History of Science and Technology in Islam

AL-JAZARI and the History of the Water Clock

1- Al-Jazari’s life and environment

Al-Jazari’s full name is given at the start of his book[1] He was al-Shaykh Ra’is al-A’mal Badi’ al-Zaman Abu al-‘Izz ibn Isma’il ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari The first three titles indicate that he was a chief engineer (Ra’is al-A’mal), and was unique and unrivalled, (Badi’ al-Zaman). The al-shaykh was a title of honour indicating that he was a learned and a dignified person.


The word ‘Al-Jazari’ indicates that his family came from Jazirat ibn ‘Umar in Diyar Bakr. We do not know the date of his birth and our information about his life is obtained from his book.


Al-Jazari was in the service of three Artuqid rulers: Nur al-Din Muhammad ibn Arslan (570-581/ 1174-1185), Qutb al-Din Sukman ibn Muhammad (681-697/ 1185-1200) and Nasir al-Din Mahmud ibn Muhammad (597-619/ 1200-1222.).


It was in response to the request of Nasir al-Din Mahmud that al-Jazari wrote his book. He says in his introduction that he started his service at the Artuqid court in the year 570/1174, and that when he started writing the book he had already spent twenty five years in the service of Nur al-Din Muhammad, the father, and Qutb al-Din Sukman, the brother.  From this information we conclude that probably al-Jazari started writing his book in the year 595/1198, two years before Nasir al-Din became king. From the Oxford manuscript we learn that al-Jazari finished writing his book on 4 Jumada the Second, 602/ 16 January 1206. The oldest extant copy (Topkapi Sarayi Libray, Ahmet III, 3472) was completed by Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Uthman al-Haskafi at the end of Sha’ban 602/ 10 April 1206. From al-Haskafi’s colophon we learn that al-Jazarī was not living at this date. We conclude besides, that he died in the year 602/1206, just few months after he had completed his work.


Āmid, that is called now Diyar Bakr [2], was on the left bank of the Tigris. Travellers who visited the city during the 11th century admired its buildings, its walls and its affluence. In 438/1046,  Nasir-i Khusraw visited the city and wrote: ‘ I have seen many cities and fortresses at the extremities of the world in the lands of the Arabs, Persians, Indians and Turks, and yet I have never seen anything comparable to Āmid anywhere in the world; nor have I heard anyone claim that he had seen any place matching this glorious city’ [3]


During this period Āmid was prosperous, and it enjoyed a period of peace and stability. Thus al-Jazari lived in the court of the Artuqid kings under conditions favourable for the invention and construction of his machines and for writing.


2- Al-Jazari’s book:

The title of the oldest manuscript of al-Jazari’s book is: al-Jamiʿ bayn al-ʿilm wa ʿamal, al-nafiʿ fi sinaʿat al-hiyal   الجامع بين العلم و العمل النافع في صناعة الحيل  (A Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts). The Arabic edition (of al-Hassan) carries this title. The English translation of Hill carries the title Book of Knowledge of Mechanical Devices.[4] This translation was based mainly on MS Graves 27 of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where the Arabic title is Kitab fi maʿrifat al-hiyal  al-handasiyya.كتاب في معرفة الحيل الهندسية  Between 1915 and 1921, Wiedemann and Hauser published in German a series of seven articles in which they covered the six categories using the Bodleian copy. [5]


The book describes in detail fifty devices (ashkal), which are grouped into six categories (anwaʿ, singular nawʿ ). These are: 1) ten water and candle clocks; 2), ten vessels and figures suited for drinking sessions; 3), ten pitchers and basins for phlebotomy (faṣd ) and washing before prayers; 4), ten fountains that change their shape alternately, and machines for the perpetual flute; 5), five water raising machines; 6), five miscellaneous devices.


Each device or shakl  is described in simple Arabic that is easy to understand, and each is accompanied by a general drawing. There are fifty of these and are numbered by the letters of the Arabic alphabet from one to fifty. For the complicated devices al-Jazari gave detailed drawings for the components of a device or for subassemblies so that the operation can be understood. There are a total of 174 drawings. An alphabet letter marks each part in a device. The text explains the construction of the device with the aid of the letters so that the reader can understand the device by reading the text and referring to the illustrations.


The published Arabic text enumerates fifteen manuscripts of al-Jazari’s book in world libraries with one only probably in private hands. One is a Persian translation.[6] The best five manuscripts were used in arriving at the final printed text. The main one, however, was MS Ahmet III 3472 in the Topkapi Sarayi Librarary, Istanbul. This is the closest copy to the time when al-Jazari completed his writing in 602/1206.


3- The history of water clocks and ingenious devices before and after al-Jazari


The first water clocks in their simplest form were used by the ancient civilizations of Babylonia and Egypt.[7]


About the developments that followed we have two historical reports. The known one in the histories of science is that of Vitruvious who said that Ctesibius, an Egyptian engineer and craftsman who worked in Alexandria about 250 BC, improved the design of the water clock.[8]


                   The second report came from Ridwan ibn al-Sa’ati in his book and is not known to historians of science. Ridwan mentioned in his book that a man called Hormuz invented the mechanisms of the water clock that were used by his father in the construction of the Damascus clock. He says further that “the design [of Hormuz] continued in the land of Fars for a long time, and was transmitted from there to the land of the Greeks, and its construction spread out in the land until it was transmitted to Damascus, where it was constructed up to the days of the Byzantines and after that in the days of Banu Umayya, according to what is mentioned in the histories. This clock attributed to Hormuz continued to be reproduced by one man after another on this pattern, and it was in the shape that we described above” [9]


The report of Ridwan seems credible, since he links the development of the water clock with both Iran and the Hellenistic world. His story is of great historical importance and it deserves the attention of research workers. We should remark here that the practice of water clocks was limited to the cities of Syria and Mesopotamia in the early centuries of Islam which gives support to Ridwan’s account.


The only public water clock known before Islam was erected in a public square in Gaza in the fifth century AD.[10]


Automata in general were known before Islam. The first musical automaton is attributed to Ctesibius of Egypt. In Asia Minor, Philon of Byzantium who was a contemporary of Ctesibius, wrote the first major treatise on ingenious devices. Philon’s work was continued and extended by Heron of Alexandria, who flourished in the middle of the first century AD.


The tradition of water clocks and ingenious devices of pre-Islamic lands was further developed under Islam. Monumental water clocks in Islamic cities continued to be installed. The Abbasid Caliphs were interested in clocks and ingenious devices. The story of the clock that was presented by Harun al-Rashid (170-193/786-809) to Charlemagne in 807 AD is well known.[11] It is reported also that the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil (d. 247/861) was so obsessed with moving machines (Ālāt mutaḥarrika), that he favoured the Banu Musa[12] who wrote their famous book al-Hiyal during this period.


In Kiitab al-hayawan, al-Jahiẓ (160-253/776-867 AD) when discussing the measurement of time, says: “Our kings and scientists use the astrolabe by day and the binkamat (water clocks) by night” [13]


Al-Khazini (flourished 515/1121) reported that Ibn al-Haytham (354/965 - 450/1038) who was a noted engineer as well as a great scientist, described a water clock.[14] In the same period historians reported that Nasir al Dawla of Diyar Bakr (d. 453/1061 AD) constructed a public binkam (water clock) for the city of Mayyafariqin in the year 414/1012.[15] This is 200 years before al-Jazari.


                   The technology of clock- making was transferred to Muslim Spain and to Al-Maghrib. About the year 442/1050 AD, al-Zarqali constructed a large water clock on the banks of the Tagus River at Toledo in Spain. The clock was still in operation when the Christians occupied the city in 1085 AD. A treatise describing Andalusian monumental clocks was written in the eleventh century by Ibn Khalaf al-Mururadi. Water clocks were constructed for public places in al-Maghrib. The remains of two public water clocks in Fās from the fourteenth century AD can still be seen.[16]


                    An Arabic treatise of unknown date and authorship describes a monumental water-clock. It is attributed to a Pseudo-Archimedes but it is not listed among Archimedes works in any history of science. Hill thinks that part of it may be of Greek origin, but most of it being written by Arabic writers.[17]  Both Ridwan and al-Jazari mentioned it.


                    In Damascus, Muhammad al-Khurasani al-Sa’ati (the clock-maker) built a monumental clock around 556/1160. Ridwan ibn al-Sa’ati re-built the clock of his father and gave a detailed description of its construction in 600/1203. Al-Jazari was writing his book in Āmid at the same time.


                    The skills in constructing clocks and ingenious devices were also established in the eastern lands of Islam.  We should remember that Muúammad al-Sa’ati who constructed the monumental clock in Damascus came from Khurasan in 549/1154 and started constructing the clock shortly after his arrival. He was considered unrivalled in his skills in clock making[18]. It is reported that the noted astronomer ʿAlī Qūshjī (d. 1474) who was in Maragha, wrote a treatise (tadhkira) on spiritual (or ingenious) machines[19].


                   The last important writer on the same subject was Taqi al-Din ibn Maʿrūf who wrote a book on water clocks and ingenious machines in 1552 [20] and another on mechanical clocks in 1556. [21]


4- Evaluation of al-Jazari’s work

Al-Jazari’s book deals with a whole range of devices and machines, with a multiplicity of purposes. What they have in common is the considerable degree of engineering skill required for their manufacture, and the use of delicate mechanisms and sensitive control systems. Many of the ideas employed in the construction of ingenious devices were useful in the later development of mechanical technology.


About al-Jazari’s book Sarton says that “this treatise is the most elaborate of its kind and may be considered the climax of this line of Moslem achievement.” [22]  Hill concludes also that “until modern times there is no other document, from any cultural area, that provides a comparable wealth of instructions for the design, manufacture and assembly of machines” .[23]


Al-Jazari inherited the knowledge of his predecessors, but he improved on their designs and added devices of his own invention. The merit of his book is that it was the only book to discuss such a large variety of devices and to present them with text and illustrations and dimensions so that a skilled craftsman is able to construct any device on the basis of al-Jazari’s description. In the World of Islam Festival in 1976 it was possible to construct three of al-Jazari’s machines under Hill’s supervision. [24]. They worked perfectly well. One was a monumental water clock which is exhibited now in the Natuuurmuseum Asten in the Netherlands.[25]  [The toy machine shown below, incorporates several principles: the use of water power and a water raising saqiya at the same time. An actual machine like this from the thirteenth century, was supplying water from Nahr Yazid in Damascus to Ibn al-‘Arabi’s mosque until recently, and can be seen until now.


Fig. 1

Many of al-Jazari’s components and techniques were useful in the development of modern mechanical engineering. These include the static balancing of large pulley wheels; calibration of orifices; use of wooden templates; use of paper models in design; lamination of timber to prevent warping; the grinding of the seats and plugs of valves together with emery powder to obtain a watertight fit; casting of brass and copper in closed mold boxes with greensand; use of tipping buckets that discharge their contents automatically; and the use of segmental gears.

Al-Jazari’s double acting piston pump is unique (Fig. 2). It is remarkable for three reasons:1) it incorporates an effective means of converting rotary into reciprocating motion through the crank-connecting-rod mechanism [26]; 2)  it makes use of the double-acting principle and 3) it is the first pump known to have had true suction pipes.[27].

Fig. 2

Al-Jazari occupies an important place in the history of automata, automatic control, robotics and automated musical theaters. His pioneering work is duly acknowledged in most histories.


The inventions of al-Jazari are a source of inspiration to modern designers such as the use of rolling balls to sound the hours on cymbals and operate automata. This concept is currently used in toys and other devices and their makers had registered patents in their names.[28]


Al-Jazari described a combination lock.[29] There are now in world museums three combination locks that were made in the same period of al-Jazari [30]. Although they are simpler than the lock of  al-Jazari yet they follow the same principle. Two were made around 597/1200 AD by Muhammad b. Hamid al-Asturlabi al-Isfahani and are located in Copenhagen and Boston. The third is in Maastricht. The first combination lock in Europe was described by Buttersworth in 1846 and the wheels of this lock are strikingly similar to the discs of al-Jazari.[31]


All illustrations in al-Jazari’s book are in colour, and among the fifty main drawings are miniatures that are of great artistic merit. This resulted in the disappearance of some of these paintings from the manuscripts and they found their way to the international museums of art or to private collections.


Historians of art are of the opinion that there existed at the court of the Artuqids in Āmid a school of painting that produced narrative paintings of great value [32]Three of the existing al-Jazari’s manuscripts were illustrated by members of this school.


The illustrations of the book enable historians to study the clothing styles of men and women in Diyar Bakr in the thirteenth century, and some of their living habits. See the illustration below (Fig. 3) of the automated girl serving drinks.

   Fig. 3



Einhard and Notker

Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, Trans. With intr. By Lewis Thorpe, Penguin, 1969.  

Al-Hassan 1976

al-Hassan, Ahmad Y., Taqi al-Din and Arabic Mechnical Engineering; with Kitab al-Turuq  al-saniyya fi al-Alat  al-ruhaniyya, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, Aleppo, 1976.  

Hill 1981

Hill, D. R., Arabic Water Clocks, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, Aleppo, 1981 .

Hill 1998

Hill, D. R., Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology, edited by David King, Ashgate, 1998.  

Ibn Abi Usaybi’a

‘Uyun  al- anba’ fi tabaqat  al-atibba’ ,عيون الانباء في طبقات الاطباء ed. Nizar Rida, Beirut, n.d.

Ibn Shaddad

Al-A’laq al-kha‹tira,  الاعلاق الحطيرةvol. III, part one, edited by Yahya Abbara, Damascus,1978  


Kitab  al-Hayawan,   كتاب الحيوانVol II, Beirut, 1992  

Al-Jazari 1979


al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. ed., الجامع بين العلم و العمل النافع في صناعة الحيل  (A Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts) Institute for the History of Arabic Science, Aleppo, 1979. Fuat Sezgin had produced in 2003 an offset copy with colours of  MS Ahmet III 3472 of the Topkapi Sarayi Librarary.  

Al-Jazari 1974

Hill, D. R., translator and editor, The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, (كتاب في معرفة الحيل الهندسية  ), Dodrecht, 1974.  


Kitab mizan al-hikma,  كتاب ميزان الحكمةed. Hashim al-Nadwa, Hyderabad, 1940. Quoted by Hill 1981.  

Nasir-i Khusraw

Safar Nama, Arabic translation by Yahya al-Khashshab, Cairo, 1945.  


Price, Derek de Solla, ‘Mechanical Water Clocks of the 14th Century in Fez, Morocco’, Proceedings of the Xth International Congress of the History of Science, Ithaca, N.Y. and Philadelphia, 1962.  


Raby, Julian, ed., The Art of Syria and the Jazira, Oxford University Press, 1985.  


Ibn al-Sa’ati, Ridwan, ‘Ilm al-sa’at  wa al-‘amal biha كتاب علم الساعات والعمل بها, Gotha MS 1348, quoted by Hill 1981; edited and published by Muhammad Ahmad Dahman, Damascus, 1981.  

Sarton 1959

Sarton, George, A History of Science: Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries, Harvard University Press, 1959.  

Sarton 1975

Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science, vol.II, Krieger, New York, 1975. 


Tekeli, Sevim, The Clocks in Ottoman Empire in 16th Century, And Taqi al-Din’s  ‘The Brightest Stars for the Construction of the Mechanical Clocks’, Ankara University, 1966. This book contains the Arabic text. 

Wiedemann and Hauser

Wiedemann, E and Hauser, F., ‚Uber die Uhren im Bereich die Islamischen Kultur’, in Nova Acta Abh. der Kaiserl. Leop. Carol. Deutschen Akademie der Naturforscher, 100, Halle, 1915, pp.  1-272.

For other articles covering the remaining categories of al-Jazari’s book in German, see al-Jazari 1979, p. 60.



[1] Al-Jazari 1979, p.3

[2]  Called also Diyar Bakir .

[3] Nasir-i Khusraw p.9-10

[4] al-Jazari 1979

[5] Wiedemann and Hauser, 1915

[6] al-Jazari 1979, pp. 11-16.

[7] Hill 1981, p. 6.

[8] Sarton 1959, p.343-344

[9] Ridwan, folios 3v-4v, quoted by Hill 1981, pp. 12-13

[10] Hill 1981, p.13.

[11]  Einhard and Norken the Stammerer, p.184, note 39.  See also Hill 1998, article V, p. 179.

[12] Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, p. 286

[13] Al-Jahiz, Vol. II, p. 294

[14] Al-Khazini quoted by Hill 1981, p.49.

[15] Ibn Shaddad, vol.3, p. 359

[16] Price, pp.599-602.

[17] Hill 1981, p. 1.

[18] Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, p.661

[19] Tekeli, See the English text p.144, and the Arabic text p. 221.

[20] Al-Hassan 1976

[21] Tekeli

[22] Sarton 1975,  Vol. II, p.510

[23] Hill 1998, II , p. 231.

[24] Hill 1981, p.103

[25] Other working models are exhibited also in the museum established by Fuat Sezgin at his institute in Frankfurt; other models were established by the UNESCO at the exhibition of Islamic science and technology that is housed at the Institute of la Monde Arabe in Paris. Other models ere exhibited at the Institute of the History of Arabic Science in Aleppo, Syria.

[26] See the article: The Crank-Connecting Rod System in a continuously Rotating Machine, in the Brief Notes on this web site

[27] See the article: The Origin of the Suction Pump, in the Brief Notes on this web site.

[28]  US Patent No. 4,037,355, "Marble Track Toy," issued to Bonnie A. Street on July 26, 1977

[29] Al-Jazari 1979, pp. 486-501.

[30] Raby, article by Francis Maddison  ‘ Al-Jazari’s Combination Lock: Two Contemporary Examples’, pp.141-157.

[31] al-Jazari 1974, p. 274.

[32] Raby, article by Rachel Ward ‘ Evidence for a School of Painting at the Artuqid Court’, pp. 69-83.

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