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.

The clock of the doors and the Jewish question


The clock of the doors is identical to the candle clock of the monkey in terms of its mechanism and does not warrant a separate post. Just like the old joke about “The Elephant and the Jewish Question,” the clock of the doors has nothing to do with Jews,  which are not mentioned in the “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” even once. The phrase “The Elephant and the Jewish Question” is usually used to describe an annoying person who tries to link any event, however universal, to the Jewish people and their problems. I hope I’m not one of them, and I don’t have any convincing reason why I went out to check what we know about the Jews of Diyarbakır and Anatolia in the 12th Century. However, what I discovered is strange and exciting, and maybe it will interest you too.

The Candle Clock of the Doors” The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, “Topkapi manuscript, 1206

How does it work?

Al-Jazari himself wrote:

” It is like the previous model, from which nothing is omitted except the keeper and the monkey. The additions are as follows: around the perimeter of the candle holder, fourteen doors are erected, each with two leaves. When a constant hour has passed from the lighting of the wick, a ball falls from the falcon’s beak, and the door opposite the falcon opens, and a figure emerges, [made] according to the choice of the craftsman.”

Anyone interested in the mechanism can go back and read my explanation of the monkey clock or the candle clock of the scribe. I will briefly explain the opening of the doors.

During combustion, the candle will shorten, and the force exerted by the weight will push the candle mount upwards at a constant rate that depends on the rate of combustion. To the bottom of the weight is attached another wire that runs over the pulley on which the bracket sits with 14 doors. These rotate as the candle burns. When the ball falls, it pushes the figure who opens a door and represents the time that has passed. This process repeats itself every hour.

The Jews in the 12th Century

The history of the Jewish people in the 12th Century is not similar in Ashkenazi communities and Muslim Spain. In Europe, the 12th Century began with the Rhineland massacres, a series of mass murders of Jews perpetrated by mobs of the People’s Crusade in 1096. The communities on the Rhine (Speyer, Worms, and Mainz) were destroyed. In 1146, in a repeat of the events of 1096, Crusaders preparing for the Second Crusade attacked and massacred Jewish communities along the Rhine. The 12th Century more or less ended with One of the worst Jews massacres of the Middle Ages, which took place in York in 1190. An angry mob trapped the city’s entire Jewish community inside the tower of York Castle. Many members of the community chose to commit suicide rather than be murdered or forcibly baptized by the attackers.

In Spain, on the other hand, Jewish people under Muslim rule experienced tolerance and integration. Some historians refer to this period as the “Golden Age” for the Jews, as more opportunities became available to them. That lasted from the days of the Caliphate of Cordoba to the small independent Muslim principalities and kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula known as “taifas” and the process of the reconquest of Spain by the Christians. Social integration allowed Jews to advance significantly in new fields, philosophy and science. Some of them wrote poetry, primarily Hebrew poetry. They wrote about everything: poems about Zion and the people of Israel, but also poems about wine and women. I don’t think there’s a connection between the cultural flourishing in Diyarbakır and the Jewish flourishing in Muslim Spain, but it’s still intriguing. The Golden Age began in the 9th Century and ended in the 13th Century, but some of the more familiar figures were almost parallel to al-Jazari. For example, Maimonides was born in Cordoba in 1138, two years after al-Jazari, and died in Cairo in 1204, two years before him. Maimonides is a true polymath: one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of all generations, as well as a prominent philosopher of the Middle Ages, a scientist, and a physician. In his thirst for wisdom, he formed a study group and a friendship with Jabir ibn Aflah (a Muslim scholar) ‘s son, and they studied mathematics, medicine, and philosophy together. This must sound strange to those who live in Israel today and are familiar with the ultra-Orthodox opposition to secular studies. The “Kuzari” book, ” Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion,” which I still managed to study in high school, was written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in this Century, and I must mention Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12-century poet, linguist, biblical commentator, and philosopher. He also worked in mathematics and astronomy. One of the lunar craters is named after him. Ibn Ezra’s most important mathematical work is in Hebrew: “The Book of the Unit,” which deals extensively with the decimal system and how it is used, thus preceding Fibonacci, the main contributor to the spread of this method in the Western world.

Did al-Jazari know the books they wrote or even heard about them? It is impossible to know, but the likelihood is extremely low.

Jews in Diyarbakır

In 1518, the Ottoman government conducted a census. There were 28 Jewish families and three single men in Diyarbakır. These are the first definitive data we have. After that, a continuous Jewish presence peaked in 1905, but apparently, the presence of Jews in Anatolia predates the Muslim conquest. According to traditions held by the Jews of Kurdistan, the Jews arrived in Kurdistan as early as the Salomon’s Temple period and are descendants of the Ten Tribes. As written in the book of  Kings:

” In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away unto Assyria, and placed them in Halah, and in Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”

Although we do not have a complete geographical identification, the name “Habur” has been preserved to this day as one of the Tigris tributaries located near the city of Zaxo (Arabic: زاخو), about 300 km from Diyarbakir. Later exiles to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon from the Kingdom of Judah, joined them. So it is very likely that there were Jews in Diyarbakir in al-Jazari’s day.

A Jewish delegation meeting with an Ottoman official

The Strange Story of David Alroy

Alroy was born a year before al-Jazari in Amadiya, Kurdistan. At first, I was confused because the historical name of Diyarbakır is Amida, but these are two different cities. Amadiya is located in northern Iraq, about 400 km southeast of Diyarbakir. David Alroy studied rabbinical literature with Hasdai, the exilarch, the leader of the Jewish community in Persian Mesopotamia, and Ali Gaon, the head of the Sanhedrin,  an assembly of elders appointed to sit as a tribunal in Baghdad. There is a claim that he was also well-versed in all the Books of Magic and sorcerers. I’m not sure what books are included, but it’s a bit like Chekhov’s gun, which appears in the first act, firing in the third. I have already mentioned Benjamin of Tudela, and not for the better. He wrote:

” David Alroy took upon him to rebel against the King of Persia [in 1163] ; for which purpose he gathered together all the Jews on the Mountains of Haphton, and from other Nations, to go to lay Siege to Jerusalem A great Part therefore of the Jews had Faith in; him, calling, him their Messiah. As soon as the King of Persia heard of this Matter, he commanded him to be brought before him. The King asked him: “Are thou the King of the Jews?” He answered and said, “I am,” The King then called to his Guards, and commanded him immediately to be apprehended, and led away to prison in the City of Dabastan. Three Days after this, as the King was sitting together with his Princes and Chief Minitiers, deliberating about the Jew Rebellion, behold David, having made his Escape from prison and approached and stood before him. The King looked at him and enquired, “Who brought thee hither?” He answered: “My own wisdom, and my own Subtilty because I fear neither thee nor any of thy Servants.” At which the King cried out: “Seize him!” But his servants said: “We see him not, but only hear the sound of his voice.”

Alroy then crosses the river on his handkerchief, and the King’s servants are unable to catch him in their boats. The King threatened to kill all the Jews in his kingdom. The frightened Jewish community threatened Alroy with a total exclusion from the Jewish community (“HEREM”). “In the end, David Alroy was killed in his bed while sleeping.

The story has legendary elements (seeing and not being seen, walking on water) absent in the description of Alroy’s contemporary, Al-Samawʾal ibn Yaḥyā al-Maghribi, who converted to Islam. To me, comparing the stories is less important than the passage describing the Baghdad Jews’ yearning for redemption:

“In this letter [a letter that two men forged in the name of David Alroy], they announce to the Jews of Baghdad the coming of the redemption they have been waiting for generations, in which they determine the night when they will all fly to Jerusalem, the holy city. Although the Jews of Baghdad were proud of their wisdom and strength of mind, they nevertheless tended to believe in this thing. Their wives brought all their possessions and jewelry to these two men so that they could divide all the property as they saw fit. In this way, the Jews wasted all their possessions. They wore green clothes and gathered that night on the rooftops of the houses, eagerly awaiting the moment when they would fly on the angels’ wings straight to Jerusalem. The women raised their voices in tears because they feared that they themselves would fly first before their children or the babies they were breastfeeding, and then these babies would suffer hunger.”

It is pretty clear that the Crusades and the instability in Palestine and nearby countries resonated strongly with some Eastern Jews, who saw them as precursors of redemption. The fantastic picture of the preparations for the flight and the heartbreak of the morning after also appear in other sources. Was all this commotion the talk of the day in Diyarbakir? This time not in distant Cordoba but in neighboring Amadiya,? We don’t know; even if it did, it must have been a minor event in al-Jazari’s world.

Two additional basins for bloodletting and what can we know about al-Jazari’s education?


Al-Jazari described four basins for measuring the amount of blood during bloodletting. I already covered two of them: The basin of the monk was explained here with some background on the history of bloodletting, and I explained The Basin of the Two Scribes here with a discussion on the uniqueness of al-Jazari in comparison to other tools for bloodletting. The remaining two: The Basin of the  Reckoner (الحسيب -alhasib) and the Basin of the Castle are almost identical in their mechanism to those explained. The main difference is how the cumulative amount of blood is displayed. This made my mind wander further, and this time what can we know about al-Jazari ‘s education?

The Basin of the Reckoner, dispersed manuscript, 1315, the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.

What do we know about al-Jazari’s education?

We don’t know anything about al-Jazari’s education apart from what he himself wrote in the introduction:

“I have studied the books of the earlier [scholars] and the works of the later [craftsmen] –masters of ingenious devices with movements like pneumatic [movements], and water machines for the constant and solar hours, and the transfer by bodies of bodies from their natural positions. I have contemplated in isolation and in company the implications of proofs. I considered the treatment of this craft for a period of time and I progressed, by practicing it, from the stage of book learning to that of witnessing, and I have taken the view on this matter of some of the ancients and those more recent [scholars]. I was fervently attached to the pursuit of this subtle science and persisted in the endeavor to arrive at the truth. The eyes of opinion looked to me distinguish myself in this beloved science. Types of [machines] of great importance came to my notice, offering possibilities for types of marvelous control”

Beyond these lines, we have no information about his education or teachers. However, he was an avid reader who read quite a bit. I wrote about the library of al-Jazari here. His mathematical knowledge, at least according to the book, is limited. I wrote about it here. He is a diverse craftsman in a way that is almost impossible today; he was designing in metal, wood, and paper pulp. He worked with a large number of metals: iron, bronze, copper, brass, silver, and gold. He worked in a wide range of techniques: soldering, casting and hammering and produced himself pipes and gears. In fact, other than the raw materials, he does everything himself. The Makers movement, which is an umbrella term for independent inventors, designers, and tinkerers who preferred to be makers instead of consumers, could use al-Jazari as a role model.

What do we know about medieval education?

From the 8th century AD, elementary schools became generally adopted between the ages of six and ten. The classes were sometimes held in a shop or private houses, but more often in a mosque or building connected to it. The base for learning was the Quran. The pupil copied a passage of the  Quran on his board, and only after he had memorized it, moved to the next passage. We should remember that Muslims believe that the Quran was orally revealed by God to the final Prophet, Muhammad, and not only the Quran is the basis of the religion of Islam, but also a guideline for worship, the book of laws and an instruction book for the proper behavior. It was relatively common to see a procession in honor a ten years old child as a reward for studying the entire Quran by heart.

In addition to the Quran, the students learned the Five Pillars of Islam, including the ritual washing and the prayer. The non-religious teaching elements included verses of poetry as a model for writing and something about numbers and calculations. The schools were intended for all, and initially, no payment was collected for religious reasons. Over the years, it has changed, and the schools have received gifts, food, and money. At the end of the Umayyad Caliphate ((اَلْخِلافَةُ ٱلأُمَوِيَّة‎ in the 9th century, there is evidence of a school that contained 3000 pupils, it is clear that such an organization cannot operate without resources. Al-Jazari likely studied at this kind of school.

When the student completed the four compulsory years, he could go on for another three more years in which he studied grammar, rhetoric, and literature as well as the history of Islam. There are no references to literature or history in Al-Jazari’s book, and it is difficult to know if he continued his studies beyond the first four years. I didn’t find a medieval painting, but the contemporary photograph of Muslim pupils who are memorizing the Quran is probably quite similar to the 12th century:

Muslim students study the Quran in the mosque in India

After the four years of compulsory education, most of the students worked with their parents in the fields or were sent to work with a master craftsman as an apprentice. The work as an apprentice was conducted in small workshops of the bazaars(بازار). The bazaar is a network of narrow streets,  wide enough for a loaded donkey to pass through, usually covered with a wooden roof or some shaded areas, in which the workshops simultaneously created and sold their merchandise. The workshops were organized by guilds. Bernard Lewis, the historian who specialized in oriental studies, wrote the most authoritative work on Muslim guilds. He claimed that “guilds are one of the most interesting and characteristic phenomena of medieval Muslim civilization.” They are not merely equivalent of the European guilds, but so important was the guild in Muslim life, that in many cases the very topography of the Muslim city was determined by the needs of the guilds. From Morocco to Java, with surprising uniformity, the Muslim town rose around three or four central points, always the same. The first fixed point is the exchange. Around it is the toll-gatherer, the local mint (where there is one), the auction market, and the Muhtasib, or inspector of markets. The second center is the Qaisaria, a strong, closed-in building where foreign goods and valuables are stored. The third is the thread-market (Suq al Ghazl), where the women come to sell their own handiwork. And here, too, are the commodities women are likely to buy- butchers, bakers, etc. The fourth center is the university, usually attached to a mosque. Around these four centers are distributed the guildsmen; each guild in its own market.

At the head of the guild is the Sheikh. He is elected by the master craftsmen. Once selected, he was the unchallenged ruler of the guild, combining the functions of CEO, Treasurer, responsible for the taxes for the authorities responsible for the festivities and the concern for the sick and the poor. After him in hierarchy came elders among the master craftsmen, and next come the master craftsmen, the main body of the guild and finally the apprentices. The rank of a journeyman, skilled workers that have completed official apprenticeship qualification but may not yet work as self-employed master craftsmen so essential to European guilds, almost did not exist.

The apprentice (Mubtadi – مبتدئ) was taught by the master’s decision, for an unspecified period of time and without a specific curriculum. Some sources mention 1001 days that sound more like a ceremonial period than a three-year training. As the Apprentice training began at age 11, it was unlikely that they become independent craftsman at the age of 14. In most cases, the apprentice had to demonstrate his ability by producing a particularly complex piece of art (in Lewis’s words “masterpiece”), and then the master decided that the apprentice period was completed. The apprentice did not usually get paid during the apprenticeship, but the master did take care of their needs. Al-Jazari, unfortunately, does not write anything about this period of his life. I am pretty sure he went apprenticeship, and I would be very interested to know how was the experience.

It is impossible to talk about vocational education in Israel without entering a minefield. For many years, the youth of Edot HaMizrach (descendants of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa ) were sent to vocational education( welding, metalworking, or barbershop training) regardless of their qualification. Only a highly detached consultant could send the deceased Ronit Matalon [an Israeli writer], with her amazing Hebrew to vocational education, and there are certainly many more examples.

However, the combination of vocational schools and apprentice training has many advantages. Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, as well as other countries have been demonstrating for years how vocational education can produce master craftsman that can not be replaced. I went to a traditional high school, and from there to the university and never, not even in Santa Clara or Portland, I didn’t feel that my education was short in comparison to the finest engineers in the world. Even so,  sometimes I want to go back and be the apprentice of al-Jazari and learn by doing and watching the very best.


What is so beautiful about this door? (Cast brass door for the Artuqid Palace in Diyarbakir)


The sixth and final category in the book contains five dissimilar designs. The first and most grand of all is the Artuqids Palace door in Diyarbakir, Eastern Anatolia. Al-Jazari opens this chapter with some enthusiastic message very unusual for him:

It is the masterpiece; to view it saddles are strapped on. Truly it is the pearl, the orphan, a priceless possession.”

This passionate text surprised me because this door, engineering speaking, is quite simple and doesn’t contain the inventions and surprises included in most of al-Jazari works. The beauty is not in engineering, but in the art and the craft. Donald Hill, translator, and interpreter of the book, Engineer by heart, was interested mainly in the casting technology: “Of particular importance, also, is the first unequivocal description of metal casting in closed mould-boxes with green sand, a method not used in the West until the end of the fifteenth century.” Casting is a manufacturing process in which a liquid metal (al-Jazari used copper, brass, and bronze) is poured into a mold with the desired shape. “Green” sand is used even today. The name is a bit confusing as the sand is not green color at all. Instead, the sand is called “green” because it is “wet” sand, which contains water and organic bonding compounds much like we say “green wood” in carpentry.

I have two very different questions:

  • Sorry, what is so beautiful about this door? Or at least why al-Jazari admired his work?
  • How is it possible that military considerations are not part of the design? What does it say about al-Jazari as an engineer?

Description of the door and its beauty

It is a door with two leaves which rise to the height of about four and a half meters (originally 18 spans ( شِبْر) ) and the width of each leave is a meter and a half.

The Palace door, Topkapi Manuscript, 1206

The Palace door, Topkapi Manuscript, 1206

In the center of each leave, there is a complex geometric pattern that includes Hexagram (Star of David) and Octagram. It is interesting to note that both these shapes belong to the family of Magic stars. A magic star is a star polygon in which numbers are placed at each of the n vertices and n intersections, such that the four numbers on each line sum to the same magic constant: M=4n+2. The solutions I know to magic stars are only from the 20th century, but the use of the two was very common in the Muslim world. Is it possible that al-Jazari sensed mathematical beauty without knowing the math?

Since it is a relatively complicated pattern, I colored the drawing to see Magic Stars:

Islamic art makes frequent use of geometric patterns which were developed over the centuries. There is  “artistic unity” across time and place. I bring three pictures of three doors with different geographical, cultural and historical background, both Shi’ite and Sunni Islam

The left door is a Turkish door from the14th-century. The middle door is a Grand Palace in Fez in Morocco from the 13th-century. The wooden door from Iran on the right is not dated.

The Islamic aesthetic shift toward complex geometric structures is attributed to the prohibition in the Qur’an of figurative images to avoid becoming objects of worship. Geometric structures are abstract, emphasized symmetries, and suggested infinity and therefore reminding Muslims the idea of the infinite nature of Allah. This explanation does not satisfy me since the second commandment :

” Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them”

Did not yield a similar tradition in Jewish art. I don’t see anything that would justify the special enthusiasm from the geometric patterns of al-Jazari. However, if any of my readers find some special beauty or a hidden message, please comment as I would love to learn.

The pattern was bounded by brass plates a which carried Kufic((كوفي ) inscriptions and leaf motif decorations. This reads “the dominion is God’s, the One, the Conqueror”

Kufic is the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts. Kufic developed around the end of the 7th century in Kufa, Iraq, from which it takes its name, and other centers. Kufic was prevalent in manuscripts from the 7th to 10th centuries. In the late 12th century, when the door was made, it was less used, and I do not know if this choice has a special meaning?

The calligraphy is surrounded by  bronze plates which were decorated with red copper leaves:

The process is relatively complex; firstly, he casted bronze panels. Using a scalpel, he carved the leaf template and poured melted red copper.

In the drawing, there are no brass domes, but in the text, there is a detailed explanation and diagram of a dome. I took the liberty to add this to the original drawing by al-Jazari:

I did not cover every detail, but I cannot ignore the door’s knockers from cast brass in the shape of two connected serpents, their heads facing each other. Their mouths are open as if they wished to devour the lion between them.   The door did not survive (I am convinced it was built, and not just designed, because of the richness and the details in the text). It is interesting to note that very similar Bronze door-knockers from the Great Mosque in Cizre are now in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul. To my surprise, pretty similar versions have found their way to Copenhagen and Berlin museums.

We will never know what caused al-Jazari to be that happy with this door. Maybe he enjoyed his geometric patterns and thought particularly beautiful, Maybe He enjoyed his success in the complex casting or his work with various metals, brass, copper, and silver, maybe he was happy the amount and richness of the details and possibly it was a combination of all.


Military engineers and engineering history

Engineering has existed since ancient times, the invention of a pulley, the construction of the Egyptian pyramids or the copper production process are all “Engineering” according to all modern definitions but only in the 14th century was the first use of the term engine’er. The origin of the word is from Latin words “in generare” meaning “to create” but relating to the designing or creating engines of war like the catapult or assault towers. For many years all the engineers were military engineers. Archimedes, a gifted mathematician and scientist had a major role in the Second Punic War. He improved the power and accuracy of the Catapult, He designed a giant claw to destroy Roman ships, and the peak of his inventions was burning the Roman fleet using mirrors.  Leonardo da Vinci engineering career included military chapters as evident from his letter to Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan. He wrote:

“I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy.. Also, if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress.”

The Faculty of engineering at the Technion is still called “civil engineering,” to be separated from military engineering, although the former has become almost a non-issue in the modern world of engineering.

It is somewhat surprising that there is no military engineering chapter al-Jazari’s work and even when he builds the door for the Palace, no considerations of strength or defense capability are mentioned, not even a single word. Two possible explanations:

  1. The principality in Diyarbakir was so peaceful that there was no need for a military engineer.
  2. The expectations from the Court engineer in Diyarbakir were different.


A change in Diyarbakir and al-Jazari as an “engineering magician.”

The dynasty was founded by Artuk Bey, a general under the Seljuq emir of Damascus. In 1086 he was appointed the governor of Jerusalem, a surprising twist to a story about a Muslim dynasty which ruled in Diyarbakir Anatolia. We need to remember that the Middle East map in the 11th and 12th centuries is very different from the map we know today. After Artuk death in 1091 his sons, Sökmen and Ilghazi were expelled from Jerusalem by the Fatimid vizier and set themselves up in Diyarbakır and Mardin in Anatolia.

This door was installed at the Artuqid Palace in Diyarbakir where al-Jazari was the court engineer. The Palace was built within the walls of Diyarbakir during the reign of Salih Nasreddin Mahmud (1200-1222) Artuqid king who employed al-Jazari like his father and brother before him. The Palace was excavated in the 1960s, but most of it is still buried under the mound, and I have a fantasy that the site will be excavated a second time and we will find some of the remains of al-Jazari’s work. In the 12th century, there were a few battles with the Crusaders, with Georgia and clashes of within the Muslims. I don’t think a peaceful period is the explanation of the absence of the military aspect in al-Jazari’s work.

The Artuqids are a Turkmen dynasty which started as a warrior tribe, and its original power was military. In the 12th century, they were settling in the old cities of Amida (the previous name Diyarbakir ) and Mardin. These are ancient cities with urban culture since the Assyrians. The population is diverse and includes veteran Christian and newcomer Turkmen population as well as other migrants from Iran and other places that continued through the 13th century. Beyond the monumental Al- Jazari book, there was probably a workshop for copying and illustrating manuscripts. Rachel Ward identified two other illuminated manuscripts that were produced there. There were new architectural designs, Sharon Talmor as part of her graduate work at the University of Tel Aviv found three which mark a new era in Islamic architecture. As a part of the assimilation of a warrior tribe into the urban setting, there was probably a need for a change, and there was a thirst for cultural and artistic activities. I’d love to hear other suggestions too, but this is a possible explanation for the absence of military engineering.

So the circle closes. The question of the beauty of the door is connected to the role of al-Jazari. As we step into the book, I think we will be more convinced of his role as  “a magician of engineering”  the man who harness science and technology to create and beauty and astonishment.


Two Automatons and Iconoclasm


Two automatons, an automaton of a man holding a goblet and a bottle and an automaton of two shaykhs upon a dais, are very similar in their mechanism but also, unfortunately, similar because all the faces of the characters were damaged (thanks to Galia Levy-Grad who brought this to my attention) more on this topic below:

An automaton of a man holding a goblet and a bottle on the right, and an automaton of are two shaykhs upon a dais, on the left. Topkapi manuscript, 1206

How does it work?

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

Both automatons have very partial drawings. Donald Hill, the book translator, did not add a modern schematics as he did with most machines in the book. The reason is Al-Jazari own words: “construction of the figure was described in the previous chapter [here] so there is no need to explain it.” This is my drawing, based on the text and previous drawings:

The mechanism of a man holding a goblet and a bottle

This is a mechanical slave made of copper; the head and neck are a wine reservoir slowly dripping into a tipping bucket. The tipping bucket is partially hidden by his hand. You can see a tipping bucket more clearly in drawing below of the two shaykhs or here (in Hebrew). After seven and a half minutes the tipping bucket would be full of wine and would tilt on its axis and pour twenty dirhams, sixty cubic centimeters of wine which would flow through the pipe to the silver bottle. The top of the goblet is covered; wine would flow directly through the hollow arm to the arm tank. The latter becomes heavy, and the arm would move upward about the axle in the elbow, imitating the motion of drinking. When the tank is full, the siphon ­­­will empty the arm tank, and the hand would descend to its original position.

The automaton of two shaykhs sitting cross-legged on a dais, each holding a bottle and a silver goblet is a duplication of the mechanism just explained. The reservoir is full of water which slowly dripped through an onyx to a tilting pipe. At the bottom of the pipe, a ring was welded, so the pipe is like a “children teeter.” The right side is slightly heavier, and therefore the pipe tilts to the right and water come out on the right. It would take about seven and a half minutes to the tilting bucket to fill (the drawing is just before it overturns) and then water would flow into the pipe inside the column. The rod at the side of the tilting bucket would push the tilting pipe to the left, and the water would flow to the tilting bucket B. After seven and a half minutes it would tilt, and water would flow to other Sheikh’s goblet. This is a drawing of the mechanism with my captions:

Mechanism of the automaton of the two shaykhs


In both illustrations, the faces were erased. This is not accidental damage; there are numerous illustrations in the Topkapi manuscript with damage to the face, without comparison to the number of illustrations which have a different kind of damage. I think this is a case of iconoclasm (from Greek: εἰκών image, κλάστειν break) – the destruction of icons or images for religious or political reasons. Although the contemporary contexts (Taliban, or ISIS) Iconoclasm is an ancient phenomenon starting with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people but also important to Christians and Muslims. In Genesis Rabba (Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית רַבָּה) a religious text from Judaism’s classical period, probably written between 300 and 500 CE it is told:

“So he [Abraham] took a stick and broke all the idols, and put the stick in the hand of the largest.

When his father returned he demanded: What have you done to them?

Abraham said to him: I cannot conceal it from you, a woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them, and I did. One [idol] claimed: I must eat first, while another claimed: I must eat first. Thereupon, the largest arose, took the stick and broke them.

His father said: Why are you fooling with me? Have they any knowledge?

Abraham replied: Should your ears hear what your mouth has said?!”

Genesis Raba 38, my translation

I will expand about Iconoclasm and Islam below, but Christianity also had its part. In the 8th century, there were heated arguments, sometimes violent, about iconography. The issue was the interpretation of the second commandment: “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” What appears to some Christians as proper worship, perceived by other Christians as idolatry. These arguments led to the smashing of icons. It is interesting to note that this is an example of government-led iconoclasm with the banning the use of icons by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 730 AD.

Those who think Iconoclasm characterizes fanatic religions will be disappointed to learn that enlighten ideologies, at least in the eyes of their believers, supported massive iconoclasm. For example, the French Revolution, the origin of the declaration of the rights of man, is one of the darkest periods of iconoclasm. For three years France was destroying art, It began with the smashing of statues of the Kings of France, and continued in methodical destruction of religious icons, engravings, paintings and burning artifacts from the feudal past. The following quote is from a law from 1792:

“Whereas the sacred principles of liberty and equality will not permit the existence of monuments raised to ostentation, prejudice, and tyranny to continue to offend the eyes of the French people, whereas the bronze in these monuments can be converted to cannons for the defense of the homeland …

All monuments containing traces of feudalism, of whatever nature that remains in churches, or other public places, or even those in private homes, shall, without the slightest delay, be destroyed by the communities. “

The opposition to figural representation in Islam is not based on the Qur’an, but on traditions contained within the Hadith ( الحديث). This is a collection of stories about Muhammad and his words and advice regarding various topics. Within Islam, the authority of Hadith ranks second only to that of the Quran. The two principal objections to figuration are a concern with not taking over the divine creative power and a fear of shirk (شرك), a term that came to mean polytheism and idolatry but originally meant believing in other gods. This duality is similar in my mind to what I learned during my studies at the Mandel School for educational leadership: “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” does not ban on idolatry because it was already said “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and the ten commandments are “the essence” of faith and contain no repetitions. Hence the second part forbids the use of material representation of God and demand spirituality. Either way, there’s consensus Hadith forbidding all representations that have shadows, whose defacement is obligatory. Some schools of Islamic thought go so far as to see all artists that depict living being (animals and humans) as polytheists.

Over the years, some people who interpret this as permission and possibly an imperative to destroy artworks, in many cases as their initiative. A good example is described by the Ottoman writer Evliya Celebi. In an auction in Eastern Anatolia in 1655 potential bidders were allowed to inspect the goods in their quarters at night, and one of them took the manuscript of Shah-Nama, the Persian Book of Kings, and when he saw it contains miniatures, painting being forbidden according to his belief, he took his Turkish knife and poked their and rubbed the color in their faces with his saliva(?).

The offender was eventually lashed and stoned(?) by the orders of Pasha of Bitlis as a punishment for defacing the manuscript. Clearly, his faith was not accepted by the authorities, or maybe the Pasha was annoyed because of the damage value of the goods.

I couldn’t find any material on iconoclasm in the Topkapi manuscript, and I don’t know if the name of the vandal and the time are known. This  is a partial collection of defacing in the manuscript:

I’d like to close this post with something more optimistic, so I wish the world would be less violent or fanatic, and we will not experience any more iconoclasm because of the Christian, Islamic or Jewish faiths nor by any other ideology.

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.

Al-Jazari Combination Lock and the Boxes from Isfahan

“This Ifrit bore me off on my bride night, and put me into a casket and set the casket in a coffer, and to the coffer he affixed seven strong padlocks of steel and deposited me on the deep bottom of the sea that raves…and this wretched Jinni wotteth not [does not know] that destiny may not be averted nor hindered. ”

The Story of King Shahryar and His Brother from The Arabian Nights, translator Sir Richard Burton,1850.


In Category six that consists of “dissimilar designs” al-Jazari describes “A lock for locking a chest using 12 letters of the alphabet”.

Locking board in the alphabet lock, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

Description of the Chest by al-Jazari

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in cylinders or cotter-tapered pins can skip those bits. This is a chest with four combination locks in the four corners of the cover. Each combination lock uses sixteen out of twenty-eight letters in the Arabic alphabet; it uses the letters without a diacritical mark, a point, or sign added to a letter to distinguish it from another similar letter. For example, the difference between bāʾ ب (comparable to b in English) and nun ن (comparable to n in English) is the location of the point below or above the letters. Al-Jazari doesn’t explain his choice, perhaps to prevent mistakes.

The four dials

Chest reconstruction from HTTP://WWW.JAZARIMACHINES.COM/EN (link is not working anymore)


The four dials on the chest cover are relatively complex. Each dial consists of three disks with a triangular notch in its outer perimeter. When all the notches were aligned, the chest could be opened. I attached the original drawing of al-Jazari cross-section of the dial with the modern drawing of Hill and added captions:

Integrated drawing of the lock components, the original drawing by al-Jazari, with the modern drawing by the book translator and annotator, Dr. Donald Hill

Since it still seems complicated to comprehend, I added the drawing of the components before assembly:

The dial component, a drawing by the book translator Donald Hill, with my captions

When you turn each of the three cylinders to their proper letter, all notches are aligned and allow the opening of the lock. It requires the knowledge of twelve letters, three letters per each dial multiplied by four dials. This system is held in place together but allows convenient rotation of its components using a cotter-pin. When you want to change the code, you remove the pin and mechanically rotate the disc so the location of the notch will match the chosen letter.

The Isfahan Boxes

None of the wonderful machines of al-Jazari survived the hundreds of years passed, and all we have are beautiful manuscripts. I fantasize about an extensive archaeological excavation in the Palace in Diyarbakir that would reveal remnants of the castle’s clock or any other monumental work. Until then, both boxes with alphabet locks from Isfahan in Iran dated to the late twelfth century are the closest thing to time travel, to see al-Jazari at his work. In the David Museum in Copenhagen, there is a fragmented brass box inlaid with silver and copper with four alphabet locks. The four dials are in a straight line and not in the four corners of a rectangle, but the similarity to al-Jazari’s chest is evident. Like al-Jazari each dial contains 16 letters. The letters which are used are without a diacritical mark. There is a resemblance to the locking process and the details of the mechanism. The box is simpler, and each dial has just two cylinders. Only eight letters (and not twelve) are required to open the crate. On the box there is the maker signature saying:

“Work of Mohammed b. [Ben] Hamid al Asturlabi

 Al Isfhani in the year

Five hundred and ninety-seven [1200 AD]

And I have tested it[it works]”

Fragments of a box made by Asturlabi, 1200 AD, Museum David Copenhagen

To my astonishment there in another safe from the same period by Asturlabi at the Boston art museum. This box also has four alphabet locks of two cylinders, creating eight-letter code. This time also there is an additional three guards’ façade, probably as symbolic protection from a later period. The signature indicates that the box was prepared by Asturlabi four years earlier (593 to AH or 1197 AD). Although it’s childish, I can’t help feeling a bit left out: why two boxes by Asturlabi from Isfahan have survived and not even one machine by al-Jazari? There is no answer, nor there can be one.

Box by Asturlabi,1197 AD, Isfahan, Boston Arts Museum


From the name of the maker, it is obvious that his profession and probably the family profession was producing astrolabes. Astrolabe (ٱلأَسْطُرلاب) is a sophisticated device of astronomers and navigators to measure the angle of a star above the horizon. It has many functions but was used primarily for finding latitude when you know the local time or as a clock when you know your position. There is a good explanation and a demo here. Four astrolabes from the 12th century created by Asturlabi family from Isfahan still exist, but I could not find their pictures. There are pictures of astrolabes from Isfahan from the 9th century until the 16th century, and this is one beautiful example:

The 13th-century astrolabe from Isfahan, Muhammad B.AbiBaker, The Museum of the history of science, Oxford.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is a link between the astrolabe and the combination locks. The lock consists of rotating cylinders with respect to the alphabet circle. In the astrolabe, there is a framework called “Rete” bearing a projection of the ecliptic plane and several pointers indicating the positions of the brightest stars. This frame is free to rotate in respect to the astrolabe disk, called the mater (mother). Both the astrolabe and the alphabet lock are rotating mechanical systems around the center. This is done in both cases by using a cotter pin (a tapered pin) that holds all the components in place and allows rotation around an axis. This pin has the shape of a horse head, hence his name in Arabic فرس (mare). I attach a photo of astrolabe dismantled; you can see exactly the same mechanism and the same cotter pin (red circle) as in the drawing by al-Jazari above.

Astrolabe dismantled for parts. The cotter pin in the red circle

If you really want to go on a historic-scientific journey, you can read the guide that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote for his 10-year-old son Lewis. Chaucer, one of the fathers of the English literature and the author of “The Canterbury Tales” was also an astronomer. This is the first publication in English on this topic as well as a great introduction to the Astronomy in the 14th century. The guide contains more than fourty (!) uses the astrolabe.

Who’s ahead?

Al-Jazari wrote  in the opening paragraph:

“The earlier [workers] in this craft made locks for locking and opening by means of the letters. Among them were [those that] locked by means of  four  a chest and made a lock on its lid as I shall describe”

Al-Jazari, obviously, did not claim primacy. Is it possible that the Isfahan boxes are part of the boxes that al-Jasari mentioned? Could it be that al-Jazari book got to Isfahan and inspired Asturlabi to build his boxes? The answer is probably no to both. The boxes were made in the years 1197-1200. We don’t have an exact date for completion of the book.  Rachel Ward claims that the book was written between 1200 to 1197. It’s a little earlier than Donald Hill who believed that the book was written between 1204-1206. The small gap is due to different sources. Hill was relying mainly on the copy from Oxford University, and Ward is basing her calculation on the earlier copy of Topkapi. Either way, the closeness between the time the book was written and the dates of the production of the boxes in Isfahan almost negates the possibility of mutual influence. Much more likely is both the Isfahan boxes and al-Jazari’s chest are part of the same rich material culture in the Muslim world at the time.

It is interesting to note that the first alphabet lock in Europe is probably the work of Giovanni Fontana, A Venetian engineer from the 15th century, three hundred years after al-Jazari. Fontana was very diverse, including measuring heights with falling stones, water and sand clocks, and trigonometric measurements. He wrote one of the first technology books in the Renaissance: “Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber.” The book includes siege machines but also fantastic inventions like a bird propelled by a rocket, and an early version of four wheels bicycles and last but not least an alphabet lock:

The alphabet lock of Giovanni Fontana, 1420-1430

Al-Jazari Water pumps and Patents


Category V deals with water pumps or in the language of al-Jazari “On machines for raising water from pools and shallow wells which are not deep, and from running streams.”

Al-Jazari is a man of few words, and his introductions are quite minimal, but in this chapter, he dives straight to the point. His opening line is: “I have shown the picture of that (machine for lifting water by an animal who turns a lever) after the text of the next chapter”. There is nothing about the current state of things, what were the pumps available in his time, what drove the need for improvements?  Nor any other introductory remark. However, the first two pumps are an improvement and automation of the Shaduf (شادوف) or in Hebrew קילון (kilon). This is a manual device for raising water, known to man for thousands of years. Al-Jazari design includes three improvements: mechanization, significant efficiency improvement and the use of segmented gear. Nowadays an engineer would write at least three different patents. This would lead us to a discussion of patents and al-Jazari.


The Shaduf is a hand-operated device for lifting water. We do not know who or when was it invented, but it was in use in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to irrigate land for thousands of years. Surprisingly enough, it is still used today in India, Egypt, and some other countries

The Shaduf consists of an upright frame on which is suspended a long pole, at one end of this pole hangs a bucket or a ladle. The other end carries a balancing weight which serves as the counterpoise of a lever.

With a relatively small effort the operator lifts the bucket or the ladle and carry water from a body of water (typically, a river or pond) onto the irrigation system. From this point, the water will flow to the crops in the fields due to gravity. The operation of the Shaduf is completely manual, but it’s easier to pull the rope down using the balancing weigh than lift the water. Moreover the Shaduf transport the water to the beginning of the irrigation canal. It is interesting to note that the Shaduf appears in old Hebrew text, The Mishnah “study by repetition” is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions. It was sealed at the beginning of the third century AD. I did not find a translation, so this is my rough translation that does not capture the beauty of the ancient Hebrew:


“משקין בית השלהין במועד ובשביעית, בין ממעיין שיצא כתחילה, בין ממעיין שלא יצא כתחילה; אבל אין משקין לא ממי הגשמים, ולא ממי הקילון.” (משנה: מועד קטן, פרק א)

“Water an irrigated field during the festival and sabbatical, both from a newly-emerging spring and from a spring that did not just emerged. But do not water the field with water from rainwater or Shaduf water.”

Shaduf, a photograph from Eygpt, 2001

How does it work?

The first two water pumps of al-Jazari are relatively simple machines comparing to the complexities of the clocks and automata explained in previous posts. A-Jazri dedicated one page each. I placed the two drawings side by side. The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in segmented gear or runged wheel can skip those bits.

The first two pumps designed by al-Jazari. The left pump has a single ladle. A single page from a dispersed copy, dated to 1315. The right pump includes four ladles. Topkapi copy, 1206.

We shall start with the diagram on the left of the pump that has one ladle. In the top room, a donkey is rotating the main shaft and the toothed wheel connected to it. The later rotates a toothed wheel in 900. Today we would probably use beveled gear for this purpose, but al-Jazari gives no details. My love M. complained that in the drawing you could not see the gears pressed against each other and the segmented gear which I shall explain in the next paragraph are perpendicular to their real direction. All these issues and more are related to the drawing made in the 12th century. In the future, I hope to add animations that will help my current readers to understand the mechanism. On the same axle, there is a segmented gear with the same cogs and spacing. However, only a sector of the circular gear has cogs on the periphery, in this case, a quarter of a circle. This segmented gear fits into a runged wheel which is connected to the axle of the ladle. When the cogs interlock with the stages of the wheel, they rotate the axle, and the ladle lifts about 15 liters of water at a time.  After a quarter of a circle, there are no more cogs, and nothing to prevent the runged wheel to rotate backward dropping the ladle into the water and the process repeats itself. The pump to the right is identical in its mechanism only there are four ladles and four segmented gears. That means that each donkey rotation will result in 60 liters. The efficiency improvement is probably less than 4x because the donkey will be slower because of the heavy load.


This chapter is quite unusual in the book because it deals with the engineering core, improving process efficiency, while most of the chapters are about surprising automata and rotating peacocks. The question of efficiency for most machines of al-Jazari is out of place if not completely from another discipline. The question of efficiency is an essential component in any engineering process. A process is efficient if we increase the amount of work performed while reducing the use of resources (raw materials, labor, fuel, time, etc.) Al-Jazari is an engineer by nature (Hebrew) and when the subject is water pumps he designed a significant efficiency improvement.

Al-Jazari and patents

In our world, the mechanization of the Shaduf justifies a patent, the improved efficiency by approximately 3-4 justifies another patent. There is a question mark about the inventor of the segmented gear. Some claim that segmented gear appeared 1st in the “The Book of Secrets” by Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi other give the invention to al-Jazari. I hope to obtain “The Book of Secrets” and then I’ll be able to formulate my own opinion.  I think that if al-Jazari was aware of this discussion, he was really surprised.

The official history of Patents starts with the Venetian law from 1474:

“Any person in this city who makes any new and ingenious contrivance, not made heretofore in our dominion, shall, as soon as it is perfected so that it can be used and exercised, give notice of the same to our office of Provveditori de Comun [State Judicial Office], it being forbidden up to 10 years for any other person in any territory and place of ours to make a contrivance in the form and resemblance thereof, without the consent and license of the author.”

Although the present patent laws are more complex, the essence practically identical:  The patent system is protecting inventors so that they will have an opportunity to receive proper compensation for their efforts. Why patent law was necessary in Venice in the fifteenth century and was not necessary in Diyarbakir in the twelfth century?

The need originated because of the emerging glass industry. Master Angelo Barovier in mid-fifteenth century invented the method to create clear glass, which was pure like rock crystal called ” cristallo”. This recipe was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Venetian Republic for centuries.

Of course, if another manufacturer would be allowed to copy the recipe with minimal effort,  the willingness to invest in innovation and development will be diminished. Today patents are a major concern in high tech and pharmaceutical industry, but there was a time when mirror production was in the front of technology.

Venetian Goblet from the 16th century. Louvre Museum collection.

The world of al-Jazari was very different. This is not a sophisticated industrial world where multiple manufacturers were competing for everything including know-how and technology. The question of commercialization of knowledge is not relevant. The world of programming evolved differently. In parallel to proprietary knowledge and patent protection, there is the Free and Open Source Software-FOSS. The cornerstone of the movement is promoting cooperation between people, using computers. You can almost say that al-Jazari is precursory of the open source movement only with pumps and automata. This is not my assessment but facts. The following quote is from the book introduction as translated by Donald R. Hill.  The quote is a little long, but speaks for itself about his motivation of sharing his knowledge:

“I am in the service of the king Salih Nasir aI-DIn Abi al-Fath Mahmiid bin Muhammad bin Qara Arslan bin Dawiid ibn Sukman bin Artuq, the king of Diyarbakir, may God preserve him with those whom He chooses to preserve. That is following my service to his father and his brother, God sanctify their souls, before the kingship passed to him – a [total] period of twenty-five years, the first of them year 577. God, may He be exalted, has singled him out with distinctions of intelligence, high-mindedness, justice and probity, so that he surpasses in justice and probity the kings of the present age, and excels the lords of near and far in beneficence and graciousness…. I never began to construct a device of mine without his anticipating

it [i.e., its purpose] by the subtlety of his perception. He is completed by the refinement of his opinion and his wisdom. I was in his presence one day and had brought him something which he had ordered me to make. He looked at me, and he looked at what I had made and thought about it, without my noticing. He guessed what I had been thinking about, and unveiled unerringly what I had concealed.

He said ‘you have made peerless devices, and through strength have brought them forth as works; so do not lose what you have wearied yourself with and have plainly constructed. I wish you to compose for me a book which assembles what you have created separately, and brings together a selection of individual items and pictures’.”

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 Elephant Clock – Multiculturalism or a Circus?


The elephant clock is by far the most popular of all al-Jazari’s works. There are a few modern reconstructions of it: some in different exhibitions and museums, but also one in the Dubai Mall. The clock has a variety of animations in 2D and in 3D, and it even has its own Wikipedia page. Due to the complexity of the mechanism, I divided this post into two; in the first part, I will explain what the viewer sees and try to explore the sources of the magic. The second part will be more engineering-oriented, and I will explain how the mechanisms work in the backstage, and what is so unique about this clock.

The Elephant clock, manuscript from 1315, Syria

What does the viewer see?

An elephant,  approximately one meter and twenty centimeters long, who is carrying on its back a canopy with four pillars and a castle. On top of the castle’s dome, is a bird. Inside the elephant, is a hidden water reservoir and a sinking float (a float with a hole that sinks slowly) during half an hour. More details in the next post. In the canopy sits a scribe holding a pen pointing at a semi-circle with tick marks. During this half hour, the scribe rotates and his pen indicates the minutes that have passed. At the end of every half hour, the scribe returns to its original position. At the same time, there will be quite an impressive show. Between the elephant’s shoulders, rides a mahout (the elephant keeper and driver). In his right hand, is an ax and a mallet in his left. Every half hour the mahout strikes the copper elephant, first, with the ax and then with the mallet. In the castle balcony sits a man. His hands are on the heads of two falcons which he keeps them from opening their beaks. Once every half hour, he raises one of his hand, and the corresponding falcon shoots out a ball. The ball falls into the dragon’s maw, making the dragon swing on its axis and then lay the ball on the cymbal in a jar. During this time, the bird on the dome is also spinning. Above the head of the falconer is a semi-circle with fifteen black holes. Every full hour one hole turns so that the sum of white indicates the number of hours passed since sunrise.

You can see a short video demonstrating the elephant clock and explaining the mechanism:

 A fuller explanation will also come in the next post.

Why an elephant?

The Elephant water clock entry in Wikipedia reads:

“The elephant represents the Indian and African cultures, the two dragons represents ancient Chinese culture, the phoenix represents Persian culture, the water work represents ancient Greek culture, and the turban represents Islamic culture signifying the multicultural mentality of the intellectual al-Jazari. “

The quote certainly is not by al-Jazari, but whoever wrote it explained the wealth of the clock. Nonetheless, it made me think. I am afraid that the whole concept of multiculturalism is completely foreign to the 12th century and al-Jazari. What is a possible explanation for the elephant?

The Middle Ages and strange elephants

The trade routes in the middle ages were spread over Europe, the Middle East, India, China, and  Africa. On the east coast of Africa, they traded ivory, gold, ebony, and slaves. China exported silk and porcelain, India spices and drugs. Rumors about elephants, giraffes, and other exotic animals reached Europe but the artists who drew the manuscripts had never seen an actual elephant. They drew them based on their imagination. There is an entire site dedicated to the weird drawings of elephants. I give just two examples:

Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France 1290

A hoofed wooly elephant “Livre des simples médecines” a manuscript from the 15 century.

The original manuscript by al-Jazari was unfortunately lost, but the manuscript from Topkapi is from 1206, I wrote about it here. This is the year al-Jazari died, so it is probably a copy of the original. You can see that the elephant looks like an Asian elephant and the mahout and the canopy are located correctly. Al-Jazari’s familiarity with elephants is not necessarily surprising, although I couldn’t find any evidence for elephants in Diyarbakir. Arab rulers had menageries or collections of exotic animals. In addition to the curiosity and pleasure they provided, they demonstrated the ruler’s wealth and power as well as the impact of the sovereign from India to Africa. Offerings of rare animals were part of the diplomatic process and sometimes part of the tax system. Until the 13th century, the agreement between the Nubian Kingdom and the Muslim rulers of Egypt demanded that the Nubian people provide Egypt with three hundred and sixty slaves annually, in addition to providing some wildlife. It This was the primary source for giraffes in the Sultan of Cairo’s menagerie.

Book of the animals, Syria, 15th Century.

The use of animals as a diplomatic gesture is well documented. For example, Baybars, the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the 13th century gave elephants, giraffes, and zebras to the king of Spain, Emperor of Byzantium and the Mongol Khan. In the 10th century, Cordoba sent a giraffe to Tunisia and a story I particularly like about the elephant, Abul-Abbas. Harun al-Rashid,  the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, sent an Asian elephant to Aachen, Germany to the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne. It happened in the 9th century, and surprisingly enough, there’s a Jewish angle to this story. The elephant was brought by Yitzhak the Jew. There is a historical novel “The travels of Isaac the Jew and Abu Alabas the elephant”(in Hebrew). It is interesting to note that other presents including an elaborate water clock made of brass, described in the Royal Frankish Annals were sent with the elephant. The water clock marked the 12 hours with balls of brass falling on a plate every hour, and also had twelve horsemen who appeared in turn at each hour.  Perhaps al-Jazari knew the story as part of his extensive knowledge of water clocks?

The Elephant Clock and the Circus

The diplomatic delegations and the royal gifts indicate that the elephant was a symbol of power and wisdom, but in the context of the elephant clock, I think more about the circus and exotic acts. The elephant is made of copper and is just a stage for the show, but the swinging dragons, the Mahout with his fearsome tools, the Falcons and the spinning bird form a great circus number. An exciting circus act has, in my opinion, four components, not in binding order, not always all of them, and certainly not of the same significance or importance:

  • Freshness (something new)
  • Great skills
  • A sense of danger
  • An awe-inspiring images

I looked at several iconic circus shows and Jules Léotard’s act is a good point of comparison. Léotard was a French acrobatic performer who made history as the first man ever to perform the aerial act on a trapeze. It most certainly meets the requirement for freshness. Likewise, the elephant clock is also the first of its kind; no clock ever, before or after, is similar, and everyone who watches it, even today, is amazed.

Secondly, great skills: Léotard practiced his acrobatic stunts over his parents’ pool before he revealed them in 1859 in Cirque Napoleon in Paris. Then he appeared in London before an audience that went crazy because of his aerial flips between five trapezes with only a pile of mattresses to protect him. The elephant clock also demonstrates such high proficiency and skills both to the innocent and to the skilled observer, considering the control of the timing using the sinking float, the complex movement of the three characters(the mahout, the scribe, and the man in the balcony), and the virtuoso swing of the dragons. All are innovative engineering tricks demonstrating al-Jazari’s skills in water clocks and automatons.

Regarding the sense of danger, the crowd in the circus was afraid for Léotard’s life and this element intensified the experience; however, automatons by definition lack this aspect.

Jules Léotard, a French acrobat, 19 century

Last but not least, the awe-inspiring image. Léotard, like all circus performers, could be dressed in a sports suit, but as you can see in the picture he’s wearing theatrical shorts, bracelets emphasize his wrists, and the collar of his shirt reminds us of a royal necklace. All this help to imprint his image in our mind.  The picture that al-Jazari created is a lot more than the sum of its components and is intriguing audiences till this very day.