“He who revives dead land”: groundwater harvesting agroecosystems in sand along the southeastern Mediterranean coast since early medieval times

Joel Roskin, Itamar Taxel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During the Early Islamic period, groundwater-harvesting agroecosystems in sand appeared along the southeastern Mediterranean coast in the form of plot and berm (P&B) agroecosystems. P&B agroecosystems are agricultural utilizations of shallow, perched rainfall-fed groundwater tables within loose aeolian sand sheets of agricultural hinterlands. These systems involve man-made sand berms that delimit sunken agricultural plots in which refuse-enriched sand transformed into distinct anthrosols. Groundwater table is easily accessible to crop roots and/or humans for water extraction and can support several annual crop cycles. P&B agroecosystems demonstrate innovative adaptations to aeolian and fluvial erosion. Despite the lack of written records, these agroecosystems apparently developed in response to religio-administrative calls for a type of mawāt (Arabic: “dead”) land reclamation. Mawāt are unowned wastelands, which were an important religion-based matter in Islamic economic history. Contemporary mawasi agroecosystems along the northeastern Sinai Peninsula and Southern Gaza Strip Mediterranean coast are similar to the Early Islamic systems. They are reclaimed today by sedentary Bedouins using mechanized water drilling and modification of plot and soil surface levels to compensate for fluctuating groundwater levels. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, Arab peasants cultivated grapes and fruit trees in interdune plantations along the Gaza Strip and southern Israeli coast where the groundwater table was several meters beneath the surface. These three groundwater harvesting agroecosystems in sand are resourceful rainfall-fed agrotechnologies that are independent of the physical and juridical constraints of surficial water supply systems. The unique concentration of these agroecosystems along the southeastern Mediterranean coastal strip implies that biocultural memories were probably transmitted by Islamic culture since their hypothesized inception in coastal Israel. Preservation of these sustainable agroecosystems is a matter of geoethical responsibility and should be treated like other endangered archaeo-landscape elements of the Mediterranean past.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-318
Number of pages26
JournalMediterranean Geoscience Reviews
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG.


  • Aeolian sand sheet
  • Agroecosystems
  • Ancient (plot-and-berm) groundwater harvesting agriculture
  • Anthrosols
  • Early medieval to early modern periods
  • Islamic law
  • Refuse utilization
  • Sustainability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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