Automaton of a slave pouring water and the Artuqid court


This is a slave made of jointed copper. In his outstretched right hand, he holds a pitcher decorated with a bird. His left hand is raised and in the palm is a towel, a mirror and a comb(not seen in the picture). This copper slave assists the king in Wuḍū – his ritual ablutions.  This is one of five chapters in the book where the King is mentioned explicitly. I went to learn a bit more about the Artuqids and the Palace in Diyarbakır.

Automaton of a slave pouring water, Topkapi manuscript, 1206.

 How did it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in siphons, floats, and pulleys can skip those bits. Essentially the mechanism is very similar to the Automatic Pitcher with a few additions, typical of al-Jazari. I modified the original drawing by al-Jazari and added captions to help follow the mechanism:

A modified drawing by al-Jazari with my captions, Topkapi manuscript, 1206.

In the beginning, a human servant removes the copper slave’s hat and pours water with a funnel into the water tank in the slave chest. In the drawing, the tank is half full. At the bottom of the tank, there is a rotary valve (in red). The servant brings the automaton to the King and rotates the hidden valve rod (in grey) near the neck. Water starts to flow through the pipe to the pitcher. There is a partition in the pitcher and the Pitcher spout, designed in the shape of a peacock’s neck, is a Siphon almost touching the partition. When the water rises they will block the airway through the spout, and the air only way out is through the whistle which will make a whistling sound. This is the part that was forgotten in the “Automatic Pitcher.” The siphon, spout, the partition, and even the rotary valve are identical to the “Automatic Pitcher”. The hand holding the pitcher is hardwired and will not move. The hand with the towel consists of an arm and forearm with an axis at the elbow and is free to move. The float is connected through the pulley to the elbow and would sink as the water exit, pulling the arm so that copper slave will offer the towel to the king.

For whom Al-Jazari designed his machines?

In the first chapter, “the Castel Water Clock” al-Jazari wrote :

” This is the basis of the work. Individual parts may be omitted or added according to the place for which it is constructed. For mosques and shrines it may be limited to what is necessary for telling the hours; for the palaces of kings, what may be fitting, such as pictures and other things.”

Naturally, I assumed that all al-Jazari machines were designed for the King and his court, after all, al-Jazari was the court engineer. But when I inspected the book carefully it turns out that the King was mentioned explicitly only in five chapters, including the current “Automaton of a slave pouring water” In only two chapters the  King is mention by his name King Salih, i.e. Salih Nasreddin Mahmud who ruled in Diyarbakir during the years 1200-1222. There are nine more chapters like Category VI chapter one, “the Palace Door” (only in Hebrew) or Category II, chapter four, ” A boat placed on a pool during a drinking party ” (also only in Hebrew) where the King is not mentioned, but from the description and the circumstances the machine was clearly designed for the Royal Court. There are thirty-six chapters which are machines with an unspecified designation. Nobody knows where the Elephant Clock or the Perpetual Flute were located at the time. They could be in the central square, the Palace itself or in some magnificent mosque. I don’t want to pretend that al-Jazari was an engineer in the service of the public. All he did was probably with the Artuqid King blessing. I set out to learn more about Artuqids and their court.

Artuqid kings

Al-Jazari had served three Artuqid kings. Only one of them is mentioned in the book by name: Salih Nasreddin Mahmud who ruled Diyarbakir 1200-1222.

Before him, al-Jazari served his brother Quṭb al-Dīn Sukmān II in the years  1185-1200 years, and he started his service in the Artuqid court for their father  Nūr al-Dīn Muḥammadin in 1181. All three are pretty minor figures in the history of the 12th and 13th centuries. Carole Hillenbrand, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Edinburgh wrote the book: “A Principality in Crusader Times Is: The Early Artuqid State” and several articles, but they contain mainly information about battles and alliances and less about the cultural life. I think if we remember the Artuqid is mainly due to its cultural enterprise. Twenty years or so before al-Jazari the Artuqid court hosted Usama Ibn Munkidh, a Muslim poet, author and knight who wrote كتاب الاعتبار‎ translated a to English as “The Book of Contemplation” which is probably the best-known Muslim source for the Crusader period. Upon the request of the Artuqid king, almost thirty years after the death of al-Jazari, al-Jawbari (الجوبري ) wrote “Book of Selected unveiling of Secrets.”This is a concise encyclopedia of tricks, practices, and devices used by fraudulent Ṣūfīs, false alchemists, jugglers, and quacks. To the best of my knowledge this was not translated to English (unfortunately!). You can add a new architectural language in Artuqid mosques explained in the Thesis of Sharon Talmor Sol(TAU) and Rachel Ward’s paper which present evidence for a workshop for copying manuscripts the Artuqid court. What was the cause of this cultural flourishing?

It is certainly not the size. The title “King” is perhaps a bit excessive. This is the map in the 12th century:

Map of the Principality of the Artuqids in 1200. Wikipedia.

The Artuqid Principality, as you can see, was tiny. Most of Turkey’s territory was controlled by the Byzantine Empire and the Sultanate of Rum. The later is what remained of the Seljuk Empire that controlled, at its prime, a vast area stretching from India to Antioch and from the Arabian Peninsula to Azerbaijan and contained most of the Muslim territories in Asia. However, by the 12th century, the Seljuk Empire was in decline, enabling the existence of small Principalities like the Artuqids. It’s not just the modest territory. Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty in Cairo took Diyarbakir by storm in 1183 the Artuqids ruled by his grace. It is interesting to note that on the southern wall of the Palace in Diyarbakir appears الله اَلملك واحدي which means Allah is the ruler and drawing of Trebuchet. The Trebuchet is a powerful siege engine which uses a swinging arm to throw a projectile towards besieged city walls. In the second half of the 12th century, the Trebuchet was significantly improved, and those improvements appeared in a military manual written for Saladin. The drawing of the Trebuchet on the walls of Diyarbakir is unique, as far as I know. It can be interpreted as a quality assurance like “this wall would survive a barrage of Trebuchet” or it can be to commemorate the siege by Saladin as “Remember my siege and the horrendous Trebuchet I brought on your heads ” and maybe there is a different explanation altogether?

Picture of the Trebuchet on the southern wall of the fortress in Diyarbakir. Photographed by Lorenz Korn, 2008.

The historical information about the Artuqids doesn’t help me to understand or think about the book. There’s something very optimistic and perhaps even wonderful how this tiny Principality produced such a significant cultural-engineering heritage “It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Al-Jazari’s work in the history of engineering, it provides a wealth of instructions for design, manufacture, and assembly of machines” Donald Hill in the History Engineering. From the foreword by Donald Hill.

I am adding two pictures of the Palace in Diyarbakir. This is the view from the palace of the  Valley of the Tigris. In Hebrew, the river is called ” Ḥîddeqel” following the ancient Akkadian name ” Idigina”. Most languages in the world follow the old Persian name, Tigrā:

Photo of the Tigris Valley view from the Palace.

Below is the Ulu Beden Tower, a black basalt stone tower in Diyarbakır. It was built in 1208, two years after the death of al-Jazari at age 70.

Ulu Beden Tower, Diyarbakir palace.

The double-headed eagle, the winged beasts and the beautiful Kufic inscription are, in my mind, related to the book. The double-headed eagle also appears on a coin of dirham minted by Mahmoud Nasreddin (the King of Al-Jazari):

A Dirham, 1218, minted in Ḥiṣn Kaifā where the Artukids court was before Diyarbakir.

Some claim that the double-headed Eagle is a Byzantine icon, and one head is facing Rome, and the other one is facing Constantinople. However, the double-headed Eagle symbolizes power and control from the time of Hittites and has countless appearances before and after Byzantium. Are the Tower, the currency, and the view of the Tigris valley helping you see al-Jazary at work? You decide.

The Magic Pitcher, a Walnut and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Al-Jazari describes a handsome pitcher of beautiful workmanship.  The slave brings it at the end of the meal and pours over a diner’s hands moderately warm water. To the surprised spectators, he serves a second,  miserable diner with water, too hot for bathing and too cold water for a third. Finally, he tilts the pitcher, and no water comes out. To the delight of the company, he continued his round and selects the “winners” who would receive proper bathing and the other who would get the party laugh. We are used getting cold or hot water by will, in the twelve century this was a technology miracle. To the best of my knowledge, this is the earliest Thermos, an insulating storage vessel for cold\hot drinks.

Water Pitcher, variable temperature, 1206 Topkapi manuscript.

How does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in heat transfer or patents to insert and take out water can skip those bits. Al-Jazari took a brass pitcher and removed the bottom and welded two parallel plates with a finger wide air gap in-between them.  Al-Jazari wrote that he tried to use a single brass plate as a spacer, but the cold water was heated, and the hot water got cold as expected. The copper is an excellent heat conductor, while the air trapped between the plates is an excellent heat insulator. Donald R. Hill,  the book translator, wrote:

“Although al-Jazari describes these devices at considerable length, the designs show little advance on those described by the Banu Musa [you can read more here] Indeed the latter are in several ways more sophisticated.”

However, to my knowledge, this is the first use of double walls and air insulation, and like a lot of al-Jazari work was obtained by trial and error. The drawings of al-Jazari are usually exceptional, but in this case, he chose a section that makes it more difficult, at least for me, to understand. I attach a contemporary drawing made by Donald R. Hill, The book translator, and annotator, showing two cross section. I added captions.

A drawing made by Donald R. Hill, The book translator, and annotator, showing two cross section of the pitcher.

On the right side, we look at the pitcher, perpendicular to both the copper plates dividing it into two tanks; one for hot water and one for cold water. The distance between the plates was enlarged for clarity. In reality, it was “a finger” about 2 inches. In the upper third of the pitcher, two funnels were installed, leading the hot water to its tank and the cold water to its half of the pitcher. To fill the pitcher, al-Jazari used a deflector on an axle. You can see it in both sections. The plate had a heavier side, towards the cold water so that one would fill the cold water first. When the cold water tank was full, the float pushed the deflector plate which tilts toward the hot water tank and enables us to fill the other half. A second buoy (al-Jazari used a walnut) with a gauge marked that this tank was also full. The Pitcher had a hollow handle with two holes for air entry. The holes were connected to two pipes, one leading to the half pitcher with cold water and the other to the half of the hot water.  When the slave leaves the two holes open, air enters to both sides of the pitcher, and mixed water, in a comfortable temperature, comes out of the nozzle. When the slave covers one of the holes, water comes out only from the side of the pitcher that has an air inlet, hot or cold depending on the hole he sealed. If the slave sealed both holes, no water would come out at all.

spirit of silliness

Al –Jazari  wrote:

“It is a pitcher of handsome workmanship with a handle and a spout. The slave brings it on a tray at the end of the meal and places it in front of the diner [al-makhdum -lit. the one being served]. He lifts the pitcher from the tray and pours over the diner’s hands moderately warm water, with which he completes his ritual ablutions (wudu) or the washing of his hands. Then on the hands of the person whom he is putting to the test he pours hot water unbearable to the touch, so he cannot wash his hands. Then on the hands of the person whom he is putting to the test he pours very cold water, unbearable to the touch. Then he tilts the pitcher over [the hands of] the person whom he is putting to the test and nothing comes out of the pitcher. He pours out [warm water] to whomsoever he wishes in the company, and refuses it to whomsoever he wishes.”

This description fits better the court jester than a slave servant. Assuming he survived the night, it is also a testimony about a folly in the court in Diyarbakır. Court jester was a medieval profession responsible for fun and entertainment in the courts. Most of us know the Western version with colorful clown clothes, jester hat and a wand. But there are also court jesters in the Islamist courts. A Persian version called the DALQAK is somewhat similar, In the book  “Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World” there is a list of the jesters in the Abbasid Caliphate. The most famous one Abū Nuwās who was a poet and a jester in the court of Harun al-Rashid and appears several times in The Book of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

Jesters, musicians, and dancers in a Turkish miniature, Topkapi Palace

The role of the Court fool in medieval times was to speak honestly, sometimes even mocking the King or his noblemen without suffering the consequences. For example in the Book “Of Fools at Court “ by Clemens Amelunxen when a powerful nobleman complained that a fool was walking on his right, the jester hopped over to the left and answered in sarcasm: “well, I don’t mind a fool walking on my right!”. It is possible that the pitcher stunt was part of the leeway that was possible for the court fool. Either way, this is a little surprising glimpse to the court culture of the Artuqid.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”  by Robert m. Pirsig, few years before I had my own BSA Motorcycle that needed everything I know about bike maintenance and challenged the mechanics in Chlenov street garage when I was not sufficient. I found this book in a used Bookstore and even if I did not immerse in the roots of the debate between Sophists and Socrates, I was deeply moved by the book and three or four stories are part of me ever since.

Robert m. Pirsig

The book is the story of a journey of Pirsig and his son on a motorcycle across the United States. This is partially autobiographical, weaving the journey in the United States back roads with a complicated internal search (he underwent a mental breakdown and hospitalization) and deep philosophical discussions.

Pirsig and his son ride with his close friends John and Sylvia. They have an expensive BMW motorcycle and John, like most of us, want to enjoy driving it without getting into maintenance and technological problems.  The handlebars of John’s BMA started slipping, and Pirsig is offering to shim them with a can of beer. He writes:

“I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money. But to my surprise, he didn’t see the cleverness of this at all…. As far as I know, those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!….What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that…I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was… Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?”

Should you ask how this story is connected to al-Jazari?  Without any discussions or explanations, he used a Walnut as a buoy. To me, this is identical to using a beer can as a shim, i.e., looking at things in terms of the underlying form. I would like to finish in a quote from Pirsig on the essence and form. If I replaced steel with copper, Al-Jazari (in my opinion) would agree with every word:

” I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this—that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts—all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forger work or welding sees “steel” as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not.”