Medieval Agricultural Texts from Rasulid Yemen
by Daniel Martin Varisco

[Note: This is an updated version (2011) of an article originally published in Manuscripts of the Middle East (4:150-154, 1989).]

Although the Arabian Peninsula is seldom associated with agriculture, a long and successful tradition of cultivation can be documented for Islamic Yemen at the south-western corner of the peninsula. The famous Marib dam of ancient Saba, worthy of mention in the Quran, made possible a major irrigation system in the eastern part of Yemen. While irrigation was practiced along the major wadis, there was also extensive production based on dry-land farming, both rainfed and water runoff harvesting.  Many of the traditional practices can still be observed in the Yemen Arab Republic1. Fortunately, there are also a number of important texts which describe the agriculture of Yemen.

The zenith of Islamic civilization in Yemen came about with the establishment of the Rasulid dynasty from the 13th through the 15th centuries A.D. Geographically, Yemen was at the periphery of medieval Islamic history. However, the Rasulid sultans ushered in an era of royal patronage and cultivation of the arts and sciences. Several of the sultans were accomplished scholars in such fields as astronomy, astrology, botany, medicine, veterinary medicine and agriculture 2. The corpus of agricultural texts is probably the most detailed description of a medieval agricultural system for any part of the Arab World. Although this tradition has only recently been studied in any detail it offers a unique portrait of the full range of agriculture in its ecological, economic and historical setting. More can be known about agriculture in Rasulid Yemen than for any other period in the country up to the present.

This article contains an annotated bibliography of the major Rasulid texts concerning agriculture in Yemen. There are undoubtedly a number of other texts as yet uncatalogued and unknown outside the many private libraries in Yemen. However, the extant texts cover a range of subjects from general treatises on agriculture and cultivated crops to tax records. This bibliography is based on research by the author in Cairo (Dār al-Kutub) and Ṣan‘ā’ (Great Mosque, Western Library), as well as texts available in major European libraries3.

The Rasulid Era

The year 569/1173 was a major turning point in the political affairs of southern Arabia. At this time an Ayyubid army of Turks and Kurds invaded the coastal region.  At the head of the force, which contained impressive cavalry units, was Tūrānshāh, brother of the famed Saladin. From their base in Egypt the Ayyubids were attracted to Yemen because of the lucrative trade which passed along its coast. The trade from India and Africa was an important economic factor for Egypt. Thus, control of Yemen, particularly the major southern port of Aden, was of high priority. The Ayyubids were able to subdue much of the Tihāma (coastal zone) and southern highlands, but they were not able to oust the Zaydī imams of the central and northern highlands.

The Ayyubid dynasty was short-lived in Yemen due in part to re-supply difficulties from Egypt. In 1220 the last Ayyubid monarch, al-Malik al-Mas‘ūd, conquered Mecca and gave it as a fief to a trusted emir named Nūr al-Dīn ‘Umar.  Eight years later this emir became regent and by 1234 he had been recognized as the legitimate ruler of Yemen by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustanṣir. ‘Umar took the name of al-Malik al Manṣūr, the first of the Rasulid sultans, who like the Ayyubids were originally from central Asia. This did not stop the Rasulids from consolidating control over most of Yemen and inventing a genealogy which included a Yemeni connection4. Al-Malik al-Mansūr was murdered in 1249 in the town of Janad in southern Yemen. His son, Al-Malik al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf ruled Yemen at its greatest extent for a period of about 45 years. During this time there was extensive building of mosques and schools5. The sultans were great patrons of learning and the royal court attracted scholars from around the known world.  Numerous texts were written in Rasulid Yemen, which became one of the major intellectual centres of the period. The dynasty declined in later years and disappeared in 858/1454.

A dynasty as important as the Rasulids was not without its chroniclers. A number of important texts on the period by contemporary of near-contemporary authors have been published. The most famous history of the Rasulids is The Pearl Strings of Al-Khazrajī (died 812/1409), a work which was edited and translated (by J.W. Redhouse) at the beginning of this century. The history of the Ayyubids and early Rasulids is well covered in the al-Sim al-Ghālī of Muḥammad ibn Ḥātim (Smith 1974-8). Other important works on the period include Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-‘Umarī (1985), a work attributed to Yaḥyā ibn al-Ḥusayn (1968), Ibn al-Dayba‘ (1977), ‘Umāra (1976), al-Janadī (1983-9), and an anonymous text (al-Ḥibshī 1984, Yajima 1974). There are many as yet unpublished texts, although surprisingly little research has been done on this important period in Yemen6. The most significant historical reconstruction has been that of Prof. G.R. Smith (1969; 1974-8) and Eric Vallet (2010).  A useful, but not always trustworthy, history of Rasulid literature is provided by al-Ḥibshī (1980) and a short survey written by Ismā‘īl al Akwa‘ (2004).

The Rasulid Corpus of Agricultural Texts

This listing covers the known Rasulid texts which treat agriculture in some way. Information can also be obtained from the chronicles and various biographical works. The texts are distinguished according to (I) General Agricultural Treatises; (II) Agricultural Almanacs; (III) Tax Data Records; and (IV) Miscellaneous Texts and Excerpts.

General Agricultural Treatises

  • I.A.

    Title:  Mil al-malāa fī ma‘rifat al-filāa.
    Author:  Al-Malik al-Ashraf ‘Umar ibn Yūsuf (died 696/1296).
    (1) Vienna, Glaser Collection. No. 247. 243 pp.
    The text is incomplete and breaks off shortly after discussion of the kādhī plant (Pandanus odoratissimus). Each page has nine lines in a clear hand. The arakāt are often provided for plant names. There is no colophon and the date of the text is uncertain. It was probably copied after the Rasulid period.
    (2) Yemen. Private Library.
    Copy made after 1172/1758. The text is incomplete after discussion of the coconut (nārajīl). An edition of this ms. was published by Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Raḥīm Jāzm in the journal al-Iklīl (Ṣan‘ā’), 3 (1985):1: 165-207. This edition has a number of printing errors and editorial mistakes. Another edition was published by ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad al-Mujāhid (Damascus:  Dār al-Fikr, 1987, 176 pp.), but this is severely flawed and should not be used. Al-Mujāhid did not examine the original ms. but only used a handwritten copy by Jāzm deposited at the Yemen Center for Research and Studies. To further complicate matters this latter edition is full of irrelevant statistical data on current production figures in the Yemen Arab Republic.  Since al-Mujāhid did not consult Jāzm before publishing his version, a lively debate ensued in the Yemeni newspaper al-Thawra (12/31/87, Thursday, No. 272) in which Jāzm noted the errors in al-Mujāhid’s version and complained that his work had been plagiarized. The version of al-Mujāhid is without any scholarly merit.

    : Following Serjeant, I prefer Mil as the accepted reading, although Jāzm prefers Mula in the sense of the plural of malāa. The term mil, however, with the figurative sense of science (‘ilm) fits the corresponding usage of marifa in the title. Major excerpts of this text can be found in the Bughyat al-fallāḥīn of al-Malik al-Afḍal (see I.C.). The text contains seven chapters dealing with the following subjects: (1) Times for Cultivation, Planting and Preparing Land; (2) Grains; (3) Legumes (qaānī); (4) Fruit Trees; (5) Flowering and Aromatic Plants; (6) Vegetables; (7) Agricultural Pests. Virtually all the information is relevant for Yemen. A variant title of al-Malik al-Ashraf’s text is given in Ibn Al-Dayba‘ (1977:2: 51) as al-Tufāa fi marifat al-filāa. The Yemeni historian, Muḥammad al-Akwa‘ (1971:74) claimed to have a copy of this. A translation is in preparation by Varisco.  For more information on this text, see Varisco (2006).

    I. B.
    Title:  Al-Ishāra fī al-imara.
    Author:   Al-Malik al-Mujāhid ‘Alī ibn Dāwūd (died 764/1362)

    Comment:  There is no known copy of this text, but it is quoted extensively by Al-Malik al-Afḍal in Bughyat al-fallāin.  There is apparently an excerpt from this or Mil al-malāa in the Ambrosiana (Sergeant 1974:26).

    I. C.
    Title:  Bughyat al-fallāin fī al-ashjār al-muthmira wa-al-rayāḥīn.
    Author:  Al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī (died 778/1376).

    (1) 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.

    (2) 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.

    (3) Tarīm, Private Library.  Copy from 1197/1782. This ms. was copied by R.B. Serjeant in 1953-4.

    (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-Filāa 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.

    (5) Abridged version in Mixed Rasulid Ms. (Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library), 6 pp. This text was apparently owned by the author, who has marginal notes in the ms. A facsimile copy of the abridged version is available in Varisco and Smith (1998: 206-211).

    Comment:  This is a major medieval text on agriculture with extensive quotes from Cassianus Bassus7, Ibn Baṣṣāl8 and Ibn Waḥshīya9.  In addition, the author cites the earlier texts of al-Malik al Ashraf and al-Malik al-Mujāhid. The chapters include: (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) Grains10; (7) Legumes (qatānī); (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 statement by Ṣāliḥīya (1984: 567), who quotes the wrong number for the Ahmet III copy, that this text was not written by a Yemeni is absurd. Serjeant (1974) translated the chapter on cereals. A translation of the abridged Bughyat al-fallāḥīn is in preparation by Varisco.

II. Agricultural Almanacs

  • II. A.
    Title:  Al Tabira fīilm al-nujūm.
    Author:  Al Malik al-Ashraf ‘Umar ibn Yūsuf.
    Ms: Oxford University. Bodleian Library. Huntington 233 (Uri 905), Chapter 32, pp.  7r-108v.

    Comment:  This text has been edited and translated by Varisco, Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science: The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, in press).  This is the earliest Rasulid almanac, compiled ca. 670/1271. It is also the most detailed and remarkably free of copyist errors. Of added value is a discussion of many of the almanac terms in a separate chapter and further notes on planting times and periods of rain. An Arabic translation of Varisco’s introduction is available in Varisco (2002b).

    II. B.
    Title:  Jadwal al-Yawāqīt fī marifat al-mawāqīt.
    Author:  Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Ṭabarī, known as Abū al-‘Uqūl (fl. ca. A.D. 1300).
    (1) Milan, Ambrosiana Library. No. 302 (C46, vi, 526). Copied 1106/1694-5, 11 pp.
    (2) London, British Library, Or. 3747, ff. 13-17.
    (3) Ṣan‘ā’, Great Mosque, Western Library, Hadīth 59, ff. 347r-366v. Recent copy.
    (4) Ṣan‘ā’, Great Mosque, Western Library, Majmū‘ 77, ff. 17r-27v.  Copied 1319/1901.

    Comment:  Abū al-‘Uqūl was a court astronomer of al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad (see King 1983:  30-32). An edition of this important almanac is under preparation by Varisco.

    II. C.
    Title ‘Al-Qawl ‘alā shuhūr al-Rūm …’.
    Author:  Unknown.
    Ms:  Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, Mīqāt 817, ff. 67r-68r. Copy probably from 14th century.

    Comment: Almanac for 727/1326-7 with very general information for each month. This was compiled in the reign of Al-Malik al-Mujāhid. This is primarily dietary and medicinal in focus with no information on agricultural activities per se.  For a similar almanac, see II. H.

    II. D
    Title:  Fusūl majmūa fī al-anwā’ wa-al-zurū wa-al-iād.
    Author:  Unknown.
    (1) Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, Mixed Rasulid Ms., two and a half pages, 14th century.
    (2) Yemen, Private Library, Xerox copy with R.B. Serjeant. Perhaps 18th century, poor hand.

    Comment: This almanac is similar to that of Al-Malik al-Ashraf (II.A.), which was probably one of the sources for it. A facsimile of the Ṣan‘ā’ text is available in Varisco and Smith (1998:517-51) with an Arabic edition and translation by Varisco (1994a).

    II. E.
    Title:  Chapter 5 in the Bughyat al-fallāin (See I. C.).
    Author:  Al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī.

    Comment: This is a partial calendar with provides information mainly for the winter months.

    II. F.
    Title:  Salwat al-mahmūm fīilm al-nujūm.
    Author:  Al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī.
    Ms:  Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, Mixed Rasulid Ms., 25 pp., 14th century.

    Comment: This is a unique almanac in chart form according to the degrees of the zodiac rather than the solar year: Thus it is a perpetual almanac. It was compiled around 777/1375-6 for Ta‘izz. This almanac also contains a wealth of astronomical date for Ta‘izz. A facsimile of the Ṣan‘ā’ text is available in Varisco and Smith (1998:97-114) with a translation under preparation by Varisco.

    II. G.
    Title:  Al-Anwā’ wa-al-tawqī’āt…’.
    Author:  Unknown.
    Ms:  Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, Taymūr Riyāḍiyāt 274, pp. 102-125.  15th century.

    Comment:  This almanac was compiled for 808/1404-5 with astronomical data for Ta‘izz. It is clearly derived from II. F. For the Arabic edition, see Varisco (1985b), for the translation, with corrections to the printing errors in the Arabic edition, see Varisco (1993, 1997:#XV).

    II. H.
    Title ‘Al-Qawl ‘alā al-shuhūr al-ithna ‘ashr al-Rūmīya…’.
    Author:  Unknown.
    Ms: Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, Taymūr Riyāḍiyāt 274, pp. 74-75. 15th century.

    Comment: This is a brief almanac by month with information on diet and medicine, as well as basic astronomical data.  It is similar in subject to II. C.

III. Tax Data Records

  • III. A.
    Provisional title (title page missing): Nūr al-ma‘ārif fī nuẓum wa-qawānīn wa-a‘rāf al-Yaman min al-‘ahd al-Muẓaffarī al-wārif.
    Author:  Scribes of al-Malik al-Muẓaffar.
    Ms: Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, ca. 400 pp.

    Comment: This valuable resource for the history of Yemen and the Red Sea/Indian Ocean trading network at the close of the 7th/13th century is no ordinary text.  It is, in fact, a compilation made for the court archives of al-Malik al-Muzaffar Yusuf, who ruled over Yemen for almost a half century.  It is probably best styled, in English, a register, a daftar recorded to document customs, duties, state finances and production data for the areas under Rasulid control, most notably the commerce through the port of Aden.  In this sense, it is a Rasulid "Doomsday Book," a record of mundane matters that provides a far better insight on the economics and administration of Yemen at the time than any of the surviving histories.   While some tax records and production data are provided in the histories at that time, this register appears to be a unique survival from the 7th/13th century. Internal dates indicate most of the information is based on field reports from 691-3/1292-4. This would be in the last years of al-Muzaffar's reign, well after he had gained control of most of the region now known as Yemen.
  • A summary of the context and part of the content of the daftar was provided by Jazm (1996-1997) in a French article published in Chroniques yéménites (1996-1997), also available on-line at the center’s website.  Some of the detailed information on trade was cited in a Manchester University thesis by Nayef Abdullah al-Shamrookh (1996, with excerpts provided in Yemen Update 41 1999:8-24 available online at, who visited Yemen briefly in the summer of 1990, but a thorough analysis of the fiscal and administrative data is now available from Eric Vallet (2010). These three sources are recommended reading as background on the text.

    The surviving manuscript of some 223 folios begins in the midst of a section on items made of tanned leather and their costs.  This is followed in succeeding pages by information on all sorts of commodities and products, at times with the name of the craftsmen indicated.  There is no predetermined arrangement to the text as it is currently bound. Rather, it reads as a running transcription of receipts and records sent to the court by various officials and transcribed there by clerks. It would almost be easier to list what is not covered or mentioned in the text rather than attempt a comprehensive index. Although nowhere near exhaustive, a preliminary classification of the information to be found in the daftar is provided below: 

    Administrative Structure and Practice
                Allowances for emirs, schools
                Banners and flags
                Customs regulations and procedures
                Diplomatic relations
                Gifts (e.g. kiswa) to Mecca
                Military and court officials
                Provisions for the court
                Salaries and Pay Scales
                Stables and horses
                Travel allowances
    Crafts and Industries
                Book binding
                Gold, silver and bronze
                Pottery (especially for Zabīd)
                Precious stones and pearls
                Sesame pressing
    Economic Production
                Agriculture and food
                Crafts and industries
                Prices of goods
                Production costs
                Production times
                Repair costs
                Transport costs
                Aden port procedures
                Boat leasing
                Commodities shipped as imports and exports
                Customs and duties
                Karīmī merchants
                Sailing seasons
                Shipping costs
                Weights and measures

    As can be readily seen, the text provides an extensive, though not systematic, survey of economic production, trade and administrative procedures for the last few years of al-Malik al-Muẓaffar's reign. Much can be learned of the administrative and military structure of the Rasulids, including pay scales and travel allowances. Information is given on the inspection by authorized officials of crops damaged by floods, locusts and other pests. Even the royal provisions sent from various parts of Yemen for the fasting month of Ramaān are detailed.  A description can be found of the covering (kiswa) sent by the sultan for the Ka‘ba in Mecca.  Royal holdings mentioned include silk factories in Aden and Zabīd, gardens, agricultural lands and stables. Many of the local crafts and industries are mentioned, including production costs, taxes and valuable insights on local terminology.  Some information is available on Yemeni agriculture, especially for madder, wheat, sorghum, dates, grapes and cotton.  Transport costs are listed between various localities in Yemen. Horses, an important trade item in the Rasulid era, are discussed at length. 

    Scholars interested in the trading network through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean will find this text a virtual treasure trove. A major section in the daftar gives an alphabetical listing of goods being shipped via the port of Aden.  There are numerous reports in the text on the customs, duties, brokerage fees and galley tax for almost every trade item mentioned.  Instructions to customs officials are provided, e.g., how to received gifts for the sultan.  The sailing seasons in and out of Aden are also indicated. Valuable details are provided on weights and measures, both international and local, as well as coinage. Some scattered information is also available on the coinage and trade situation inside India and Ethiopia at the time.

    III. B.
    Title:  Fal fī marifat al-matānim wa-al-asiqā (?) fī al-Yaman al-marūsa.
    Author:  Al-Malik al-Afḍal al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī.
    Ms:  Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, Mixed Rasulid Ms. ca. 2 pp.  14th century.

    Comment: This document was written in 773/1371-2 and represents an agricultural gazetteer, where crop information and tax times are noted by area or major town. A facsimile of the text is available in Varisco and Smith (2008:25-27) and an English translation has been published by Varisco (1991).

    III. C.
    Title: Mulakhkha al-fitan wa-al-albāb wa-mi al-hudā li-al-kuttāb.
    Author: Al-Haṣan ibn ‘Alī al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī (died 815/1412)
    Ms: Milan, Ambrosiana Library, H. 130.

    Comment: This text on Rasulid administrative and tax structure has been published in facsimile and translated by Smith (2006), drawing on earlier notes by R.B. Serjeant. Cahen and Serjeant (1957) provided a discussion of the comments.

    III. D.
    Title::  Irtifā‘ al-dawla al-Mu’ayyadīya.
    Author: Scribe for al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad (d. 721/1321)
    Ms: King Fahd National Library, Riyāḍ, 207 folios.

    Comment: This important tax register was compiled for al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad, the fourth Rasulid sultan. It provides tax and yield data for the regions under Rasulid control, both in the Tihāma and the highlands. Of major importance are several maps, including a scheme of irrigation along Wadi Zabīd. The text has been edited by Jāzm (2008) and extensively utilized by Vallet (2010) in his survey of the administration and fiscal policy of Rasulid Yemen.

  • IV. Miscellaneous Texts and Excerpts.

    IV. A.
    Title:  Al-Mughnī fī al-bayara11
    Author:  Al-Malik al-Ashraf ‘Umar ibn Yūsuf.
    (1) Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, Taymūr 377, 181 pp.
    (2) Milan, Ambrosiana, B. 33.
    (3) Rome, Vatican Library, V 980, 1128.
    (4) Berlin, 6195.

    Comment: Although this is a veterinary text relevant to Yemen, it also contains important information on fodder crops, especially sorghum.

    IV. B.
    Title: Wujūd fī ẓahr taqwīm qadīm.
    Author:  Unknown.
    Ms: Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, Mixed Rasulid Ms. 1 p. 14th century.

    Comment:  This brief excerpt contains planting times relevant to Wādī Zabīd. This is published in facsimile in Varisco and Smith (2008:277). An English translation was published by Varisco (2002a).

    Title: Qā‘ida fī dhikr ghallāt al-arḍayn.
    Author:  Probably al-Malik al-Afḍal.
    Ms: Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, Mixed Rasulid Ms. 1/4 p. 14th century.

    Comment:  A very short excerpt on crop yields for different land qualities in the mountains and Tihāma. This is published in facsimile in Varisco and Smith (2008:47).

    Title: Bāb fī al-‘inab wa-ghayrih min al-fawākih.
    Author:  Perhaps al-Malik al-Afḍal.
    Ms: Ṣan‘ā’, Private Library, Mixed Rasulid Ms. 1/2 p. 14th century.

    Comment:  A very short excerpt on crop yields for different land qualities in the mountains and Tihāma. This is published in facsimile in Varisco and Smith (2008:47).


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An earlier version of this article was originally published in Manuscripts of the Middle East 4 (1989), pp. 150-154 and reprinted in Varisco (1997:#XII). Republished here with kind permission from the author.


1 Traditional agricultural activities are described in detail in Varisco (1982 a.b.; 1985 a) based on ethnographic study in the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978-9.
2 For a listing of the books attributed to the Rasulid sultans, see al-Ḥibshī (1977,1979).
3 Research in Cairo was supported by a fellowship from the American Research Center in Egypt.  Study of the mss. in the Great Mosque was conducted under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as a research associate of Dr. David A. King. The author wishes to thank Prof. King for drawing his attention to the rich collection of Yemeni astronomical mss.
4 The Rasulids claimed a distant descent from Qaḥṭān, legendary ancestor of the Southern Arabs, through Kahlān, but this was clearly a political invention (See ‘Umar ibn Yūsuf 1985:100).
5 For an excellent discussion of the history of the madrasa inYemen, see Ismā‘īl al-Akwa‘ (1980).
6 The most significant work has been that of Prof. G.R. Smith (1969; 1974-8).  A useful, but not always trustworthy, history of Rasulid literature is provided by al-Ḥibshī (1980).
7 For a discussion on the Arabic translation of the text of this classical author, see Sbath (1930-1).
8 For the published edition, see Ibn Baṣṣāl (1955).
9 See Ibn Waḥshīya 1993-95
10 This chapter has been translated by Serjeant (1974).
11 See GAL. Suppl. I, p. 901.