"The Elephant Clock", Folio from a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari
Farrukh ibn `Abd al-Latif
Badi' al-Zaman ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari (1136–1206)
Folio from an illustrated manuscript
dated A.H. 715/A.D. 1315
Made in Syria
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
11 13/16 x 7 3/4in. (30 x 19.7cm)
Mat: 19 1/4 x 14 1/4 in. (48.9 x 36.2 cm)
Frame: 20 1/4 x 15 1/4 in. (51.4 x 38.7 cm)
Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956
Not on view
This page comes from a treatise on fantastic devices invented by the author al‑Jazari. His elephant clock was especially intricate: every half hour, the bird on the dome whistled; the man below dropped a ball into the dragon’s mouth; and the driver hit the elephant with his goad. While illustrated manuscripts were growing increasingly popular at the time, this folio is a rare survival from Syria, where few such manuscripts are known from this date.
One of the finest surviving examples of Mamluk painting, this manuscript page belongs to a dispersed copy of the Kitab fi ma‘rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) transcribed by Farrukh ibn ‘Abd al-Latif in A.H. 715/1315 A.D. Originally composed at the beginning of the thirteenth century by Badi‘ al-Zaman ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari (1136–1206) for the Artuqid ruler of Amid ( present-day Diyarbakir), Nasir al-Din Mahmud (r. 1201–22), the treatise discusses fifty mechanical devices used for princely entertainment. In addition to clocks, the text mentions drinking vessels, fountains, automated devices for hand-washing and bloodletting, and other machines activated by heat or hydraulic mechanisms.
The spectacular automated clock illustrated here is the subject of one chapter, which includes detailed instructions for its assembly. Every half hour, the rider would hit the elephant with his pickax and the bird would turn, allowing the falcon to release a pellet into the dragon’s mouth. The dragon would next drop the ball into a pot, where it hit a gong before ending up in a bowl at the bottom of the pot. The time would then be determined by counting the balls gathered in the bowl.
The illustration reflects the impact of the Arab style of manuscript painting developed in Iraq and Syria during the thirteenth century. In particular, features such as the rider’s halo, the robe with tiraz bands, and the turban with loose ends appear in thirteenth-century copies of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica and al-Hariri’s Maqamat. At the same time, the conservative nature of the illustrations accompanying scientific manuscripts accounts for the representation of the dragons as open-mouthed serpents with coiled and scaled bodies, a formula that occurs in the oldest known copy of al-Jazari’s treatise, made in 1206. In acknowledging the achievements of Jaziran artistic centers while finely reinterpreting the contents of the treatise, the 1315 manuscript remains one of the most accomplished copies of al-Jazari’s work.
Francesca Leoni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. The intact codex contained 150 folios and was accompanied by nine diagrams and ninety-eight paintings. See Atil 1981, p. 255.
2. At least fourteen copies of al-Jazari’s text have survived. See Atil 1975, p. 102 n. 12. See also al-Jazari, Isma‘il ibn al-Razzaz. The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Translated and annotated by Donald R. Hill. Dordrecht and Boston, 1974.
3. Atil 1975, esp. pp. 53–60.
4. Roxburgh 2005, p. 113, fig. 33.
5. Eight folios from this manuscript in the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution (nos. 30.71r, 30.72r, 30.73r, 30.74v, 30.75r, 30.76r, 30.77r, and 42.10v), are discussed in ibid., pp. 102–10
Inscription: At lower left in Arabic in naskhi script:
الفصل الثاني صح فصل
The second chapter is the correct chapter
The Iranian Institute. "Exhibition of Persian Art," 1940, Gal. VII, 72G.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks," November 21, 1981–January 10, 1982, suppl. #73.
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Atil, Esin. Art of the Arab World. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1975.
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