MEDIAEVAL GREEN AGRICULTURE
The success of the Persians lay in that they had access to a vast wealth of knowledge, acquired from the nations they conquered. They took the ideas and developed them into advanced technologies, which met the most urgent needs of their survival. Thousands of stone masons, artisans and carpenters were employed from all corners of the empire to help develop the science of engineering. And the showpiece of the empire’s architectural sophistication was the invention of pioneering agricultural techniques, with walled gardens called paridaiza. Developed as far back as 4000 BC, the Persian garden is a true interpretation of paradise on earth, featuring water cascading into rectangular and square basins placed at equal intervals. Crops were the main commodity on which the economy of the ancient civilisation depended. And as an agriculturally centred empire, sorghum from Africa, citrus fruits from China, and a variety of exotic vegetables and spices from India were in great demand. Although the introduction of new staples to farming meant a rethink of ancient agricultural techniques, unique cultivation systems contributing to the development of earlier civilisations in the region had already been invented.
From the beginning of written history 3000 years ago, Mesopotamia had been noted as the cradle of civilisation. Its history evolved to combine the triumphs and failures of the Sumerian and the Akkadian, the Babylonian and the Assyrian empires. The geography of southern Mesopotamia meant that for agriculture to succeed, cities had to be built next to the Fertile Crescent - next to rivers and their tributaries. Land nearer to the rivers provided a rich soil to produce good crops, but land further away from the water became dry and uninhabitable. Hence, the development of irrigation was pivotal to the survival of the settlers of Mesopotamia. As the oldest known civilisation to have flourished at the confluence of two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, Mesopotamia was called ‘The Country between Two Rivers’ by the Greek historian Polybius. The early settlers, the Sumerians, understood agriculture was only possible with irrigation and good drainage. To cultivate a dependable harvest, they dug ditches or qanāt, which channelled the river water to dry lands and the excess water was then stored in reservoirs. Thus, setting the foundation for large-scale farming. But controlling water in Mesopotamia was a big challenge.
The land is flat, so farmers relied on a constant gravity-fed water irrigation system without altering the natural terrain. The gradient is very gentle, just enough to keep the water moving, but barely detectable. For thousands of years, these canal systems criss-crossed the entire region, turning the desert into a fertile delta. Mesopotamia became the land of prosperity, in many ways, thanks to the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ironically, these same rivers became responsible for the hostile environment, which transformed the peace and harmony in the valley to one of hardships, struggles and human misery by frequent floods which ravaged entire cities. In spring, raging floods caused by melting snow, starts its descent towards the Euphrates valley. A torrent of water roaring from the hills heads straight to the low plains. The gushing tide is so powerful that for several miles, it breaks and collects entire chunks of sediment out of the mountain sides. In many cases, the silt carried per unit volume of water on its course to the mouth of the river is far greater than that in the waters of the River Nile.
That’s why floods boasted a bigger challenge in Mesopotamia than in Egypt. This is because the Tigris and the Euphrates rose rapidly and changed their courses more often. And when they finally reach the valley during the high flood season, the landscape greatly changes. The excess water is offloaded on the arable land, and villages are turned into floating islets. Every year, the basin of the Tigris and the Euphrates widens, depositing thick layers of silt, which pushes back cultivatable land. The Sumerians, unlike ancient Egyptians, did not keep record of the recurring natural catastrophe. They had no knowledge of how to detect the first signs of flood, nor had they a way of measuring sharp increases in water levels. But they did acknowledge that these rivers were too large, and too forceful to be controlled. Instead, the temperamental moods of the rivers became part of the daily ritual, to focus on how best to adapt existing agricultural techniques to the changing cycles of nature. Mesopotamian agricultural development grew to include water management by dams, aqueducts and water wheels. But evidence suggests that the water of the Fertile Crescent was too salty. Over the centuries, the constant build-up of salt in the soil, may have contributed to the slow decline of civilisation.