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Lecture | Leiden Yemeni Studies Lecture Series

History of Water Management in Yemen: An Interdisciplinary Study

Monday 20 May 2024
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Leiden Yemeni Studies Lecture Series
Online via Zoom

Since ancient times, humans have lived and even prospered in the arid regions of South Arabia, where the pre-eminent factor limiting life is water. What kinds of strategies did people in the past use in order to deal with the scarce water resources? How did they interact with a natural environment that seems so uninviting, indeed hostile towards humans? Did their practices change over time, or did the natural conditions restrict the options? There are numerous sites in South Arabia from ancient to premodern times that can serve as examples for skillful hydraulic engineering and water management. The lecture will present two case studies and the methodological approaches include archaeological excavations, ethno-archaeological studies, geomorphological field work and a critical evaluation of the written sources. The ancient oasis of Marib flourished during the first millennium BCE and was abandoned around 600 CE, just before the coming of Islam. Marib was a major halting place along the frankincense route; both the local population and the caravans depended on successful farming in the oasis. The city of Zabid, founded in the ninth century CE, was a renowned centre of learning and scholarship in medieval Islamic times. The agricultural hinterland was irrigated from flood barrages in the wadi that also fed water into underground conduits supplying the city. The common element of the case studies is reliance on renewable water resources, a prerequisite for long-term sustainability.

About the speakers

Ingrid Hehmeyer, Professor in the History of Science and Technology, is an agricultural engineer who specializes in human-environmental relationships in the arid regions of ancient and medieval Arabia. Her current research focusses on the history of water technology in medieval Yemen, where she investigates technical innovations in hydraulic engineering and strategies for water management that allowed people to live under harsh environmental conditions. Part of this project involves a study of the methods of astronomical timekeeping used for allocating water, during both day and night. Her second area of research is the history of the medical sciences in the Islamic world. As a licensed pharmacist, she is particularly interested in the use of medicinal substances and their manufacture. The perpetual menace of disease on the one hand, and of water scarcity on the other – the two most fundamental threats to the basis of life – led people to resort to magical measures in the hopes that these might change the course of events. Tangible evidence for this exists in the form of magic-medicinal bowls, talismans and magical symbols, which form a major theme in her research.

Daniel Martin Varisco is a cultural anthropologist and historian with over 35 years experience in the Middle East, especially Yemen. As an anthropologist who lived in a rural, tribal community in Yemen in the late 1970s and carried out field research in Arabic in Egypt and the Gulf Countries, he is attuned to local people’s views and the reality of life on the ground. His research in Yemen has focused on agriculture, irrigation, seasonal knowledge, folk astronomy, tribal genealogy and the history of the Rasulid era (13th-15th centuries CE). He is currently preparing a Handbook of Rasulid Yemen. His most recent book is Seasonal Knowledge and the Almanac Tradition in the Arab Gulf (Palgrave, 2022). His most recent article is "Agricultural Crops in South Arabia/Yemen in the First Millennium CE," Vegetation History and Archaeobotany (2023). He served as President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies from 2014-2022. In 2019 he was a Senior Fellow at the Mamluk Studies Seminar, Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg, Bonn University and 2019-2020 he was a fellow at the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, NJ.

The Leiden Yemeni Studies Lecture Series is supported by the Horizon-2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions project EMStaD YEMEN.

An overview of all events in this series can be found on the series page.

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