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date: 14 October 2019


The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Michael DeckerMichael Decker, James KeenanJames Keenan


In much of the Mediterranean world, irrigation was restricted by terrain and lack of surface water. Small-scale watering, especially of garden crops, and smaller-scale canal and aqueduct irrigation was practised in Gaul and Italy, and Spain possessed extensive irrigated landscapes (Butzer et al.), especially in the east. Roman systems in Upper Mesopotamia fell into varying states of disrepair in the 6th and 7th centuries and were rehabilitated only under the Umayyads, who expanded agriculture settlement through an aggressive programme of canal, dam, and qanat building.

Egypt, though rainless, seemed fabulously rich in Antiquity because of its irrigation-based agriculture. The land, or at least its delta, was, according to Herodotus’ famous saying (II, 5, perhaps originating from Hecataeus), ‘the gift of the river’, scilicet the Nile, with its annual inundation. The river’s gentle downward gradient made the principal method that of basin irrigation, the construction and maintenance of parallel and transverse embankments to contain floodwater. This required great labour and therefore, in good times, either the efficiency of a rigidly centralized state administration or the steady application of local knowledge. Which is of more importance is debated; opinion currently favours the latter. Land beyond the flood-plain of the Nile, dedicated to orchards and vineyards, was irrigated artificially. In places this was accomplished with the ancient shaduf (a scoop at the end of a pole set on a fulcrum). The Hellenistic period saw the introduction of the Archimedean screw and the animal-driven wheel known in Greek as a mechane and in Arabic as a saqiya, whose use spread widely in the Roman and Late Antique periods. The latter development is reflected in a new type of document (5th–7th centuries) recording the replacement of broken or worn-out machinery parts, often axles; P.Oxy. XIX, 2244 is a list of such replacements.

In Persia, qanats supplied most irrigation, though the later Sasanians built large-scale canal projects in the Diyala River and elsewhere in Persian Mesopotamia; these contributed to salinization and environmental collapse. In southern Arabia, the breach of the Marib Dam between ad 575 and 600 spelled the end of the Sabaean kingdom which had depended on hydraulic agriculture.

Michael Decker; James Keenan


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