The Elephant Clock – Multiculturalism or a Circus?

Introduction

The elephant clock is by far the most popular of all al-Jazari’s works. There are a few modern reconstructions of it: some in different exhibitions and museums, but also one in the Dubai Mall. The clock has a variety of animations in 2D and in 3D, and it even has its own Wikipedia page. Due to the complexity of the mechanism, I divided this post into two; in the first part, I will explain what the viewer sees and try to explore the sources of the magic. The second part will be more engineering-oriented, and I will explain how the mechanisms work in the backstage, and what is so unique about this clock.

The Elephant clock, manuscript from 1315, Syria

What does the viewer see?

An elephant,  approximately one meter and twenty centimeters long, who is carrying on its back a canopy with four pillars and a castle. On top of the castle’s dome, is a bird. Inside the elephant, is a hidden water reservoir and a sinking float (a float with a hole that sinks slowly) during half an hour. More details in the next post. In the canopy sits a scribe holding a pen pointing at a semi-circle with tick marks. During this half hour, the scribe rotates and his pen indicates the minutes that have passed. At the end of every half hour, the scribe returns to its original position. At the same time, there will be quite an impressive show. Between the elephant’s shoulders, rides a mahout (the elephant keeper and driver). In his right hand, is an ax and a mallet in his left. Every half hour the mahout strikes the copper elephant, first, with the ax and then with the mallet. In the castle balcony sits a man. His hands are on the heads of two falcons which he keeps them from opening their beaks. Once every half hour, he raises one of his hand, and the corresponding falcon shoots out a ball. The ball falls into the dragon’s maw, making the dragon swing on its axis and then lay the ball on the cymbal in a jar. During this time, the bird on the dome is also spinning. Above the head of the falconer is a semi-circle with fifteen black holes. Every full hour one hole turns so that the sum of white indicates the number of hours passed since sunrise.

You can see a short video demonstrating the elephant clock and explaining the mechanism:

 A fuller explanation will also come in the next post.

Why an elephant?

The Elephant water clock entry in Wikipedia reads:

“The elephant represents the Indian and African cultures, the two dragons represents ancient Chinese culture, the phoenix represents Persian culture, the water work represents ancient Greek culture, and the turban represents Islamic culture signifying the multicultural mentality of the intellectual al-Jazari. “

The quote certainly is not by al-Jazari, but whoever wrote it explained the wealth of the clock. Nonetheless, it made me think. I am afraid that the whole concept of multiculturalism is completely foreign to the 12th century and al-Jazari. What is a possible explanation for the elephant?

The Middle Ages and strange elephants

The trade routes in the middle ages were spread over Europe, the Middle East, India, China, and  Africa. On the east coast of Africa, they traded ivory, gold, ebony, and slaves. China exported silk and porcelain, India spices and drugs. Rumors about elephants, giraffes, and other exotic animals reached Europe but the artists who drew the manuscripts had never seen an actual elephant. They drew them based on their imagination. There is an entire site dedicated to the weird drawings of elephants. I give just two examples:

Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France 1290

A hoofed wooly elephant “Livre des simples médecines” a manuscript from the 15 century.

The original manuscript by al-Jazari was unfortunately lost, but the manuscript from Topkapi is from 1206, I wrote about it here. This is the year al-Jazari died, so it is probably a copy of the original. You can see that the elephant looks like an Asian elephant and the mahout and the canopy are located correctly. Al-Jazari’s familiarity with elephants is not necessarily surprising, although I couldn’t find any evidence for elephants in Diyarbakir. Arab rulers had menageries or collections of exotic animals. In addition to the curiosity and pleasure they provided, they demonstrated the ruler’s wealth and power as well as the impact of the sovereign from India to Africa. Offerings of rare animals were part of the diplomatic process and sometimes part of the tax system. Until the 13th century, the agreement between the Nubian Kingdom and the Muslim rulers of Egypt demanded that the Nubian people provide Egypt with three hundred and sixty slaves annually, in addition to providing some wildlife. It This was the primary source for giraffes in the Sultan of Cairo’s menagerie.

Book of the animals, Syria, 15th Century.

The use of animals as a diplomatic gesture is well documented. For example, Baybars, the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the 13th century gave elephants, giraffes, and zebras to the king of Spain, Emperor of Byzantium and the Mongol Khan. In the 10th century, Cordoba sent a giraffe to Tunisia and a story I particularly like about the elephant, Abul-Abbas. Harun al-Rashid,  the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, sent an Asian elephant to Aachen, Germany to the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne. It happened in the 9th century, and surprisingly enough, there’s a Jewish angle to this story. The elephant was brought by Yitzhak the Jew. There is a historical novel “The travels of Isaac the Jew and Abu Alabas the elephant”(in Hebrew). It is interesting to note that other presents including an elaborate water clock made of brass, described in the Royal Frankish Annals were sent with the elephant. The water clock marked the 12 hours with balls of brass falling on a plate every hour, and also had twelve horsemen who appeared in turn at each hour.  Perhaps al-Jazari knew the story as part of his extensive knowledge of water clocks?

The Elephant Clock and the Circus

The diplomatic delegations and the royal gifts indicate that the elephant was a symbol of power and wisdom, but in the context of the elephant clock, I think more about the circus and exotic acts. The elephant is made of copper and is just a stage for the show, but the swinging dragons, the Mahout with his fearsome tools, the Falcons and the spinning bird form a great circus number. An exciting circus act has, in my opinion, four components, not in binding order, not always all of them, and certainly not of the same significance or importance:

  • Freshness (something new)
  • Great skills
  • A sense of danger
  • An awe-inspiring images

I looked at several iconic circus shows and Jules Léotard’s act is a good point of comparison. Léotard was a French acrobatic performer who made history as the first man ever to perform the aerial act on a trapeze. It most certainly meets the requirement for freshness. Likewise, the elephant clock is also the first of its kind; no clock ever, before or after, is similar, and everyone who watches it, even today, is amazed.

Secondly, great skills: Léotard practiced his acrobatic stunts over his parents’ pool before he revealed them in 1859 in Cirque Napoleon in Paris. Then he appeared in London before an audience that went crazy because of his aerial flips between five trapezes with only a pile of mattresses to protect him. The elephant clock also demonstrates such high proficiency and skills both to the innocent and to the skilled observer, considering the control of the timing using the sinking float, the complex movement of the three characters(the mahout, the scribe, and the man in the balcony), and the virtuoso swing of the dragons. All are innovative engineering tricks demonstrating al-Jazari’s skills in water clocks and automatons.

Regarding the sense of danger, the crowd in the circus was afraid for Léotard’s life and this element intensified the experience; however, automatons by definition lack this aspect.

Jules Léotard, a French acrobat, 19 century

Last but not least, the awe-inspiring image. Léotard, like all circus performers, could be dressed in a sports suit, but as you can see in the picture he’s wearing theatrical shorts, bracelets emphasize his wrists, and the collar of his shirt reminds us of a royal necklace. All this help to imprint his image in our mind.  The picture that al-Jazari created is a lot more than the sum of its components and is intriguing audiences till this very day.

3 thoughts on “The Elephant Clock – Multiculturalism or a Circus?

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