The monkey’s candle clock and Falcons


The monkey’s candle clock is very similar to the scribe candle clock and does not justify a post. However, the clock includes a Falcon. It made me go back and see what animals reside in Al-Jazari’s book. There are quite a few: an elephant, a lion, and a monkey. You can check how knowledgeable you are in the book if you know where the lion is hiding? (Unfortunately, there are no prizes for correct answers). There are some unidentified birds, a fish with no name, an ox or a donkey, al-Jazari gave no details, but used دابّة – daba which means an animal as well as two cows. On the more exotic side, there are five dragons (!) six peacocks (!!), and the champions of appearances in the book, to my great surprise, are seven Falcons. We have another perspective on Falcons and their special place in the Artuqid court from Usama ibn Munqidh(أسامةبنمنقذ), a medieval poet, writer, knight, and diplomat. I read his book “The Book of Contemplation” (in Hebrew, many thanks to Dr. Ella Almagor for her beautiful translation). There are numerous hunting stories, including falcons, at the court of the Emir Arslan, the father of Nur al-Din Muhammad, who hired al-Jazari. This will be the focus of this post.

Monkey’s Candle Clock Topkapi Manuscript, 1206

How does it work?

Al-Jazari wrote himself:

“The [following] are made as described previously: the candle-holder, the sheath, and the falcon; the two pulleys and the weight in the center of the interior of the sheath; the channel which covers the ball’s channel, inside which is the ball’s channel; the balls.”

Donald Hill, the book translator, and annotator, devoted to this chapter only a few lines, without a drawing, and wrote that the mechanism is the same as the scribe candle clock except for the vertical movement and not circular.  Still, I am briefly repeating the technical explanation, which as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in pulleys or balancing weight can skip those bits. The drawing below is by the book translator and annotator, Donald R. Hill [of the scribe candle clock] modified by me:

A drawing of the mechanism by Donald Hill with my modifications

The candle is placed on a holder inside a brass sheath, and only the wick protrudes through a hole in the cap. A long rod is soldered to the bottom of the holder. The rod runs through the main weight so that the weight is free to move up and down. Two strings are connected to the bottom of the rod and through two pulleys to the main weight. The latter is relatively heavy, slightly more than one kilogram. At nightfall, the wick is lit, at that time, the candle is in full size, the rod reaches its lowest point, and the main weight reaches its highest position. As the candle is consumed, the main weight will descend exerting force, through the pulleys, on the holder upward, and the holder and rod will go up at a constant rate, depending on the rate of the combustion.

To the bottom of the weight, another string is attached, through a pulley,  connected to the bottom of the rod on which the monkey sits. As the candle is consumed, the monkey will rise and point at the tick marks. There are 218 tick marks, and each represents 4 minutes and in total 14.5 hours Diyarbakir in the middle of the winter. The holder pulls the ball’s channel up, and every hour the highest ball in the channel has risen until it is level with the hole in the back of the falcon’s head, at which point it rolls out and falls from the falcon beak.


Usama ibn Munqidh

The Book of Contemplation (كتابالاعتار, literally a  Book of learning by example) is an autobiographical book written by Usama ibn Munqidh, an Arab Syrian scholar and soldier of the 12th century, a son of the Munqidh, a noble Bedouin family that controlled the fortress in Shaizar in northern Syria.

Usama was a worrier and a hunter, but also a poet, a passionate book collector, and a diplomat with charm. He was born in 1095 in Shaizar, where he was educated and lived until 1131. When the men of the Shaizar did not fight the Crusaders or other opponents, they were hunting. Syria, in the 12th century, was heaven for hunters. I thought of rabbits, wild boars, and water birds, but to my surprise, there were also bears, lions, and tigers. The use of falcons and hawks was widespread. In 1162, when he fought alongside Nur ad-Din with the Crusaders of Antioch, he met Arslan, The Artuqid Emir. Upon the end of the battle, Arslan invited him to join him in the city of Hasankeyf, the home of the Artuqids, before they took over Diyarbakir. In the next decade, up to 1174, he spent hunting and writing in the Artuqid courtyard. The fourth section of his book is dedicated to hunting stories, and I’ll tell a little about what I learned about hunting with falcons and other birds of prey.

On Falcons and Falconry

Falconry is the art of using Falcons or the other birds of prey to hunt. Evidence suggests that falconry may have begun in Mesopotamia, with the earliest accounts dating to approximately 2,000 BC. Hunting with Falcons and hunting, in general, were a popular pastime in the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates and were beloved also in the Artuqid Palace. Usama opens the hunting stories like this:

“I have in the above given those accounts of warfare and those experiences I had in battles, fights, and adventures which I could remember and which time with its rolling years did not make me forget. For my life has been prolonged, and I have for some time now been living in isolation and seclusion. Besides, oblivion is a heritage the antiquity of which goes back to our father, Adam (Peace be upon him!)  I shall now devote a chapter to what I have witnessed and partaken of in the field of hunting, be it the chase or falconry. Some of these experiences I had in Shaizar when I was still in the early part of life…and still others I had in Diyar-Bakr with al-Amir Fakhr al-Din Qara-Arslan ibn-Dawud  ibn-Urtuq (may Allah’s mercy rest upon his soul!).”

The great love for hunting is manifested through the story of his father, who was the ruler of Shaizar and gave up his throne:

“As for my hunting experiences in Shaizar, they were in the company of my father (may Allah’s mercy rest upon his soul!) Who was extremely fond of the chase, always talking about it and about collecting birds of prey, considering no amount of expense too great for the satisfaction of his curiosity in this sport…To him, the chase was in accordance with the following traditional saying: “Air ye your hearts so that they can better retain the word of Allah!” In fact, I never saw anything like his hunting and his ability to organize parties for it.”

An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usama Ibn-Munqidh – Philip K. Hitti, 1929

The book is not a guide for the Falconer, but the stories contain a lot of practical information, for example, how did they hunt the falcons?

“All that was necessary was to have a stone house built to the height of a man. It would then be covered with branches concealed under hay and grass, with an opening. The trapper would then secure a pigeon, perch it on a stick, binding its two legs tightly to the stick, and display the pigeon from an opening, as a lure. As he moves the stick up and down, the pigeon flutters its wings. Seeing it, the falcon turns down and pounces on it to seize it. As soon as the hunter feels the falcon, he pulls the stick back to the opening, stretches out his hand, and seizes the two legs of the falcon.”

There are plenty of stories, but the story of al-Yahshur, an exceptional falcon demonstrates the unique relationship between the Muslim nobility and the predatory birds used for hunting:

Between Osama’s father and the sons of Rubal, the ruler of Armenia was a relation of friendship, and every year they would send him several falcons. One year a young broad like a saker [A falcon native of Southern Europe and Asia] arrived, but it could not keep up with the other falcons in flight, yet the falconer Ghana said, “Among all the falcons there is none like this young one, It will let no game escape it”. We could not at first believe him, but for the next thirteen years, al-Yahshur was the king of the hunting birds in Shaizar. The special relationship between his father and al-Yahshur can be seen here:

“When we entered the house, my father would say, “Fetch me a bowl of water.” They would fetch him one, and he would offer it to the falcon [al-Yahshur] while it was still on his wrist (may Allah’s mercy rest upon his soul!). The falcon would drink it. In case it wanted a bath, it would shake its beak in the water. My father would then order that a big basin full of water be brought and would offer it to the falcon… when it would get out of the water. My father would put it on a large wooden perch, especially made for it and would bring near it a brazier of live coal; and after it was combed and rubbed with oil” until it was dry, a folded piece of fur would be placed by it. The falcon would go down to it and sleep. It would remain among us sleeping on the fur until late in the night, at which time my father would want to retire into the harem’s apartment. He would then say to one of us, “Carry the falcon.” And the falcon would be carried as it lay sleeping on the fur until it was placed near the bed of my father (may Allah’s mercy rest upon his soul!).”

My love, M. says that I cannot tell about hunting with birds of prey without refereeing my readers to the movie about Aisholpan:

A young Mongolian girl who hunts with a golden eagle. This is, before anything else, a story about the power of a young woman who has managed to change Mongolians traditions. However, this is also a story about the deep connection between the hunter and his hunting bird. This is why there is no surprise in the number of falcons that penetrated al-Jazari’s machines.

A miniature of a falconer, North France, 1180.

Leave a Reply