Additional boxes with combination locks


One of the best pleasures of maintaining such a blog is the emails I receive occasionally that expose me to information I am not familiar with. This time on three boxes with combination locks quite similar to the combination lock designed by al-Jazari:

The box from the Khalili Collection (ناصر خليلي)

The box from the Basilica of St. Servius in Maastricht (Netherlands)

Al Baghdadi’s box (البغدادي)

The Box from the Khalili Collection

Bernard Gallagher drew my attention to the connection he found between Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Annunciation painting and al-Jazari’s machines:

To the best of my knowledge, there is no translation of al-Jazari into Latin. I am not familiar with al-Jazari knowledge in the West before the groundbreaking work of Eilhard Wiedemann and Fritz Hauser in 1915. It is impossible, of course, to know whether an Arabic manuscript ended in Leonardo’s hands. You can read for yourself Bernard Gallagher and be convinced (or not). But during my search due to  Bernard’s ideas, I discovered this box in the Khalili collection:

Sir Nasser David Khalili (ناصر داوود خل یلی) is a British-Iranian scholar, collector, and philanthropist who, starting in 1970, has built one of the richest private art collections in the world, documented in 36 volumes that can be seen here and includes ancient manuscripts from the 4th century BC in Aramaic from Bactariya, present-day eastern Afghanistan, to Japanese artifacts from the 19th century. An important part of the collection is Islamic artifacts, including the box, between 700-2000. In volume 12, “Science, Tools & Magic Part Two: Mundane Worlds” I found information about the casket. Unlike the boxes from Isfahan (which appear in the original post), this box is neither signed nor dated. It is cast in brass and inlaid with silver. Based on the metalwork, it can be assumed that the casket was made in Jazira between the mid-13th and 14th centuries. Like al-Jazari’s box, it has four dials with 16 letters, and the correct choice of letters allows the lid to be opened. As with al-Jazri, the 16 letters used do not need diacritic marks, such as ب (ba) or ن (nun), with only the dot’s position distinguishing between the letters. The locking mechanism is simpler than al-Jazari’s (true for all three boxes) and includes only four letters compared to al-Jazari’s chest, where twelve letters are required (Detailed explanation in the original post). There are no photographs of the mechanism in the book, and if I will obtain them in the future, I will be happy to make a more detailed comparison.

Al-Baghdadi’s (البغدادي) Box from Mosul

The Khalili Collection book mentions the two boxes from Isfahan and an anonymous box from New York. I couldn’t find the box from New York, but during my search, I found this box from Mosul, which was sold at Christie’s auction house in 2010:

It is a brass box with silver inlays mostly removed with a scalpel; the silver remained only in the lock area and in places that were difficult to remove. In addition to the geometric decorations, there are hunting scenes, a figure on a camel, and much more. On the box, there is an inscription. This is the only photograph I have found, but if I understand correctly, there are two types of inscription on the box: one in the letter Naskh (خط ألنسخ ), a small round script in Arabic calligraphy. The second is Kufic (خط كوفي), the oldest calligraphic form of the Arabic script. The text includes proverbs such as الماجد والملك, meaning splendor and rule, as well as the name of the artist who made the box, Mohammed al-Baghdadi.

This box also has a similar but simple version of the lock of al-Jazari, with four dials placed at the four corners of the lid. When the combination of dials includes the correct four letters, you can lift the cover by turning the handle in the center. If I understood correctly, the mechanism was preserved in this box, but the letters that were apparently engraved on the silver inlay are missing.

The Box in the Basilica of St. Servius

Almost the same week, Danielle Arvanitis wrote to me about an ivory box she saw in the Basilica of Saint Servatius in Maastricht (Netherlands):

According to the legend, Saint Servatius, a distant relative of Jesus, was an Armenian from the 4th century AD who arrived in the city of Maastricht and became the first bishop of the Netherlands. There is evidence of pilgrimages to the basilica as early as the 6th century AD, and historical figures such as Charlemagne, Henry II, and others made pilgrimages to the saint’s remains found in a magnificent coffin belonging to the basilica’s treasury. In addition to the remains, the treasure has unique artifacts, including a spectacular collection of ancient silk fabrics, ostrich eggs, and this box.

I have found no scientific papers discussing the box other than a 1985 article by J. Klamt in German, whose charming title “Elfenbeintasten mit Kombinationsschloss” means “combination locks and ivory keys.” According to the picture’s caption, the box’s origin is in Sicily from the 13th century. I am grateful for all the information I can find on the WEB. Still, materials that do not undergo scientific review are questionable, so this may be inaccurate.

The Emirate of Sicily was a Muslim kingdom with Palermo as its capital from 831 to 1091 AD. In 826, a Byzantine general named Euphemius defected, allied with the Aghlabids ruler (Arabic: أغالبة, a dynasty of Muslim emirs who ruled over a North African kingdom), and transferred to the Muslim navy the technique of “Greek fire,” a very dangerous incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine to set enemy ships on fire, This story warrants a separate post because the process of preparing Greek fire was kept very secret,  And to this day we do not know for sure what its components were.

Either way, under Muslim rule, Sicily became a trade center in the Mediterranean and had large and prosperous Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. Later, Sicily fell to the Normans (tribes of Viking origin). The destruction of Islam in Sicily was completed by the late 1240s, accompanied by pogroms against the Muslim and Jewish populations. If the box is from Sicily, it is probably before 1240, close to al-Jazari’s time.


The combination locks make us think of a safe, but these boxes (all three mentioned and al-Jazari’s original) are not safes at all, and the ivory box emphasizes this. There were skilled blacksmiths in the 12th century with very high capabilities in steel, and the fact that the boxes were built of brass or, even worse, ivory means that they were not designed to protect valuable property from burglary. Both al-Kindi (الكندي) and al-Biruni (البيروني) write in the 9th and 10th centuries about steel and forging and specifically about Damascus steel (فولاذ دمشقي), which is a carbon-rich steel that has undergone special processing. Despite its name, Damascus steel originated not in the city of Damascus, but in the region of India, from where it passed to Arab countries. The Europeans, who arrived in the Middle East during the Crusades, brought the swords to Europe. The choice of ivory or brass indicates that these boxes were safely housed in a protected place, like that of the Arthuqid ruler in Diyarbakır. They may have contained documents intended only for the eyes of the ruler and his close advisers, or they may have been beautifully designed with high engineering and aesthetic capabilities.

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