In the year 2012, I moved from Jordan where I was living to the Alpujarra mountains in southern Spain, close to the city of Granada, famous for its magnificent Muslim palace, the Alhambra.
As I started to explore my new home in the Alpujarra mountains I began to encounter Spanish words that originated from the Arabic. Words that described irrigation systems, agricultural produce, names of villages, and more. For instance, the water irrigation channels, ubiquitously carved along the steep mountain slopes, are called acequias in Spanish, from the word as’saquia, الساقية in Arabic, meaning flowing water. The collection pools that store water for irrigation during the dry periods are albercas, from albirkeh البركة, the pool. The fruit of the olive tree, the aceituna, comes from az-zaytūna, الزيتونة, and the oil, aceite, is from az’zayt الزيت. The highest mountain in mainland Spain, that majestically towers over the Alpujarra region and provides it with fresh snow-melt water, is called Mulhacén, named after Moulay Abul-Hasan Ali, a 15th century Muslim ruler of Granada.
I knew about the highly developed Muslim civilisation of al-Andalus الأندلس (Muslim Spain), now Andalucía in Spanish. It lasted eight centuries and was known for its magnificent architectural monuments, and its advances in medicine, science, philosophy and more. But I hadn’t read about its achievements in agriculture, farming and animal husbandry, the very basis of sustenance and sustainability of any society.
As I looked into this, I learned that Muslim scholars had compiled a series of books on this subject. The most famous, entitled Kitāb al-Filāḥa (The Book of Agriculture), was written in the 12th century by Ibn al-‘Awwām al-Ishbili from Ishbilia (Sevilla). These encyclopaedic volumes comprised of more than a thousand pages of text and drawings, and were so important that they remained the main source of knowledge for all matters concerning agriculture and livestock for centuries.
(See below on agriculture in early Islam)
While there were no remains of magnificent monuments or madrassas (schools) of learning in the Alpujarra region, it nonetheless played a role in the final chapter of the Muslims of al-Andalus. When the last Muslim dynasty of Granada was defeated by the Spanish Catholics in 1492, they fled to the Alpujarra mountains which remained as their last stronghold for many years until they were eventually driven out the whole of the Iberian peninsula.
The Spanish who eventually settled the rugged Alpujarra used the acequia and alberca irrigation systems to water their crops and livestock, cultivated on the existing terraces, all originally built by the Muslims many years prior to their arrival. They also adopted the flat-roofed houses built from stone, wood and earth in the Berber style of North Africa. And they harvested olives from trees planted hundreds of years earlier by the Muslims.
Exploring my new home in these mountains gradually unfolded over a period of many months. I wound my way along ancient footpaths and steep goat trails, still used by Spanish shepherds and their flocks, and the occasional visitor in search of an adventure. As I traversed the slopes I collected things that I found along the way: oddly shaped pieces of wood, bones of deceased animals, nuts and fruit from trees, and various objects that I would later photograph. I came across ancient structures built from stone, wood and earth, some for human shelter, others for their livestock, others used to channel water across the steep slopes and collect it in large ponds for agricultural irrigation. These were the acequias, albercas and houses of the past. I walked the mountains breathing the clean, fresh air, hearing the whispering of the trees, sensing the deep silence of the sky above, constantly in awe of the strength of the rocky precipices that gave way to terraces below, once cultivated now mostly uncared for. If these mountains could talk, what would they tell us of their history and the people who once lived here?
Without realising it, I had started a new project, one that would weave together elements of history and heritage with notions of identity and self-discovery. I was interested in a creative exploration, that would give free rein to my imagination and feelings.
I was inspired by the still-life paintings of the Spanish masters (Cotán, Velasquez, Zurbarán, Goya). Their staged presentation of objects, the use of shadow and light, and the relatively simple compositions appealed to me. The difference in the meaning of ‘still-life’ in English, or life that is not moving, and the Spanish equivalent ‘naturaleza muerta’, or dead nature, was a thread between life and death. This, along with the notion of the vanitas in art, usually represented by a human skull to remind us of our own mortality, were things that lingered in the back of my mind. I was also intrigued by the incorporation of string in early Spanish still-life paintings that held food items aloft in the bodegas (food pantries) to keep them aired, reduce bruising and thus slow decay. For me the string could serve as a metaphor to link the present and past, light and shadow, the seen to the unseen. And so on.
Spanish still life by Cótan
Marking a break from producing prints in colour, I decided to work in monotone. I photographed with a limited depth of field, showing areas of deep shadow that opened up to a singular object in focus. To paraphrase a quote, I was looking to ‘give the feeling of the night, not to tell the night as it is’. Instead of producing the work digitally, I decided to use an ancient manual printing method called photogravure*. I felt that this would compliment the nature of the agriculture of the period where everything was done by hand.
(* Photogravure, originating in the late-1800s, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful, challenging and labour-intensive of the photographic printing processes. A photographic image is etched onto the surface on a metal plate, then oil-based inks are pressed into the grooves and gently wiped. The inked plate is ‘pulled’ through a traditional printing press transferring the image to a sheet of paper. Unlike other photographic prints where the image lies on the surface, with a photogravure the image is pressed into the paper, producing a print that is rich in detail and texture.)
This project, "Kitab al-Filaha", with its strange but appropriate title, was completed over a period of two years, resulting in a series of limited-edition photogravure prints and a hand-stitched set of 2-book with pictures, stories and quotes. To date (2021), I have exhibited the work in several galleries in the Middle East and Spain. The last exhibition was held in the almudéjar house of Casa Árabe in Córdoba, Spain; the ideal place for the work, an ancient Islamic-inspired building from more than half a century ago.
I am grateful to these ancient mountains of the Alpujarra. They affected me deeply by changing something of my perception of life and connecting me to a distant and intriguing past. Exploring the remains and traces of the past, ghosts from ancient times. enriched my thoughts and feelings, and ultimately allowed me to continue on my own path wherever it may go.
To see the full series of photographic images go here
A selection of limited edition photogravure prints are available here
Additional note on Filaha in Islam
"Al-Filaha is the foundation of civilization - all food and sustenance derives from it, as well as the principal benefits and blessings that life brings" - Ibn ‘Abdūn, c.1147, Seville
The Arabic word al-filaha is used to mean the agricultural farming and care of land for crops and animal livestock. It also means to prosper, and to be successful and happy. From the minarets of every mosque five times a day during the call to prayer we hear the words “hayya ‘alal falah” (come to salvation and success). Thus, in Islam, the cultivation and care of land are inextricably linked with our well-being, both in this world and in the next.
It is popularly believed that the Arabs came out of the desert as a pastoral, nomadic people who bred sheep, camels and fine horses. With the appearance and rapid rise of Islam, they developed advanced knowledge of architecture and decorative arts, philosophy and mathematics, medicine and the sciences, and they were known for their success as merchants. The Arabs are not known, however, for proficiency in agriculture. Yet several thousand years before Islam, farmers in the region that is now Yemen, were skilfully terracing rain-fed mountain slopes and building irrigation systems to create what the ancient Greeks and the Romans called ‘happy, fortunate, flourishing Arabia’, on account of its abundant fruits and flocks of animals. In Eastern Arabia intensive oasis agriculture had already been developed as early as 1000 BC. The Arabs had a long history of farming especially in matters of water harvesting and irrigation. Through the spread of Islam from the 7th century AD, this expertise along with the local knowledge of farmers in the lands now called Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iran and Egypt, was taken to North Africa, Sicily and Spain, producing a remarkable flourishing of agriculture.
(From An Introductory Survey of the Arabic Books of Filāḥa and Farming by Abdal Hamid Fitzwilliam-Hall, 2010)
It was in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) between the 10th and 14th centuries that Muslim agriculturists developed the most complex, advanced and scientific agricultural systems known. They were experts of irrigation and water management, of caring for the soil and using natural fertilisers, of cultivating the best orchards and vegetable gardens, and of breeding the finest strains of sheep and horses.
This accumulated knowledge was compiled in a series of agricultural books, the most famous of which was Kitab al-Filaha compiled by Ibn al’Awwam al-Ishbili, a 12th century Muslim agriculturist from Seville in southern Spain. It comprised of more than a thousand pages of text and drawings, and dealt with all aspects of agriculture and the care of land and livestock. It was the most comprehensive treatment of the subject of its time in Arabic or any other language.