Water Management: the use of stars in Oman
Date: 22 October 2008
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies
Ancient settlements in Oman are frequently found where crops can be cultivated with groundwater distributed to fields by gravity flow. These irrigation systems are called aflāj (s. falaj), and they are still pivotal to community life: in 1997 over 3000 such systems were still in use. The allocation of falaj water among farmers ...
Ancient settlements in Oman are frequently found where crops can be cultivated with groundwater distributed to fields by gravity flow. These irrigation systems are called aflāj (s. falaj), and they are still pivotal to community life: in 1997 over 3000 such systems were still in use. The allocation of falaj water among farmers traditionally depended on the use of the sun and the stars to track the passage of time. This practice, and particularly the use of stars, is disappearing rapidly: the availability of watches since c. 1970 means that there is now little technical reason to use the stars. The study records fast disappearing information on the ethnography of agricultural communities in northern Oman and, in particular, on the use of stars. It aims to identify the stars used and record the methods of stargazing in sufficient detail that the systems could be replicated if all local knowledge were lost. It also aims to raise awareness and improve the understanding of the significance of the traditional use of the stars in irrigated agriculture. This aspect of the cultural heritage of the region has not been written about previously in such detail. The research questions concern how, where and why stars are still used. There are several documents on falaj building and organisation in Oman, but relatively little on telling the time, and much less on the stars than on the use of the sun. The available documents were reviewed, but the main source for this study is data collected in the field, interviewing falaj managers and stargazers and watching the stars with them. Field work was carried out in different seasons since the stars used vary through the year. International experts were consulted on various aspects of the work, including Daniel Varisco on folk astronomy and Paul Kunitzsch on star names. The study focuses on five settlements where stars are used to this day. These are Qarya Beni Subh (Qarya), close to the mountains near the town of Al Hamra in the Interior Region; Al Fath, Zahib, Sudayra and Barzaman near the towns of Mudaybi and Sinaw in the Eastern Region. Additional information was obtained from a few other places for comparison, and during the course of the research it was found that only about eight of three thousand active falaj communities still use stars for time keeping. The methods of stargazing are given in detail, together with the names of the stars in Oman and their international classification where possible. It was found that the number of stars, the stars used, and their names in Oman vary from place to place. The time that each star represents is more variable than expected from the difference in length of night during the year. The stars used for falaj purposes are compared with those used in the region for navigation and with the stations of the moon of the Islamic calendar, but no evidence of any link between them was identified. On the basis of the history of falaj systems in Oman, the star names and the stars used, at least two of which are from the pre-Islamic Bedu tradition, it is concluded that the system of stargazing for timing water dates from pre-Islamic times, before the introduction of the stations of the moon. The main reason for the continued use of stars by a few communities, even though wristwatches are now widely available, is thought to be adherence to tradition both for its own sake and to avoid disputes over the sharing of water. It is considered unlikely that this ancient practice will survive more than 10 or 20 years unless the younger generation takes an interest in learning, and putting into practice, the traditions of their forefathers.
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