Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia

Thomas F. Glick

Chapter Ten

Irrigation Administration in Al-Andalus: The Sâhib al Sâqiya

[198] Of the officials who presided over the distribution of water in Al-Andalus, and of the administrative apparatus, procedure, and regulations that guided them in their duties, next to nothing is known.

Ibn Haiyân recounted the story of the eleventh-century freedmen Mubârak and Muzaffar, who were "in charge of the administration of irrigation [or of the canal, that is, wakâlat alsâqiya] in Valencia" and who then rose to the dignity of emir, in Valencia and Játiva, respectively. (1) We know also, from a sixteenth-century translation of an Arabic document, that waters of the Genil in Granada were apportioned in 1219 (616 of the Hejira), during the Almohade period, by a certain Ahmad b. 'Abd Allah, "the well-known apportioner of said river." (2)

Records of two water disputes between Andalusí towns fail to shed light on administrative processes, although they provide some detail regarding settlement of regional water conflict. Litigation in 1187 (583 H.) between two Andalusian towns, Bartillana and Lubros, was resolved by agreement between their sheiks and other irrigators upon the advice of experts and men who knew the local custom (a pattern ordinarily followed in Christian Spain except that the sheik's role would be taken by a lawyer or syndic representing the town and the cequier or other administrative officials would usually figure among the experts). Only after the disputants reached agreement was the document taken before the qadi of Guadix for official ratification. (3) A similar settlement was achieved in 1223 (619 H.) between the towns [199] of Torres Torres and Carcer, in the Valencian region. After it had dragged on for twenty years, this dispute was finally argued before the chief qadi of Morvedre, Abû al-Hasan b. Fath, and the faqih, Mubammad b. Hazben. (4) Again no administrators are mentioned in this document. Here the qadi represents a level of authority higher than the local level, to which irrigators had recourse when local means failed. In the same way, cases in Christian Spain which could not be solved by the cequier and the local administrative apparatus reached the court of the governor of the kingdom.

Even though a picture of everyday administration of irrigation in Al-Andalus cannot be outlined on the basis of these meager references, still a reconstruction of Islamic practice can be attempted on the basis of terminology applied by the Christians to their irrigation officials (çabacequies, alami, and alcalde de las aguas, for example).


There are no actual references in extant Hispano-Arabic sources to an official called sâhijb al-sâqiya. (5) A derived arabism (çabacequia) first appeared in thirteenth-century Aragon, (6) and related forms were current in Valencia (çabacequies, çabacequier) and Murcia (sobrecequiero, juez sobrecequiero) soon after the two towns were captured from the Muslims.

As was true of other irrigation terms as well, the functions of these Christian officials and the semantic fluidity of their titles varied considerably from region to region. The çabacequies-sobrecequiero was the chief irrigation official in some locales (Burriana, Orihuela), whereas in others, such as in the Valencian huerta, the çabacequzes was subordinate to the cequier. In some places, moreover, the irrigation officer served the autonomous community of irrigators (huerta of Valencia), while in others (Castellón, Orihuela) he was a municipal functionary. There seem to have been, thus, two models for the medieval Christian organization of irrigation administration: a cellular one, based on irrigation communities with their own elected officials, and [200] a centralized one, in which irrigation administration was a branch of a higher jurisdiction, typically that of the town.

The municipal model is the one which more closely corresponds to my conception of the Andalusí sâhib al-sâqiya. In the Islamic judicial system the representative of ordinary justice was the qadi, but specialized areas of law were entrusted to special magistrates, subordinate to the qadâ'. Under the Umayyads in particular the administrative justice of the qadâ' was broken down and specialized jurisdictions were created. These officials were favored in western Islam more so than in the East; particularly in Al-Andalus special organs of justice flourished. Al-Harashî, a jurisprudent of the Malikite rite (that prevailing in Al-Andalus) stated that the prince was empowered to institute special jurisdictions in determined categories of judicial process: he cites, for example, a qadi for matrimonial affairs, a qadi of the police, and, significantly, a "qadi of water." (7) This qâdi al-miyah of Al-Andalus survived into the post-Islamic epoch as the alcalde de las aguas of Lorca, a municipal official whose duties and jurisdiction were similar to those of the sobrecequiero of Orihuela. (8)

In the caliphate of the Andalusí Umayyads, various of these magistracies subordinate to the qadâ', all with the title of sâhib, came to play an important role in municipal life. Indeed, their function was to fill an administrative void in Islamic law, which lacked a specific body of municipal law and did not provide for any distinct municipal jurisdiction. The marketplace became the province of the sâhib al-sûq (master of the market), whose surveillance also included guilds and matters of public health and morality. Criminal procedure and the town police were the charge of the sâhib al-shurta (master of the police), also known in some cities of western Islam as sâhib al-madîna or master of the city. The essential characteristic of these magistrates was that -- unlike the qadi -- they could initiate action. Characteristically they were out on the beat, in the marketplace and on the streets of the city, seeking out misdemeanors and exacting punishment. The qadi was not competent in criminal matters, and therefore [201] these autonomous magistracies rounded out the qadâ' jurisdiction and responded to the practical necessities of urban life.(9)

These three sâhib offices were adopted, at one time or another, by Christian towns neighboring Al-Andalus. The sâhib al-shurta first appeared in Christian Spain in the late tenth century (zahbascorta, in a document of 998), the sâhib al-sûq in 1020 (zavazouke), and the sâhib al-madîna in the twelfth century (çalmedina, çavalmedina). (10) The çavacequia first appeared a century later but survived considerably longer than the others. The tradition of the zavazouke, however, was carried on by another Islamic transplant, the mustasaf (in Valencian and Catalan usage; almotacen in Castilian (11)), paralleling the supplantation of the Umayyad sâhib al-sûq by the Abbasid muhtasib. The muhtasib's functions were identical to those of his predecessor but were executed under the guise of specific religious precepts.

Because the modus operandi of the Christian cequier was similar to that of the mustasaf, and because the mustasaf inherited the administrative procedure of the muhtasib with only slight modification, (12) there are grounds for assuming that the Andalusí sâhib al-sâqiya acted in ways similar to those of the muhtasib. The cequier, the mustasaf, and the muhtasib all initiated actions; they all heard small disputes (small, that is, in terms of the fine required by the misdemeanor involved) based upon customary law as embodied in municipal, communal, or guild regulations or custom. They could both sentence and fine summarily, and their legal business was conducted by oral process (perforce: in Islamic Law only the qadi has jurisdiction in cases where any evidence in writing is admitted). (13)

The affinities between the two Christian officials in jurisdiction as well as in procedure points to their common background as municipal magistracies in Al-Andalus. In medieval Valencia the mustasaf of the city and the cequiers of the canals which passed through it (Rovella and Favara) came into frequent jurisdictional conflict. The mustasaf was inspector of the mills, as of all economic activity, but mills were users of canal water and therefore also under the surveillance of the cequiers. Both [202] cequier and mustasaf had competence over the condition of the roads, the mustasaf being interested in their state generally with an eye toward the comfort of pedestrians and travelers, the cequier in seeing that canal water did not flood them. Both officials were interested in matters of public health, such as might arise from stagnant water, sewers, and industrial waste produced by tanners, dyers, and other urban craftsmen who used canal water. Both were regularly on patrol, searching out misdemeanors, the mustasaf on behalf of the town weal, the cequier carrying out his charge from the community of irrigators.

Even though no direct evidence can be brought to bear upon the Andalusí sâhib al-sâqiya, therefore, comparison with other officials of similar name, procedure, and jurisdiction makes possible an educated guess concerning the nature of the office. Like the other sâbib magistracies which passed into Spanish usage, the sâhib al-sâqiya of Al-Andalus must have been an urban officer with limited police powers and the ability to judge summarily everyday infractions of water law or other regulations contingent upon water use. He would have been charged with ensuring equity in the distribution of water, just as the muhtasib was the guarantor of the equity of the marketplace. He would not have been elected by a community of irrigators but would have been the appointee of the governor or prince. In addition, he would have been charged with carrying out basic Koranic precepts concerning the public nature of water and the duty to share it equally and keep it clean and pure. His charge to do so would have been in general terms--just as the muhtasib was enjoined "to encourage what is good and to discourage what is evil"-- which were not necessarily embodied in written regulations. On the other hand, and beyond his discretionary powers, he would have had to enforce specific customs, arrangements, and legal precedents regarding turns, the repair and cleaning of canals and diversion dams, and the stealing of water and other common irrigation infractions.

Like the muhtasib, the sâhib al-sâqiya would have come into frequent jurisdictional conflict with officials representing other [203] levels of administration or social groups, especially tribal authorities. His authority therefore would have diminished (or have been increasingly disputed) as he moved farther from the main urban canal or canals. His primary responsibilities would have been care of the diversion dam, cleaning and policing the main canal, and establishing the turns on the main canal. The secondary canals, such as the "Beni" canals of Murcia, would have been more the responsibility of tribal leaders (this would not preclude the sâhib's role as coordinator).


The sâhib al-sâqiya was not the only irrigation official known to Al-Andalus. A lesser functionary, the amîn al-mâ', was characteristic of the smaller irrigation systems and was usually subordinate to a more powerful official with wider jurisdiction. The amîn al-mâ' is considerably less of a puzzle than the sâhib alsâqiya. The office persists in modern Islamic systems which have been studied; the derived Christian institution is well documented; and medieval sources are extant showing the office in transition.

Amin means "reliable, trustworthy," and, as a noun, "guardian, keeper, superintendent," and was applied to a wide variety of officials to whom were entrusted functions of economic or administrative responsibility. (14) The derived Christian officer was known in Romance by the Valencian arabism alamí (alamín in Castilian) (15) or by the literal translation, fiel (as in the fiel de pesos y medidas or the fiel de aguas of Elche). The amîn differed from the cequier in that he was solely an administrative official with no criminal competence. He never initiated action against malefactors or exercised powers of summary justice.

The amîn al-mâ' is the typical water officer of the Saharan oases and the Iberian alamí appears in places whose institutions strongly resemble them (notably Elche and Novelda). The amîn is concerned largely with the distribution of water and direction of turns and has often been associated with systems in which the [204] sale of water has made the distribution so complicated that a special official is needed simply to keep track of all the transactions and ensure order in the turns.

Sir Clements Markham's description of the alamí of Novelda at mid-nineteenth century is one which accords completely with descriptions of Saharan amîns:

The official, to whom is entrusted the difficult and confidential duties of managing the distribution and sale of the water, is nominated by the Municipality. He is called the Alami, a word of Arabic origin; and the post is one requiring so much special knowledge, that it is always given to the members of certain families, who have held it from time immemorial. . . . After the sale of the next night's hilos, those of the next day are sold, and the Alami then arranges the distribution of the water according to the number of hours it is to flow in this or that channel. . .

It will at once be seen that the duties of the Alami require constant attention, much care, and an intimate knowledge of the localities, for their satisfactory performance. He has to remember where the hilos of day and night irrigation have been delivered during the previous twenty-four hours, and which is the nearest among those sold on the current day, to combine the directions in which the water should flow with requisite volume, so that there may be sufficient in the places where each azumbre is to be delivered, adding to, or diverting from, the various channels, so as to secure these ends. (16) These complicated operations can only be satisfactorily performed by persons who have had long experience, and are withal quick-witted and intelligent. (17)

The similarity of Markham's alamí to Saharan amîns is striking. In Ghadames and Touat, where water is sold, the amîn sets and measures the hours of distribution of water. In Touzer, the intricacies of distribution at the beginning of the present century were known by one man only, the amîn al-mâ', who had learned them from his father, who in turn had received the information from his ancestors. (18)

A medieval Romance document attests the existence of this [205] officer in Islamic Spain. The Moorish quarter of Elche, located in the Arrabal de San Juan, was irrigated from the Marchena Canal, a channel constructed in Christian times especially for the use of the moreria. Nevertheless, it was administered autonomously by the Muslims themselves and the pertinent administrative officer was the alamí. In a document of 1435, Obaquer (Abû Bakr) Ismael, "alamí, or divider of the water, of the huerta of the Moors of the town of Elche during the past year," rendered an accounting of all the units of water "which were sold by me, the said alamí." (19) Similarly, in an account of the dues paid by the Moorish quarter in 1461, it was noted that "the queen possessed 43 units {of Marchena Canal water] which were sold each Friday by the alamí or fiel of the Moorish quarter (moreria)." (20)


Proof of continuity in two administrative traditions would not authorize an assertion that irrigation administration was homogeneous throughout Al-Andalus. On the contrary, significant regional variations existed. The acequiero of sixteenthcentury Granada, whose procedure was known at the time to be an Islamic inheritance, was quite distinct from his Valencian counterparts. In Granada the acequiero had jurisdiction over the mills and the tanning shed, as distinguished from Valencian regulations attributing these jurisdictions to the bailiff and the mustasaf. Moreover, the acequiero, though a municipal appointee, was paid by a weekly assessment of three maravedis per mill and received no other salary. The city was obliged to supplement this income with an annual stipend, since no one could be found to take office on the old terms. (21) The Valencian officials, on the other hand, either were paid annual salaries or received part of the fines they collected or both.

Furthermore, while both traditions studied here are characterized by appointment to an urban jurisdiction, there was also in Islamic law -- especially Malikite law -- a strong tradition of communal irrigation, characterized by autonomous [206]administration. In Islamic law irrigation canals are the communal property of the individuals who contributed to their establishment. The commons alone have the right to use the water of their canal for irrigation and they rule the affairs of the canal. The co-irrigators set the turns, and no one of them may erect a mill or even build a bridge over the canal without the agreement of all. (22) Just as in Christian Spain, then, it is probable that in Al-Andalus centralization of irrigation administration was an independent variable. In some localities original communal or tribal autonomy may have been ceded to a higher authority; in others it may have persisted until the end of Islamic rule.

Notes for Chapter Ten

1. The story is told in the Dhahîra of ibn Haiyân and is quoted by ibn 'Idhâri, Al-Bayân al-Mughrib, ed. E. Lévi-Provençal, vol. III (Paris, 1930), p. 158: "kânâ waliyâ . . wakâlat al-sâqiya bi-balansiya." Sâqiya in this context may indeed mean "irrigation," by extension; but the sense might better be that of one canal, i.e, a municipal one. See Ambrosio Huici Miranda, "Dos acequieros musulmanes, reyes de Valencia," Las Provincias (Valencia), May 21, 1961.

2. Manuel Garrido Atienza, Los alquezares de Santafe (Granada, 1893), p. 40: "Hamet fijo de Abdalla, el conosçido repartidor del dicho río." The partition was certified by the chief qadi of Granada (p. 42) who naturally did not participate in any of the technical details of irrigation. This document, entitled Repartimiento de las aguas del Río Genil, was translated from the original Arabic by the royal scribe Ambrosio Xarafy on Feb. 12, 1502.

3. González Palencia, "Documentos árabes del Cenete," pp. 321-325.

4. ARV, Procesos de Madrid, Libro S, no 429.

5. A pre-Islamic Arabian official, the sâhib al-siqâya, is a possible model; he was not, however, an irrigation officer, but merely one who provided drinking water for pilgrims to the Ka'ba in Mecca.

6. Neuvonen, Arabismos, p. 245: "Fueros de Aragón: Quando alguno es acusado sobre furto. . . aquel qui guarda el agua o la çequia, qui es clamado cauaçequia. . ." See Table 22, no. 6, of the present vol.

7. Tyan, Organisation judiciaire, p. 559. This is the only reference to the qâdi al-miyâh known to Tyan. Elsewhere (p. 111) he points out that, particularly in Spain, the title of qadi lost its original restricted meaning: there judges with reduced and special jurisdictions were called qadi. Ibn Pascual called the police officer usually known as sâhib al-shurta by the term qâdi al-shurta.

8. Ordenanzas y privilegios de la muy noble y leal ciudad de Lorca (Granada, 1713), nos. 105, 294, 298 (pp. 33, 129, 135). The sobrecequier of Elche was also called the juez de aguas, a translation of qâdi al-miyâh (Ibarra y Ruiz, Riego de Elche, p. 98).

9. Tyan, Organisation judiciaire, pp. 576, 601, 646.

10. Neuvonen, Arabismos, pp. 80, 128. For the office of zavazouke or zavazoure, see L. G. de Valdeavellano, "El mercado: apuntes para su historia en León y Castilla durante la Edad Media," Anuario de historia del derecho español, 8 (1931), 321-322. For the çalmedinado of Zaragoza (1391) see Bofarull. Colección de documentos inéditos, VIII, 353.

11. For the etymology of muhtasib into almotacen, mustasaf, see Neuvonen, Arabismos, pp. 93--94; J. Corominas,Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana, 4 vols (Madrid, 1954), I, 159; Arnald Steiger, Contribución a la fonética del hispanoárabe (Madrid, 1932), pp. 110 (final b into f) and 265 (interior ha dropping out).

12. See Thomas F. Glick, "The Muhtasib in Islam," unpub. diss. (Columbia University, 1963)

13. Compare the judicial procedure of the medieval mustasaf (Garcia, "Actuación procesal del mustaçaf," pp. 301-310) and that of the medieval cequier, above Chap. III..

14. Claude Cahen, "Amîn" in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (Leiden, Brill, 1960--), I, 437.

15. Corominas, Diccionario, I, 77, Dozy, Supplément, I, 38.

16. This practice is identical to that of jaricar in Lorca. The Alporchón of Lorca, wherein the sale of water takes place, is administered by a fiel (amîn in Spanish trans.).

17. Report, pp. 58-59. Markham's description of Novelda's irrigation system, which lie believed was closest to the Arabic model, is still the best.

18. Henri Schirmer, Le Sahara (Paris, 1893), p. 286 on Ghadames. On Touat, H. M. P. de la Martinière and N. Lacroix, Documents pour servir a l'étude du Nord Ouest africain (Lille, 1897), III, 219--221. The official in Touat was called the kiel el-ma (measurer of water, from the root k-y-l), a hereditary office. On Touzer, Brunhes, L'Irrigation, p. 488. On El Aghouat. ibid., p. 251; also Eugene Fromentin, Une été dans le Sahara (Paris, 1857), pp 157-159.

19. Ibarra y Ruiz, Riego de Elche, pp. 241--242: "Yo Obaquer Ismael alami o partidor del aygua."

20. Ibid., p. 238.

21. "Ordenanza de las aguas de la ciudad de Granada (1538)," in Franquet y Bertrán, Ensayo, II, 179:

el dicho azequiero por razón de dicho cargo conforme a la costumbre antigua, tenia de salario de cada molino y batan que muelen con el agua de dichas azequias, tres maravedis cada viernes, y demás de esto tenia cada dia nueve maravedís, los quales le daban y pagaban los arrendadores de la zaquifa [roofed gallery] de los cueros de la Ciudad, y assi parece por cierta información que de ella se huyo, como después que la Ciudad se fundó, assi de tiempo de Moros, como despues de Christianos, se han pagado los dichos derechos al dicho azequiero, y porque el dicho salario es poco, y al presente no se halla persona que sirva el dicho oficio con el, mandamos que al dicho azequiero le den los dichos tres maravedís cada molino y batan que muelen con las dichas azequias cada viernes, y los dichos neuve maravedís cada dia los dichos arrendadores que agora son . . . de la dicha renta de la zaquifa, conforme a la dicha costumbre antigua, y demas de lo susodicho, la Ciudad de Granada le dé de sus propios cuatro mil maravedís de salario en cada un año.

22. Memorandum from J. Lapanne-Joinville to Arthur Maass, typescript, p. 21 ("Seguias communes"); Bruno, Régime des eaux en droit musulman, p. 39.