The Elephant Clock – Multiculturalism or a Circus?


The elephant clock is by far the most popular of all al-Jazari’s works. There are few modern reconstructions of it, some in different exhibitions and museums, but also in the Dubai Mall. It has a variety of animations in 2D and 3D, and it has a Wikipedia entry of its own. Due to the complexity of the mechanism, I divided this post to 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 in this clock.

The Elephant clock, manuscript from 1315, Syria

What does The viewer see?

An elephant,  approximately one meter and twenty centimeters long, carries on its back a canopy with four pillars and a castle. On top of the castle’s dome, there is a bird. Inside the elephant, there is a hidden water reservoir and a sinking float(a float with a hole which sinks slowly) during half an hour. More details in the next post. In the canopy sits a scribe holding a pen pointing at semi-circle with tick marks. During this half an hour the scribe rotates and his pen indicating the minutes passed. At the end of the every half an hour, the scribe will return to its original position. At the same time, there will be quite an impressive show. Between the elephant shoulders, ride a mahout (the elephant keeper and driver). In his right hand, there is an ax and a mallet in his left. Every half an hour the mahout will strike 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 like he keeps them from opening their beaks. Once every half an hour, he would raise his hand, right or left and the Falcon will emit a ball. The ball falls to the Dragon’s maw, make the dragon swing on its axis and lay the ball on the cymbal in a jar. Also, the bird on the dome will go spinning. Above the head of the Falconer (falcon trainer), there is a semi-circle with fifteen black holes. Every full hour one hole will be colored white, thus indicating the passing hours since sunrise.

You can see a short video demonstrating the elephant clock and explaining the mechanism. A fuller explanation in the next post.

Why an elephant?

In Wikipedia, the Elephant water clock entry, it says:

“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 is attributed to al-Jazari himself. I am afraid that the whole concept of multiculturalism is completely foreign to the 12th century and al-Jazari. The quote certainly is not by al-Jazari, but whoever wrote it (who?) explained the wealth of the clock. It made me think, and first of all about the elephant.

The Middle Ages and strange elephants

The trade routes in the middle ages were spread over Europe and the Middle East but also in India, China, and  Africa. On the East coast of Africa, they traded ivory, gold,  ebony, and slaves. China exported silk and porcelain and India spices and drugs. It means that rumors about elephants, giraffe, and other exotic animals reached Europe but the artists that drew the manuscripts had never seen an actual elephant drew them based on his 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 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 “firsthand”  copy. You can see that the elephant looks like an Asian elephant and the mahout and the canopy are located right. The acquaintance of al-Jazari with elephants is not necessarily surprising, although I couldn’t find any evidence for elephants in Diyarbakir. Arab rulers held menageries or collection of exotic animals. In addition to the curiosity and pleasure they provided, they demonstrated the wealth and the power of the ruler and demonstrated 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 from Nubian people to provide Egypt with three hundred and sixty slaves annually and wildlife. It This was the primary source for giraffes in the Sultan of Cairo 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 weight:

  • Freshness (something new)
  • High skills
  • Sense of danger
  • Magical picture

I looked at several iconic circus shows such as Jules Léotard, a French acrobatic performer that made history as the first man ever with the aerial act on a trapeze. It must certainly meet the requirement for ” Freshness or something new.” 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, high skills – Léotard practiced its aerobatic 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 act and flips between five trapezes with only a pile of mattresses to protect him. The elephant clock also demonstrates high proficiency and skills both to the innocent and skilled observer: 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), the virtuoso swing of the dragons. All are innovative engineering tricks demonstrating al-Jazari skills in water clocks and automatons. The crowd in the circus was afraid for Léotard life, and the sense of danger, which automatons be definition lack, intensified the experience.

Jules Léotard, a French acrobat, 19 century

Last but not least, the 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.

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