal died on 21 Sha‘bān, 778/3 January, 1377 in Zabīd.  His eldest son, Al-Ashraf, had come down from Ta‘izz a week before and succeeded his father without resistance.  Three days later Al-Afḍal was buried in Ta‘izz and the Qur’an was read for seven days.  According to Al-Khazrajī (1918(5): 158-159), Al-Afḍal was a popular leader who was generous and did not tolerate corruption.  He appears to have spent most of his time at his fortress and garden in Tha‘bāt at Ta‘izz, where he had time to write.  The manuscripts attributed to him indicate that he had access to a large library.

1 Details on his reign are provided by Al-Khazrajī in both al-‘Uqūd al-lu’lu’iyya 1918(5): 127-163 and al-‘Asjad al-masbūq 1981: 413-432. For his writings, see Varisco and Smith 1998: 8-9.
2 Al-Khazrajī 1918(5): 128.  The zenith of Rasulid power was during the long reign of Al-Muẓaffar (d. 694/1295).  In the fourteenth century, as Smith 2006: 2 observes, the Rasulid sultans “suffered much, however, at the hands of fickle and rebellious Yemeni tribes and equally of envious and mutinous slaves and mamluks.” For details on the reign of Al-Muẓaffar, see Varisco 1993b. The best introductions in English to the history of the Rasulids are the writings in the anthology of G. Rex Smith 1997. For a useful summary in Arabic, see Al-Akwa‘ 2004 and Al-Ḥibshī 1980. Detailed studies of the commerce and trade of the Rasulids have been provided by Al-Shamrookh 1996 and Vallet 2006.


Al-Malik al-Afḍal’s Bughyat al-fallāḥīn fī al-ashjār al-muthmira wa-al-rayāḥīn, ‘The Farmers’ Desired Object for Fruit-bearing Trees and Aromatic Plants’, is a major medieval agricultural treatise, first described by Meyerhof (1944).  Prof. R. B. Serjeant (1974) later translated the chapter on grain crops.  This treatise provides an extraordinary window through which to view Yemeni agricultural practices over five hundred years ago.  The classification of eleven types of soils draws on earlier texts, but includes information on Yemen. There is a detailed discussion of the different types of manure and their uses.  The fourth chapter of Al-Afḍal's treatise discusses how to choose and prepare the soil for crops.  One of the items of advice is to examine the types of plants growing on the soil to see if they are those that grow in wadi valleys and moist areas.  If this is the case, the land has promise.  In preparing the land, the text notes, it is first necessary to level it, so that the water will run evenly to all parts of the plot.  This includes use of a leveller, known locally in Yemen as a maḥarr.  Then, depending on the soil, it is important to mix in the appropriate manure.  Details are given on the timing, number of ploughings and depth of furrows for various crops.  There is also a short agricultural calendar.  The bulk of the information in the text is on the major crops and flowering plants cultivated in medieval Yemen.  In his description of each crop Al-Malik al-Afḍal provides a variety of information on its cultivation in Yemen, as well as comments from earlier non-Yemeni sources.  Horticultural advice is given on pruning and grafting, as well as a general discussion of the medicinal and useful properties of certain plants.

The chapter headings are as follows: (1) Types of Land and their Quality; (2) Fertilizer;  (3) Water;  (4) Selection and Clearing of Land for Cultivation; (5) Agricultural Seasons and Activities (including almanac); (6) Grains;  (7) Legumes (qaṭānī); (8) Vegetables (buqūl and khadrāwāt);  (9) Spices and Herbs;  (10) Flowering and Aromatic Plants;  (11) Fruit Trees;  (12) Pruning of Trees;  (13) Grafting of Trees; (14) Properties of Various Plants; (15) Major uses of Plants; (16) Medicinal Plants.

The abridged version of Bughyat al-fallāḥīn was written over the space of a day starting Sunday, 19 Rabī‘ al-Akhīr, 777/Sunday, 24 September, 1375, about a year before Al-Afḍal’s death on 21 Sha‘bān, 778/26 December, 1376.  It is included in the anthology made for Al-Malik al-Afḍal over six pages of text, approximately 255 lines, with marginal notes in the hand of Al-Afḍal.  At the conclusion of the text Al-Afḍal says that the purpose of the abridgement was to set down his recollections from trips and from the experience he had at home, especially in the royal gardens.  There is no evidence that Al-Afḍal ever travelled outside Yemen, even on pilgrimage to Mecca, during his reign.  Most of the information condensed in the abridgement is relevant to Yemen, primarily taken from his father’s al-Ishāra and his great uncle’s Milḥ al-malāḥah.    Since the abridgement does not provide the sources, as Bughyat al-fallaḥīn usually does, some of the specific details are not relevant to Yemeni agricultural practices, but are taken from Ibn Baṣṣāl or other source material

Editions & Translations

D.M. Varisco is currently preparing an Arabic edition and English translation of the text.


Bughyat al-fallāḥīn fī al-ashjār al-muthmirah wa-al-rayāḥīn, ‘The Farmers’ Desired Object for Fruit-bearing Trees and Aromatic Plants’:

  • Cairo, Dār al Kutub, Zirā‘a 155.
    257 pp, 23 lines per page. Incomplete copy.  The text has been described by Meyerhoff (1944). A hand copy was made of this ms. for Meyerhoff in 1931.

  • Ṣan‘ā’. Great Mosque, Western Library, Zirā‘a 1.
    177 pp. Copied 1362/1943.  This ms. is said to be by a certain Yaḥyā ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ghassānī (sic), and this error is also found in the published catalogue for the Western Library.
  • Tarīm, Private Library.
    Copy from 1197/1782. This ms. was copied by R.B. Serjeant in 1953-4.

  • Istanbul, Topkapi, Ahmet III, A. 2432, ff.177v-225r.
    Probably copied 1001/1592 by a Kurd at the Turkish court. This text is not listed in the published catalogue.  It is bound with a copy of al-Filāḥa al-Rūmīya of Qusṭūs (Cassianus Bassus) and both are in the same hand. There is no mention in the text or the title of the author’s name.  This is an incomplete text and full of copyist errors. The copyist clearly was not familiar with many of the Yemeni terms.
  • Abridged version in Mixed Rasulid Ms., Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, 6 pp.
    This text was owned by the author, who has marginal notes in the ms.


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