Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 42, Fall/Winter 1997
Urban Agriculture in Drylands

Agriculture in Middle Eastern cities: Commonalities and contrasts

by Joe Nasr and Paul Kaldjian

"In an urbanizing world running short of resources, the possibility that cities can depend on the ingenuity of their residents to generate food security for themselves is significant. In countries where hunger and malnutrition are predominantly urban problems, any activity that can contribute to the nutritional self-reliance of a community, city or metropolitan region is significant. In cities choking in their own waste and pollution, an industry that can use urban waste as a basic resource is significant."

--Urban agriculture: Food, jobs and sustainable cities,
p. 3

Editor's note: This article is a slightly revised version of a paper originally prepared for the conference "Transformations of Middle Eastern Environments: Legacies and Lessons"
October 30-November 1, 1997
Council on Middle East Studies
Yale Center for International and Area Studies
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut


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Agriculture is a productive activity not typically associated with urban areas, where it is often seen as at most a marginal use for land that is awaiting future development. Yet research indicates that agricultural production within urban and peri-urban regions may be very significant in terms of meeting household nutritional requirements and food security, as well as offering income-earning opportunities and various environmental enhancements. At the same time, the rapid expansion of urban agriculture in highly differentiated urban environments sometimes leads to problems which counter its great benefits to some extent.

After remaining largely invisible for many years, urban agriculture and urban food systems are receiving growing attention, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. However, little such attention has been directed toward the cities of the Middle East. While basic constraints, opportunities and interactions are shared the world over, agriculture in Middle Eastern cities presents important contrasts to other regions on several counts. Arid and semi-arid environments, Mediterranean crop/climate regimes, Islamic and other socio-religious cultures, a long history of urbanization, and the place of the region in the global political economy are among the factors that specifically influence urban agriculture dynamics in the Middle East. Indeed, the development of urban agriculture here may be at the vanguard of trends in other regions, given the high levels of urbanization and greater fragility of agricultural lands in this region.

This paper is divided into two major sections. The first identifies and briefly describes those distinguishing features that characterize urban agriculture and urban food supply throughout the Middle East. Next, recognizing that, despite such unifying characteristics, the Middle East is neither physically nor culturally homogenous, the second section identifies those differences across Middle Eastern space and society that hold significant implications for urban agriculture and food systems. In raising these issues, this paper does not mean to be comprehensive but to suggest starting points for future research on urban agriculture and urban food supply in the Middle East. As such, and since the authors regard this as an ongoing project, the paper concludes with a request for comments, examples of urban agriculture in the Middle East, and suggestions for future efforts.

Particularities of urban agriculture in the Middle East

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Regional differences in urban agriculture must be explored to avoid misleading generalizations and to understand the unique local factors and causal influences that contribute to varying food security strategies in different Middle Eastern cities. However, it is also important to keep in mind the differences between rural and urban contexts, even within the same country or sub-region. National policies, resource accessibility, labor alternatives, opportunity costs, and information access are just a few of the many factors relevant to urban agriculture that differ between a city and its hinterland. Where appropriate, this section attempts to address both of these spatial differences.

Predominance of Arid and Semi-arid Climates

The Middle East has no monopoly on arid and semi-arid climates. The presence of such conditions in other regions such as the West African hinterland, northwest India and coastal Chile endows urban agriculture in these disparate locations with certain shared characteristics. The difference in the Middle East is that aridity is the single greatest factor affecting urban agriculture in almost all cities in this entire sizable region, extending from North Africa, across the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, and up through the Levant and Fertile Crescent to Turkey. In over three-fourths of this region, evaporation exceeds precipitation, and nearly half of the Middle East is actual desert.

Furthermore, while water shortages are common in arid and semi-arid urban areas worldwide, seasonal precipitation patterns associated with the Mediterranean basin may further exacerbate these shortages in many Middle Eastern locations. That is, there is a near-complete lack of rain in the eastern and southern Mediterranean for several summer months (the primary growing season), with rain falling primarily during the winter. However, just as dams and impoundments prolong the availability of water in rural areas, the presence of an extensive water distribution system in an urban area can help offset this problem for the urban farmer.

Given the primary importance of access to water, the linking of urban agriculture to urban wastewater reuse is more vital in the Middle East than elsewhere, though its full potential is still far from being met. To use treated wastewater for irrigation makes particular sense in this region since primary water sources can then be freed for other uses such as drinking water. Proper treatment is of course essential. However, for broad environmental reasons, treatment of urban-generated waste is necessary in any case.

The predominance of aridity as a defining feature of Mideastern urban agriculture affects the types of crops that are grown there. Of the many crops that are particularly characteristic of the Mediterranean basin or of the more desertic Arabian and Saharan subregions, some are more suited to urban cultivation than others. Such crops typically show greater productivity in limited land; higher potential for the adoption of intensive, commercialized techniques; less susceptibility to contamination from polluted soil, air or irrigation water; or the ability to fulfill multiple purposes. An example of this last category is arid-region fruit-bearing trees such as figs, dates, mulberries and olives, which can also act as ornamental trees in urban areas.

Finally, the Middle East has a special role to play as an incubator for new technology, precisely because of the prevalent arid and semi-arid conditions and their consequences. For example, Israel and Jordan have developed techniques for controlled watering in greenhouses and outdoors; Israel, Tunisia and Morocco are experimenting with the recycling of used water; and Arabian Peninsula countries are advancing techniques for desalination of water and the use of halophytic crops. Despite such efforts, there remains a long way to go in developing arid climate technologies and making them broadly accessible and operational.


Dietary restrictions on religious grounds are common in the Middle East. Most notably, both Moslems and Jews are prohibited from raising pigs. In many other regions, pigs have a particularly important role in urban areas, most markedly in their ability to consume massive quantities of organic solid waste. In Middle Eastern cities, goats often substitute for pigs in the performance of this function.

We have pointed out above how wastewater reuse has special potential in urban areas across the Mideast. However, this potential is greatly restricted by religious limitations: some Muslim clerics do not approve of such a use. Still, there appears to be no clearcut prohibition as there is in the case of pork. Because they are subject to varying religious interpretations, wastewater reuse initiatives will likely remain uneven across the Middle East.

Both Islam and Judaism have special requirements for processing agricultural products, particularly livestock. This means that there are special processing practices (halal, kosher) throughout the Middle East that may influence urban agricultural activities, their locations within urban areas, the produce raised, and the uses to which the products are put.

Similarly, religious festivities in the Middle East necessitate the rearing of livestock (mostly lambs) for sacrifice. This often takes place in cities, particularly in poorer neighborhoods; livestock imported from the countryside for this purpose certainly accounts for only a portion of the needs of urban areas. While Orthodox Christians may also kill animals for celebration (namely at Easter), this is generally at a far smaller scale than in Muslim countries. Thus, animals found in urban streets, lots or backyards in Middle Eastern cities may have religious implications beyond only those of household or community food supply.

Islam has a number of sociospatial implications, especially gender-based ones, for urban agriculture. It helps shape the division of labor, determining who cultivates what, where. The gendering of spaces is not limited to urban areas, but the proximity of people to each other and the far greater likelihood of encountering strangers means that the role of women in urban agriculture is greatly affected. The location of gardens is impacted, with those farms within the confines of a plot (particularly an enclosed one) being favored over shared spaces such as community gardens. Where the latter exist in Islamic precincts, the social interactions within them tend to differ from those found in other cultural areas. Naturally, these sociospatial considerations are contingent on the strictness of adherence to Islamic precepts or, put another way, on how Islamic interpretations are incorporated into the daily life of the household, and more generally, the neighborhood, city or region.

Special Role of the State

We have already seen how religion (particularly Islam) can influence urban agricultural practices in several ways in the Middle East. These influences are particularly strong where the state is an officially religious one.

The majority of states in the Middle East remain autocratic. This naturally has consequences for urban agriculture, such as the ability both to impose and to enforce policies that impact the way urban agriculture is practiced. However, such impositions appear more potential than actual.

The more significant role that the state plays in the Middle East is as provider of and decision-maker on food. Hence, food subsidies, price control and import taxes all remain fairly common in the region. Even the prime minister of Lebanon has recently proposed steep new taxes on a whole array of imported foodstuffs, despite the fact that he and his country are known for laissez-faire approaches to economics. Such interventionist policies inevitably affect local agriculture, both urban and rural.

While political motivations behind agriculture, water and land policies can be found globally, some are particular to the Middle East. These impact urban agriculture, sometimes directly but more often indirectly. Consider the "politics of planting" in Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled territories, wherein the ability to cultivate is central to controlling land. This bears particularly on lands in and around established cities, where control of territory is most vital and complex, impacting everyone from backyard gardeners to olive growers. The water policies of several countries adjoining the Euphrates River, for example, impact the water supply to all agriculture within the region. However, urban farming may be less vulnerable than rural farming to such policies, given its access to more varied water sources, particularly reused urban wastewater.

Other Features of Mideastern Urban Agriculture

Certain land tenure characteristics are particular either to the entire Middle East or to certain countries and subregions within it. An especially notable institution is that of the "waqf," that is, land owned by any of various religious communities or foundations. Such land holdings were widespread under the Ottomans and remain extensive today; their presence makes religious groups a key player in agriculture, urban as well as rural. Furthermore, in countries such as Jordan, anyone has the right to cultivate unused land, even without requesting permission; the landowner must wait until the end of the growing season to reclaim the land so used. This practice dates back at least to Ottoman times.

Clearly, urban agricultural activities are rooted in the specific history of the region. The way urban agriculture is practiced today in the Middle East reflects the multiple influences of the region's Islamic, Ottoman, European and various other cultures and societies. The impact of the colonial and pre-colonial heritage is found not only in the choice of particular crops, but even more so in less obvious legacies such as the urban form and land patterns.

The Middle East has one of the highest urbanization rates in the developing world. While Middle Eastern cities do not have particularly high overall density rates, a higher percentage than average of the overall population in the region lives in smaller or larger conurbations. This means that urban agriculture has a more powerful role here than in most other regions. One characteristic that is unfortunately no different here than elsewhere is that urbanization tends to develop onto important agricultural areas. Thus, urban growth creates constant and increasing tensions in the demand for and use of land and water.

Another characteristic of Middle Eastern urbanization is that countries in the region tend to have one or two extremely large cities rather than numerous smaller cities. Thus, more than elsewhere, fostering the prospects of urban agriculture inevitably leads to an emphasis on the largest city or two in each country, typically the political, commercial and/or cultural capitals. On a different but related note, the constant presence of strife in different corners of the Middle East has caused an exceptionally high concentration of long-term refugees. Policies for the settlement of nomads are also common across the region. Both of these realities entail settlements that are quasi-urban in nature, even if they are not within cities proper. Variations of urban agriculture thus have an important function here, even if such a presence is mostly potential rather than actual: farming in resettlement areas could indeed be greatly expanded if favorable policies were to be instituted.

Variations in urban agriculture across the Middle East

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The previous section emphasized broad distinguishing features characterizing the entire Middle East. However, urban agriculture in the Middle East is not a homogenous activity but is a function of the great variety found in its physical and social environments. Intra-regional differences within the Middle East may be just as important to understanding and supporting urban agriculture as inter-regional differences between the Middle East and other global regions.

Variations in the Physical Environment

While aridity is the overwhelming characteristic of the Middle Eastern climate, the degree of aridity varies from city to city. The difference between "Mediterranean" and "desertic" climes has already been alluded to. The range of annual precipitation throughout the Middle East also varies widely: from over 600 mm in Izmir and Istanbul, to about 500 mm in Beirut and Jerusalem, less than 400 mm in Ankara, approximately 300 mm in Aleppo, Amman and Tabriz, over 200 mm in Tehran, Damascus and Sana'a, somewhat less in Baghdad and Alexandria, and between 75 and 120 mm in many cities of the Arabian Peninsula. Aden and Cairo get only 39 and 20 mm, respectively. Other differences in urban farming conditions are related to such things as topography, elevation, latitude, sources of water, and location.

Topography has an impact on more than just climate. Clearly, farming in the plains has to be practiced differently than farming on sloping terraces. This means variations not only in crop and livestock types, cultivation methods, and irrigation systems, but also in the competitiveness of urban agriculture relative to other land uses and therefore in the viability of the farming itself. For example, even within wealthy neighborhoods where such activities generally do not occur, herding and terraced agriculture are conducted in ravines and on hillsides where the slope inhibits other urban uses.

Both climate and topography have implications for water access. Thus, while availability of water for irrigation and livestock is a concern throughout the entire Middle East, in areas where precipitation exceeds evaporation--such as many cities of Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Morocco--access to land can often be a greater obstacle to farming than access to water.

The primary sources of water used in urban agriculture also vary. These sources include drawing water from rivers and streams (fed by snow-melts, springs and rainfall runoff), constructing 'qanats' (horizontal tunnels into mountain aquifers), pumping from wells (which depends on the subterranean character of the district), recycling wastewater, and desalinating sea water (which is unique to certain Arab countries as a significant source for irrigation). Further, water can often be bought and delivered by truck, or even siphoned off from private or public water supplies. In Istanbul, for example, in some urban agricultural fields, one may encounter a water truck with the word "icilmez" (meaning, roughly, "not for drinking") printed on the side, indicating not only how the water is delivered, but that non-potable water is being used.

The geographic position of cities also affects urban farming. The elevation of an urban area, whether it lies along a coast or inland, whether it straddles an important waterway or not, all result in some differences. For example, the extent to which fishing and aquaculture are significant activities in a city is largely a function of its proximity to a body of water.

Variations in History and Culture

Urban farming has an ancient history in a number of cultures around the world, including Middle Eastern ones. There are variations in the particulars of each tradition. The historical role of the walled garden within Sana'a thus differs significantly from that of the plot in the Egyptian delta leased to a farmer residing in a nearby town, or of the agricultural plots along the historic fortifications of Istanbul.

The historical background of Middle Eastern cities has affected their various urban forms, which in turn have contributed to differences in both the types and the extent of urban farming practiced in each city. To begin with, cities with long histories and an ancient heritage of building distribution and land subdivision necessarily differ from cities that date from the Western occupation period or from after World War II, or that were substantially rebuilt over that period. In particular, where housing was provided by the state, the appropriation by residents of the spaces between the buildings has varied depending on the layout of this housing and the degree of state control over these spaces.

Differences in historically developed cultural practices have also resulted in contrasting urban agricultural practices. The most obvious such differences are tied to religion, namely the presence of three major religions and multiple denominations within them, each with its own particularities of food production, processing and consumption. Other cultural variations in urban farming go beyond religious differences. For example, large animals such as cows and donkeys are a common sight in poor quarters of Cairo but not in those of Beirut.

The legal frameworks within which the urban farmer operates vary according to the historical and cultural antecedents from which they emerged. Legal systems are further influenced by overlying legal frameworks adopted in the 20th Century, in such places as Israel, Iran and Turkey. These legal variations help define what the farmer can and cannot do.

Religious Variations

The important influence of religion, particularly Islam, on Middle Eastern urban agriculture has been identified above. Again, this influence is not monolithic. Most obviously, the multiplicity of both religions and denominations results in differences in diet, religious festivities, processing customs, and so on. Even within a particular religion or denomination, there are differences in interpretation and in strictness of application of religion to daily life and agricultural practices. The most obvious examples may be the aforementioned attitude towards wastewater reuse and the gender divisions of labor.

Statal Variations

While the role of the state tends to be strong in the Middle East, the nature of this role and its consequent influences on urban farming may differ according to a number of general parameters.

  • The fact that a state is religious or secular affects the degree to which religious interpretations and beliefs bear upon agriculture and affect the acceptance of innovations.
  • While autocratic states, whether more or less religious, remain common in the Middle East, several states have relatively democratic features.
  • The munificence of the state also varies greatly. While controls by national governments on the supply and pricing of foodstuffs are often still strong, trends in structural adjustment policies and programs have been towards a retreat from their role as direct providers to the population (particularly the urban one).
  • Another variable in the role of the state is its strength as a policy maker. Even in the same country, the government can shift overnight in the Middle East from a position of non-intervention in agriculture to one of strong policy-making, as the previously mentioned example of Lebanon's agricultural policy shows.
  • Last but not least, contrasts between the adoption of a market-based model versus a state-based model can be found here as elsewhere. In fact, given the regional tendency towards autocratic states, guidance or direct intervention by the state may be more common in the Middle East today than in other regions.

Variations in Urbanization

While the overall level of urbanization in the Middle East is high, there are considerable variations from country to country. Similarly, the population pressures on land and water resources, which are related to these differences in urbanization, also vary in each country, city and neighborhood. The density and sprawl of urban areas in Lebanon contrasts with cities in the Arabic Gulf states that grew from oasis settlements or were recently planted in the vast expanses of the desert. Egypt is yet another variant, as urbanization there is occurring simultaneously in valuable, fertile farm lands and in the adjacent barren sandy stretches. All these urbanization patterns affect the local role of urban agriculture.

Behind these variances in urbanization in the Middle East is a diversity in the levels, rates and types of migration into and from the cities. Whereas many urban farmers are fairly recent migrants in places like Istanbul (where many came from districts along the Black Sea), in Lebanon, by contrast, those who operate farms in peri-urban areas are mostly long-standing agriculturists who, increasingly, use imported, cheaper labor as farm hands.

Economic Variations

The wealth of Middle Eastern nations (including their resource endowment) varies enormously. Following from this, one would expect the nature and extent of urban agriculture to vary significantly depending on this wealth. Who becomes a farmer, which crop types are grown, where within the city, and for what purposes (for example, for the market or for household use) may differ widely based on financial status. Thus, to take one extreme, subsistence home gardening is more common in Khartoum than in Kuwait, whose inhabitants are more likely to turn to capital-intensive greenhouses for producing certain high-end fruits and vegetables.

The impacts of economic structural changes resulting from westernization and structural adjustment programs and policies have affected inflation, employment levels, and the level of development of the informal economy in Mideastern conurbations. The variety in these basic economic yardsticks results in differences in the ways that urban residents use urban farming to mitigate economic pressures.

Political conflicts have marked a number of countries in the Middle East for decades. The hardships caused by international wars, civil wars and economic blockades have meant that particular countries, regions and cities have had to achieve greater agricultural self-reliance, at least over certain time periods. Urban areas especially have had to undergo significant transformations in their food systems, and more specifically a dramatic expansion in urban agriculture, under such circumstances. This is most notable in areas that have faced protracted difficulties: Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon, the occupied territories of Palestine, southern Sudan, Libya, Algeria. Clearly urban farming in such circumstances is different from more "normal" cases in the Middle East. At the same time, what may begin as a temporary adjustment to a hardship may prove to have long-term benefits and may continue beyond the duration of the conflict.


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This paper surveys the primary characteristics that we believe set the context for urban agriculture and urban food systems in the Middle East. This region is underrepresented in the urban agriculture literature. In laying out these issues, our hope is to encourage and promote a better understanding of Middle Eastern agricultural systems, i.e., to better realize their potential, as well as to recognize their flaws and some of the threats they represent.

The implications of our discussion are therefore two-fold. First, the special needs and potential for urban agriculture in Middle Eastern cities are currently only peripherally understood. A more systematic and rigorous evaluation will uncover information for urban planners, NGOs, food specialists and others concerned with the region's changing food patterns, needs and opportunities. Second, the experiences of Middle Eastern urban agriculturists can offer lessons on food security benefits to urban populations of other arid regions. Growing from a long history of urbanization and adaptation to dryland environments, urban agricultural knowledge contained within Middle Eastern societies and cultures needs to be examined for its beneficial applications throughout the world.

Finally, as the authors continue to gather information on urban agriculture in the Middle East, they invite comments, insights, thoughts and questions in order to continue to develop this paper into a more comprehensive, informative and thoroughly illustrated definition of urban agriculture in the Middle East, today and into the future. The authors can be contacted as indicated below; they can also be reached by mail at The Urban Agriculture Network, 1711 Lamont Street, NW, Washington, DC 20010.

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Author Information

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Joe Nasr is Planner for The Urban Agriculture Network. Paul Kaldjian is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Regional Development, The University of Arizona; he is currently conducting field research in Istanbul (please see accompanying article). They can be reached as follows:

Joe Nasr
The Urban Agriculture Network
1711 Lamont Street, NW
Washington, DC 20010
Tel: +1(703) 827-0057

Paul Kaldjian
The University of Arizona
Harvill Box #2
Tucson, AZ 85721
Tel: +1 (520) 621-1652

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