February 2015

Land and Water in the Middle East: the Yemen Connection


Juan Estévan Arellano


The word acequia seems to have its roots in Yemen. Sabaean was the language spoken by the Yemenis, and it seems most of the words related to hydrology came from Sabaean, an old South Arabian language. Here then is where our global acequia sojourn begins. The scenery in the Harraz Mountains as seen in the photos is breathtaking: cultivated terraces rolling down the fertile slopes, with a backdrop of jagged mountains common to all desert environments. On the ridges, villages cling to the peaks.


On the carefully constructed terraces, coffee plantations flourish. Here, agriculture is practiced more intensively than in other parts of North Yemen. The area is known as the Fertile Mountains because it benefits from bountiful monsoon rains. The terracing, carried out in such a fine and impressive manner, has been so carefully maintained by farmers that it has survived for thousands of years. In addition to coffee, millet, rye, wheat, barley, lentils and beans have been grown on these multi-terraced fields for centuries.


Since the word acequia seems to have been born from this type of environment, our journey to understand water and community begins here, for here we see where people definitely understood the knowledge of water and the wisdom of the land. Only people with such knowledge and wisdom can survive in this harsh environment. They not only survived but thrived and, as a result, found the knowledge and wisdom embedded in the landscape, which became their greatest teacher.


Harraz Mountains, Yemen Photo by Grete Howard
Harraz Mountains, Yemen
Photo by Grete Howard


Sabaean was spoken in Yemen before Islam arrived, and it named places and other things in the peninsula. Many of the words with Arabic roots come, in reality, from the language of the descendants of the Queen of Saba. Sabaean words related to water are alberca (al-birka), cistern for irrigation; acequia (assaqiya), irrigation canal; zanja (az-zanija), channel that is sculpted in rock; noria (an-naura), water wheel, well.


The majority of the Yemenis were campesinos from the mountains of eastern Yemen. Even though Arabic was becoming more common, Sabaean continued to be used to name the flora, fauna and all the vocabulary used for irrigation and agriculture. That still continues today. Sabaean is a Semitic language that flourished about 3,000 years ago, close to the civilization of Southern Arabia, the center of which was in Mareb and predominated in what today is Yemen. In the year 628, they became part of Islam, and they adopted more modern Arabic from the Quran. This Arabic, laced with Sabaean, or vice versa, was what was spoken by the Yemenis who arrived in Iberia. And with this language, they named towns, rivers and mountains.


Other Sabean words that relate to water are As-sirr (as-sarr in Sabeo-Arabic), watercourse in the mountains. The word sierra may actually be derived from this word. Al-jahl, a rapid watercourse with waterfalls. As-sirb, this concept relates to acequias, the user’s turn to use the water for irrigation. Al-jisr, a diversion dam with steps to slow down the water. Al-aqm and Al-maqam, partial diversion dams that direct the flow or establish the volume amount. An-nahr, channelized the torrents of water. Wad is a permanent watercourse such as a river, for example, the Guadalquivir river in Andalucía. Guadalquivir means the Big River such as the Río Grande. The word Guadalupe also has its roots in Wad, the river of wolves.


Much of the vocabulary used today for irrigation, agriculture and construction—the central elements of the civilization in southern Arabia—are encountered in the Sabaean language. The Yemenis also made great contributions to the Spanish language as shown above in storage, management and distribution of water. Contrary to the Romans, famous for their big hydraulic projects, the Yemenis had specialized in micro-engineering of water for community projects.


Accustomed to having to reclaim land from the desert in order to cultivate, they brought to Spain their advanced hydraulic knowledge and, from here, it spread around the globe. From there, the names that came to signify canal, torrent, river channel and waterwheel, whose origins in many cases are from Sabaean and Yemeni roots.


This article was taken from Estévan Arellano’s book Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water.


Juan Estevan Arellano

Juan Estévan Arellano (1947-2014) was an esteemed acequia activist, journalist and novelist from Embudo, NM. He received hundreds of students and researchers at his almunyah or experimental farm there.





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