Ibn Waḥshīyah

Al-filāḥah al-nabaṭīyah, ‘Nabataean Agriculture’

The enigmatic and complex Al-filāḥah al-nabaṭīyah or book of ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ is, as far as we know, the earliest agricultural treatise written in Arabic (albeit mostly translated into that language) and it proved to be by far the most popular and influential such work throughout the ages, despite its pagan character, being preserved in a large number of extant early as well as late manuscripts, either in full or abridged form, and cited by many later Arab agronomists. In Latin translation it was known also to Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas in the wider medieval world. This large, multi-layered work is part practical farming manual, part botanical treatise, and part speculative theory on the influence of stars and the elements on plants, interspersed with a great deal of magical lore, myths, ancient stories and religious traditions.

The authorship, history, and original language of the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ have been the subject of vigorous debate in the past and these issues are still not unanimously resolved. The work itself claims to be a translation by Ibn Waḥshīyah (alive in 318/930–1) from ‘Ancient Syriac’ (as-Suryānal-qadm) into Arabic, made in the year 903-04 and dictated to his scribe al-Zayāt in 930-31. The Syriac original was, according to the text, itself based on earlier works by a number of authors belonging to the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia and, in the last instance, put together by an author called Qūthāmā (Hämeen-Anttila, 2006, p. 3, 10).

The ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ is the most important of the books ascribed to Ibn Waḥshīyah, who is known as the author/transmitter of a number of other ‘Nabataean’ works and supposedly ancient Babylonian writings dealing with astrology, alchemy, magic, toxicology and the decipherment of ancient scripts. Unfortunately, not much is known about Ibn Waḥshīyah himself. Ibn al-Nadīm in his Fihrist of 987 states that his full name was Abū Bakr Aḥmad (or Muḥammad?) ibn ‘Alī ibn Qays ibn al-Mukhtār ibn ‘Abd al-Karīm ibn Ḥarathyā ibn Badanyā ibn Barṭanyā ibn ‘Ālaṭyā al-Kasdānī aṣ-Ṣūfī min ahl Qusayn and Junbulā’, and that he was descended from the ‘Nabataeans’, the ancient inhabitants of Iraq (Al-‘Anbāṭ, ‘Nabataeans’, being the Arabic name for the indigenous, rural, Aramaic-speaking peasants of Syria and Iraq) and, in particular, the Assyrian king Sannacherib (Dodge, 1970, pp. 731-32, 863-65). The dates mentioned in the opening lines of the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ place him in the 3rd-4th AH century/late 9th–early 10th CE century. According to Hamarneh, Ibn Waḥshīyah was born in Qusayn, near Janbalā in Iraq, c. 860 and died in Baghdad, c. 935 (Hamarneh, 2005, p. 452).

In the mid-19th century Chwolsohn hailed the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ as a genuine piece of Chaldean/Babylonian literature, dating the ‘Ancient Syriac’ original to the 16th century B.C. in his Überreste (1859, p. 65) and thereby initiating a heated debate. Von Gutschmid (1861) and Nöldeke (1876) unequivocally disproved the Babylonian hypothesis and the work was declared a forgery. The majority of scholars was of the opinion that the treatise was a total fabrication penned either by the alleged original author Qūthāmā, or by the alleged translator from the ‘Nabataean’, i.e. Ibn Waḥshīyah, or by the copyist mentioned in the text, i.e. Abū Ṭālib Aḥmad bin al-Ḥusayn bin ‘Alī bin Aḥmad bin Muḥammad bin ‘Abd al-Malik bin al-Ḥusayn al-Zayāt, with some scholars going so far as to accuse Ibn al-Zayāt of not only forging the work but also the person of the author himself (cf. Fahd, 1971, p. 963ff.; Hämeen-Anttila, 2006, pp. 3-10; Sezgin, Gesch. IV, pp. 318-327). Interestingly, some of these authorities regarded, for example, references to the solar calendar as an expression of opposition to the lunar calendar of the Muslim rulers and concluded that the treatise must be a late work featuring a hidden anti-Islamic agenda, rather than regarding these references as an argument for the pre-Islamic origin of the treatise (Sezgin, Gesch. IV, p. 326).

Nearly a hundred years later there was a revival of interest in the work with scholarly opinion tending to regard the work as ‘authentic’. According to Sezgin (Gesch., IV, p. 328f.), the work was composed in Mesopotamia in the 5th or 6th century Christian era and translated by Ibn Waḥshīyah in the early 10th century. Fahd (1969, p. 86ff.) claims that the style and language of certain passages indicate that it can only be a translation. However, his view, which supposes a translation from Middle Persian due to the similarity between personal names mentioned in the work and their form in Middle Persian and Manichean documents, is far-fetched and has subsequently been abandoned. Hämeen-Anttila in his very thorough studies (1999; 2006, pp. 3-52) of the background of the ‘Nabataean’ corpus of Ibn Waḥshīyah and especially the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ has been able to prove a Northern Mesopotamian geographical setting for the work and has shown that its material, including those parts derived from ancient Babylonian and Assyrian sources or the Greek-Byzantine Geoponica must have passed through Syriac or Aramaic (i.e. ‘Nabataean’) mediation. According to his view, much of the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ reflects a late pagan reality in the rural areas of Northern Mesopotamia around the time of the Muslim conquest (ibid., 2006; ix) and Ibn Waḥshīyah translated the work from actual Syriac manuscripts taking additional recourse to Syriac-speaking informants and/or collecting additional oral materials (ibid., p. 25ff.).

Hämeen-Anttila (2006, p. 28f.) surmises that Ibn Waḥshīyah’s personal identification with the ‘Nabataean’ national spirit, coinciding with his general interest in paganism and the prevailing intellectual climate with its search for ancient wisdom, were the reasons for his undertaking the translation. He also seems to accept the authenticity of the original author, Qūthāmā, who he says might himself have been a pagan, influenced not only by the Hellenistic tradition, but also by Judaism and/or Christianity. In Cahen’s view, Ibn Waḥshīya’s purpose was to preserve the traditional knowledge and beliefs of the Mesopotamian peasant in the face of rapid Arabization, Islamization and urbanization (Cahen 1971, p. 64-5).

Some of the agricultural material in the book indicates continuity with the Greek and Latin traditions. Rodgers (1980) has shown that one of the (direct or indirect) Late Antique sources for the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ was Vindonios Anatolios of Berytos (4th-5th centuries AD), albeit in a very minor way. Traces also point to the Geoponica, a 10th-century Byzantine collection, which in its final form is later than the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ itself but which goes back to the work of Cassianus Bassus in the 6th century, itself a compilation of earlier sources, including Anatolios but also many other texts (Hämeen-Anttila, 2006, pp. 11,12). However, as the latter scholar points out, the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ only partly connects with the Late Antique agronomic tradition. In addition, it contains many references to local customs and conditions, all consistently situated in Northern, and Central, Iraq. Moreover, in spite of the pervasive magical element throughout the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’, “One should not forget the sober and often experimental attitude of Ibn Waḥshīyah towards agriculture in general – he is not an obscurantist trading with talismans and amulets but a learned and perspicacious observer” (Hämeen-Anttila 1999, p. 44).

That the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ was immensely popular and influential is borne out by the large number of extant manuscripts (at least forty are known), and the existence of many abridgements and summaries over the years. Ibn al-Raqqām’s early-14th century Andalusi agricultural treatise Kitāb khulāṣat al-ikhtiṣāṣ fī ma‘rifat al-qūwā wa’l-khawāṣṣ is an expurgated version of the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’, while the Egyptian Al-Tamār-Tamurī’s Al-Falāḥa al-muntakhaba and the Syrian Dimashqi's ‘Pearls gleaned from the science of agriculture of the Byzantines and the Nabataeans’ seem to be largely based on it too. In the best-known Andalusi agricultural treatise, Ibn al-Awwam’s 12th century Kitāb al-Filāḥa, Ibn Waḥshīyah is by far the most frequently quoted source (Banqueri, Ibn al-‘Awwām, 1802, pp. 38-39).


The ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ is a large work, consisting of seven parts (not originally as intended by the author but apparently by scribal praxis – cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 21) in over one hundred and fifty chapters of varying lengths. After the introduction, the work discusses different aspects of olive cultivation and continues to elucidate the characteristic attributes of the olive – tree and fruit – in the next chapter, while chapters 3-10 deal with different aspects of irrigation techniques, procuring water, water quality, the construction of wells, etc. This is followed by a section of mainly rather short chapters mentioning all manner of plants, especially flowers such as narcissi, water lilies, violets, etc., and trees such as laurels and sorbs, together with curious facts concerning them. The next section, comprising medium and long chapters, discusses estate management and the duties of estate owners, managers and ploughmen, including knowledge of the signs of impending rain, the appropriate seeds for each time of the year, the months and seasons with their respective operations, the harmful and beneficial influences of winds, the stars, and the different types of soils and manures (chapters 44-59). A number of chapters concerning different kinds of grain, such as wheat and barley, as well as works connected with their cultivation follow, culminating in a series of chapters on the making of bread (chapters 60-69). Thereafter the text addresses the legumes such as broad beans and lupins, as well as onions, together with all sorts of interesting historical and mythological facts (chapters 70-150). Seven sometimes rather long chapters on the fruits of trees and the roots of herbs and what may be made with them, as well as the causes for the differences in taste, color, smell etc. of different plants and the various changes plants undergo, conclude the treatise.

Critical Editions & Translations

The critical edition published by Tawfīq Fahd (ed.), 1993, Al-Filāḥah al-Nabaṭīyah. Al-tarjamah al-manḥūlah ilá Ibn Waḥshīyah, Abū Bakr Aḥmad ibn ʻAlī ibn Qays al-Kasdānī. Dimashq: al-Ma‘had al-‘Ilmī al-Faransī lil-Dirāsāt al-‘Arabīyah, has seen several reprints. The 3rd edition (1998) includes also most of Fahd’s articles regarding the work and its author.

No complete translation in English has so far been made; however, Hämeen-Anttila, 2006, presents a number of passages in translation.


That the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ must have been a very popular book is not only borne out by the large number of extant manuscripts, but also by the existence of various abridgements of the text and the fact that many other agricultural texts have been wrongly identified by native copyists and owners as copies of this work.

  • Bibliothèque Générale, Rabat, no. 183, Adab al-Kattānī; 610 folios, dated to 1265/1849 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • National Library Berlin, no. 6205, Mg 469; 3rd part, 247folios, 12 lines, dated to ca. 700/1300 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 17)
  • Āṣafīya Library Hyderabad no. 348 Philosophy (currently housed in the Central State Library); 369 folios/737 pages, 10th/16th century (Sezgin), dated to 1140/1727 (Fahd); (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 15 (French part)) [photocopy of an actual ms?]
  • Bibliothèque Nationale Paris, no. 2803; 2nd quarter of work, 300 folios, 29 x 19.5, 25 lines, dated to 1043/1633 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; cf. Vajda, 1953, p. 342; Fahd, 1993, p. 14)
  • Vatican Library Rome, no. 904 Arabic; 4th part, 253 folios (Sezgin)/250 folios (Fahd), 25 x 17, partial (4th part), dated to 8/9th/14/15th century (Sezgin)/ to 640/1242-43 (Fahd); (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329, Fahd, 1993, p. 17)
  • Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmīyah, Cairo, no. 490 zirāʿah, photocopy of the Rabat ms, dated 1265/1848-49. Bought in Medina in 1352/1933, 302 folios (602 pages), naskhī; Fahd, 1993, p. 12 (French part)
  • Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmīyah, Cairo, no. 220 zirāʿah; only mentioned by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 573
  • Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmīyah, Cairo, no. 39 zirāʿah (= no. 4244), 33 pages, dated to 995/1588; Fahd, 1993, p. 18.
  • Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-Qawmīyah, Cairo, no. 93 zirāʿah majāmīʿ mīm; mentioned by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 573
  • Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-qawmīyah, Cairo, no. 18 kīmiyā’, 1st part, dated to 995/1587; only mentioned by Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • Süleymaniye Library Istanbul, no. 2490 Esad Efendi; partial, 52 folios (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329); 52ff., size 20 X 12 cm; probably written by Ottoman Shaykh ul-Islām Muḥammad ibn Bahāʾī (died 1064/1654), written in naskhī farsī script, partial, from beginning  cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 9 (French part).
  • Süleymaniye Library Istanbul, no. 3613, Fatih; 1st part, 234 folios (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329); 236ff., size 28 x 30 cm; dated to 803/1401; taʿlīq script, partial, from beginning; cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 9 (French part).
  • Süleymaniye Library Istanbul, no. 3612, Fatih; 1st part, 305 folios, naskhī, 26 x 12 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 12 (French part))
  • Süleymaniye Library Istanbul, no. 1031, Hamidiye; 425 folios, naskhī, 31 x 19, dated to 1181/1767 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 12 (French part))
  • Süleymaniye Library Istanbul, no. 1526, Ayasofya; partial, 71  folios (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 17)
  • Beyazit Umumi Library Istanbul, no. 4064; 332 folios, parts 1-2, 25 x 17, naskhī, dated to 6th/12th century, (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 12(French part))
  • Beyazit Umumi Library Istanbul, no. 2485 Veliyeddin, 218 folios, naskhī, dedicated by the Scribe to Sultan Muḥammad Ibn Murād Khān (853-4/1451 till 884-5/1481); (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 13 (French part))
  • Beyazit Umumi Library Istanbul, 19052 (anc. Kara Mustafa Pasha, 385), 200 folios, 33 x 25.5 cm., naskhī, 21 lines, the ms is a donation of Mustafa Pasha al-Wazīr al-Aʿzam (1043/1634-1094/1683); Fahd, 1993, p. 11 (French part)
  • Beyazit Umumi Library Istanbul, 19053 (anc. Kara Mustafa Pasha, 386), 164 folios, 33 x 25.5 cm., naskhī, 21 lines, dated to 684/1286; Fahd, 1993, p. 11 (French part) [this and the previous ms form part of the same larger ms, though only 2 parts of it are extant; Fahd, 1993, p. 11]
  • Nuruosmaniye Library Istanbul, no. 3028; 332 (Sezgin)/333 (Fahd) folios, naskhī, 29.5 x 20.5, dated to 1120/1708 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329)
  • Topkapi Library Istanbul, no. 7158, mentioned by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 574
  • Topkapi Library Istanbul, no. 7159 mentioned by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 574
  • Süleymaniye Library Istanbul, no. 264 (Fahd, Ṣāliḥīyah)/269 (Sezgin), Khadījah Ṭurfān/Fonds Yeni Cami, Turhan Valide Sultan, 3rd part, 199 folios, 26.5 x 18,  naskhī, owned by Qānṣawah al-Ghawrī (d. 922/1516) the last but one Mamluk Sultan of Egypt (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 13 (French Part))
  • University Library Leiden, nos. Or. 303a, 303b, 476; 633 folios, naskhī script, dated to 872/1467. Cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 9f. (French part); Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • University Library Leiden, no. 303c; fragment, third part of work, 126 folios, dated to 1060/1650; cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 10 (French part); Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • University Library Leiden, no. 303d., fragment, second part of work, 111 folios, cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 10 (French part), Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • University Library Leiden, no. 524; partial, 65 folios, dated to 2nd half of 9th century (CE or hijri? Hijri makes it late, but according to Fahd, 1993, p. 15, n. 19 ancient; CE makes it earlier than composition date). {or is this only an abridgement or some text quoting the Nabatean Agriculture? Cf. Fahd}
  • University Library Leiden, no. 1279; only mentioned by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 574.
  • University Library Leiden, no. 1280; only mentioned by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 574
  • University Library Leiden, 1184 (2) = 1282 + 1283? Copy of 524, from 17th century; Fahd, 1993, p. 10 n. 9, p. 15 n. 18. (= same as previous two, with misquotation by Ṣāliḥīyah?)
  • University Library Istanbul no. 7084 ? A.Y. (only mentioned by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 574; identical with the following?)
  • University Library Istanbul, no. A.Y. 1336, 72 folios, fragment, 2nd part, naskhī, 26.5 x 18, dated to 8th/14th century; Fahd, 1993, 13 (French part), Sezgin, Gesch. IV, p. 329
  • Bodleian Library Oxford, Hunt. no. 349; 4th part, 120 folios (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329 – according to Fahd, 1993, p. 14 n. 16 has the 4th fann of Kitāb mabāhij al-fikar wa-manāhij al-ʿibar of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Waṭwāṭ; see there)
  • Bodleian Library Oxford, Hunt. No. 340; 3rd part, 203 folios (Sezgin)/206 folios (Fahd), naskhī rayḥānī, dated to 1001/1592 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 13f. (French part))
  • Bodleian Library Oxford, Hunt. No. 326; 5th part, 190 folios, naskhī, has certificates of purchase attached to it dating to 800/1397-8, 807/1404-5, etc. (Fahd, 1993, p. 14 (French part))
  • British Library London no. 997/1, formerly British Museum = Add. 22.371 (No 997), 249 folios (Sezgin)/257 folios (Fahd), 27 lines; dated to 389/999 (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 10).
  • Bibliothèque Nationale Paris, no. 4950 (= Suppl. Ar. 2795); a part (6th?), 174 folios, naskhī, dated to 6th/12th century (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 14)
  • Bibliothèque National, Algérie, no. 1497; 1st part, 219 folios, naskhi manthūr, 25.7 x 17.5, 21 lines, dated before 413/1022 (date given on ms) or 6th/12th century (Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329; Fahd, 1993, p. 11 (French part))
  • Private copy of Martin Plessner, 264 folios, 29 lines, naskhī ʿarabī (to folio 61v) and naskhī farsī (rest), dated to 13th/18-19th century; Fahd, 1993, p. 18.
  • Uppsala University, no. 338, 136 folios, eclectic choice of certain chapters, naskhī, dated to 442/1050-51; Fahd, 1993, p. 19.
  • Bibliothèque Nationale Tunis, no. 8363, 212 folios, parts and chapters, dated to 1303/1885-86; written in maghribī script. Fahd, 1993, p. 19.
  • Topkapi Sarayi, Ahmet III, no. 1989, 1-7, dated to 8th/14th century: 1st fascicle: 213 folios; 2nd + 3rd fascicle: 291 folios, 25 x 17, 20 lines, naskhī; 4th fascicle: 195 folios, 27 x 18, 21 lines; 5th fascicle: 228 folios, 26.3 x 17.5, 19 lines; 6th fascicle: 155 folios, 29 x 17.5, 19 lines; 7th fascicle: 185 folios, 29 x 17.5, 19 lines; + Ahmet III, no. 1989, 8 – 27.8 x 19.5, 21 lines, dated to 733/1332 (cf. below, abridgement Ṭaybaghah??); Fahd, 1993, p. 16f., Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329
Excerpts in copies of Ibn al-Raqqām’s Kitāb khulāṣat al-ikhtiṣāṣ fī maʿrifat al-quwā wa’l-khawāṣṣ (see there):

  • Cambridge University Library, no. 342 (Qq. 542), 125 folios, naskhī, 23 lines; Fahd, 1993, p. 15 (French part); Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • Landesbibliothek Gotha, no. 2119, 231 folios, dated to 1092/1681; Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • Istanbul, Bagdatli Vehbi, no. 2238, 201 folios, dated to 1198/1784; Sezgin, Gesch., IV, p. 329.
  • Bibliothèque Générale, Rabat, no. 2464; Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 574.
Fahd identifies the following manuscripts ascribed to Al-Tamār-Tamurī as containing passages from the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ (but see Al-Tamār-Tamurī):

  • Bibliothèque Nationale Paris 2805; cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 15 n. 19
  • Bibliothèque Nationale Paris 2807; cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 15 n. 19
  • Bibliothèque Nationale Paris 2808; cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 15 n. 19
  • Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-qawmīyah, Cairo, no. 4245; cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 15 n. 19
  • Istanbul, Topkapi, Ahmet III, 1989,8 (183 folios, 25.5 x 12.5, 19 lines), muntakhab al-filāḥah al-nabaṭīyah, abridgement of ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ by Ṭaybaghah; cf. Fahd, 1993, p. 15 n. 19
  • Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʾiq al-qawmīyah, Cairo, 100, zarāʿah ṭalaʿa, anonymous; mentioned only by Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 574
Further abridgements are mentioned under the respective authors; the above ones are only listed, because Fahd, 1993, makes partial use of some of these for difficult passages in his critical edition. Cf. Fahd, 1993, 21-27 (French part) for the interdependence of manuscripts, manuscript families, and the collation of fragmentary manuscripts and their respective chronology. Cf. also Fahd, 1993, m9-19 (Arabic part).



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