Two water clocks by al-Jazari

Date: ca. 1200, 1315
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Iraq
Medium: Parchment
Dimensions: 31.4 × 22.1 cm
Description: In the twelfth century, the ruler of the Artuqid dynasty based in Diyarbakır engaged an engineer and artist named al-Jazari (1136–1206). His Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (Kitab fi ma rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya), an illustrated compendium of fifty inventions, survives in at least fourteen copies.

Shown here are folios from a copy made in 1315, possibly in Baghdad, by a scribe named Farukh ibn 'Abd al-Latif, who identified himself in an Arabic colophon. Presumably he executed the watercolor illustrations as well. Two pages show al-Jazari's design for a clock in the shape of an elephant with an elaborate tower on its back. The mechanics—a water tank—are hidden inside the beast. Every half hour the bird on top rotated and whistled; a metal ball dropped into the dragon's mouth from the beak of the hawk that was revealed when the "ruler" figure (seen in profile) moved; the dragon dropped the ball into a pot, and the "Indian" driver struck the elephant. The number of balls indicated the hour, while the "scribe" figure crouched under the dragon's coils revolved to show the passing minutes.

Another page shows a detail of another water clock. In the finished product, the two peacocks supported a peahen that in turn underpinned fifteen glass roundels, and under the peacocks was another one. All day, every half hour, the peahen would face in one direction, then turn the other way; the roundels would change color; and the peacocks would whistle. Below the birds is the waterwheel that makes the mechanism move.

There was a long history of automata in Islamicate and Byzantine courts. Whereas some of al-Jazari's designs were brand-new, others were based on ancient and medieval sources. Some were practical, especially methods for raising water, but most were meant to entertain his Artuqid patrons.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 8, 9
Image Credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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al-Jazari's elephant clock, frontal view of driver, 1315 copy al-Jazari's water clock with peacocks, 1315 copy