This treatise was authored by Shams al-Dīn Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr ibn Abī Ṭālib al-Anṣārī al-Dimashqī, also called Muḥammad ibn al-Ṣūfī, Shams al-Dīn al-Dimashqī, and Ibn Shaykh Ḥittīn, the famous location of Saladin’s victory over the crusaders. According to Zuhayr al-Bābā, 1990 (no page number), the author, who was born in 654/1256 in Damascus, was later also known as the Shaykh al-Rabwah, a locality near Damascus which now corresponds to the suburb of Ṣāliḥiyya, where he served as imam. He is described by Al-Ṣafadī (2000, III, p. 136) as one “of the clever people of the world who have the ability to enter into every science and the courage to author works in every discipline”. Al-Dimashqī is known to have travelled to Egypt, a journey he described in one of his writings, visiting Palestine on his way to and from Egypt. He passed away in Safed in the Galilee in 727/1327 (ibid.), a date confirmed by Brockelmann in one place (Gesch., II, p. 130), though elsewhere (ibid., p. 138) he gives 737/1335 as year of death, which seems incorrect since the Christian and Muslim dates do not correspond to each other; Al-Ṣafadī (2000, III, p. 137) claims that Al-Dimashqī passed away in 725/1325, while Ṣāliḥīyah, 1984, p. 567 mentions 728/1328.
Al-Dimashqī is best known for his Nukhbat al-dahr fī ‘ajā’ib al-barr wa-al-baḥr (‘Chosen passages of time regarding the marvels of land and sea’), a large encyclopaedic work dealing with cosmography and geography in the widest sense, including astronomy, and somewhat closely resembling the ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt of Qazwīnī (1208/9-1283/4). According to D. M. Dunlop, though the author’s standpoint is conspicuously uncritical, his book contains a good deal of information not to be found elsewhere (Dunlop, 1999, n.p.). The Nukhbat al-dahr fī ‘ajā’ib al-barr wa-al-baḥr was translated into French by the Danish Orientalist August Ferdinand Mehren under the title Manuel de la Cosmographie du Moyen Age (Copenhagen, 1874). Less well known but interesting works of Al-Dimashqī include al-Maqāmāt al-falsafīya wa al-tarjamāt al-ṣūfīya (cf. Browne 1900, pp. 217-218, no. 1102), which comprises fifty maqāmat on various physical, mathematical, philosophical and theological subjects, the Jawāb risālat ahl jazīrat Qubrus, a defence of Islam, in which traces of Ṣūfī mysticism appear, and al-Siyāsah (or al-Risāla) fī ‘ilm al-firāsah, a book on physiognomy (cf. Brockelmann, Gesch. II, pp. 130, 138).
Al-Dimashqī’s treatise on agriculture, Al-Durr al-multaqiṭ fī ‘ilm filāḥatay al-Rūm wa-al-Nabaṭ, ‘Pearls gleaned from the science of the two agricultures of the Romans/Byzantines and the Nabataeans’, is probably the earliest of the Syrian agronomical texts and thus the first work on the subject after the Mongol invasions, whose destruction of the Syrian landscape and social structure had resulted in a loss of agricultural knowledge and triggered the composition of works on the topic, in the opinion of Zuhayr al-Bābā, 1990 (no page number). According to Aḥmad Bik, 1944, p. 100, there are two divergent manuscripts of this work extant in the Dār al-Kutub in Cairo (nos. 21 and 84 zirā‘ah respectively). Although both copies are without a date, one of them seems to have been written in the sixth/eleventh or seventh/twelfth century in his opinion. However, given that the author was only born in 654/1256 and died in 727/1327, this is unlikely to be correct.
True to its title, ‘Pearls gleaned from the science of the two agricultures of the Romans/Byzantines and the Nabataeans’, Al-Dimashqī’s treatise seems to be a selected abridgement of two ancient works – the 6th/7th century Al-Filāḥa al-Rūmīya, ‘Byzantine agriculture’ (or Al-Filāḥa al-Yūnānīya al-Rūmīya, ‘Greek-Byzantine agriculture’), written by Qusṭūs ibn Askūrāskīnah (from the Greek title skholastikós), also called Qusṭūs al-Rūmī, who is probably the same as Cassianus Bassus Scholasticus, and the early 10th century Kitāb al-filāḥa al-Nabatīya, ‘Book of Nabataean agriculture’, thought to have been translated by Ibn Waḥshīya in what is now central Iraq. In his introduction Al-Dimashqī lists his sources, all of whom, with the sole exception of Qusṭūs’s ‘Byzantine agriculture’, are authorities mentioned in Ibn Waḥshīya’s ‘Nabataean agriculture’, which has at times caused this work to be identified as just another copy of that work (cf. Aḥmad Bik, 1944, p. 100). For Zuhayr al-Bābā, 1990 (no page number), the author has indeed adopted much of his material from the ‘Nabataean agriculture’, “especially with regard to the species and subspecies of trees, the lunar mansions, winds, the influences of sun and moon, the supplying of water, the establishment of villages and the occupations of their inhabitants, the cultivation of the Theriac vine and the discussion of the processes of creation, formation and evolution”. However, the information regarding “the keeping of bees and silk worms, the acquisition of birds and livestock, and the methods for repelling reptiles and vermin as well as the remedies against their harm” is taken from the ‘Byzantine agriculture’.
Zuhayr al-Bābā, 1990 (no page number) deduces that the work was composed during Al-Dimashqī’s stay in Egypt and points out that the author prefers the non-Arabic names of the months known and used in Egypt to the Syriac names common in Syria and referred to in the ‘Nabataean Agriculture’ so that the Egyptian readership could understand the treatise. Moreover, his treatment of the village structure points towards Egypt rather than Syria. In addition, Zuhayr al-Bābā emphasises the fact that no copy of this work has been found in Syria as opposed to two extant copies in Cairo.
Al-Dimashqī’s work begins with an enumeration of trees cultivated in Syria according to six groups. The first of these consists of trees the fruits of which have kernels and include different kinds (altogether 189) of palm trees, apricots, peaches, plums, cherries, jujubes, olives, Christ’s thorns, azaroles and other hawthorns, rowans, hackberries, cordias, sumacs and boxthorns. The second group includes eleven types of fruits without kernels, such as grapevines, figs, pears, apples, strawberries, bananas, sycamores, quinces, etc. with a total of 161 kinds. “Thereafter,” in Al-Dimashqī’s own words (cf. Aḥmad Bik, 1944, p. 101), “five small trees or shrubs the fruits of which are acidic”, i.e. citrus fruits like citrons, bitter oranges, lemons, etc. with 26 subspecies in total. He continues, “thereafter, seven trees that possess oily cores (seeds) which are their fruits”. This group comprises a total of 30 types of trees bearing nuts in the popular sense, such as different kinds of pistachios, hazelnuts, stone pines, walnuts, almonds, etc. The fifth group consists of six trees the fruits of which possess arils and peels. Here he lists e.g. the pomegranate, the chestnut, the acorn, and the manna ash with altogether 44 different kinds. These five groups include, according to the author, 44 species of trees with altogether 450 subspecies. This is followed by the sixth and last group consisting of fruitless tress, which includes inter alia 23 types of “horticultural trees”, i.e. possibly ornamental trees, but also mastic trees and pearl millets. The introduction concludes with a list of 12 different kinds of fruits and vegetables with 46 subspecies, including gourds, water melons, honey melons, cucumbers, cantaloupes and string beans.
The main bulk of the treatise consists of twenty-nine chapters. Chapter one enumerates the non-Arabic names of the months and the agricultural duties specific to them, while chapter two discusses different ways and means of determining times, such as calculating the amount of the night that has passed according to the setting of the moon or computing the times for sun rise and sun set, and explains the lunar and solar mansions as well as how to observe indications for oncoming rain. The third and forth chapters deal with the winds, their tempers and the plants influenced by them, their influences on water and soil as well as the sun and its effect, which is described as “as the secret of the secrets”.
Chapters five and six deal with soils that are suitable or unsuitable for cultivating plants, especially those that are very wet or arid. The next section discusses waterfowl, what they produce, and how to get rid of their harmful effects. The eighth section is dedicated to the topic of wells and extracting water from the ground. Chapters nine and ten discuss the establishment, organization and administration of villages. Continuing this theme, the following chapter is concerned with the products “that the inhabitants of land estates employ and whereby their bodies become healthy, the souls purified and their years prolonged”. Chapter twelve describes the cultivation of a medical plant used in many antidotes, said to have been discovered by the Nabataeans and known as the “Theriac vine”. Sections thirteen and fourteen are not extant in either manuscript.
Chapter fifteen mentions the facilities and simple drugs/medicaments needed by the inhabitants of a village, whereas chapter sixteen discusses methods to drive away snakes, scorpions and to protect oneself against their venom and stings. Remedies against poisonous creatures are also the topic of the next chapter. Section eighteen till twenty on the other hand lists methods to prevent and get rid of lice, fleas, mice, locusts, grasshoppers, bedbugs, midges, etc.
The twenty-first chapter proceeds to describe the rearing of bees and silk worms, yet the next section lists methods to keep away ants and bats. The following three chapters deal with animal husbandry and describe the acquisition of chickens and doves and the construction of their coops, the breeding of sheep, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys and their management.
The remaining chapters from section twenty-six onwards discuss the processes of creation and formation, the reasons for the different shapes of plants, the evolution of existing things, the origin and development of smells and colours as well as their numbers.