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Land Tenure, Land Use and Agriculture in the Mamluk Era and Beyond

Panel VI-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
The history of agriculture during the Mamluk era and beyond is a topic that cannot be separated from the information available in texts about land use and land tenure. The success or failure of farming was due to both environmental challenges and the administration of land for resources and taxation beyond the duty of zakat in Islamic law. This panel explores texts from Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan that describe the nature of land tenure and use in agricultural production. As the most important economic resource throughout the areas under Islamic control, agricultural products not only sustained the live of individuals, but served the needs of the state. Control of agricultural land was thus of major importance. One paper examines the impact of weather-related events on agricultural production in the Mamluk era, a subject that has received little previous attention. It analyzes the reports of weather-related natural disasters, in contrast to failed or high floods along the Nile, and their impact on farming and the rural countryside, as well as reactions to these disasters. A second paper focuses on the microeconomics of highland Yemeni agriculture near the Rasulid capital of Ta‘izz in the Late 13th Century. An archival text called Nūr al-ma‘ārif and compiled for al-Malik al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf (d. 694/1295) includes local details on production times, methods and costs; also mentioned are the responsibilities of sharecroppers and compensation from the royal court as land owner for natural disasters, like locust damage. A third paper examines the Mamluk cadastral survey known as al-Tuḥfa al-saniyya bi-asmāʾ al-bilād al-miṣriyya compiled by Ibn al-Jīʿān (d. 885 A.H./1480 C.E.). This text provides a description of land tenure in 778 A.H./1377 C.E. and in 880–81 A.H./1475–77 C.E. The major focus of the paper is the extent that land tenure in Egypt changed between the late 14th and the late 15th centuries. The final paper addresses the themes of land use and agriculture in the Afghan polity founded by Aḥmad Shāh Durrānī (r. 1747-1772). It draws on a range of understudied primary sources outlining the administrative system of the early Durrānī period (1747-1818) regarding the assignment of land grants in exchange for services rendered to the state and the adoption of a Persianate administrative system in order to extract tax revenues from the provinces of Khurasan and Hindustan.
  • In the late 13th century near the end of the long reign of the Rasulid sultan al-Malik al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf a wide variety of reports were sent to the court and later compiled in an archival manuscript entitled Nūr al-ma‘ārif by the modern editor. In addition to information on commodities passing through the southern port of Aden and production activities throughout the Rasulid zone, there are details on local agriculture near the southern highland capital of Ta‘izz. These include timings of agricultural activities, amounts of fertilizer to be applied and yields of cereal crops according to the land quality. Costs are provided for rental of ox teams, payment for the plowman and individuals involved in harvesting, threshing and winnowing. Responsibilities of sharecroppers are described, as well as compensation for natural disasters, like locust damage. In addition there are notes on the costs of transport of various fruits within the region. These eye-witness reports about specific farm land owned by the court supplement the information on the range of crops and their cultivation methods in two extant Rasulid agricultural treatises, several almanacs and court-ordered tax surveys. This paper examines the information provided on the microeconomics of farm management and practice, which is rare and fills in gaps in the agricultural treatises of Rasulid Yemen.
  • This paper focuses on the themes of land use and agriculture in the Afghan polity founded by Aḥmad Shāh Durrānī (r. 1747-1772). While often represented as an empire of conquest predicated on a booty economy, far less attention has been accorded to the agricultural activities promoted by the Afghan state—that is, the efforts of Aḥmad Shāh and his immediate successors to develop the agrarian economies of the domains under Durrānī authority. Drawing on a range of understudied primary sources outlining the administrative system of the early Durrānī period (1747-1818), this paper highlights the “agricultural imperative” of the Afghan state by exploring two interrelated developments: i) the efforts of Durrānī rulers to develop the agrarian economies of their domains through the assignment of land grants in exchange for services rendered to the state, and ii) the formation of a Persianate administrative system, based on Safavid and Mughal antecedents, aimed at drawing tax revenues from the provinces of Khurasan and Hindustan that fell within the purview of the Durrānī state. Seen in the light of this agricultural imperative, this paper argues that the Durrānī empire’s campaigns in Khurasan and Hindustan were not merely aimed at benefitting from short-term gains offered by the booty economy, but part of a broader effort to establish a regularized bureaucratic system designed to extract revenues from local agrarian economies as a means of sustaining the Durrānī imperial project.
  • The cadastral survey of Egypt compiled by Sharaf al-Dīn Yaḥyā b. Shākir Ibn al-Jīʿān (d. 885 A.H./1480 C.E.), al-Tuḥfa al-saniyya bi-asmāʾ al-bilād al-miṣriyya, is a unique resource that offers two valuable snapshots of land tenure in 778 A.H./1377 C.E. and in 880–81 A.H./1475–77 C.E. It provides information on the status of descendants of the mamluks, the development of al-dīwān al-mufrad (the sultan’s special bureau) and al-dhakhīra (the sultan’s treasures), rural depopulation over time, and record keeping in land administration, among other things. Nonetheless, al-Tuḥfa al-saniyya has not yet been fully examined in terms of the Egyptian land tenure context in 1475–77. Scholars have provided a general picture of the privatization of land, particularly the waqfization of land (increase in endowment land) during the 9th/15th century. As a result, the military elite relied less on the iqṭāʿs, the revenues of which were decreasing. However, the questions of how and to what extent land tenure in Egypt changed between the late 14th and the late 15th centuries remain unexplored. Primarily based on the oldest surviving manuscript of al-Tuḥfa al-saniyya, in addition to contemporary Arabic chronicles and biographical dictionaries, this paper investigates the Egyptian land tenure in 1475–77, as compared to the situation in 1377. Additionally, it sheds light on the relations between Sultan Qāytbāy (872–901 A.H./1468–96 C.E.) and his amirs. Thus, this study provides a better understanding of land administration and the economic and political history of Mamluk Egypt.
  • Weather events and phenomena – whether regular or exceptional – had a direct and critical impact on agriculture and were some of the most direct experiences with which individuals interacted with the natural world around them. Even as many elements of Egypt’s natural and environmental history remain to be studied, weather is among the least understood. Using contemporary chronicles and other annalistic sources, this paper will examine the reportage of weather events during the Mamluk period, especially those having an effect on farming and rural life. While river conditions — i.e. the success or failure of the annual Nile inundation — have been the key focus of climate-related discussions of agriculture in Egypt, this paper will look at other events that are frequently mentioned but less studied, such as wind, hail, ice, and extremes in heat or cold. Furthermore, the paper will analyze these descriptions with an eye towards recreating the worldview by which the Mamluk period contemporaries understood the natural world around themselves. This will include making connections into the religious sciences, astrology, and Galenic medicine among other subjects. Until now, the majority of environmental histories of Mamluk Egypt have focused on the technicalities of agriculture and its relationship to taxation; this paper will help to expand the subject into a new area.