The Musical Boat for a Drinking Party


The Musical Boat is the fourth of ten automata (mechanical dolls) and vessels that were designed to amuse guests at drinking parties at the King Court in Diyarbakir. On the boat deck seat the king, his and weapon-bearer, a slave holding a jug and goblet, as if serving drinks. Below there is a group of boon-companions and four slave girls, a flute-player, a harpist and two tambourine-players. The King and his court are static, papier-mâché sculptures. The musicians are made from jointed copper, and their arm can move. Professor Noel Sharkey sees in the unique mechanism al-Jazari designed for the drummer the world’s first programmable robot. More on this topic, below.

The musical boat, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

How does the boat work?

The boat moves gently on the surface of the pool at the Palace. Once every half hour, without any external intervention, a performance begins; The flutist would play the flute, the drummer would beat the tambourine, and the harpist plucks the copper strings. Here is a short mute (unfortunately) video of a model of the musical boat. After approx. Fifty seconds you can see the mechanism in action.


The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in tipping buckets or early camshafts can skip those bits. The diagram below is the original drawing of al-Jazari with my captions:

The slave girls (musicians) are sitting above a water reservoir. The tank empties slowly into the tipping bucket. When the tipping-bucket has filled, after about half an hour, it discharges its water onto the scoops wheel, turning the wheel on its axle. The pegs on the axle rotate as well moving the rods which are connected to the slave-girls’ hands, moving them up and down. This creates the motion of the harpist plucking or the drum beating. The harpist has a three peg system for one hand, and the other hand is operated by one peg only. The rods are an early version of a camshaft and convert the circular motion of the axle to the linear movement of the musicians’ hands. The spacing between them generates different patterns of drumming or harp music. The water flows down into the pipe which is connected to the air vessel, forcing air through the whistle. This is the source of the “flute” sound.

Qiyan – Musician slave girls

The drawings in the facsimile edition were not done by al-Jazari. Donald Hill, The book translator, and annotator, detailed eleven manuscripts all over the world. The earliest copy, now in Topkapi Library (MS 3472) was completed by Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ibn Uthman alHisenkafi in April 1206 and is the source of a facsimile. When a scribe finished copying a manuscript, a task that lasted weeks or even months, he would add a colophon, brief statement containing information about the publication such as information about the scribe and the manuscript. This is how we know that this copy was completed in 1206, the year al-Jazari died. We can assume that this copy was prepared from the original book, and the drawings are quite similar to the original. This is interesting because of the affinity between the Clothing of the boon- companions and the slave girls. The boon companions and the girls are all wearing qaba, a robe with sleeves, at mid-calf –between the knee and ankle that has a diagonal fastening of one side over the other. The color scheme is also identical. This made me think of them as “male musicians” Although the text is very clear about slave girls

Qiyān (Arabic: قِيان‎, ) was a social class of slave women, trained as entertainers, which existed in the pre-modern Islamic world. Qiyān is often rendered in English as ‘singing slave girls,’ but this translation does not reflect the fact that qiyān were skilled entertainers whose training extended well beyond singing, including composing music and verse, reciting historical or literary anecdotes, calligraphy, or shadow-puppetry and more. Qiyān were important in performing and distributing the works of the composers of the period in the Palaces of Islam from the eighth to the thirteenth century. They received broad education from an early age, including science, philosophy, and art. Beyond being gifted poets, dancers, or musicians, they were supposed to be courtesan with high conversational skills. There’s quite a bit of information about Qiyan in Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. In these years Bagdad was a cosmopolitan city and the center of science, culture, and philosophy. The musical slaves came from different cultural backgrounds. We know of Qiyān from all over the world, from Rome to India. They were bought in for outrageous sums of money, but the slavery is somewhat confusing, and those released remained in palaces in the same role? You can’t compare the tiny principality of the Artuqid with the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, but the presence of the Qiyan in Diyarbakir is another indication of the cultural flourishing in line with the original architecture  [Hebrew] and the initiative to write the ” Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.”

Musical robot

The word ‘robot’ was first used by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1921 play R.U.R -Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word ‘robot’ itself was not new, and come from Slavic language robota, meaning servitude. Oxford dictionary definition, “a machine capable of complex operations automatically, especially with programmable computer” is problematic, if only because my car is capable of a complex series of actions automatically, it has a large number of programmable electronics, and it is not a robot by any definition. In literature and science fiction movies, we use “robot” for an android, a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions.

Čapek’s book was written in 1921, long before Ted Hoff invented the microprocessor. When we talk about ancient robots and the automata al-Jazari built and ask ourselves if they should be considered as the predecessors of robotics, the questions should be two:

  1. Was it possible to program? Or in other words, do they have the ability to do different actions by design?
  2. Do they have autonomy? The ability to decide what to do and how to do it?

The question of “what was the first device that could be programmed?” is more theoretical than practical, but the musical boat is a leading candidate. Professor Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University built a model of a single drummer from the musical boat to illustrate how it can be “programmed.”  Beneath the ‘drummer’ was a rotating shaft with pegs on it. As these pegs rotated they pull on a lever that raised the drummer’s arm and then it dropped to hit the drum. The placement of the pegs entirely controlled the rhythm and timing of the drum beats. The purpose of the model was to demonstrate that one can play different beats using different peg patterns by changing the peg locations and spacing.

Did al-Jazari actually “program” the musical boat? We will never know. He probably used this method during the design to get the rhythm he liked. Whether it was used or not, the musical boat shows the possibility of “programming.” The question of autonomy will have to wait eight centuries until engineers would have sensors and computerized systems.  For those who want to expand, I attach a short (about ten minutes) film from the history channel. It introduces the subject of Robotics and the contribution of al-Jazari and other ancient robots. For some reason, they turned al-Jazari into a Persian?

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


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

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

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

How does it work?

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

A drawing of the mechanism by Donald Hill with my captions

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo Geniza and slavery in the twelfth century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

universal declaration of human rights, December 1948