The Arbiter for a drinking session


This is a drinking game for the effervescent parties in Diyarbakır Palace as we met in The automaton who drinks the king’s leaving and A boat placed on a pool during a drinking party (in Hebrew).

The Arbiter is a complicated automaton (a self-operating machine) which includes: A slave (جارِية) pouring wine to a goblet in the lower level. Above her, on a balcony, there are four slave girls who play music on a flute, tambourine and a lute. Above them, there is a half-naked male dancer in a niche, and on top of the dome, there is a horse rider carrying a lance. During the party, the musicians play their instruments, the dancer dances (I swear!) and the horse and the rider rotate slowly. When commotion stops the slave girl tilt the bottle and pours wine to the goblet. A servant (a living person) takes the goblet and serve it to the participant the spear points to his direction. The process repeats itself twenty times, almost seven hours in total. At that time the black doors behind the dancer open and a man emerges out of the door, his hands are in the air, signaling that celebration is over and there is no more wine. Al-Jazari calms the worried reader, saying that the head of the assembly can choose to refill the reservoir. The wild parties in Diyarbakir can raise a lot of questions about the crazy amounts of wine, the half-naked dancer, and more. Maybe I will write about all this in the future. I want to focus on clothes, did observer of the automaton in the 12th century knew she was a slave by her dress?  What can we learn from the text and the illustrations about clothing in the Artuqid palace?

The Arbiter for a drinking session. Topkapi manuscript, 1206.

How does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in floats, Tipping buckets or camshaft can skip those bits. The illustration below is my modification of the drawing from the book; it will help us to follow the mechanism:

Drawing of the mechanism

In the beginning, a servant lifts the dome (1) and fill the reservoir (2) with filtered wine.  At the bottom of the reservoir, there is a thin pipe, so wine is dripping to the tipping bucket(3). I wrote about tipping buckets before, for example in the fountain of the two tipping buckets (in Hebrew). In the front view, you can see the tipping bucket in action. After twenty minutes the bucket is full of wine, and it becomes overbalanced, and tips down, emptying itself on the scoop wheel (4) which turns the adjacent teeth wheel (5) which turns the 900 teeth wheel(6) which is connected to the rider axle(more clearly seen from the side). This makes the rider rotates, and the “lucky” participant that the spear is pointing in his direction will get to drink the goblet. I used quotation for “lucky” because the goblet contains a liter of wine, more than an entire bottle! I don’t know what the alcohol content in the 12th century was, but it seems like a sure way to get drunk with a severe hangover. I do not want to think about someone who was lucky enough to win two goblets during the seven hours of the party.  The wine from the scoop wheel is collected and falls on the second scoop wheel(7). The rotating wheel rotates the axle and the pegs(8)connected to it, hitting the levers connected to the musician’s arms. This causes the up and down movement, simulating the drummer bit and the playing of the lute. The rods, an early version of camshaft transform the circular motion into linear motion were the rods pattern creates different drumming bit and lute music. The wine flow from the 2nd scoop wheel to the air tank, pushing air in a narrow pipe with a whistle at the end(9). This produces the sound of the flute player. Finally, the wine goes down in a hidden tube (10) through the slave body and fills the bottle. The latter is on an axle, and the weight will cause it to tilt and fill the goblet. For clarity, I skipped two mechanisms. Readers who love to ponder on this kind of gadgets can try to decipher the remaining components and questions will be, as always, appreciated.

Fashion and clothing in the “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.”

The choices of clothing by Muslims reflect their religious and cultural world. We call the veil worn by some Muslim women to cover their hair- hijab (Arabic: حجاب). In the Qur’an and other classical Arabic texts, the term was used to denote a partition, a curtain and it is a generic term for modest attire. During the Hajj (حَجّ), the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam, the men wear a white outfit that was not touched by a needle or thread (how is that even possible?).  What (if anything) can we learn about life in the 12th century in Diyarbakır by looking at the illustration and the few direct references of al-Jazari to clothing details?

Five slaves from the “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” Topkapi manuscript,1206

In the top left illustration, we can see a young black slave (غلام) truncates the candle wick from The candle clock of the swordsman (Hebrew). No explicit description of him in the book but his attire is the simplest, in comparison to all the other slaves and includes a short red dress with stripes on the sleeves. The sleeves’ stripes appear in almost every dress of slaves or free men. I don’t know if this was the fashion in Diyarbakır or the stripes had a meaning or use? If a knowledgeable reader can enlight me, I would love to learn.

The slave girl pouring wine at the center is from the automaton in the present post. She wears a blue dress or gown with decorations that cover her from neck to ankles. She also has two brown stripes on her sleeves. The garment doesn’t look “cheap” or “service uniform” Her black hair can be seen under the cover. Although her dress could have been worn by devout Muslim today her head cover is not acceptable by contemporary moderate standards (hijab) and certainly not by more religious Muslims demanding a niqāb or chador.

We met the slave washing the king’s hands here (in Hebrew). The illustration, in this case, is large and rich with details. The blue dress is very similar, if not identical, to dress of the slave girl. It is particularly interesting. Muslim men are forbidden(حَرَام‎ ḥarām) to wear silk clothes or gold jewelry. This is not from the Quran but a later story told by Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad cousin and the fourth Caliph accepted by both Sunni and Shia. The restriction is very specific but interpreted as an echo of the biblical verse:

“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

(Deuteronomy 22:5 King James Version)

It is possible that his red jacket without sleeves is enough to distinguish between them? He is also wearing a small red hat quite similar to the fez (more correctly ṭarbūsh). It is interesting to note because the ṭarbūsh is usually attributed to the period of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) when it was introduced as part of the Ottoman Empire judges and spread to clerical circles and the educated elite.

The next slave, to the left and below, is from the automaton of a standing slave holding a Fish and A Goblet. In this case, al-Jazari himself provides a relatively detailed description of the dress:

” He is a standing slave, ten years old in appearance, dressed in a short jacket (farajiya) with a robe(qaba) underneath it, and a cap (qalansuwa) on his head.”

The qaba (قابا, I hope I spelled right?) is a type of a robe with sleeves, at mid-calf –between the knee and ankle that has a diagonal fastening of one side over the other. The “Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilization” claimes that in Abbasid times qaba belonged to the military? According to the illustrations in the book, the qaba was widely used among slaves and free men. The hat (qalansuwa  = قلنسوة‎) is written like the Arabic city in the center of Israel; I don’t know if this is the origin of the city name. This hat was quite popular, and Harun al-Rashid was wearing this hat in his nocturnal wanderings through Baghdad in disguise. Unlike the qaba which repeats itself in many illustrations, there is quite a selection of headdress. For example, the slave girl who emerges from a cupboard holding a glass of wine is covered with a colorful scarf with a picturesque ribbon. Quite similar to today hijab. She is also wearing loose red trousers under the qaba. This combination can be found both in the book and outside.

Eight “free” people (in the sense of not slaves) from the “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” Topkapi manuscript,1206.

The top left illustration is the scribe from the elephant water clock. There are three scribes in the book, all three wear green qabas with brown stripes on the sleeves and wear pale blue turbans. I couldn’t find any evidence of “professional clothing” of scribes. You should also note that the scribe has a beard. Allowing the beard to grow (لحية) and trimming the mustache is mandatory in Sunni Islam and is considered to be Fitrah (فطرة‎) or the state of purity and innocence we are all born with including the natural tendency to distinguish between good and evil and to believe in the existence of Allah. As none of the slaves are bearded, they probably weren’t Muslims.

The two Sheikhs are part of the automaton in Category II dedicated to vessels and figures suitable for drink sessions.  Al-Jazari did not write anything about the Sheikhs, but Sheikh (( شيخ is a title given to the leader of the Bedouin or Arab tribes. The meaning of the name in Arabic is old, although the Sheikh is not necessarily old. They are also dressed in qaba and turbans. I don’t see in the illustration a difference between the of Sheik’s qaba and the slaves’  qaba. It is quite possible that there were large differences in the quality of the cloth or decoration which are not captured in the illustrations. However, the turban characterizes only the free people. Before anything else, the turban was practical in protecting the eyes from the sand and providing the face protection from the sun.  On top of this, the turban (عمامة, pronounced amama) was part of Muslim’s traditional attire and their identity. The turbans were a source of pride and a symbol of religious affiliation. Taking a man’s turban was considered a humiliating act, touching someone’s turban was perceived as an insult. It explains well why none of the slaves wear a turban.

The last picture below is from the musical boat(Hebrew). This is the King and his boon companion ( نديم =Nadim) I wrote about it here (Hebrew). Everyone is wearing a qaba, including the King himself. His blood-red qaba has gold trim. On top of the decorations, everybody has, he has additional decorations of the collar, the cufflinks and the fringes of the qaba as well as a golden belt. Red is not necessarily Royal, another member of the party is wearing red, though with fewer decorations.

I’m pretty sure al-Jazari was very surprised from this post, and it didn’t occur to him that the illustrations he prepared to improve the understanding of his machines, and are truly groundbreaking, would become a fashion guide for 12th century Diyarbakir. However eight hundred and twelve years later this is the only window that would allow me to peep into the  Palace in Diyarbakır. At least for me, this was an interesting journey.

The automaton of a slave girl holding a glass of wine and slaves in the Artuqid Palace


It is a decorated wooden cupboard by the king’s side during the feast. It has a door with two closed leaves. Every seven and a half minutes the doors would open and reveal an automaton (a mechanical device made in imitation of a human being) of a slave girl holding in her right hand a glass filled with wine and in her left a small towel. The king takes the glass, drinks the wine it contains, puts the glass back in her hand and, if he wishes, wipes his mouth with the towel. Then he closes the door leaves on her.  This process will repeat itself every eighth of an hour.

We met slaves and slave girls here and here(in Hebrew), but a quick search of the” Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices ” reveals ten different chapters mentioning slaves or slave girls. This seems a lot! I went to study slaves in the Islamic world in the twelfth century and how similar or different it is from al-Jazari’s book. To my surprise, my journey led me to Cairo Geniza.

Automaton of the Slave Girl, Serving a Glass of Wine”, a folio from Syria or Iraq, 1315

How does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in an inclined plane or a tipping bucket can skip those bits. To understand the mechanism, I use a drawing by the book translator Donald R. Hill with my captions. The slave girl became a boy? I guess Hill or his illustrator did not think that gender was important?

A drawing of the mechanism by Donald Hill with my captions

The cupboard is about 1.6 meter (originally six spans, in Arabic شبر or shabr) and width of approximately 60 cm. There is a wine reservoir above the cupboard which is dripping slowly to the tipping bucket below. I already discussed the tipping bucket here. The tipping bucket fills in seven and a half minutes (eighth of an hour) and discharges all at once into the glass in the slave-girl’s hand. The glass becomes heavy enough to lower the hand of the slave which is on an axis, lifting the extension rod from the docking station.

The slave-girl will roll down the inclined plane and pushes the left leaf with her left hand, which is holding the towel like she is offering the wine glass to the king. The king takes the glass from her hand, drinks its contents, and if he wishes, wipes his mouth with the towel. Then he puts the glass back in her hand, presses it down, and pushes the slave girl gently until she docks. This process will repeat itself every seven and a half minutes as long as there is wine in the reservoir.

Slaves and girl slaves in the “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices “

In ten chapters of the “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices “ slaves are mentioned:

  1. Category I, chapter seven – The candle clock of the swordsman(Hebrew): An automaton of young black (غلام),  with no beard holding a sword to shorten the candle wick.
  2. Category  II, chapter three – An arbiter for drinking parties: An automaton of a young a slave girl ( (جَارِيَة‎) in Wikipedia also a concubine)  with a  bottle and a glass as well as four slave girls in the balcony.
  3. Category II, chapter four –The musical boat: An automaton of a musical boat with a slave holding a jug and goblet, and four slave girls, flute-player, a harpist and two tambourine-players. I believe that they are “qiyan” – educated girls and women who entertained and entranced the caliphs and aristocrats. I already wrote about them here (in Hebrew)
  4. Category II, chapter seven – A slave holding a Fish and a Goblet: An Automaton of a young slave pouring wine
  5. Category II, chapter eight – A man holding a goblet  and a bottle: An automaton of a slave pouring wine into a goblet
  6. Category II, chapter ten –A slave girl emerges out of a cupboard with a glass of wine: (The current post) Automaton of a slave protruding from a cupboard with a glass of wine.
  7. Category III, second chapter- al-Jazari’s motivation to make the automatic pitcher is written explicitly: ” King Salih, may God double his righteousness, disliked a servant or slave-girl pouring water on to his hands for him to perform his ritual ablutions and he wished me to make [something] for pouring water onto his hands for his ritual ablutions.”
  8. Category III, third chapter – A  slave who pours water over the king’s hands: An automaton of a  slave who pours water over the king’s hands.
  9. Category III, ninth chapter – A basin of the peacock for washing the hands (Hebrew): Automaton for washing, one with soap, the other with a towel
  10. Category III, chapter ten- A basin of the slave for washing the hands: An automaton of a kneeling slave holding a water pitcher in his right hand

Cairo Geniza and slavery in the twelfth century

Do we know who were the slaves and the female slave? How they were enslaved and what kind of life did they have?

Cairo Geniza (storage) is a large collection of Jewish manuscripts and fragments written between the ninth century and the nineteenth century and preserved in the attic of the synagogue in Fustat or old Cairo. Maimonides, while in Cairo, used to pray in this synagogue, and it is therefore also known as the Maimonides synagogue.

In my ignorance, I thought the Geniza was for damaged Bibles and holy books but apparently because the Hebrew language was considered sacred they saved everything: court documents, bills of sale, and the correspondence of the local Jewish community and more. Craig Perry wrote his doctoral thesis: “The Daily Life of Slaves and the Global Reach of Slavery in Medieval Egypt, 969-1250 CE” based on materials from the Cairo Geniza. This is not the story of the slaves in Diyarbakir palace where al-Jazari worked, but we can learn a lot.

In an undated letter from the Cairo Geniza, a local court in the Red Sea port of Aydhāb (today in Sudan). Two slave women appeared before the Qadi (Muslim judge), one of them testified that they were kidnapped when they went to fetch water at a local well and sold into slavery. The Qadi asked if they were Muslims? Because according to Islamic law, Muslims were ineligible for enslavement. One of the two insisted that she was Jewish and therefore the case was transferred to a Jewish court. The writer of the letter asked for advice from Fustat about how to handle the matter. His decision to consult with associates explains how this document came to be preserved in the Genizah. We don’t know what happened to the unfortunate women but this is an example of how women were enslaved, and there is a wealth of information about buying and selling of individual slaves.

The second way I already mentioned (in Hebrew) is diplomatic exchanges: for instance, the Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizidescribes  large processions of male and female slaves arrived in Cairo from regions to the south, the first one at 1023 CE:

“On Tuesday, when eight days remained in the month the gift of Ibn

Makārim b. Abū Yazīd arrived from Muḥdathah in Aswān, and it was:

twenty heads of horses, eighty fine camels, a number of black [slaves], females and males, a cheetah in a cage, Nubian goats, birds, monkeys and elephant tusks. “

Prestige gifts of slaves were not limited to Nubia. The Fatimid Caliph al-Mustanṣir Billah received gifts of Turkish slaves from the Byzantine emperor Michael IV, slaves, and eunuchs from the Amir of Yemen and slaves the ruler of al-andalus(الأندلس), the Muslim kingdom of Iberia.

The near constant warfare at the edges of the Islamic empire produced a steady supply of prisoners-of-war and  “wholesale” slave trade.

We don’t know if the slaves in the Palace in Diyarbakır came as a gift from another ruler, purchased individually, or captured during a war.

The bills of sale contain a wealth of information that is useful for reconstructing the geography of slavery, Allowing Perry to do the statistics on the origin of slave girls, horrifying as it may sound. Perry found a large majority of Nubian slaves along with quite a few slaves from other sources:

It is impossible to know, of course, the origin of the slaves in the Palace in Diyarbakır but the Geniza documents cover slave trade in the entire Middle East, and it is reasonable to assume that that is was not very different.

When I think of slaves, I think of hard work in the cotton fields or the sugar plantations in South America. The Islamic world of the 12th century was not associated with large-scale agricultural production. The use of domestic slaves reflects the relative wealth and urban nature of the Muslim elite. Families of merchants, judges, scholars, and others were able to purchase slaves to help with raising the children and household chores. This is evident from the Geniza and is very similar to the book of al­-Jazari. All the slaves in the book are part of the Palace household, helping with daily tasks or helping during the feast.

Slave women were frequently used as child-bearing concubines by Muslim men. According to Islamic law, children born to a Muslim master and a female slave were free-born Muslims. The Fatimid  Caliph al-Mustanṣir Billah, already mentioned, was the son of Sudanese slave named Rasad. That was not the situation in the Jewish community where the Rabbinical establishment struggled to deal with the phenomenon, but that’s another story. I completely Ignored the topic of slave soldiers. This is essential to the history of the twelfth century but is not part of al-Jazari’s book.


My deep connection to al-Jazari makes me want to apologize on his behalf because of the casual manner in which he relates to slavery. It is more painful due to human rights situation in Israel and the general feeling that human rights are under attack.

This is childish; you can’t throw me and the education I received at home and in  Hashomer Hatzair” (a Socialist-Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement) to the 12th century. While I was searching for information on slavery I found  a text by Benjamin of Tudela  which for me was always just a happy song  (in Hebrew) by “HaGashash HaHiver”, an iconic Israeli comedy trio:

” And from there (Aden) to the region of Aswān is a journey of twenty days through the desert. This is Sebā on the Nile River that descends from the land of Kush. There are some among the Kush who have a king and they call him the sulṭān al-ḥabash. There is a people among them that are like animals that eat the grasses that grow on the bank of the Nile and in the fields. They go about naked and lack the intelligence of human beings. They lie with their sisters and with anyone they wish. (Sebā) is very hot. When the people of Aswān go raiding in their land, they carry with them bread, grain, raisins, and figs. They throw this toward (these people), who come to get it. They obtain many prisoners and sell them in Egypt and all of the kingdoms around them. These are the black slaves, the sons of Ham.”

This is more documentation (?) of capturing slaves in Nubia, but the reference to slaves is chilling and I’m afraid that it tells more about Benjamin of Tudela and his lack of ability to see another human suffering then it tells about the poor enslaved Africans. I would like to conclude with a line from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

universal declaration of human rights, December 1948