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Medieval robots: How al-Jazari's mechanical

marvels have been resurrected in Istanbul

He laid the groundwork for modern machinery with elaborate automata - 850
years ago

This pitcher and peacock, used for ritual cleaning, released water when the
tail of the bird was pulled (Rabia Iclal Turan/MEE)

By Rabia Iclal Turan-1 March 2019

Today, robots are everywhere. We even worry about them taking our jobs.
But the history of automation goes back some 900 years, when Ismail al-
Jazari, a Muslim scholar, invented the first robotics, water clocks and other
mechanical devices.
Our biggest motivation was to carry this inspiration to the masses
- Mehmed Ali Caliskan, curator and author
In order to inspire new generations in Turkey and the rest of the world,
his outstanding machines have now been recreated for The Magnificent
Machines of al-Jazari, an exhibition at the UNIQ Expo in Istanbul.
Badi al-Zaman Abu al-Izz Ismail ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari - known as Ismail al-
Jazari for short - was a Muslim scholar and polymath born in 1136 in
Diyarbakır, Anatolia, in what is now modern Turkey. He served as a royal
engineer at the Artuqid Palace during the 12th century at a time known as the
"Islamic Golden Age".
He is widely revered for his masterwork, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious
Mechanical Devices, which he wrote at the request of Nasiruddin
Mahmud, the Artuqid sultan.

elephant clock is al-Jazari’s most famous and complex work: it told the time
every 30 minutes (MEE/Rabia Iclal Turan)
In his book, al-Jazari explained the construction of his devices and automata,
from water-raising machines to fountains, complete with illustrations and
instructions that gave engineers the opportunity to reuse them.
Mehmed Ali Caliskan, the founder and general manager of the project to
reconstruct the medieval robotics, is himself an engineer.
"We think that if we can revitalise his fabulous world, combining mechanics,
science, art and philosophy, this would inspire a lot of people like us," he says.
"Our biggest motivation was

to carry this inspiration

to the masses."
Al Jaziri’s creations, reconstructed here, feature intricate mechanics hidden
beneath figures of humans and animals (Rabia Iclal Turan/MEE)
Caliskan is the son of Durmus Caliskan, a mechanical engineer, who compiled
al-Jazari's sketches for his 2015 book The Magnificent Machines of al-Jazari,
the most detailed account of the medieval genius in Turkish.
His dream was to put all the machines and devices into a "museum of al-
Jazari". A year after his father's death, Mehmed Ali Caliskan and his brother
made his dreams come true.
"The exhibition is the first step toward my father’s dream of a museum,"
Caliskan explains. "The technical background of the exhibition is based upon
my father's 15 years of effort."
Still inspiring today's engineers
But why are al-Jazari's inventions so important for today's generation?
The road to modern machinery, academicians and engineers say, starts
with the work done by al-Jazari 800 years ago.
"The impact of al-Jazari's inventions is still felt in modern contemporary
mechanical engineering," wrote 20th-century English engineer and historian
Donald Hill in his book Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology.
Jim al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey, says: "Al-
Jazari should inspire today's engineers and, even more so, the young
engineers of the future: schoolchildren who are thinking of engineering as a
career. [But] I feel he is not as well known as he should be, not even in Turkey
or the Arab world."

Al-Jazari’s boat, recreated here for

the exhibition, played music and was powered by water (Rabia Iclal
Mustafa Kacar, professor at the Department of History of Science at Fatih
Sultan Mehmet University in Istanbul, told MEE that al-Jazari's inventions
were the prototypes for many of the technological tools that we use daily.
"Take four-stroke engines for example," he says, "or gear wheels,
crankshafts, pneumatic and hydraulic systems, music boxes, automats and
control systems; these are all the technological innovations that have been
developed by him."
Kacar also emphasises how al-Jazari's book, The Book of Knowledge of
Ingenious Mechanical Devices, was the most important work of engineering
written before the Renaissance centuries later.
"The idea of having robots to do humans work - or simply automation - was
developed by al-Jazari 250 years before Leonardo Da Vinci, with some
excellent examples."
The end to the Muslim world's 'golden age'
During the Islamic Golden Age, which ran from the eighth century to the
14th, many scholars and polymaths from the Islamic world made significant
contributions to a range of scientific areas, including astronomy, mathematics,
medicine and geography. Their inventions, scholars say, paved the way for
Europe's later Renaissance and Enlightenment.
For instance, al-Biruni, a Muslim astronomer, mathematician and
geographer, was born in 973 in what today is Uzbekistan. He measured the
circumference of the Earth, producing what was the most accurate calculation
made during the Middle Ages.

A glass water clock, used by the

Turkmen Artuqid dynasty to measure time during military campaigns.
(MEE/Rabia Iclal Turan)
Ibn Sina, better known in the West as Avicenna, was a Muslim physician and
philosopher, born in 980 in Bukhara (modern day Uzbekistan).
Described by many as "the father of modern medicine," he wrote the Canons
of Medicine, which was used as a medical textbook in European universities
until the 17th century.
But in the 21st century Muslim countries see relatively less scientific activity.
According to the World Bank, in 2016 the United States and the European
Union respectively published 426,165 and 613,774 articles in scientific and
technical journals.
That compares to 40,974 in Iran and 33,902 in Turkey, although the number
of articles is rising.

Jazari’s machines, including this water clock, appear in Jazari’s Magnificent

Machines Exhibition at UNIQ Expo in Istanbul (MEE/Rabia Iclal Turan)
The main reason for this, according to Professor Jim al-Khalili, is that the
once mighty Islamic empire began to fragment and lose its wealth and
influence by the 13th to 15th centuries.
"Many factions appeared and were more interested in protecting their
borders and their interests than in scholarship and learning," al-Khalili
explains to MEE.
He also highlights that learning and knowledge flourish wherever there is
wealth. In addition, the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century
helped Europe move ahead quickly.

illustration of a clock from al-Jaziri's writings
"During the Renaissance, Europe suddenly became very wealthy, for example
discovering the New World, and a scientific revolution took place thanks to
men such as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, leaving the Muslim world far
But given that civilisations rise and fall naturally, he says, "in the Islamic
world, particularly in countries such as Turkey, there is no reason why there
should not be a renaissance now."
In order to inspire new generations of scientists in Turkey and the rest of the
Muslim world, The Magnificent Machines of al-Jazari will remain open till
"We will then travel to different parts of Turkey and even the world," says
Caliskan, "We will also turn the exhibition into a museum in three to five
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