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


Formulas are holy and the automaton of a standing slave holding a Fish and A Goblet

“Troubles overcome are good to tell” – “Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertsyln.” Yiddish proverb by Primo Levi, “Periodic Table


The automaton is one of the simpler al-Jazari’s designs, but the description, like many other descriptions in the book, is intriguing not to say mesmerizing.

“He is a standing slave, ten years old in appearance, dressed in a short jacket with a rob underneath it, and a cap on his head. In his right hand is a glass the fingers curled around the bottom of the glass so that it can be taken out of his hand and put back… His left hand is in the same position, but higher than the glass, and holds a silver fish.”

Drawing of the Automaton with the fish and the goblet, Topkapi, 1206

The fish is surprising.  As far as I know, the fish is a Christian symbol, because of the miracle of the five loaves and two fish, because fishermen like Simon, Peter, Andrew, and John were the followers of Jesus later to become the apostles. Ichthus (Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ) the fish symbol is an acronym for Iēsous Christos, Theou, Yios, Sōtēr; in English:”Jesus Christ the son of God, Savior” has become a sign of recognition among persecuted Christians. The connection between wine and fish reminded me of a fascinating conversation between in varnish makers in the story “Chromium”  from the book “The Periodic Table”  written by Primo Levi; I will elaborate below.

How does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in copper hammering or tipping bucket can skip those bits.

This chapter has only one drawing, the one that appears above. Perhaps because this automaton is so simple. On the other hand, there are detailed explanations on the fabrication process:

“If the craftsman is not competent enough to make the face by hammering he can make [various] parts thicker with lead, e.g. the nose, etc.”


“The craftsman should not be afraid that the slave will tilt in any direction. I made him and placed the soles of the feet on the ground, and was afraid that he would tilt, but when he was standing erect he did not tilt at all.”

I took the liberty to take the original drawing of  al-Jazari and make it more like a contemporary drawing which clarifies the mechanism of the automaton:

The mechanism of the automaton, a slave with a goblet and a fish. My drawing

The upper part of the automaton, the head, and the chest is a wine reservoir. Its filling opening is hidden under the cap of the slave. At the bottom of the reservoir, there is a small drain above a tipping bucket. Al-Jazari often used tipping buckets. We met them already here (Hebrew), and we will meet more in future posts. Initially, the tipping bucket is leveled, as shown in the drawing, but after seven and a half minutes it is filled with wine towards its tip, and the bucket tilts and discharges all the wine through the pipe to the hollow silver fish. The silver fish is mounted on an axle, and its lower part is slightly heavier, so the fish is tilted upwards. With the wine,  the fish head becomes heavier and sinks until it is near the goblet and the wine flows into the goblet. Under the weight of the wine, the arm of the slave descends as if he were offering the glass to the king. The king takes the glass, drinks from it, and returns it to his hand, which has risen to its previous position. This repeats every seven and half minute intervals until the reservoir is empty.

“Chromium” by Primo Levi or removing the onion from the varnish

Primo Levi, a wonderful Italian author, his best-known works are related to his personal life story as a Holocaust survivor like “If This Is Man”, “The Truce” and others, but I particularly like the “The Periodic Table”. In my defense I am (also) a chemist  and Primo Levi himself wrote:

“I write because I am a chemist. My trade has provided my raw material, the nucleus to which things join … Chemistry is a struggle with matter, a masterpiece of rationality, an existential parable … Chemistry teaches vigilance combined with reason.”

Many of my students of chemistry, physics and computational science, to their surprise I should  say, heard me over the years reading the story “Chromium” from “The Periodic Table” which opens:

“The entrée was fish, but the wine was red. Versino, head of maintenance, said that it was all a lot of nonsense, provided the wine and fish were good; he was certain that the majority of those who upheld the orthodox view could not, blindfolded, have distinguished a glass of white wine from a glass of red… Old man Cometto added that life is full of customs whose roots can no longer be traced… I made a rapid mental review to be sure that none of those present had as yet heard it, then I started to tell the story of the onion in the boiled linseed oil. This dining room, in fact, belonged to a company of varnish manufacturers. “

The story begins in a prescription book for varnish. Advice is given to introduce into the boiling oil two slices of onion, without explanation or purpose and ends with ammonium chloride in a chromate-based anti-rust paint. For those who do not speak “chemistry” as a native language both are absurd. The weird and wonderful story is the essence of what is science and technology. I will explain the story of the onion, briefly but one who wants really to indulge in the story should read “The Periodic Table”. The onion was inserted into the oil before thermometers were used. When the onion started frying it indicated the proper temperature was reached and it is time to end the boiling process. Over the years varnish manufacturers switch to thermometers but forgot the original reason for using the onion and did not dare to deviate from the recipe they knew. This is how the recipe found its way to the book. When I read about the automaton of al-Jazari, I remembered this conversation and was wondering if they drank from the fish white or red wine?  What do we know about the drinking habits in the twelfth century? Apparently quite a bit.

Drinking habits in the twelfth century

For many years diners were isolated from wine drinking sessions. In ancient Greece, the Symposium (Greek: συμπίνειν, = to drink together) was a feast which took place after dinner. Drinking for pleasure was accompanied by music, dancing, or a good conversation. The modern use of symposium as an academic scholarly discussion is quite different. Although the Romans drank during dinner, wine mixed with water, they had a separate drinking party (comissatio) after dinner. Similarly, Arabic-Islamic culture in the middle ages enjoyed wine only after finishing the meal. In the chapter on alcohol consumption in medieval Cairo, Paulina Lewicka, from Warsaw University, wrote about drinking sessions called majlis al khmar (الخمر مجلس) literally the wine council. The second category of “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices ” is dedicated to “Vessels and Figures Suitable for Drinking Sessions.” In all ten chapter, every chapter covers one device there is not a single meal. It seems that in the palace in Diyarbakir the meals were separated from drinking parties. This makes the question which wine goes with a fish irrelevant. It is still interesting to know what kind of wine they’re drinking? In the chapter of the automaton of the slave holding a fish and a goblet, it  “clarified wine” (sharab murawwaq) is mentioned. “Clarification” is the processes by which insoluble matter, like dead yeast cells, or various tannins, is removed before bottling, thus improving the wine quality and taste. Today this is part of the standard process, and this tells me very little about the actual wine they drank. In 1169 Saladin, already mentioned, became a Vizier in Cairo. He repented wine-drinking and turned from frivolity to religious life and later prohibited drinking alcoholic beverages altogether. Although the Artuqid ruler were vassals to Saladin, the prohibition was not implemented in Diyarbakir. In Cairo things were not simple either. While I was looking for information about wine drinking in this period, I found Firuzabadi’s “Wine-List.” This manuscript from the British Museum’s collections originated in 15th century Cairo. The author is careful to emphasize that he composed it in loyal support of the prohibition. By accident or intention the sub title is quite ironic: “The Cheery Companion, on the prohibition of old wine”  Then he alphabetically names 357 (!). The majority are very descriptive, ” the golden “,  “cock’s eye”, “mother of vice” and  even ‘the one which is drunken in the morning.” Even though it is difficult to know how similar or different the wines in Diyarbakir were in comparison to what we drink, we can conclude that in Diyarbakır palace they probably had a fine selection of wines.

The passing of time and great truths

Back to Primo Levi; The use of oil of Sandarac, a varnish obtained from the small cypress-like tree appears many times in the “Book of  Knowledge of Ingenious  Mechanical Devices “. The idea of using onions to evaluate the temperature of the oil was certainly within reach of al-Jazari. Perhaps he would have enjoyed the story about the onion in the recipe even after precise thermometers were used. The story of the ammonium chloride was probably incomprehensible for him. First chromium was discovered in 1797 by the French chemist Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin, and the use of chromium in the paint industry would be strange. Secondly the “detective story” is based on chemistry that he could not know; Elements, Atoms, Acids and Bases belong to the future, centuries after his time. However, I think he would sympathize with the sweet sensations felt by Primo Levi (details in the story!) when he understood that ammonium chloride the formula is the result of his own work two decades ago. He wrote:

“But formulas are holy as prayers, decree-laws, and dead languages, and not an iota in them can be changed. And so my ammonium chloride by now completely useless and a bit harmful, is religiously ground into the chromate anti-rust paint on the shores of that lake, and nobody knows why anymore.”