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Water Scarcity, Local Adaptability, and the Changing Landscape of the Fayyum

Brendan Haug

It is easy to allocate resources that exist in sufficient quantities to satisfy the needs of all of their users. If constant, unregulated use poses no danger to the supply or quality of a resource, there is little need to regulate access. The allocation of scarce resources, however, requires more care. If supplies are insufficient to satisfy every user’s desires, rules must be put in place to govern access and to resolve disputes. Still more difficult is the regulated allocation of resources whose supplies are unpredictable and variable. Such circumstances have the potential to foster anarchic opportunism as users scramble to take advantage of whatever resources are temporarily available.

It has been notoriously difficult to extract from the papyri of the Fayyum (Arsinoite nome) any indications of the regime(s) that governed the allocation of its most important natural resource, irrigation water. This is curious because the Fayyum was irrigated by canals, rather than directly by the river. As a result, each village was inextricably linked to its neighbors, which made downstream villages susceptible to water supply problems if upstream use increased or if the flood was poor. Indeed, periodic shortages and the resulting struggles within and even between villages are documented as early as the Zenon archive (3rd century BCE) and continue to appear in the papyri throughout the Roman period.

This paper argues that the natural environment of the Fayyum’s high-altitude border regions informed the development of a flexible and somewhat anarchic approach to irrigated agriculture.  Since the Nile’s flood fluctuated from year to year, the amount of water that would eventually reach these high, far-flung villages could not have been accurately predicted. This was also the case in Abu ‘Uthmân al-Nâbulsî’s 13th century Fayyum, where high-altitude fields at the ends of canals were not governed by water quotas and were cultivated only if water reached them.  

Ancient Fayyum farmers also adapted to environmental unpredictability by remaining highly mobile. Fayyum papyri provide ample evidence of individuals who were either residing outside their village of record or who had disappeared “to unknown places,” in the words of a frustrated tax collector (P.Ryl IV 595 [57 CE], l. 58: eis agnooumenous topous). As Horst Braunert’s Binnenwanderung demonstrated nearly half a century ago, such mobility was the rule in Fayyum agricultural life rather than an exception.

Previous scholarship has overlooked the environmental underpinnings of these aspects of Fayyum agricultural life.  Instead, mobility and changes in the landscape have often been regarded as the results of administrative oppression or as local manifestations of a generalized imperial decline. Still, several recent studies have provided helpful correctives.  Andrew Monson’s reappraisal of Fayyum productivity has stressed its extreme marginality and underproductivity. On the archaeological side, R. James Cook’s survey of the canal network at Karanis has revealed a complex and dynamic system that watered a constantly shifting landscape.

Although the marginal Fayyum thrived on such mobility, Rome sought stasis. Institutions such as the penthemeros, for instance, attempted to bind villagers in place by burdening village land with compulsory services. Such demands were at odds with local agricultural practice. Indeed, by making inflexible demands of an environment that desperately required a lighter touch, Rome inadvertently encouraged farmers to abandon their villages. In so doing, the state hastened the changes in the landscape that it was trying so hard to prevent.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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