Foreign plants – with caveat

Sorry I have no time to check Watson’s data  quoted below against the primary sources on which he relied, or the details on which other scholars have disputed his opinions.   I simply won’t have that sort of time to spare for the Vms  from now on, though  luckily we have a long weekend coming up and during my free time I hope to put up a couple more posts.

In my previous post, I did mention that Watson’s thesis (that an agricultural revolution occurring as the new Islamic empire spread through the older Mediterranean and middle east) is disputed, so the following is just for readers convenience, and directly quotes from Watson’s  first article, published in the Journal of Economic History.  Anyone wanting to use the information here should read for themselves  both Watson’s writings and those of his critics.


Watson’s article begins:

The rapid spread of Islam into three continents in the seventh and eighth centuries was followed by the diffusion of an equally remarkable but less well documented agricultural revolution. Originating mainly in India, where heat, moisture and available crops all favoured its development and where it had been practiced for some centuries before the rise of Islam, the new agriculture was carried by the Arabs or those they conquered into lands which, because they were colder and drier were much less hospitable to it…  (p.8)

At the very heart of the revolution were many new crops. Found by the Arabs mainly in India, and in a few cases in the lands of the conquered Sassanian Empire, which had received them from India, the new crops were introduced into other, very different climatic regions… To mention only those plants whose progress we have been able to study in detail – sixteen food crops and one fibre crop – the Arab conquests were followed by the diffusion of rice, sorghum, hard wheat, sugar cane, cotton, watermelons, eggplants, spinach, artichokes, colocasia, sour oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, plantains, mangos and coconut palms. With the exception of mangos and coconut palms, which could be grown only in tropical climates and therefore appeared only in Arabia Felix and along the coast of East Africa, the diffusion was very wide; the new crops came to be grown in nearly the whole of the early Islamic world and not a few became, for smaller or larger regions, of great economic importance… [the study] excludes plants and trees used principally as sources of fodder, spices, condiments, medicines, drugs, cosmetics, perfumes, dyes, nuts and wood, as well as garden flowers and ornamental plants. In the dissemination of all these kinds of crops, too, the early centuries of Islam saw great progress… a complete list of even only the most useful plants would be long indeed, numbering well into the hundreds… most of the plants, being native to tropical regions were not easy to grow in the cooler and drier regions into which they had been taken (pp. 9-10)

… In particular rice, cotton, sugar cane, eggplants, watermelon, hard wheat and sorghum were all summer crops in the Islamic world, though rice and hard wheat could also be winter crops in certain very warm areas.  (p.10)

.. the range of technology from which irrigators could choose was greatly widened by the spread through the Islamic world of a profusion of devices, borrowed rather than invented by the Arabs, for catching, storing, channeling and lifting water. Amongst the more important of these were new kinds of dams, underground canals (or qanat) which tapped ground water and brought it over long distances, and a variety of wheels turned by animal or water power and used for lifting water – sometimes to great heights – out of rivers, canals, wells and storage basins… (p.13).

Through [the translation into Arabic of]  Dioscorides and of other Greek, Roman and Indian works of medicine and pharmacy, as well as through original works on pharmacy which began appearing in Arabic by the ninth century, inhabitants of the early Islamic world were made aware of the alleged medicinal properties of many exotic plants.  (p.24).

Note [-D].  I would prefer to say ‘became aware of the medicinal value associated with many eastern plants’ – avoiding the unpleasant and often inaccurate assumption of older European writers that none but their own forms of medicine had value. Increasingly, western science is discovering the opposite is so.

.. Al-Idrisi, writing of the town of Silla and Takrur, relates [in the twelfth century] that ‘the rich wear clothes of cotton: the common people dress in wool’.. West Africans copying … the manner and dress of many Egyptians who in turn had copied the easterners.  (p.26)

[concerning irrigation methods] It is therefore important to search for the agents responsible for initiating and administering irrigations projects.. Of course, not all rulers or their subordinates cared equally about the operation of  irrigation systems or the welfare of the communities that depended on them (p.27)


Another kind of landed undertaking may also have played an important role in diffusing the agricultural revolution. This was the royal garden. Found almost wherever [an Islamic] ruler had his seat and in other places as well, these seem to have been active in introducing exotic plants including, we may suppose, some of the new crops… We are told, for instance that Abd al-Rahman I of Spain collected in his garden rarities from every part of the world. He even sent agents to Syria and other parts of the East to procure new plants and seeds. A new kind of pomegranate was brought to Spain through his garden. The date palm, too, was probably introduced or reintroduced in the same way. By the tenth century the royal gardens at Cordoba seem to have become botanical gardens, with fields for experimentation with seeds, cuttings and roots brought in from the outermost reaches of the world… (Watson goes on to describe other, and similar examples in Spain and other centres of the early medieval Islamic world.  (pp.30 ff).

It would be a mistake to suppose that such trade involved only Muslims because for the garden of an Islamic ruler.

Manuals appear relatively late (p.31)…  but the accounts of geographers and other writers of the tenth century show that by then the revolution was well underway in the East and was perhaps largely completed. (p.32).

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