A Medieval “green revolution”

Dear imaginary readers,

It is very likely that if you hear the term “green” revolution you would think of the action we need to take in order to reverse the fate of the planet we live on. Instead for me it relates to a theory that has been developed by Andrew Watson and it is about how agriculture in the Mediterranean would have been completely re-shaped, circa  seventh-century AD onwards, by the Arabs’ (comprising a lot of different populations) conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, South of Italy and South of Spain.

Agricultural scene from a mediaeval Arabic manuscript from Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) c. 1200 AD. Source: Wikipedia

The terms used by Watson are “the Arab agricultural revolution” or “A medieval Green Revolution”, meaning a sudden change in land management with the introduction of new crops coupled with a new irrigation system (qanats), reshaping the way agriculture was carried out and leading to a complete different way of cultivating the land.


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Cross-section of a Kanat. Source Wikipedia


Kanat system circa 1050.
Map of the kanats system underneath Arab Palermo (Bal’harm). Source http://www.bestofsicily.com
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Inside a Palermo’s kanat. Source: http://www.sicilyuncovered.com

Other than the famous citrus fruits (sour orange, lemon, lime and shaddock), coconut, banana, watermelon and eggplants, the new crops introduced, which may be detectable via C and N stable isotopes analysis of collagen, according to Watson were:

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum L., Arabic: qasab al-sukkar, qasab farisi, qasab hulw, qasab hindi)

In Sicily it became an important industry and according to Watson it has been introduced into the island in the 10th century or possibly earlier. The product was widely use in North Africa during the early years of the Fatimid period (909-1171 AD). Watson states that wild sugarcane plants from India and Southeast Asia were hybridized and domesticated in New Guinea but, the original area of sugar cane production is Mesopotamia where it was likely to be brought in around the seventh century, expanding towards west in the following centuries, especially in Lower Egypt. In line with this theory the sugarcane industry in Sicily was flourishing and the product was exported to North Africa. Even though after the Norman conquest the sugar plantations started to be neglected. According to other sources it seems like it wasn’t until the eleventh-twelfth centuries that sugarcane plantation started to spread in the Mediterranean, reaching Sicily and Andalusia. To grow and treat sugar required advanced farming techniques and technology to refine the raw product, needing a stable economic and social background. In Sicily sugar cane was grown near Palermo in the village of Aqbat, that means Copts, who were Egyptian Christians possibly brought purposely to the island to grow it, as the Egyptians were among the earliest cultivators of this plant.

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Sugarcane plant depicted in a Medieval Arab manuscript

Asiatic Rice (Oryza sativa L., Arabic: ruzz, aruzz, uruzz)

Rice cultivation started somewhere in the East, possibly in different regions of India, Thailand and China and then spread from there reaching the Mesopotamia around the 2nd century BC as mentioned by Strabo and Diodurus. In Sicily it was grown in the marshes near the mouth of rivers and remained in use in everyday meals since today, as noted by the geographer Al-Idrisi in his 12th century AD in his “Description of Africa and Spain”.

A typical Spanish “paella”. However in many places, especially in the South, it has different versions and it is called with the arabic name of arroz.

Sorghum, great millet (Sorghum bicolor . Arabic: dhurra, jawars hindi, jawarsh)

Sorghum is part of the Poaceae, and is present in different types, even though we are interested in particular in one specie, Sorghum bicolor, that is native to Africa and was and it is used as food (sorghum syrup and sorghum molasses), animal fodder, and to make alcoholic beverages. It is a self-pollinating plant, grown from seed, adapted to the hot, semiarid and dry temperate areas, so it perfectly fits Sicily’s environmental conditions. There seems to be agreement in the fact that this plant has African origins, and was cultivated before the Christian era, with later domestication, maybe happening somewhere else in Asia.  It was used raw or cooked in the form of cous-cous, porridges, soups and cakes. Arabs used it mixed with other flours for the production of bread for low social classes. The seeds and cores were used to feed cattle and poultry.

Hard wheat (Triticum durum. Arabic: qamh, hinta, burr)

Because of its high gluten content and the hardness of its grain, hard wheat has special uses. It provides the most common semoules for the cous-cous of North Africa and some other parts of the Arab world, as well as the burghul for pilafs and for Levantine dishes such as tabbula, kishk, kibba and bitfin. In Arab cooking, these semoules are also the basis of many soups, gruels, stuffings, puddings and pastries, and of preparations resembling the European gnocchi. It was an important industry for Sicily and it was fully established during the Muslim period, according to Watson. By the middle of 12th century, the geography al-Idrisi records that the town of al-Tarbi’ah (Trabia) was manufacturing and exporting itriyah (tria in Sicilian stays for vermicelli, which is a particular shape of pasta similar to spaghetti, but hollow inside) to Calabria and to other countries.

“Blood” Sicilian oranges, (c) https://journeythroughitaly.com/sicilian-markets/

The overall picture of the Sicily’s agriculture production under Byzantines shows mainly a monoculture (wheat) coupled with a decrease in population.

As the Arabs started settling into the island, there was a reversal in this demographic decline trend, and the numbers of inhabitants on the cost and in the mainland increased. The demographic increment caused a greater demand of food that stimulated agricultural advance and investments in land property. New industries connected to the new plants, such as sugar cane and cotton, start to proliferate, pushing forward new non-agricultural sectors.

The subject of my study is whether and how the diet of the inhabitants of Sicily evolved through subsequent changes of regime (Byzantine, Arabs, Norman and Swabian). I am further trying to assess if the changes in agriculture introduced by the Arabs are detectable via stable isotopes analysis and/or if they were so radical as to shift habits during the course of one century rather than it being a gradual occurrence.

For more information about the project I am involved in check Sicily in transition.


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