Have You Ever Heard of the Elephant Clock of Al-Jazari, the Pioneer of Engineering?

Badi al-Zaman al-Jazari (died 1206) built many different kinds of clocks, but there was one in particular that captured the attention of all who saw it (today a replica is located in the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai). This was
the elephant clock, admired both for its complex mechanism and its appreciation of the Islamic civilization’s cultural diversity. It was one of the many inventions that al-Jazari described in his appropriately titled “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.”

In the Islamic tradition, a great deal of emphasis is placed on using one’s time wisely. In one of the most profound chapters of the Quran, Allah says: “By time, surely mankind is in loss, except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.” No matter what we gain in life, there’s one thing we’re always losing: time. That is why it’s so important to use our time wisely, and the best way to do that is by doing our best to ensure that we fall into the category of exceptions that Allah mentions in this passage. The Arabs have another proverb to express this: “Time is like a sword – unless you cut with it, it will cut you.”

Timekeeping was important for both religious and worldly activities. Muslims needed to know the times of prayer (salāh), and mosques needed to know them in advance so that they could be ready to make the call to prayer (adhān). Clocks were also useful in the month of Ramadan, to mark the times of starting and finishing the daytime fast. With reliable clocks in public, regulating the opening and closing times of the marketplace, the availability of public officials, and the timing of events like public lectures could also be set, all to create a more time-efficient society.

Al-jazari_elephant_clockAll this made al-Jazari’s elephant clock easy to appreciate. The clock wa a dynamic machine with many moving parts, all of which worked in sync to mark every half-hour of the day as it passed. The clock’s main mechanism was inside the elephant – a traditional Indian timekeeping bowl floating in a tank filled with water. As time passed, more of the tank’s water filled the bowl, until the bowl had submerged – that half-hour mark. The sinking bowl pulled on a number of strings that caused one of thirty balls at the top of the clock to fall, triggering a set of reactions that led to a cymbal being struck, announcing to the public that another half-hour had passed.

But the first thing you’d have noticed about the elephant clock was the design. Jazari really appreciated the diversity of Islamic civilization and the sources from which it had received so much knowledge and inspiration. The elephant clock featured the use of Greek scientific principles, an Indian timekeeping device, an Indian elephant, an Egyptian phoenix, Arab mechanical “men”, a Persian carpet, Chinese dragons. The clock also featured a figure of Salāh ad-Dīn al-Ayyūbi, the Kurdish Muslim liberator of Jerusalem from the Crusader and founder of Egypt’s Ayyubid dynasty,  a man who al-Jazari greatly admired.

Understandably, al-Jazari’s clock didn’t stand the test of time (no pun intended!). But thanks to the intervention of Nasīr ad-Dīn, the son and successor of Salāh ad-Dīn, the design of the elephant clock has survived to the present day, so that we’re able to recreate it and really appreciate it. It was Nasīr ad-Dīn who commissioned al-Jazari to write the “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” which explains the mechanism of the elephant clock – and lots of al-Jazari’s other neat inventions, too!

Written by Hassam Munir

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Hassam Munir is a student and independent researcher of Islamic history based in Toronto, Canada. He enjoys looking into the past from fresh and diverse perspectives. He is the founder of the iHistory project, where he blogs regularly. To read more of Hassam's work on Islamic history, visit www.ihistory.co.