Two Automatons and Iconoclasm


Two automatons, an automaton of a man holding a goblet and a bottle and an automaton of two shaykhs upon a dais, are very similar in their mechanism but also, unfortunately, similar because all the faces of the characters were damaged (thanks to Galia Levy-Grad who brought this to my attention) more on this topic below:

An automaton of a man holding a goblet and a bottle on the right, and an automaton of are two shaykhs upon a dais, on the left. Topkapi manuscript, 1206

How does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in a tipping bucket or a siphon can skip those bits.

Both automatons have very partial drawings. Donald Hill, the book translator, did not add a modern schematics as he did with most machines in the book. The reason is Al-Jazari own words: “construction of the figure was described in the previous chapter [here] so there is no need to explain it.” This is my drawing, based on the text and previous drawings:

The mechanism of a man holding a goblet and a bottle

This is a mechanical slave made of copper; the head and neck are a wine reservoir slowly dripping into a tipping bucket. The tipping bucket is partially hidden by his hand. You can see a tipping bucket more clearly in drawing below of the two shaykhs or here (in Hebrew). After seven and a half minutes the tipping bucket would be full of wine and would tilt on its axis and pour twenty dirhams, sixty cubic centimeters of wine which would flow through the pipe to the silver bottle. The top of the goblet is covered; wine would flow directly through the hollow arm to the arm tank. The latter becomes heavy, and the arm would move upward about the axle in the elbow, imitating the motion of drinking. When the tank is full, the siphon ­­­will empty the arm tank, and the hand would descend to its original position.

The automaton of two shaykhs sitting cross-legged on a dais, each holding a bottle and a silver goblet is a duplication of the mechanism just explained. The reservoir is full of water which slowly dripped through an onyx to a tilting pipe. At the bottom of the pipe, a ring was welded, so the pipe is like a “children teeter.” The right side is slightly heavier, and therefore the pipe tilts to the right and water come out on the right. It would take about seven and a half minutes to the tilting bucket to fill (the drawing is just before it overturns) and then water would flow into the pipe inside the column. The rod at the side of the tilting bucket would push the tilting pipe to the left, and the water would flow to the tilting bucket B. After seven and a half minutes it would tilt, and water would flow to other Sheikh’s goblet. This is a drawing of the mechanism with my captions:

Mechanism of the automaton of the two shaykhs


In both illustrations, the faces were erased. This is not accidental damage; there are numerous illustrations in the Topkapi manuscript with damage to the face, without comparison to the number of illustrations which have a different kind of damage. I think this is a case of iconoclasm (from Greek: εἰκών image, κλάστειν break) – the destruction of icons or images for religious or political reasons. Although the contemporary contexts (Taliban, or ISIS) Iconoclasm is an ancient phenomenon starting with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people but also important to Christians and Muslims. In Genesis Rabba (Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית רַבָּה) a religious text from Judaism’s classical period, probably written between 300 and 500 CE it is told:

“So he [Abraham] took a stick and broke all the idols, and put the stick in the hand of the largest.

When his father returned he demanded: What have you done to them?

Abraham said to him: I cannot conceal it from you, a woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them, and I did. One [idol] claimed: I must eat first, while another claimed: I must eat first. Thereupon, the largest arose, took the stick and broke them.

His father said: Why are you fooling with me? Have they any knowledge?

Abraham replied: Should your ears hear what your mouth has said?!”

Genesis Raba 38, my translation

I will expand about Iconoclasm and Islam below, but Christianity also had its part. In the 8th century, there were heated arguments, sometimes violent, about iconography. The issue was the interpretation of the second commandment: “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” What appears to some Christians as proper worship, perceived by other Christians as idolatry. These arguments led to the smashing of icons. It is interesting to note that this is an example of government-led iconoclasm with the banning the use of icons by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 730 AD.

Those who think Iconoclasm characterizes fanatic religions will be disappointed to learn that enlighten ideologies, at least in the eyes of their believers, supported massive iconoclasm. For example, the French Revolution, the origin of the declaration of the rights of man, is one of the darkest periods of iconoclasm. For three years France was destroying art, It began with the smashing of statues of the Kings of France, and continued in methodical destruction of religious icons, engravings, paintings and burning artifacts from the feudal past. The following quote is from a law from 1792:

“Whereas the sacred principles of liberty and equality will not permit the existence of monuments raised to ostentation, prejudice, and tyranny to continue to offend the eyes of the French people, whereas the bronze in these monuments can be converted to cannons for the defense of the homeland …

All monuments containing traces of feudalism, of whatever nature that remains in churches, or other public places, or even those in private homes, shall, without the slightest delay, be destroyed by the communities. “

The opposition to figural representation in Islam is not based on the Qur’an, but on traditions contained within the Hadith ( الحديث). This is a collection of stories about Muhammad and his words and advice regarding various topics. Within Islam, the authority of Hadith ranks second only to that of the Quran. The two principal objections to figuration are a concern with not taking over the divine creative power and a fear of shirk (شرك), a term that came to mean polytheism and idolatry but originally meant believing in other gods. This duality is similar in my mind to what I learned during my studies at the Mandel School for educational leadership: “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” does not ban on idolatry because it was already said “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and the ten commandments are “the essence” of faith and contain no repetitions. Hence the second part forbids the use of material representation of God and demand spirituality. Either way, there’s consensus Hadith forbidding all representations that have shadows, whose defacement is obligatory. Some schools of Islamic thought go so far as to see all artists that depict living being (animals and humans) as polytheists.

Over the years, some people who interpret this as permission and possibly an imperative to destroy artworks, in many cases as their initiative. A good example is described by the Ottoman writer Evliya Celebi. In an auction in Eastern Anatolia in 1655 potential bidders were allowed to inspect the goods in their quarters at night, and one of them took the manuscript of Shah-Nama, the Persian Book of Kings, and when he saw it contains miniatures, painting being forbidden according to his belief, he took his Turkish knife and poked their and rubbed the color in their faces with his saliva(?).

The offender was eventually lashed and stoned(?) by the orders of Pasha of Bitlis as a punishment for defacing the manuscript. Clearly, his faith was not accepted by the authorities, or maybe the Pasha was annoyed because of the damage value of the goods.

I couldn’t find any material on iconoclasm in the Topkapi manuscript, and I don’t know if the name of the vandal and the time are known. This  is a partial collection of defacing in the manuscript:

I’d like to close this post with something more optimistic, so I wish the world would be less violent or fanatic, and we will not experience any more iconoclasm because of the Christian, Islamic or Jewish faiths nor by any other ideology.

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