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Savoirs locaux et agriculture durable au Yémen

Frédéric Pelat
Amin Al-Hakimi


Ancient knowledge in Yemeni farming: a case study in sowing times

Qadi Yahya b. Yahya Al-Ansi
Traduction de Daniel Martin Varisco

Texte intégral

1It is well known that since the dawn of civilization Yemen has been an agricultural community and that earlier farmers transmitted their experience and agricultural knowledge to later generations. Each generation that comes along takes the results of this experience, preserving it in their communal spirit through proverbs, wise sayings and poems. These serve to contain all the knowledge, methods and seasonal timings in traditional agriculture. As a resource through poetry and proverbs, this circulates to the present day among Yemen’s farmers.

2The importance and value of these agricultural proverbs and sayings relate back to a kind of charter or set of precise and accurate agricultural principles which Yemeni farmers have followed well, the father learning from the grandfather. Every generation passes these on to the next. Yemeni farmers did not openly receive their elders’ sayings, which go well beyond mere speculation, without productively learning from the accumulated knowledge and experience over several thousand years as they labored on the land and in crop production.

3Looking at the results from this information directs us to the historical importance of everyday life in the past, present and future of Yemen. This practical information compensates for several significant regressive and marginalizing trends that began even before recent changes and initial modernization, including the shift from rural to urban life, internal as well as foreign, which continues to separate our generations even today. Regrettably, the traditional agricultural markers of Yemeni farmers will be lost so that all of their potential impact on the land and its cultivation will be erased. With this comes the demise of practical experience and indigenous agricultural knowledge.

4Our shared concern is to exert ourselves in a major way to collect, analyze and learn from this great heritage in order to transform beneficially these folk experiences and customs. Instead of being destroyed and forgotten, they can be picked out as practical rules for daily life, especially as they are renewed in a complete and widely communicated manner. We must connect the past with the present lest we deprive ourselves of the many facets of past labor in our land and thus provide for our basic needs and reasons for survival.

5Finally, I urge the concerned institution for documenting indigenous knowledge passed down from ancient Yemeni farmers to consider the benefit of indigenous knowledge, as I have tried to do in my book, The Agricultural Markers in Yemen, published in 1998. Among other things, this study deals with some of the traditional ways for resisting insect attacks and diseases. Such traditional practices can greatly supplement the effort of plant protection and decrease the need for chemical pesticides. It is evident that the use of chemical pesticides causes much damage on both the human body and the environment. How much better is the one who sees the truth in the proverb: “whoever uses qarad [a type of acacia] for firewood and cooks in a harad [type of clay pot] will not know marad [sickness].”

Sowing seasons, agricultural markers and stars

6The times for planting seasons, according to the agricultural markers and stars, serve as one of the fundamental factors for the quality of crop yields. These times, however, differ in their durations from one area to another according to such factors as the elevation, type of soil and location. It is well known that since the dawn of civilization Yemen has been an agricultural society in which sons have inherited from their fathers everything useful for necessary crop production and producing a surplus.

7All of this relates back to the determining link between the times for the sowing seasons and the agricultural markers and stars, as well as other known markers. In Yemen today, some of these are encountered often, others less often. The times for the sowing seasons are divided as follows:

  • dates from the solar [i.e. lunar in classical astronomy] stations or agricultural markers, which are determined in every reckoning by their rising and setting.
  • dates from the Christian or Syriac month name calendar.
  • dates of the conjunctions of the Pleaides in the lunar months, each month having an average mean of 27 and a third days. These [sowing times] are:
    • the month of khams, which begins 31 March/18 ’Ādhār and ends 27 April/14 Nīsān.
    • the month of thalāth, which begins 28 April/15 Nīsān and ends 24 May/11 Ayyār, and is equivalent to the Himyarite month Dhū Mabkar.1

8Now I will discuss the interpretation of the sayings and proverbs regarding some of the periods for sowing seasons in both the cold and temperate regions. For the agricultural periods in Wādī Hadramawt, the poet Sacd al-Suwaynī says:

Inik baghīt al-harth, ya ibn Yacshūt
Shitāk bi al-baldah wa-barak al-hūt
Wa al-sayf bi-al-zubrah idhā tabā al-qūt.

[If you want to plough, Oh son of Yacshūt,
It should be under baldah and the blessing of hūt
Spring is with zubrah, when the strength follows.]

  • 2 Muhammad ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Sabban, al-Shi‘r al-sha‘bi ma‘ al-mazari‘in, p. 18.

9Here are the boundaries of two seasons. Inik means if you can. Baghit means you want. Shitik means any ploughing of the ground under the star balda from the kharif season stars, this being entered on July 15. The sowing of the ground under the star hut from the stars of the shita’ season is entered on 14 October. The harvest of wheat is under the stars tarf and jabha. It is said that wheat harvests are auspicious at tarf and jabha. Tarf is entered on 9 February and jabha on 22 February in the rabī’ season with the rising of these two stars at twilight, at which time the wheat crop is harvested. In the season of sayf is sowing under zubra, the last of the rabī’ stars,2 which is entered on 7 March.

10Now from the proverbs of the regions of al-Ahnūm, Shahāra and Hajja:

cAd bacd al-khams khams, wa dharī khiyār mālak

[Count five [days] after [the conjunction month) khams and sow the best of your land.]

11Al-Khams is the conjunction month that occurs in the station of the Pleiades, the conjunction taking place on the fifth night of the lunar month. The normal period of its conjunction is 31 March/18 ’Ādhār to 27 April/14 Ayyār. Dhari means sow and malak refers to any bounded plot of agricultural land. The meaning is that when the month of khams comes, wait five days and then sow your land, since this is the most suitable time. The sowing of the land begins at 5 April/23 ’Ādhār.

12From ’Anis Banī Salāma, al-Manār, Dhū Hūd and the region nearby:

Adhrī min bawāqī al-khams bi-khams

[Sow from the end of khams by five.]

13Adhrī means sow and bawāqī refers to the last part of the month. The conjunction month of khams has an average mean duration from 31 March/19 ‘Ādhār to 27 April/14 Nīsān. The meaning is that five days before the ending of the period of the month khams, beginning 22 April/9 Nīsān, sorghum should be sown in the agricultural lands of these cold areas. This time also works for the nearby areas, such as upper and lower Maghrib ’Anis.

14The second marker in the ’Anis region is one of this region’s most important markers and works as well for Mikhlāf Banī Salāma, al-Manār, al-Jabal and adjacent districts in ’Anis. This is called the Banī Salāma marker.

15The sowing period for sorghum in cold land holdings lasts nine days begining 21 April/8 Nīsān. The ploughing is performed during the first three days of this period (i.e. 21-23 April/8-10 Nīsān). In the three days after this (24-26 April/11-13 Nīsān) farmers stop sowing. The term cajūra (i.e. stalk) is for the crop someone sows at this time and which comes up like the others, but the heads of which do not come out or appear due to the problem of sorghum coming at the end of the period. Then the sowing is resumed in the final three days (27-29 April). After the nine days comes a period known to the farmers as ghūniyya in Jabal Māwadī, where the warm lands are sown.

16From the proverbs of the middle districts, Dhamār and nearby districts:

Idhā jāk al-mishmish, ‘ala bidāctak ka-lamash

[If apricots come to you, then cover your wares.]

17Jāk means to come to you and ka-lamash has a sense of to cover something. The meaning is that when the apricot fruit has appeared in the market, the only thing for the merchant to do is to protect his wares in storage places since they will spoil if left out because farmers are busy ploughing and sowing their lands in the sayf season. Most of the ripe apricots are noticed in the markets from 14 April/1 Nīsān. This event becomes a marker for the sowing of sorghum for someone who does not know the agricultural markers.

18From the proverbs of the districts of Jabal Sabr:

Lā tibkī calā ummak idhā mātat, abkī calā yawm Nīsān idhā fātik

[Don’t cry over your mother if she dies, cry over the day of Nīsān when it is gone.]

19The proverb refers to urging the observing of the times for the sayf sowing season of sorghum at the first part of Nīsān or April.

20From the proverbs of the area of Banī Matar and al-Hayma:

Ghurūb al-thurayā cashā’, itrah biyidak mā tishā’

[At the evening setting of the Pleiades, broadcast by your hand what you want.]

21The evening setting of the Pleiades is on 1 May/18 Nīsān. Itrah is for the action of deciding on the broadcast of seed grain. The meaning is that grains are sown at the setting of the Pleiades in this area.

22From the proverbs of the areas of the governorate of Ta‘izz (al-Nishma, al-Salw and what is nearby), which is at the beginning of the ten select [days] for sowing sorghum:

Idhā jāk al-Mabkar, fa ibtal wa lā tata’akhkhir

[When Mabkar comes upon you, plough and don’t delay.]

23Jak means to come upon you and Mabkar is the name of the Himyarite month (Dhu Mabkar), equivalent to Ayyār and beginning 14 Ayyār. The meaning is that when the month of Mabkar arrives, set out without delay to plant the land with gharb sorghum and millet during the first part of the month of Mabkar.

24From the proverbs of the al-Acbūs region:

Arbac Nīsān wa arba‘ Mabkar
Arba‘ lil-r
acwī khayrat al-dharī

[Four from Nīsān and four from Mabkar.
Four for the poor farmer, the best for sowing.]

25Arba‘ Nīsān means counting four days from Nīsān and arba‘ Mabkar means adding four days in Ayyār, the fifth being equivalent to 18 May. The seeds are sown for four days and this is the most beneficial time for sowing the ground with sorghum.

26From the sayings of ‘Ali ibn Zayid:

Talma tulūc al-thurayā tasābaq al-najm al-ahmar

[Planting at the rising of the Pleiades precedes the “Red Star.”]

27The saying is that the last of the planting season at the rising of the Pleiades precedes the Red Star [i.e., al-Dabaran]. Matlam or talma means sowing. The rising of the Pleiades is at 27 May/14 Ayyār. The meaning refers to sowing sorghum in the areas of Sanca’, the northwestern areas, Haddā, Khawlān, Yāfic, Harīb and similar places of the northeast.

28From the proverbs of the central areas:

Hazzat nuwayd al-jahr, yā dhārī al-dhura.

[The wind of jahr jars, oh sower of sorghum.]

29Hazzat stems from a jarring or shaking, nuwayd refers to winds, and dhārī is the one who sows. The meaning is that the marker of jahr comes at the rising of the Pleiades on 27 May. At this time violent northeasterly winds blow and raise up the dust so that it is difficult to throw the seed to the bottom of the furrow because the wind blows aside the seed as it drops from the sower’s hand. The proverb refers to the advice to sow sorghum with a seed drill attached to the back of the plough.

30From the proverbs of the area of cIyyāl Sarayh, Hamdān, Arhab, and nearby:

Adhrī fī butayn kāma, min ghayr lā tanjīm wa la calāma

[Sow at butayn kāma, without need of astronomer or scholar.]

31Adhrī means to sow and butayn kāma is the second station in the season of sayf, which rises at dawn on 27 May/1 Ayyār. Kāma is an agricultural marker referrring to the station of the Pleiades beginning with its dawn rising at 27 May. This is the period for sowing sorghum in these areas.

32From the sayings of cAlī ibn Zāyid:

Qadamt mālī tu’akhkhar
Madhrā safw al-thurayyā
Tasābaq al-najm al-ahmar.

[I arrived late to my fields
for the sowing of safwa al-thurayya
Which precedes the Red Star.]

33Qadamt refers to the appointed time for sowing the ground. Mālī refers to agricultural plots of land. Tu’akhkhar means a delay. Madhrā is a sowing. For safwa al-thurayyā, safwa is an agricultural marker also called the marker of thawr, which begins at the dawn appearance of the Pleiades in the east on 9 June/27 Ayyār. The meaning is that the farmer should have two plots of agricultural land, the first for sowing in the marker of safwa, the crops of which sowing time will be delayed. The best choice of a period for sowing is at the marker of safw even though the crop will be later than the first, because the crop sprouts and matures quickly, like the speed of meteors falling from the sky to the ground. The sense is clear and results in the presence of the proper outcome for the sorghum seed because at the marker of safw the climate is free of rain, which might damage the crop. For the earlier sowing the last of the sowing endures insufficient rainfall before its plant is damaged by a scab, according to the view of the farmers. This rain solidifies and hardens the top of the soil surface which can prevent the plants from sprouting.

Seasonal reckoning by the Christian calendar

  • 3 Translator’s note: I believe the author is suggesting that the term “sixty” or “seventy” is derive (...)

34There are two seasons called “the season of sixty” and “the season of seventy” specifically for the eastern areas such as the governorate of al-Baydā’, al-cAwādhil, Makīrās, Yāfic and the governorate of Abyan. The “season of sixty” begins 14 May/1 Ayyār and the “season of seventy” begins 30 May/17 Ayyār. The duration of each season is 12 days for the sowing period. This reckoning no doubt is based on the Christian calendar of Syriac month names since the presumed start for the reckoned period is from 1 ‘Ādhār. However, this month has 31 days and is followed by the month of Nīsān with 30 days, giving an actual total of 61 days. The first of Ayyār is equal to 14 May. I now finish my discussion of these periods.3

35These periods thus well support the planting of sorghum. They are consummate activities throughout the crop’s growth leading to increased crop production. These labors must be fixed according to specific timings.

36Periods for the sowing of sirbi [wheat]: For the agricultural time periods in Wādī Hadramawt, the poet Sacd al-Suwaynī says:

cAfar al-kinib fi al-shawl wa al-nacaim
c maqālī lā takūn nā’im

[The seedtime for eleusine is in al-shawl and al-naca’im
Hear what I say and don’t take a nap.]

37Afar refers to the seedtime and kinib is a type of grain. Al-shawl or al-shawla is the last station of sayf, while nacaim is the first station of kharīf and is entered on 2 July. The meaning is urging the sowing of the grain in a fixed period in order to enhance the crop yields. Al-shawl can be compared to the agricultural marker of thawr and al- nacaim can be compared with the agricultural marker of al-zulm al-awwal.

38From the proverbs of the central areas and the region of al-Qufr Ibb:

Yā hilla al-zulm, yā mahrasha bayna al-abtāl

[Oh rain period of zulm, oh farmers who do things differently.]


Yā talma al-zulm al-awwal, yā mahrasha bayna al-abtāl.

[Oh planting of al-zulm al-awwal, oh farmers who do things differently.]

39Hilla refers to a single rainfall and is the name of the Himyarite month (Dhū al-Hilla) which is equivalent to February. Mahrasha refers to differing. The meaning is that the ploughmen compete to be the first to sow their agricultural plots under the star of zulm, since, if God so allows, the falling of the rain at this time is for the sowing of saqla barley in the wādīs around Dhamār, Birfī al-Qufr and nearby districts. The crop yields from this are plentiful. The harvest of this barley comes before planting land with sirbī [wheat] in the autumn season of callān. Thus the crop yield is named for the star.

40From the proverbs of the area of Dhamār and the surrounding area:

Matlam suhayl thaqīl al-hajaf.

[The sowing season of Canopus, a great measure of grain.]

41Matlam refers to the sowing and suhayl is an agricultural marker of the 13 days 1-13 August. Thaqīl is the opposite of weak and hajaf is an arm-length measure, using the human hand, to measure the crop. The meaning is that sowing crops of wheat and dark saqla barley will yield an abundance more than the crops of Sirius in the area of al-Haddā and Wādī al-Harr in cAns, as compared to the better Sirius [crops] in Dhamār and Anis.

42The time period for Sirius has an important role in successfully maturing the grain at this time and the increase in agricultural crop yield, especially wheat, as confirmed in the saying: thawrak wa al-calib [your bull at Sirius]. This means that each farmer is inclined to plough and sow the land. The singular form of “your bull” signifies that Sirius has such a short period that it is urged farmers quickly to plough and to sow with a single bull, leaving the other for another plot before the time of Sirius goes by. The first rush is due to the late sowing with the possibility of the rainfall lasting through it and making the sowing difficult, so that the sowing of grains is postponed until the marker of Canopus.

43On the seasonal times for the sowing of qiyād [wheat], cAlī ibn Zāyid says:

Laqī nabātak had cashr.

[Come to your plants in the month of eleven.]

44Had cashr is when the moon enters the station of the Pleiades and conjuncts on the eleventh night of the lunar month. The average period for this is 8 January to 3 February. The farmer reckons this period for when the seed is in the soil so that when the month of eleven arrives, the plant will have appeared. The reason for the reckoning is the frost or damaging of the crop from the intense cold of winter.

45From the sayings of the farmers in the area of Barat and what is nearby:

Yā Zāric yā ibn al- Zāric, yā dhī tursī wa habbak athlāth

[Oh farmer, and oh farmer’s son, Oh you at the winter solstice, your sowing is threefold.]

46Dhī means the one having something and tursī refers to the disc of the sun when the sun reaches its limit in winter, which is the winter solstice on 21 December, equivalent to the agricultural conjunction month of thirteen. Habbak refers to the sowing. The meaning is that the rabīc season of wheat and barley is with the winter sowing season. The irrigated lands for sowing are divided into three time periods, according to the following periods:

  • first, sowing the cold areas before and up to the solstice of 21 December, during which time the plants already appear,
  • second, lands not as cold, where the grains are planted at the solstice but the plants do not appear until the following week,
  • third, warm lands (macfūr), in which the soil has received water and is ready for sowing.

47The rabīc season designates the harvest of the wheat and barley in the spring season.


1 For details, see Yahya b. Yahya al-‘Ansi, Al-Da’ira al-falakiyya li-al-matali‘ al-zira‘iyya fi al-Yaman, 1996.

2 Muhammad ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Sabban, al-Shi‘r al-sha‘bi ma‘ al-mazari‘in, p. 18.

3 Translator’s note: I believe the author is suggesting that the term “sixty” or “seventy” is derived from the sixty days of the preceding two months before the actual sowing time of 12 days.


Author of Al macālim āz-zirācīah fīl yaman

Daniel Martin Varisco (Traducteur)

Associate Professor of Anthropology, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY 11550

© Centre français de recherche de la péninsule Arabique, 2003

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