A Goblet which arbitrates during drinking parties


It is a tall goblet made of silver. The goblet has a fretted, flat lid with a beautiful dome in the center. On top of the dome, there is a duck with an open beak. The goblet is put in the middle of the party, and wine is poured. The duck rotates and emits a shrill tone until it comes to rest and stops whistling; its beak is pointed towards one of the participants who drink from the spout and empties all the wine and returns it to the steward, If however, any wine remains in it the duck whistles and the steward would not accept the goblet until the chosen one completed the drinking.

A drawing of the Goblet which arbitrates, Topkapi Manuscript, 1206

How does it work?

The technical explanation will be colored in blue as always, so anyone who is not interested in how a pitcher of wine makes sounds and how you know how much wine was drank can skip those bits. The drawing below is by the book translator and annotator, Donald R.Hill. It would help us to follow the mechanism:

The goblet mechanism following the drawing by Donald Hill.

The servant pours the wine on the fretted lid. The wine flows downward through the opening on the water wheel. Please see below the beautiful drawing by al-Jazari, which looks just like a modern turbine of NASA. The flow of wine hits the blades and rotates the wheel and the duck, which is on the axle. The wine goes down into the channel into the goblet, driving the air from through the air pipe and the whistle. When the drinker drinks from the spout, the wine goes back in the opposite direction, but if the drinker did not finish the wine, it will come back and push air in the pipe, and the duck will make a sound indicating that the drinker did not complete his duty.

A comparison of the water Wheel by al-Jazari and a modern turbine, NASA website.



I am not an expert on Islam and its development, but the casual reference to alcohol drinking surprised me very much. I’ve explored the issue a little bit, but I would love to receive your corrections, comments, or other proposals. The prohibition on alcohol in the holy Quran is gradual. Muslims believe that Allah did so in his great wisdom and understanding of human nature and the knowledge of how rooted is alcohol consumption. In the beginning, Muslims were prohibited from participating in prayers when drunk:

Surah An-Nisa [4:43]:

“O you who have attained to faith! Do not attempt to pray while you are in a

state of drunkenness, [but wait] until you know what you are saying”

Further, it is said that alcohol is more damage than good:

Surah al-Baqarah 2:219:

“They will ask thee about intoxicants and games of chance. Say: “In both there is great evil as well as some benefit for man; but the evil which they cause is greater than the benefit which they bring.”

And only, at last, there is a sweeping prohibition:

Surah Al-Maida, 5:90

“O you who have attained to faith! Intoxicants, and games of chance, and idolatrous practices, and the divining of the future are but a loathsome evil of Satan’s doing: shun it, then, so that you might attain to a happy state!

All English translation by Muhammad Asad.

Despite the prohibition on drinking wine and intoxicating beverages in Islam, you can find many testimonies for drinking alcohol in the medieval Islamic world in language, culture, and poetry.  The word “alcohol” itself comes from the Arabic word al-kuhul (الْكُحْل) means the essence. This is because the production process is reminiscent of the production of the Kahal powder used as a dark eye-coloring cosmetic. In poetry, Abu Nuwas, probably the most famous Arab poet of the Abbasid era who also appears in “Thousand Nights and Nights,” wrote wine poems, The Khamriyyāt. You can be read more here:

“Don’t cry for Layla, don’t rave about Hind!

But drink among roses a rose-red wine,

A drought that descends in the drinker’s throat,

bestowing its redness on eyes and cheeks.

The wine is a ruby, the glass is a pearl,

served by the hand of a slim-fingered girl,

Who serves you the wine from her hand, and wine

from her mouth — doubly drunk, for sure, will you be!”

The Story of Bayad and Riyad, 13th-century Manuscript, Vatican library

“The drawing is from the manuscript “The Story of Bayad and Riyad”( حديث بياض ورياض).  This is the only manuscript left; it was probably created in Andalusia very close to 1200 (the years in which al-Jazari wrote “The Book of knowledge of Ingenious mechanical devices”) The scene in the picture is clearly a feast in which a group of women and men drink wine together.

The goblet which arbitrates is evidence that the court of Diyarbakir has lived with this contradiction in peace. There are plenty of references to Islam and its customs in the book, and there are playful fun drinking parties without any apology or concealment. We only have to guess the explanation. The Arctic rulers lived among a diverse local population, including Armenians, Syrians, and Greeks, most of them oriental Christians. In Christianity, not only wine is not forbidden, but it is a part of the ritual. At the Last Supper of Jesus, Jesus blesses the wine, states that the wine is his blood, and instructs the disciples to drink from it. Then he passed unleavened bread around the table and explained to his Apostles that the bread represents his body. These are the roots of the Holy Communion ceremony. It is possible that living together led to a softer approach to drinking wine. However, the evidence for alcohol use comes from all over the Muslim world from Persia to Andalusia and also spans for hundreds of years. I may be dumping the strict current prohibition on periods where the perception of early and late in the holy Quran was different and religious concepts were more moderate.

Truth or Dare?

My beloved M., the first reader of my posts, commented on the resemblance between the rotating duck and the bottle in the game “Truth or Dare”. This is a party game I last played as a teenager and was particularly popular among adolescents. The Internet offers application (few!), which make me feel that what was daring at my time is quite innocent today. On the other hand, it seems as though the game is still popular and therefore needs have not really changed?

Seemingly, this is a different game. The participants sit in a circle and spin a bottle. The participant to whom the bottle was pointed was asked: “Truth or Dare?” If you choose “truth”, you are asked a question that you must answer. At the time, all the questions were opened in: “Is it true that…” And most of them, if not all, dealt with things that are between him and her. If you choose “Dare”, you are given a task that opens with words “I dare you..” and most of those were the first kisses or something ridiculous. The question I think is why we need a bottle? Or in the context of the goblet which arbitrate why in duck?  Adolescents, at least in my time, were embarrassed about discovering their sexuality and the relationship with the opposite sex. The use of a game frame and temporary loss of control for the benefit of the “bottle” allowed expanding the boundaries and experimenting with what was difficult to ask or say without the protection of the game and could bring about embarrassment or reprimand. Does this mean that the partners at the banquet needed a duck that arbitrates because they felt discomfort with drinking alcohol? is this a question mark on my assumption that the goblet is clear evidence that the court of Diyarbakir lived with this contradiction in peace?

The Mechanical Bartender, Cocktails and Rodeo


The official definition of a “cocktail” according to Webster Dictionary is “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” However, we refer to almost any mixed drink as a cocktail. According to Wikipedia, the history of cocktails begins in 1806, but my readers will be surprised to learn that al-Jazari thought about it already in the 12th century. The drink-selector is a man riding a cow. To the best of my knowledge cows are not used in any culture for riding. The nearest exception is bull riding in the Rodeo, and the bulls look like they are not too happy with the idea. This post is a strange combination of all three (al-Jazari, Cocktail, and Rodeo). Let’s Hit the road.

The Wine pitcher, Manuscript from Syria 1315, Calligrapher: Farrukh ibn `Abd al-Latif

How does it work?

The technical explanation as always will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in patents of pouring and extracting wine can skip those bits. Al-Jazari took a large brass pitcher and welded a handsome cow made from cast-bronze. In the center of the cow, there is a valve in the shape of a man riding the cow and his stretched hand points to a circular disk (not seen in the drawing). The pitcher is divided into five containers. In the first tank, there is an aromatic wine, in the second tank, there is a rose-colored wine(Rosé). The third has a yellow wine. I guess he meant what we call today white wine, but I could not find any support for my assumption. In the forth tank there is red wine, and the last one is full of water. The disk has each liquor markup:

Drawing of the disk, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

The rider is a sophisticated valve and when rotated to a point one get his chosen wine, or you can produce different mixes, and al-Jazari proposed a few options. The following drawing helps to understand how did it work. This is a combination of a drawing by the book translator and illustrator Donald Hill with a drawing by al-Jazari, and I added captions:

Integrated drawing of the book translator and annotator Donald Hill with a drawing by al-Jazari.

In the beginning, a servant lifts the cover and pours aromatic wine. The wine enters only the appropriate tank and fills it. The wine doesn’t get anywhere else (except maybe negligible amounts) because the way to the other containers is through the higher pipes. When the tank is full the float in the cage will rise and push the seal upward, blocking the tank. The purpose of the cage is to keep the float in place, allowing only vertical movement. I added the detailed drawing by al-Jazari how to build the cage for the float. Next, the servant would pour the Rosé. The wine will accumulate above the partition until it would pass the height of the pipe and flow into the Rosé tank. Since the pipe opening is lower from the bent in the siphon and the water pipe (please look in the drawing) and the white wine pipe (not in the drawing) No Rosé will flow into any other tank. Only when the Rosé tank is full, the float would seal it in the same way as explained before.  The same logic continues to fill all the remaining tanks. Each of the containers has a pipe which comes out of the cow mouth through the valve. When you turn the selector to one of the six points, the appropriate pipe is connected, and the selected wine comes out.


Cocktail is a drink prepared by mixing alcohol with alcohol or a soft drink. Al-Jazari proposed to mix all four wines, or to mix wine and water, half in half or third wine and two-thirds water. I think it falls under the definition of a cocktail. There is plenty of evidence for mixing alcoholic beverages throughout history but the first time it was mentioned explicitly by the name “cocktail” is in 1806 in the American magazine The Balance and Columbian Repository: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters (alcoholic drink flavored with botanical matter).” I found the picture at the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans (it’s not a Museum of my invention, and they even have an educational program?):

The newspaper where the term “cocktail” was first used.

The more interesting question is where this weird name cocktail = Rooster tail originated? One story is that the victor in a cockfight was toasted by his fellows with a special drink crowned with feathers, one for each of them left on the winning rooster’s tail. Another version claims that  Betsy Flanagan, a tavern keeper, served French soldiers a drink in 1779 garnished with tail feathers of her neighbor’s rooster. In other stories, the “Cocktail” has nothing to do with roosters but is a modification of some other word. Two options are: “Cocktail” was derived from the French term for egg cup, coquetel. One  Antoine Amedie Peychaud of New Orleans who mixed his Peychaud bitters into a stomach remedy served in a coquetel. Not all of Peychaud’s customers could pronounce the word, and it became known as a cocktail. The last story is that this was the name of a Mexican Princess named Xochitl. The name means flower in Aztec(?) and some claim it’s the name of an Aztec goddess. Either way, the princess served drinks to American soldiers as part of the celebration of a Peace Treaty signed between Mexico and the United States in the 18th century. “Cocktail” is just a wrong spelling of her name. There are plenty of other stories. The number of colorful stories makes me think they were invented in an evening of too many cocktails and I doubt them all.

It is interesting to note that the myth that drinking a cocktail or even mixing between various drinks (for example drinking beer with a shot of vodka) is the cause of drunkness, or at least a bad headache the next morning is just nonsense. Actual drunkenness and hangover are caused by the amount of alcohol and have nothing to do with mixing or the order of the drinks.


Al-Jazari doesn’t explain why the wine-selector is a man riding a cow? To my knowledge, there is no culture where people rode cows. Oxen were used regularly to pull heavy wagons or for grinding grains in mills and we have the wonderful Minoan art depicting acrobatics on bulls. We think it was a central part of Minoan worship, but to my understanding, we know very little:

The Bull-Leaping Fresco from the palace at Knossos.

The closest thing to riding cows is the Rodeo. It is a popular sport that originated in Spain and Mexico and spread to the United States and elsewhere. During the Rodeo, the rider must stay atop the bull for eight seconds with the use of one hand gripped on a bull rope and the other hand is in the air. I saw it only in the movies, and it’s a pretty sure way to end badly bruised or worse. It certainly doesn’t explain why al-Jazari chose the cow rider as the wine selector?

Cocktails are relatively sophisticated drinks and Rodeo, at least in my mind, is a much more popular sport that goes well with a beer or manly drinks.  To my surprise I  found that  there are quite a few cocktails associated with Rodeo, for example:

Two ounces of Reno Rodeo Legacy Vodka, juice from 1 lemon, 1-ounce triple sec, .5 ounce limoncello, and a splash of simple syrup to sweeten! Add all ingredients into a shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and pour into chilled martini glass. Let’s raise our glasses to al-Jazari, brave bull riders, and tasty cocktails!