A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe

Chapter 21 of Reconstruction by Way of the Soil: An outline history of the relation between civilization and the soil, by G.T. Wrench, Faber and Faber, 1946

It is refreshing -- and an essential restoration of the mind -- to turn from the dismal tale of farming under modern civilization and to review in its place a kingdom of agricultural art in western Europe. Such a kingdom can be found, but one has to go back a thousand years to find it. Further, apart from this long interval of time, there are other distances between this great agricultural society and the society of modern Europe. The race which directed this society is no longer to be found in Europe. Moreover, the religious faith which directed it is now only to be found in a few mountainous areas of eastern Europe. In its racial and religious characteristics, then, this society was strange to Europe, yet, in spite of this strangeness, perhaps because of it, it did for a period attain to a fullness of civilization not reached by any other European people.

This kingdom was that of the Arabs in Spain, which began with their invasion under Tarick in A.D. 711 and came to an end with the fall of Granada in 1472. Its period of harmony by no means extended for the whole of this term of seven and a half centuries.

The story of its achievements has been related by Mr. S. P. Scott in the three large volumes of his History of the Moorish Empire in Spain, published in Philadelphia in 1904, with a wealth of detail collected during a period of “more than twenty years” in which “this work engaged the attention of the author”. Particularly notable is the account in the thirtieth chapter of the agriculture on which this flourishing empire was based, and by which it supported a population believed greatly to exceed that of the united populations of England, France, Germany and Italy of that time. The figures given are some 15,000,000 to 20,000,000 for the four countries compared to some 30,000,000 in Arabic Spain.

The account of this wonderful agriculture existing in the Dark Ages of the rest of Europe will be so strange to many readers, that they may feel that it is beyond the range of their credibility. The reason of this is that in English education the influence of Arabic culture is entirely left out. We are taught a lot about the Greeks and Romans, but nothing about the Arabs, as intellectual leaders of Europe.

Mr. Scott himself is well aware of the special educational default with which we are now concerned. He begins his thirtieth chapter with some bitter words, to show that he anticipated the incredulity with which his account would be met. “In all the vast domain of historical inquiry”, he wrote, “there is probably no subject which has been treated with such studied neglect, with such flagrant injustice, as the civilization of the Arabs in the Spanish Peninsula. Its story has been written in the majority of instances by the implacable enemies of those who founded and promoted it. Theological hatred has lent its potent aid to the prejudice of race and the envy arising from conscious inferiority to deny or belittle its achievements.” Of how bitter this theological hatred could be a single example must suffice. Eulogius, a learned Spanish priest, discovered by his studies or invented the knowledge that Mohammed announced to his followers that three days after his death he would be raised by the angels to heaven; “instead of this, dogs devoured his rotting corpse”. This example is taken from the well-known book of S. Khuda Baksh on Islamic Culture, 1905. When one thinks of the reverence with which Mohammed spoke of Jesus in the Koran and the same reverence which he transmitted to his followers, one can see on which side the bitter religious hatred lay.

Consequently, in view of this neglect and prejudice, Mr. Scott, in a list of “Authorities consulted in the Preparation of this Work”, gives no less than seven hundred and three, covering fourteen different languages. Some of these numerous books are concerned with the Arabic culture and history as a whole. In the sphere of science and thought for example, William Lecky, in his History of Rationalism, 1865, paid this tribute to the Arabs: “Not till the education of Europe passed from the monasteries to the universities, not till Mohammedan Science broke the sceptre of the Church did the intellectual revival of Europe begin.” Mr. John William Draper, in A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, 1875, wrote in the same strain. A more recent writer than Mr. Scott, Mr. Robert Briffault, in The Making of Humanity, 1919, finally summed up the relation of the Arabic Sciences to those of Europe in the following words: “The debt of our science to that of the Arabs does not exist in startling discoveries or revolutionary theories ... Science owes a good deal more to Arab culture, it owes its existence ... What we call science arose in Europe as a spirit of inquiry, of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and these methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs.”

One need not, therefore, be surprised that these same Arabs produced in the homeland of Irak, in Spain and elsewhere a great system of farming on which to support their brilliant civilization. Many of the books quoted in Mr. Scott's list bear testimony to their farming art. I will confine myself, however, to coupling the quotations from two well-known French authors in his list. One is from Monsieur Gustav le Bon's La Civilisation des Arabes, 1884, “The Arabs had even a greater aptitude for agriculture than for letters and arts. What means of irrigation are now found in Andalusia were made by them”; the other from Monsieur Sédillot's Histoire Générale des Arabes, 1877: “In short they had irrigated and cultivated the land so excellently that it was befitting to call Andalusia a garden.” Mr. Martin Hume, writing three years before Mr. Scott and not quoted by him, summarized the farming art of the Spanish Arabs in these words: “Agriculture and horticulture were developed to an extent never heard of before.”

Mr. Scott also gives in his list original works on Spanish farming. One of these works that escaped the attempted total destruction of the literature of the Arabs by their fanatical conquerors is The Book of Farming, by Ibn-Al-Awam, or to give him his full Arab name, Abu Zackaria Yahya Bin Mohammed Bin Ahmed Ibn Awam, who lived in Seville in the sixth century of the Mohammedan era. Mr. Scott quotes him in his list under the French translation of his work, Le Livre de l'Agriculture, 2 vols., Paris, 1866. This book was also translated into Spanish in 1802, and into Urdu in 1927, in two volumes in each case. It was not translated into English at the time of Mr. Scott, nor, as far as I know, has this grave omission in English scholarship yet been corrected. The Arabic MSS., however, repose in the British Museum Library, as well as in the libraries of Leyden, Paris and the Escorial.

Ibn-Al-Awam also has his list of one hundred and seven authorities upon the varied aspects of farming, and, since the Arabs were great translators, he quotes freely not only from Arabic writers, but from Greek, Latin, Persian, Nabathaean and other agricultural experts, as well as experts on the allied subjects, botany, zoology, chemistry, mechanics and meteorology, etc. His translator into Urdu, moreover, emphasizes that he was a very cautious student, a true scientist, in short. This is what his translator writes: “The peculiar quality of this book is that, whenever the author quotes the statement of an expert, he first tests it by personal experiment. Where he had not the opportunity to verify a statement by experimentation, he tells his readers that, though he has been unable to do so, he has such faith in the veracity of his informant, that he has copied his statements into his book. This precaution which is absent in other books, has greatly increased the value of the work of Ibn-Al-Awam.” A very reliable man, then, is this Spanish-Arabic scholar.

Mr. Scott himself gives the following epitome of The Book of Farming: 'The great work of Ibn-Al-Awam, of Seville, a vast monument of industry and erudition embracing every conceivable branch of the subject, shows to what extraordinary perfection the science of agriculture had been carried in the twelfth century by the Spanish Mohammedans. It treats, in a comprehensive and exhaustive manner, not only of the methods found by the experience of centuries to be the best adapted to the sowing and harvesting of grain, to the planting and cultivation of orchards, to the propagation of edible and aromatic plants; but it also, with infinite minuteness of detail, describes the breeding and care of every species of domestic animals, their qualities, their relative excellence, their defects, their habits, their diseases. It discourses at length upon the different breeds of horses and upon the rearing of that useful animal so prized by the Arab. It explains the details of artificial incubation, a process borrowed from Egypt. It directs how to produce in geese the abnormal hepatic conditions which induce the foie gras, that artificial delicacy so dear to the epicure, and a thousand years ago, as to-day, an invaluable adjunct to fashionable gluttony. It teaches the different methods of cooking and the preparation of various confections, jellies, syrups and sweetmeats of every description. The manufacture of wine, so rigidly forbidden to the Moslem, and whose immense consumption had already, in the time of the Khalifate, scandalized the pious, is detailed in all its stages in this remarkable book. In it are given recipes for cordials of many kinds, cooling beverages and hydromel. It also prescribes the rules by which the household of the farmer should be governed, and defines the reciprocal duties of employer and employee. In every operation of rural life and domestic economy, it enforces by repeated admonition the necessity for cleanliness, system and order.”

I have dealt at some length with the credibility of Mr. Scott's account of the Arabic agricultural system in Spain, because, though in the Industrial Era, which began some hundred and seventy years ago, we have made vast strides in the sciences and have far outstripped their initiators the Arabs, we have, at the same time, not advanced but dangerously receded in the recognition that our complicated civilization must for our safety and prosperity be founded upon the soil and its preservation. Where the Arabs accomplished a success and brilliancy in all the factors of social life, we have changed our agriculture into a Rape of the Earth. It has lost its national meaning and the love and reverence of the people it supports. To convert readers in this contention, I saw no better way than to acquaint them with A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe and An Historical Reconstruction, and convince them of their reality.

The agricultural system of the Moors in Spain was, writes Mr. Scott: “the most complex, the most scientific, the most perfect, ever devised by the ingenuity of man. Its principles were derived from the extreme Orient, from the plains of Mesopotamia, and from the valley of the Nile -- those gardens of the ancient world where, centuries before the dawn of authentic history, the cultivation of the earth had been carried to a state of extraordinary excellence. To the knowledge thus appropriated were added the results obtained from investigation and experiment, from the introduction of foreign plants; from the adoption of fertilizing substances; from the close and intelligent observation of the geographical distribution and climatic influence.”

No cultivators had a more profound knowledge than this people of the value of water. They, like the great riverine peoples, from whom they derived so much knowledge, realized that the proper use of water was civilization. Without its just and conservative distribution, the true justice and magnanimity of civilization do not really exist. By the art of distributing water “a considerable portion of the country which had never been subjected to tillage because of its aridity became suddenly metamorphosed, as if by the wand of an enchanter. Barren valleys were transformed into flourishing orchards of olives, oranges, figs and pomegranates. Rocky slopes were covered with verdant terraces. In districts where, according to ancient tradition, no water had even been seen, now flowed noisy rivulets and broad canals. Where marshes existed, the rich lands they concealed were drained, reclaimed and placed under thorough cultivation. On all sides were visible the works of the hydraulic engineer -- which supplied the necessary moisture to the fields by every device then known to human skill -- the reservoir, the well, the sluice, the tunnel, the siphon, the aqueduct.”

Water was lifted to higher levels by Persian wheels, of which in a few square leagues there might be five hundred, some with diameters of seventy feet. Grades were ascertained by the use of the astrolabe. “The public works constructed for irrigating purposes were on a gigantic scale. The artificial basin near Alicante, elliptical in shape, is three miles in circumference and fifty feet deep; the dam at Elche is two hundred and sixty-four feet long, fifty-two feet high, and a hundred and fifty feet wide at the bottom; that over the Segura, near Murcia, is seven hundred and sixty feet long and thirty-six feet in height. The aqueduct at Manesis, in Valencia, is seven hundred and twenty feet long, and is supported by twenty-eight arches. The principle of the siphon, familiar to the Arabs eight hundred years before it was known in France, was utilized to a remarkable degree in the Moorish hydraulic system. The length of the curve in the great siphon at Almonora is five hundred and seventy feet; the diameter of the latter is six feet, and it passes ninety feet under the bed of a mountain stream. The subterranean aqueduct at Maravilla, which waters the plain of Urgel, is a mile long and thirty feet in diameter; that of Crevillenta, north of Orkuela, is fifty-five hundred and sixty-five feet long and thirty-six feet in diameter. All of these underground conduits are cut through the solid rock. The masonry of the reservoirs is of the finest description, and the cement made use of has become harder than stone itself. Contingencies are provided for with some skill and foresight that no overflow occurs, and no damage ever results, even in the time of the greatest inundations. The excellence of construction of these massive works of Arab engineering is demonstrated by the fact that they have needed practically no repairs in a thousand years.”

The distribution of the water was governed by a peculiar code of laws, perfect familiarity with which was only to be obtained by those working for their livelihood under its direction. With a wise trust in local government, the execution of these laws was presided over by a Tribunal of the Waters, the members of which were chosen by the farmers themselves. This Tribunal saw that there was no waste; theft was heavily punished; disputes and violations of the regulations came under its jurisdiction. Judgment was rendered after consultation, and from it there was no appeal. The most exalted rank, the greatest wealth, the most distinguished public service, did not confer exemption from the jurisdiction of the court or affect the impartiality of its decrees. The noble was summoned to its bar with little more ceremony than the slave ... The wisdom of these regulations is demonstrated by their longevity.

“In the distribution of water the measurement was by volume, a certain quantity being allotted to a stated area during a given period of the day or night at intervals of ten to fifteen days. The sides of the canals were provided with flood gates, kept under lock and key, by which the adjoining fields could be submerged at the proper time. Drains carried the surplus back into the original channels, so that there was the least possible loss.”

Such was the way in which water was used so as to make a great society of people possible and durable. It is of profound significance, but it is seldom known by modern men of even wide education. Yet there is no knowledge more entirely needed by modern Europe. What is the use of a glutted treasury of knowledge, while it is, at the same time, defective in the vital knowledge which the Arabs possessed.

In the second great precept of the art of agriculture, the rule of return, the Arabs were as effective as they were in the knowledge of water. The same care and economy were observed in fertilizing the soil, which the requirements of a dense population never permitted to rest, writes Mr. Scott, and continues: “Manure and dust were collected from the highways. The contents of sewers and vaults were preserved, desiccated, and, mingled with less powerful substances, were used to supply the impairment consequent upon incessant cultivation. Ashes, the burned and pulverized seeds of fruits, the blood and bones of slaughtered animals, all played an important part in the intelligent and systematic treatment of the rich and productive valleys of the south, whose surface, resting on an impenetrable subsoil of clay, required continued renovation. The curious and minute investigations of the skilled agriculturist had determined the best composts, the most advantageous modes of applying them, the kind of vegetation to which they were especially adapted.

“Manures were deposited in stone reservoirs contrived to prevent evaporation or leakage. Nothing was wasted; every substance available for the fertilization of crops was carefully preserved, the different varieties being separated and applied to such soils as experience had taught were most productive under their use.”

The third great precept of the art of agriculture was followed by the Arabs in the preference for independent small holdings. '”Unlike the policy adopted under the Roman and Gothic dominations, there were few large estates. The land was divided into small tracts, and for that reason was much more thoroughly tilled ... Every indulgence and encouragement was afforded by the laws to the Moorish cultivator. The independence so necessary to the successful prosecution of agricultural pursuits, he enjoyed to the utmost degree compatible with the social order. For the most part, he himself instituted the regulations of husbandry, which were enforced by magistrates taken from his class and of his own selection. His taxes were not oppressive. The productiveness of the soil, the equability of the climate, never permitted his labours to go unrewarded.”

A fourth was the use of terraced cultivation. “In localities unfavourable to cultivation the deficiencies of the soil were supplied by untiring industry. Walls of ponderous masonry supported terraces where the very cliffs were made productive, and where only a bush or vine could be planted the narrow space was utilized. Not only water, but loam and fertilizing materials were brought from great distances.”

The cultivators were also encouraged to adventure upon new paths. “The unrivalled excellence of the agricultural methods employed by the Spanish Mohammedans was, in large measure, due to their profound botanical knowledge.” Botanists were dispatched to Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, the East and every quarter of the globe, to collect seeds of useful plants and fruits for experimental cultivation. “Gardens for the propagation of both native plants and exotics were established in the environs of all the great cities, and the results of intelligent observers were regularly tabulated for the public benefit ... In all the multifarious duties of his occupation the Moorish horticulturist possessed expert knowledge.” Owing to this scientific knowledge and the keen adventure of the naturalists, the Arabs introduced into Europe the strawberry, lemon, date, quince, fig, mulberry, banana, pistachio, almond, rice, sesame, buckwheat, spinach, asparagus, mace, nutmeg, pepper, caper, saffron, coffee, cotton, sugar-cane, though according to Dr. H. Hintze, in his book, Geographie und Geschichte der Ernährung, some few, such as lemons, quince, almonds and mulberries, appeared on the tables, if not on the fields, of the Romans at the time of the Empire.

Botanical knowledge and widespread education, shortly to be described, therefore combined to promote these excellent results. The treatises on agriculture and horticulture dealt with every aspect of cultivation. The cultivators were, thereby, made familiar with the movement of the sap, the difference of sex in plants, and the process of artificial fecundation. They invested plants with the conditions of activity and repose, of motion and sleep. They followed no less than eight methods of grafting and protected the grafts by ingenious devices from the injurious effects of the sun. They knew how to preserve fruits and grains in subterranean chambers hewn out of the rock. In all agricultural matters, in brief, knowledge was strengthened and widened by skilled agricultural literature.

There was the same skill and knowledge in the rearing of cattle and horses, in the breeding of sheep and the culture of bees, which attained to the highest degree of proficiency. The Arab horse lost none of its speed and endurance for being bred and reared in Spain. The abundant, silky fleece of the merino sheep was due to a peculiar method by which flocks were tended. Immense flocks were driven twice a year between the slopes of the Pyrenees and the plains of Estremadura, by which means they secured both fresh and continual pasturage and freedom from the droughts of summer and the storms of winter.

Lastly the love of flowers was a passion among the Spanish Muslims. Mr. Scott writes: “As they were the greatest botanists in the world, so no other nation approached them in the perfection of their floriculture and the ardour with which they pursued it.” Whether they were cultivated solely for their beauty and perfume or whether they also cultivated them, because …. they help in their especial way to preserve the cultivation of the soil, Mr. Scott does not say.

By this fine farming, the food of the people was provided, but, owing to varieties of climate and in spite of the great system of irrigation, bad years would occur. To secure the people against hunger at such times, the export of grain was forbidden -- as laid down in the Koran -- and the surplus of good harvests was deposited in granaries hewn in the rock. Forests of oak were also carefully preserved for the sake of their acorns, which furnished a coarse but nutritious diet at time of extremity, when famine otherwise threatened.

Such a wide and complete agricultural factor of a human life-cycle, as the Arabs of Spain created, must necessarily give a wholeness and health to the other factors of civilization. Consequently, in every other art, there occurred the same prosperity and excellence as those which distinguished the art of the soil.