BARLEY, Persian jow (from OIran. *yawa-, cf. Av. yauua- “grain,” Pahl. ǰōrdā “barley”), Pashto wərbəša.  i. In Iran.  ii. In Afghanistan.

i. In Iran.

ii. In Afghanistan.


i. In Iran

The cultivation of barley in Iran, like that of wheat, goes back to the origin of agriculture itself. Both botanical and archeological data locate the beginning of the “Neolithic revolution” in the Fertile Crescent, i.e., a semiarid area stretching from Palestine to the Zagros through the Taurus foothills, where both wild barley, Hordeum spontaneum, and a wide-grain kind of wild wheat, Triticum dicoccoides can still be found (H. Helbaek, “Domestication of Food Plants in the Old World,” Science 130, 1959, pp. 365-72). Most of the paleobotanical surveys made on several prehistoric sites on the Iranian plateau up to the fifth millennium b.c. show the existence of cultivated barley (O. Meder, Klimaökologie und Siedlungsgang auf dem Hochland von Iran in vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Zeit, Marburger Geographische Schriften 80, Marburg am Lahn, 1979, pp. 109-13). Barley cultivation is believed to have spread from there to the irrigated plains of Meso­potamia and Egypt, and then to Europe and other places (R. Ghirshman, Iran, London, 1954, p. 35).

Since those times, barley has been throughout history one of the two staple crops in the Iranian world, as a constant staple but subordinate to wheat, and is still mainly grown as a subsistence crop (H. Bowen-Jones, “Agriculture,” in Camb. Hist. Iran I, p. 568; the map 33 of G. Stöber, Die Afshār. Nomadismus im Raum Kermān (Zentralirān), Marburger Geographische Schriften 76, Marburg am Lahn, 1978, clearly shows the geographical coincidence of barley and wheat cultivation).

Barley is grown throughout Iran and Afghanistan, either as a rainfed (deym) or irrigated (ābī) crop, and can be winter barley (pāyīza, “autumnal,” often jow-e torš “sour barley”) sown in November and harvested be­tween May and July, or spring barley (bahāra, generally jow-e šīrīn “sweet barley”) sown between February and April and harvested in summer. Cultivation techniques (see for instance P. H. T. Beckett, “Agriculture in Central Persia,” Tropical Agriculture 34, 1957, pp. 9-28, and H. E. Wulff, The Traditional Crafts of Persia, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1966, pp. 262-77) are quite similar for barley and wheat. The fields are plowed and sown with various types of traditional plows (ḵīš, gāv-āhan), or more and more with a tractor. Mature barley is harvested with a sickle (dās); green barley can be uprooted as fodder. Threshing is done in three traditional ways: by driving teams of draft animals over the threshing ground, with a wain (čarḵ-e ḵarman-kūbī) or threshing board (vāl), and also with a tractor pulling a disk plow or threshing machine.

The greater part of barley acreage is devoted to non-irrigated cultivation, using the dry-farming technique of plowed fallow, in regions where the mean amount of annual precipitation generally exceeds 300 mm (see the discussion of the limits of rainfed cultivation in Iran in H. Bobek, “Die Verbreitung des Regenfeldbaus in Iran,” in Festschrift L. Sölch, Vienna, 1951, pp. 9-30). Most of the barley fields are in highlands, i.e., Azer­baijan, the northwestern and central Zagros, Alborz, and the chains of northern Khorasan, and all the central Afghan mountains, together with their northern loess-­covered piedmont (Ch. Jentsch, “Die landwirtschaft­lichen Produktionsflächen in Afghanistan und natur­räumliche Möglichkeiten ihrer Erweiterung,” in W. Kraus, ed., Steigerung der landwirtschaftlichen Produk­tion und ihre Weiterverarbeitung in Afghanistan, Af­ghanische Studien 6, Meisenheim am Glan, 1972, pp. 80­-82 and inset map). Though winter barley can be found up to 2,000 m in the central Alborz (E. Ehlers, “An­bausysteme in den Höhenregionen des mittleren Elburz/Iran,” in C. Rathjens, C. Troll, and H. Uhlig, eds., Vergleichende Kulturgeographie der Hochgebirge des südlichen Asien/Comparative Cultural Geography of the High-Mountain Regions of Southern Asia, Erdwissenschaftliche Forschung 5, Wiesbaden, 1973, pp. 66-­67), spring barley grows in the highest permanent villages, for instance, above 1,900 m in eastern Azerbaijan (M. Bazin, Le Tâlech: Une région ethnique au nord de l’Iran, Paris, 1980, II, p. 97), as well as in summer temporary settlements such as the yeylāq of the Ṭāleš seminomads in the northwestern Alborz (ibid., II, p. 23) or the cold region (sarḥadd) of more or less sedentarized Afšār nomads in southeastern Iran (G. Stöber, op. cit., pp. 94-95). Such rainfed fields are regularly left fallow.

Irrigated cultivation of barley occurs in limited spots in the above-mentioned mountainous regions but is pre­valent in central and eastern Iran and in the peripheral oases of Afghanistan. The fields are watered once or twice before the winter rains and three or four times in spring. Water needs have been estimated between 4,000 cubic meters per hectare around Borūjerd and 7,500 in the Zāyandarūd area (M. Atai, “Economic Report on Cultivation in the Region of the Sixth Province,” Taḥqīqāt-e eqteṣādī 11-12, 1967, Eng. ed., p. 97), where barley is integrated into quite varied schemes of crop rotation (M. Bazin, La vie rurale dans la région de Qom, Paris, n.d. [ 1974], fig. 26 pp. 47-48).

Yields of barley are slightly lower than those of wheat, and there is of course a sharp contrast between irrigated and non-irrigated lands. The latter give very low and irregular yields. Data from the years 1926 to 1933 compiled by M. Atai (“Economics of Cereals in Kuzi­stan,” Taḥqīqāt-e eqteṣādī 3-4, 1962, pp. 56-91; idem, “Economic Report on Agriculture in the Isfahan and Yazd Areas,” ibid., 9-10, 1965, pp. 144ff.; art. cit., 1967, pp. 81ff.) for several provinces of Iran range from 350 to 400 kg per hectare. The mean yield in Iran increased only to 502 kg per hectare in 1973, and the best yields obtained in the northwestern provinces never exceed 1,000 kg per hectare (Figure 24). Irrigated fields give much higher yields, with 1,400 to 1,817 kg per hectare in 1926-33 for the same provinces, and an average of 1,445 kg per hectare in 1973; the highest yields are reached in central Iran with 2,663 kg per hectare in Isfahan.

Barley is mostly a subsistence crop given to livestock, especially to sheep and horses, and provides little surplus for marketing. Before land reform in Iran, the crop was divided on the threshing ground between the tenant and the landlord. According to the factors of production supplied by each, the farmer’s share could go from 1/4 to 4/5 (see detailed data for Isfahan in M. Atai, 1965, table 20, p. 128). After land reform, some of the former sharecroppers could bring barley to the market; a part of it was sold to the country’s small brewing industry, and the bulk to specialized cereal traders (ʿallāf), who supply herders with supplemen­tary grain for their fodder resources. As a whole, the barley production of Iran and Afghanistan is only marginally sufficient for domestic needs. In the late 1970s, the scarcity of available barley led to a sharp increase of its price in Iran, in such a way that many herders (for instance in northern Khorasan, cf. M.-H. Pâpoli-Yazdi, Le nomadisme et le semi-nomadisme dans le Nord du Khorâssân: Etude de géographie humaine, thèse lettres, Paris, 1983) were compelled to sell part of their flocks and horses. Efforts made after the 1979 revolution to raise the production in Iran seem to have been successful, with a conspicuous increase in Fārs and Khorasan (Figure 25), but it is difficult to see in these figures a long-term trend, since barley, because of its subordinate position vis-à-vis wheat, suffers from greater instability in acreage and production.

Bibliography: Given in the text.

(M. Bazin)


ii. In Afghanistan

Wild barleys (jaw-e daštī), including Hordeum spontaneum Koch which is regarded as the sole ancestor of all cultivated forms, are widespread throughout northeastern Iran and northern Afghanistan as far as the Hindu Kush (Aitchison, 1890, p. 101; Vavilov and Bukinich, 1929, pp. 292f.). Owing to their sporadic distribution, which is strictly limited to human habitats, it seems, however, impossible to view these areas as an original cradle of barley cultivation (Zohary, 1969, p. 53). The probable western (Fertile Crescent ?) origin of Afghan barleys is moreover underlined by the local name of one of their forms, jaw-e makkaʾī (barley from Mecca), which has been recorded in Faryāb (Aitchison, 1890, p. 101).

Barley is widely grown in Afghanistan (Figure 26; see also Toepfer, 1972, for various agricultural surveys at the village level). The cultivated forms (Hordeum vulgare) are mainly winter and spring, four- or six-­rowed, hulled species, most of them having a yellow grain color. Two-row species are much rarer. Naked varieties with blue grain color have been observed in the easternmost Afghan Hindu Kush (Edelberg and Jones, 1979, p. 52; Sakamoto et al., 1980, pp. 35f.). While hulled barley is grown both as an irrigated and non-­irrigated crop, naked barley is always irrigated in Afghanistan.

In total acreage barley comes third after wheat and maize, occupying approximately 310,000-320,000 ha (some 8-9 percent of the whole area under cultivation). The estimated annual production fluctuates between 300,000 and 400,000 tons of grain, with a decennial average of 324,000 tons (1353-62 Š./1974-83). The corresponding yield is thus not far from 1 tn/ha, though more than 2 tn/ha can be expected from the best­-irrigated fields (Wald, 1969, p. 43).

No regional statistical breakdown of barley produc­tion is available. An estimate of acreages cultivated in 1395 Š./1966 can be extracted only from the results of the agricultural census of the following year (Davydov, 1976, pp. 124f., from which the figures in Figure 26 have been taken). With 177,100 ha (11.5 percent of their agricultural lands) devoted to barley, the eight provinces of northern Afghanistan from Faryāb to Badaḵšān stand as the chief producing area, well above western Afghanistan (72,100 ha: 10.5 percent of agricultural lands). The remaining part of the country, in which barley occupies less than 5.5 percent of all cultivated areas, accounts for only 62,800 ha.

As a fast-growing cereal, barley is coarser and less esteemed than slower-growing wheat and maize. Its place in cropping systems shows, nevertheless, great variations which, on a broad scale of analysis, conforms to a model of three altitudinal belts.

At lower elevations, up to 2,000-2,200 m, barley remains a secondary winter (tīrmāhī “autumnal”) irri­gated (ābī) crop, mostly confined to areas too poor, too dry, or too saline to produce a satisfactory wheat crop—hence the former’s low yield. Most of the production is used for feeding horses and donkeys, sometimes cows, rarely sheep. As human food, its consumption is restricted to the poorer people, who mix wheat and barley flour to make bread. In the same regions, spring (bahārī) irrigated barley may also follow winter wheat after the latter’s harvest; it is sometimes sown along with vetch (šāḵal) or alfalfa (rešqa) and is then always cut green as fodder. Recent improvements in the use of water and fertilizer have brought wheat to the better barley lands and have tended to reduce winter barley cultivation accordingly.

As elevation rises and the growing season shortens, winter barley cultivation increases, as its rapid growth permits double cropping of cereals (e.g., barley and maize or barley and millet) at altitudes where winter wheat does not. The relative importance of barley in mountain irrigated infields is thus one clear indicator of human pressure on the land; the higher the latter, the greater the former. Spring rainfed (lalmī) barley appears simultaneously on suitable slopes (outfields).

Finally, spring barley, both ābī and lalmī, remains the only cereal that can ripen in the cooler conditions and shorter growing seasons of the highest permanent fields. Above 2,900-3,200 m, it is the staple crop for human consumption. Barley fields have been recorded up to 3,450 m in the Hindu Kush (Grötzbach, 1972, p. 160) and even up to 3,700 m in the Pamir (Naumann, 1974, pp. 100), that is, some 300 m above the respective altitudinal limits of wheat but still more than 1,000 m below the absolute altitudinal limit of barley cultivation so far reported in the world (4,750 m in western Tibet, according to Chinese scientists quoted by Uhlig, 1980, p. 305). In high Nūrestān and adjoining regions, spring ābī barley is often sown mixed with leguminous plants such as peas (mošong) or horse beans (bāqolī), both being used to prepare a mixed flour from which bread is made (Scheibe, 1937, p. 112; von Moos, 1980, p. 26).

There is no industrial utilization of barley in Afghanistan.



J. E. T. Aitchison, Notes on the Products of Western Afghanistan and of North-­Eastern Persia, Edinburgh, 1890.

A. C. Davydov, Sotsial’no-èkonomicheskaya struktura derevni Afganistana, Moscow, 1976.

L. Edelberg and S. Jones, Nuristan, Graz, 1979.

E. Grötzbach, Kulturgeographischer Wandel in Nordost-Afghanistan seit dem 19. Jahrhundert, Afghanische Studien 4, Meisenheim am Glan, 1972.

I. von Moos, Die wirtschaftlichen Verhältnisse im Munjan-Tal und der Opiumgebrauch der Bevölkerung, Bibliotheca Afghanica, Schriften­reihe 1, Liestal, 1980.

C. M. Naumann, “Pamir und Wakhan,” Afghanistan Journal 1/4,1974, pp. 91-104.

S. Sakamoto et al., “Variation and Geographical Distribution of Cultivated Plants and their Wild Relatives Native to Afghanistan,” in Y. Tani, ed., Preliminary Report of Field Survey on the Agrico­-Pastoral Peoples in Afghanistan 1978, Kyoto, 1980, pp. 35-66.

A. Scheibe, ed., Deutsche im Hindukusch, Berlin, 1937.

H. Toepfer, Wirtschafts- und sozialgeo­graphische Fallstudien in ländlichen Gebieten Afghan­istans, Bonner Geographische Abhandlungen 46, Bonn, 1972.

H. Uhlig, “Der Anbau an den Höhen­grenzen der Gebirge Süd- und Südostasiens,” in C. Jentsch and H. Liedtke, eds., Höhengrenzen in Hoch­gebirgen, Arbeiten aus dem Geographischen Institut der Universität des Saarlandes 29, Saarbrücken, 1980, pp. 279-310.

N. I. Vavilov and D. D. Bukinich, Zemledel’cheskiĭ Afganistan, Leningrad, 1929.

H. -J. Wald, Landnutzung und Siedlung der Pashtunen im Becken von Khost, Schriften des Deutschen Orient-Instituts, Materialien und Dokumente, Opladen, 1969.

K. Yamashita, ed., Cultivated Plants and their Relatives, Results of Kyoto University Scientific Expedition to the Karakoram and Hindukush 1955, 1, Kyoto, 1965.

D. Zohary, “The Progenitors of Wheat and Barley in Relation to Domestication and Agricultural Dispersal in the Old World,” in P. J. Ucko and G. W. Dimbleby, eds., The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, London, 1969, pp. 47-66.

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(M. Bazin, D. Balland)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: December 15, 1988

This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 8, pp. 802-805