The automaton who drinks the king’s leaving


In medieval Islam, the court comprised, in addition to functional appointees, a large number of people with diversified talents from litterateurs to astrologers, poets, singers, and jesters. From this group of people emerged -the boon companions, in Arabic نديم nadim – a class by themselves. They were selected from the best talents to befriend the ruler and were given a permanent position which carried great prestige and influence. Al- Jazari made a boon companion from jointed copper. He holds a goblet in his right hand and a waterlily in his left.

Category II chapter 6 Fig 94 p115 Topkapi

Fig 1, The Boon-Companion, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

Al-Jazari wrote that “It was one of the customs of the kings to leave some [of the wine] in the goblet and this was drunk by a boon-companion designated for that duty” The automaton is replacing this boon-companion.

I read quite a lot of material about the boon companion in recent weeks, some of it you will find below, but I haven’t found an explanation why someone should drink the King’s leaving? Tasting the wine before the king makes sense, because of the fear of assassins but why drink leftovers? Explanation will be gladly accepted.

After the king drinks, the steward takes it, pours what is left in it into the boon companion’s goblet. The automaton lifts the goblet, drinks the king’s leaving and nods his head several times. This happens every time wine is poured into the goblet. His left-hand moves, as an indication of his capacity. At some point, the head of the carousal says to someone he wishes to make fun of:

“Put him on your knee, drink, and give him [wine] to drink… He does not finish two or three goblets before [the boon companion] pours on to him all he has drunk since the beginning of the carousal, wetting his clothing. The wine flows beneath him, making him a target for laughter.”

The scene is almost taken from a wild and colorful feast in One Thousand and One Nights. This is being told incidentally in an Engineering book…

How does the boon companion work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in siphon and floats can skip those bits. This is a drawing from the book, and I added labels for clarity.

Category II Chapter 6 p 117 fig 97 Topkapi_wLables_en

Fig 2, The Boon-Companion mechanism with my labels, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

The automaton is in the form of a five-year-old boy( I don’t think the illustrator read the book, as the figure looks bearded and quite old). The king’s leftover wine is poured into the goblet, almost filling it, then flows through the forearm of the boon-companion into the arm tank. The tank becomes heavier, the arm will pivot, and the goblet rises to the lips of the boon-companion. His head, also on an axle, which is not shown in the drawing,  is pushed back slightly by the goblet, imitating drinking. Al-Jazari installed a siphon in the tank. We came across one in the post about the Peacock basin and the magic of automatons(only in Hebrew, will be translated soon). The siphon is a tube in an inverted ‘U’ shape, which causes a liquid to flow upward, with no pump, but powered by the clever use of gravity:


Fig 3, A siphon

Ancient Egypt paintings indicate the using of siphons in the wine industry as early as 1500 BC.There is physical evidence for the use of siphon by Greek engineers in Pergamon the third century BC.

siphon Egypt

Fig 4. Ancient Egyptian paintings from the Tomb of Kynebu, Thebes, 1450 BC.

Hero of Alexandria, who I mentioned before, wrote extensively about siphons in his treatise Pneumatica, and the Banu Musa brothers, who were also discussed, invented the double-concentric siphon. So the use of siphon by al-Jazari is not new, only an elegant solution for the boon-companion automaton. Atmospheric pressure pushes the liquid up the tube providing the siphon is filled with water or wine in our case. In the automaton of al-Jazari, this is achieved by the pivoting of the arm. Then the wine runs from the end of the siphon into the main tank. The arm tank becomes lighter and rises while the arm and the goblet sink. The head of the boon-companion moves forward and oscillates several times. As the wine is rising in the main tank, the float rises with it releasing rope through the two pulleys and the left hand, holding the waterlily sinks. When The float has no room to rise, the waterlily touches the thigh of the boon-companion, indicating the master of the feast that it is time for buffoonery. If the boon-companion drinks an additional glass or two, the wine will rise to the bend in the siphon and wet the poor holder.

The Boon- Companion and  the Courtyard Culture in Diyarbakir

The gap between the Islamic history and culture, as I (a secular Jew, living in Tel Aviv, looking at Islam from the outside through meetings with students, colleagues, press, and television) understand them to the life as shown in al-Jazari’s book is huge. Contemporary Islam is fully committed to the Sharia law (شريعة), somewhat similar to the Jewish orthodoxy, far away from the feasts described in the medieval literature and poetry of the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad but also of the small principality in Diyarbakir.

The importance of boon-companionship as an institution is evident from the many references by kings, court stenographer, historians and even cookbook writer.

I will bring just three examples of this wealth of information :

  1. The ‘Kitāb al-Fihrist (كتاب الفهرست) by Ibn al-Nadim, a bookseller, and a boon companion himself (note his name!)  in the tenth century, Baghdad. Is an  Index of all books written in Arabic in his time. The term catalog may be misleading, the author described the lives of thousands of authors, listing all the titles of their books and evaluating their merits. He also dealt with the religions, customs of his time and its scientific achievements. It is actually an outstanding cultural encyclopedia. It is interesting to note that a chapter is dedicated to “boon-companions, table-companions, literary men, singers, slaptakers, buffoons, and comedians.”

 An example from the Fihrist is Abu al-Anbas al-Saymarī.  He was a high ranking judge and close associate of ninth-century caliphs in Baghdad.

“Although he was one of the jesters and clowns, he was also a man of letters, familiar with the stars, about which he wrote a book [actually tow manuscripts remained] I have observed that it was praised by the leading astrologers. [Caliph] al-Mutawakkil included him in the group of his court companions, giving him special attention.

Among books that the Fihrist lists by al-Anbas are:

  • Aids to Digestion and Treacles
  • Refutation of Abu Mikhail al-Saydanani in Connection with Alchemy
  • Interpretation of Dreams
  • Rare Anecdotes about Pimps
  • Superiority of the Rectum over the Mouth
  • The Surnames of Animals
  1. Ibn Sayyar of Baghdad was the author of a tenth-century cookbook, Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ ( كتاب الطبيخ‎, meaning The Book of Dishes). This is the earliest known Arabic cookbook. It contains over 600 recipes. The final pages are guidelines for drinking parties, especially in the presence of the king. There is a very detailed description of what is expected from the boon-companion. This is a brief excerpt from the book:

 “The nadim [ boon companion] who drinks with the king must occupy the place that has been assigned to him, without seeking to put himself in a higher or lower position, he must not lie down but rather hold himself in an upright position… he must not yawn… nor persist in an argument under the effect of  drink because whoever behaves in this way is boorish.”

  1. Al-Mas‘udi (Arabic ابو الحسن علي المسعودي ) was a Muslim historian and geographer. He is known for his book Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems which is a historical account in Arabic of the beginning of the world starting with Adam and Eve up to and through the late Abbasid Caliphate. Among others he describes a poetic dialogue between a secretary to the caliph and a boon-companion:  :

“I am a help and you are a hindrance;

I am for eagerness and you are for jest;

I am for hard work and you are for leisure;

I am for war and you are for peace.”

To which the nadim retorted:

“I am for well-being and you are for trouble;

I am for companionship and you are for service;

when you get up I sit down;

and when you are angry I am friendly.

I am called nadim [literally ‘he who regrets’ ]

because of the chagrin felt at my departure.”

2 thoughts on “The automaton who drinks the king’s leaving

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