Compendium On The Theory And Practice Of The Mechanical Arts

Al-Jâmi bain al-ilm wa-l-amal an-nafi fī sina’at al-hiyal Badi’azzaman Abu l-‘Izz Isma’il b. ar-Razzaz Al-Jazarī (ca. 600/1200)

by Professor Fuat Sezgin In collaboration with Eckhard Neubauer, Mazen Amawi, 2002. Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main

This articles extracted from Fuat Sezgin’s book: Jubilaumsband zum dreiBigjahrigen Bestehen des Institutes fur Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften In europaischen Sprachen erschienene Vorworte zu Publikationen des Institutes aus den Jahren 1984 bis 2011, Institut fur Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften an der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitat, Frankfurt am Main, 2011, pp. 625-631.


More than two hundred years ago copies of the book which we are publishing here as a facsimile edition already found their way into the European libraries, such as in Oxford or Paris; however, it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the book attracted the attention and interest of scholars from the field. This sudden focus was occasioned by unusual circumstances. In around 1891, the French Orientalist Bernard Carra de Vaux visited the libraries of Istanbul and later in 1901, reported 1 on the manuscript which we publish here, thereby drawing particular attention to its artistic beauty. It is astonishing that just one year later, in 1902, the Swedish Consul in Istanbul and art collector, Frederik R. Martin, showed the Orientalist Edgar Blochet, the curator responsible for Arabian and Persian manuscripts at the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris, some few leaves which had been taken from a manuscript held in the Aya Sofya Library in Istanbul. They had been separated from the textual context so that they could be sold on account of their artistic illustration, as Blochet reported. 2

Then, in the year 1903, some few leaves were shown at an exhibition in Paris 3, together with a number of miniatures from a Dioskurides Manuscript which was in Martin’s possession, while the individual leaves could be seen again at a major “Exhibition of Masterpieces of Mohammedan Art” held in Munich in 1910. Martin published some of the illustrative leaves from the Aya Sofya Manuscript in his contribution for the Munich exhibition catalogue 4 and in his two volumes on miniature painting5. He described the book from which he had taken the leaves as a “Book on Automata” and named the Aya Sofya Library, without however citing a shelf mark. Experts learned at the latest in 1914 5 that the leaves in the Martin Collection originated from the copy of the “Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts”cff]rr (Al-Jamic bain al-cilm wa-l-camal an-nafic fī sina’at al-hiyal) by al-Jazarī, which is kept in the Aya Sofya Library under Number 3606 and to which Carra de Vaux was the first to refer in 1901. At some time unknown to us, the leaves later found their way to museums and private collections in Europe and America. The first study on the whereabouts of these fragments in western collections goes back to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the curator of the Indian and Islamic collections at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He was able to prove for his part that the six leaves which passed from Martin to become the property of the museum had originally been among those which originated from the Aya Sofya MS. 3606. At the time, up to twenty such leaves were known to exist. 6

It was Rudolf M. Riefstahl 7 who first studied and described the condition of the Aya Sofya Manuscript from personal examination during a visit to the library in 1928. He confirms that the leaves in the Martin Collection, which the latter called the “automata miniatures”, had indeed been taken from the Aya Sofya Manuscript. More and more studies appeared on the manuscript, or to be more precise, on those leaves taken from it and which had found their way into western collections, whereby it is astonishing to note that none of these studies ever asked how the leaves could possibly have found their way into Martin’s possession and that no regrets were ever voiced as to the apparent injustice that had been committed. The number of illustrative leaves which had been removed from the Aya Sofya Manuscript totals 26 or 27. We have succeeded in obtaining photos of thirteen of these, whose present whereabouts are known. Six of these are still at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, three at the Harvard University Art Museum, two at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Villa i Tatti, Florence, and one each at the Freer Gallery (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington and in the Islam Section of the Louvre in Paris. Those leaves whose present whereabouts we were unable to discover were in European or American collections up to the Second World War; however, there is no certainty as to whether they all survived. We were able to learn that a few of these have changed owners and are now in the hands of dealers or collectors of miniatures whose names are unknown to us. It is to be hoped that they will reappear in the course of time and will be returned to their rightful owner.

The following manuscripts have survived from the book:

  1. The Manuscript Aya Sofya 3606 reproduced here, which is, without doubt, the most beautiful of the manuscripts, copied in the year 755 of the Hegira (1354 ad).
  2. Ms. Istanbul, Topkapi Sarayi, Collection Ahmet III, No. 3472, copied in the year 602 of the Hegira (1206 ad).
  3. Ms. Istanbul, Topkapi Sarayi, Collection Hazine 414, copied in the year 672 of the Hegira (1273 ad).

Twelve more manuscripts are located in the following libraries: Bodleian Library in Oxford, Bibliotheque nationale in Paris, University Library Leiden, Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and in the Institute Narodov Azii in Petersburg. A further copy found its way from Istanbul to the United States and then on to London, where it is said to have remained since 1978. It is a magnificent manuscript, copied in the year 715 of the Hegira (1315 ad). The manuscripts were described by Donald R. Hill 8 and subsequently by Ahmad Yusuf al-Hasan 9, and so I shall refer only to their respective works at this point. Only the Manuscript Berlin, or. fol. 3306 10 remained unknown to them.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Eilhard Wiedemann began his studies on the book which, along with translations of a large part of the texts, occupied him for more than 20 years. 11

In the last third of the 20th century, the book met with increasing interest on the part of research scientists. By translating it into English, 12 the English scholar Donald R. Hill made the book and its content accessible to readers not proficient in the Arabic language. A critical edition of the text by Ahmad Yusuf al-Hasan 13 followed. And finally, in 1990, the Turkish Ministry of Culture published a facsimile edition of the Manuscript Ahmet III, No. 3472, whose quality falls far short of doing justice to the book by al-Jazarī. And so we have taken it upon ourselves to publish the Aya Sofya Manuscript in the series of Facsimile Edition published by our Institute and to include in the edition reproductions of those missing 26 pages located in various collections which we were able to track down. In the main, we will replace the text and illustrative pages which were unable to trace by taking appropriate pages from the manuscripts Topkapi Sarayi of the Collections Hazine-on account of the quality of the illustrations—and Ahmet III, although we do prefer to place this material in the appendix rather than inserting it direct into the gaps in the manuscript. The original size of the pages (28×40 cm) was reduced to 23×33 cm in the facsimile. No reference to the book’s author, Badi’az zaman Abu l-‘Izz Ismail b. ar-Razzaz al-Jazarī, can be found in Arab sources. He probably lived in Amid, possibly also in Diyarbakr, and was known as an engineer or instrument maker, as can be ascertained from the introduction to his book; in any case, he was certainly linked to the court of the Artuqids in Amid under Nuraddin Muhammad b. Qara’arslan (ruled 570/1174-581/1185) and his sons Qutbaddin Sukman (ruled 581/1185-597/ 1200) and Nasiraddin Mahmud (ruled 597/ 1200-619/1240).

As for further information about his work, al-Jazarī actually tells us himself that it was Nasiraddin Mahmud who commissioned him to write the book, while the colophon of a number of manuscripts tells us that the author completed his work two years after Nasiraddin had come to power.

If using this brief information on the author and his book we now set about pronouncing judgement on the work and its position in the history of technology, then, given the current status of research into the Arab-Islamic history of technology, it is a tough responsibility which we face. Although Eilhard Wiedemann and his studies into the book, which he began almost one hundred years ago, certainly made the work of following generations easier, he nevertheless recognised that the level of research at his time did not yet allow him to pronounce a valid judgement on the significance of the book.

When we read al-Jazarī’s book and focus on what he says in the introduction, we do learn that he was an experienced engineer whom the local ruler of Amid had commissioned with compiling a book whose subject matter he describes as «ingenious devices with movements like pneumatic [movements], and water machines for the constant and solar hours, and the transfer by bodies of bodies from their natural positions». He does not withhold from the reader the fact that he had completed his commission only after studying the «books of the earlier [scholars] and the works of the later [craftsmen]», yet we do not learn, and it may remain unknown to future research as well, the extent to which al-Jazarī knew of or was able to know the achievements of his predecessors and his contemporaries living at a-round the turn of the 6th to the 7th century of the Hegira (12th / 13th century ad), after the prevailing political conditions, namely the battles with the crusaders, had made communication among the population and the exchange of books between the countries of the Islamic world much more difficult. What really drew our attention and made us take notice in this respect is the fact that the author is not mentioned anywhere in the Arab sources and that his book remained unknown for a long time, or did not circulate outside of the small circle in which it had been produced. For example, al-Jazarī’s book contains a detailed description of a pump with two cylinders as was later also found in the Kitâb at-Turuq as-saniya by Taqiyaddin Muhammad b. al-Ma’rūf from 959/1552, yet neither in this nor in the other technological books by Taqiyaddin do we find any reference to the fact that he had any knowledge of al-Jazarī’s book. Taqiyaddin 14 cites a work by the Ottoman scholar cAli al-Qushji (d 879/1474) as his main source in the field of pneumatics. Any historical evaluation must certainly not assume that al-Jazarī’s book reflected the latest development stage achieved by Arab-Islamic technology in its development path; rather, the book represents a work of the kind that an able engineer could have compiled, according to his skill and understanding, on the basis of his knowledge of the sources and within the scope of the conditions provided by his surroundings.

So when, for example, the cone valve, which was used to regulate the water level in hydraulic devices, appears for the first time in al-Jazarī’s book, 15 this is no sufficient reason for regarding al-Jazarī as the inventor of the cone valve. Incidentally, this type of valve also remained unknown in Europe until as late as in the 18th century. We do not know whether this knowledge came to the western world from the Arab-Islamic culture, or whether it represented a parallel and independent development in the west. 16

In the 1960s, Lynn White noticed during a visit to the Aya Sofya Library that segmental gears of the kind known from the famous astronomical clock of Giovanni de’Dondi dating from the year 1364 were used in our manuscript. 17 Of course, we cannot see al-Jazarī as the inventor in this case either. He merely knew of the use of such gears as an important technological aid in his day.

It is without doubt Donald Hill who deserves pride of place among those who endeavoured to answer the question as to the significance of al-Jazarī’s book in the general history of technology. He establishes 18 that al-Jazarī «was not primarily an innovators albeit that this does not mean that he thought that al-Jazarī was not the «innovator» of any inventions or that the inventions which he had made were of no significance. D. Hill considers the following four among the fifty devices which al-Jazarī described to also be his own work:

  1. The perfection of the “[tipping]-bucket that fills and empties from the flow from a vessel’s mouthpiece in the space of half a constant hour”. 19
  2. The reciprocating pump», or in the words of al-Jazarī: «a machine which raises water about 20 cubits from running water by means of a wheel». 20
  3. Two forms of the water clock which he calls tarjahar (based on the principle of the outflow and inflow of water into a vessel at specific times). 21 Donald Hill refers to two kinds of the tarjahar described in the third and fourth section of the first chapter of al-Jazarī’s book. 22
  4. Devices to measure the amount of blood taken during blood-letting. 23

Hill also tends to count al-Jazarī’s «remarks that indicate that he had ideas about the application of an escapement (târiha)» in hydraulic devices among his “significant innovations”.

Furthermore, Hill praises al-Jazarī’s meticulous description of the work processes and methods of which some do not differ so much from those used in more modern engineering, such as making models out of paperboard or papier-mâché. 24

In addition, Hill 25, although not the first to do so, discusses the technical quality of al-Jazarī’s illustrative depictions, which comprise 50 general illustrations and number 150 in total, including the detailed drawings. He warned readers against using present-day standards to assess the drawings and asked them to bear in mind that although al-Jazarī’s draughtsmanship fell short of the level of perspective drawing shown by the Italian Ramelli from the 16th century ad, any comparisons should not forget «that it is frequently very difficult to understand the construction and functioning of one of Ramelli’s machines from the drawing of it. In the end, one can only reiterate that, taking text and drawings together, al-Jazarī’s method serves its purposes, since most of his machines could be reconstructed from the data which he gives.

We encounter an unusual aspect in al-Jazarī’s book, namely the use of symbols rather than letters to «number» the individual parts of the devices. Researchers initially wondered what this might mean until the French Orientalist Edgar Blochet 26 pointed out in 1907 that the symbols which al-Jazarī lists at the end of the book might be adapted forms of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Finally, it should be noted that al-Jāmi’ bain al-‘ilm wa-l-‘amal is the most beautiful and comprehensive work that has survived from the field of Arab-Islamic technological literature. The author’s approach is based on the two fundamental principles of technology, namely theory (‘ilm) and practice (‘amal), and he does indeed provide a superb example of the interaction between these two fundamental principles of science. An accurate or even only more or less accurate evaluation of the whole work will only be achievable, however, once research into the history of technology in the Arab-Islamic world will be based on a sound and reliable basis and its position within the scope of the general history of this discipline has been researched. Al-Jazarī was neither a natural philosopher nor a physicist, but rather merely an engineer who attached importance to expertly and properly making, assembling, improving and describing devices. And it would seem that he did not consider it necessary to explain the fundamental physical laws on which these were based to complete the book which he had been commissioned to write.

What al-Jazarī left us with his book is the historical testimony of a high cultural and scientific level of an engineer who at the turn of the 6th to the 7th century of the Hegira (12th/13th century ad) was working in one part of the Islamic world. We learn much from him about instruments and devices, about how they were made and about the materials used in making them, of which we previously had no knowledge. And so his book will contribute fundamentally to developing an understanding of the general history of technology although it was possibly not representative of the general level of the Islamic world. And so it remains for me to express my thanks to the Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi and its Director, Dr. Nevzat Kaya, for permitting the reproduction of the Aya Sofya Manuscript, and equally to the Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi and its Director, Filiz Çağman, who assisted us with the material available to her in filling the gaps left by the missing leaves which we were unable to track down. My further thanks go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and especially to Christopher Atkins there, to the Harvard University Art Museum and David Carpenter, to the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Villa i Tatti, Florence, namely to Fiorella Superbi Gioffredi, to the Freer Gallery (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, along with Rebecca L. Barker, and to the Islam Section of the Louvre in Paris, represented by Christine Gayraud. Nor would I like to forget to mention the printers of MAS Matbaacilik of Istanbul, whom I should like to thank for their great effort in producing the book in a quality appropriate to it. My thanks go also to Dr. Eckhard Neubauer and Mazen Amawi for their assistance in completing this project. Last but not least, I am much indebted to my wife Ursula Sezgin for first drawing my attention to this splendid and mutilated manuscript.

A financial contribution to printing the book was kindly provided by UNESCO, whose interest in our project is highly appreciated. This introduction was written at the beginning of the 21st century in which, compared to the beginning of the 20th century, a new feeling of responsibility for the heritage of humankind as a shared legacy has become recognisable and only after much of this heritage and legacy had been lost as a result of that sense of responsibility being completely or largely missing in earlier times. This is why I am of the opinion that in this new awareness it is our duty and opportunity to meticulously, prudently and honestly maintain this shared heritage and to pass it on to coming generations in the best possible way.

It is in this awareness that I ask the public and private collectors who today are in possession of the leaves which were removed from the Aya Sofya Manuscript at the beginning of the past century to return these individual leaves to their place of origin. I can imagine that the connoisseurs and collectors of rare miniatures will not find it easy to relinquish these pieces, but I do believe that our general satisfaction will be all the greater.


    Al Jazari's Castle Clock

    Al Jazari’s Castle Clock

  • Al-Jazarī’s Castle Clock – designed for a public space, large scale (over 11 feet tall). Programmable – precursor for computer technology. Displayed timekeeping, zodiac, moon phases using animated displays.
  • Al-Jazarī’s Peacock basin

    Al-Jazarī’s Peacock basin

  • Al-Jazarī’s Peacock basin – water flows from the peacock’s beak; a slave appears with vegetable soda for hand washing, then another with a towel after washing.
  • Al-Jazari’s The basin of the slave

    Al-Jazari’s The basin of the slave

  • Al-Jazarī’s The basin of the slave – the bird at the top whistles, water pours from the spout, and the duck drinks it. The slave then holds out a hand with comb and towel.
  • Al-Jazari’s water raising automata

    Al-Jazari’s water raising automata

  • Al-Jazarī’s water raising automata – Reiterating the connection between art/entertainment and utilitarian engineering: this device is a novelty, probably designed to water a garden, based on a large-scale device in common use at the time called a saqiya. The animal is made of wood and is purely for show; the device is actually driven by a waterwheel hidden underneath it.
  • Al-Jazarī’s Musical boat

    Al-Jazarī’s Musical boat

  • Al-Jazarī’s Musical boat – The boat was designed to delight the king’s guests. The workings were hidden so that the figures appeared to move on their own.

    A reservoir on the deck provides waterpower for an axle, which runs the length of the boat. The outflow from the water wheel provides air pressure to operate the sounds of flutes etc.

    The display is made intermittent by the use of a tipping bucket which fills and then tips suddenly when it reaches a certain level.
    The boat is designed to float on a large pool, probably within an ornamental garden.

  • Replica of al-Jazari’s musical boat

    Replica of al-Jazari’s musical boat

  • Replica of al-Jazarī’s musical boat – displaying at the British Muslim Heritage Centre, made by MTE Studios.


  1. Note sur les mécaniques de Bédi ez-Zaman el-Djazari et sur un appareil hydraulique attribué à Apollonius de Perge, in: Annales Internationales d’histoire. Congres de Paris 1900. 5e section: Histoire des sciences. Paris 1901, pp 112-120 (reprint in: Natural Sciences in Islam, vol. 41, Frankfurt 2001, pp. 1-9).
  2. Peintures de manuscrits arabes à types byzantins, in: Revue archéologique (Paris), 4= serie, 9/1907/193-223, esp. p. 210 (reprint in: Natural Sciences in Islam, vol. 41, Frankfurt 2001, pp. 363-394, esp. p. 380).
  3. v. Claude Anet, Exhibition of Persian Miniatures at the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris – /, in: The Burlington Magazine for Connaisseurs (London) 22/1912-13/9-17, esp. pp. 15-16 (reprint in: Natural Sciences in Islam, vol. 41, Frankfurt 2001, pp. 395-403, esp. pp. 401-402).
  4. Die Ausstellung von Meisterwerken muhammedanischer Kunst in Munchen 1910. Ed. F. Sarre und F.R. Martin, 1″ vol.: Miniaturen und Buchkunst. Die Teppiche, Munich 1912, plate 3.
  5. v. Eilhard Wiedemann, Uber die Uhren im Bereich der islamischen Kultur. Unter Mitwirkung von Fritz Hauser, in: Nova Acta. Abhandlungen der Kaiserlich Leopoldinisch-Carolinischen Deutschen Akademie der Naturforscher, vol. C, No. 5, Halle 1915, pp. 48-49, 56-57 (reprint in: Natural Sciences in Islam, vol. 41, Frankfurt 2001, pp. 21-293, esp. pp. 68-69, 76-77).
  6. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Treatise of al-Jazarī on Automata. Leaves from a Manuscript of the Kitab fi ma’arifat al-hiyal al handasiya in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and elsewhere, Boston 1924 (reprint in: Natural Sciences in Islam, vol. 41, Frankfurt 2001, pp. 407-440).
  7. The Date and Provenance of the Automata Miniatures, in: The Art Bulletin (New York) 11 /1929/206-215 (reprint in: Natural Sciences in Islam, vol. 41, Frankfurt 2001, pp. 454-463).
  8. The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, Dordrecht and Boston 1974, pp. 3-6.
  9. Al-Jamic bain al-cilm wa-l-camal an-nafic fî sina’at al-hiyal, tasnif Abi l-‘Izz Isma’il al-Jazarī, ed. Ahmad Yusuf al-Hasan, Aleppo 1979, Intro, pp. 38-44.
  10. Arabische Handschriften. Teil II, beschrieben von Gre-gor Schoeler, Stuttgart 1990 (Verzeichnis derorientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland. vol. XVII, series B), pp. 149-152.
  11. We have compiled most of these in vol. 41 of the series Natural Sciences in Islam (Frankfurt 2001).
  12. The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, Dordrecht and Boston 1974.
  13. Al-Jamic bain al-cilm wa-l-camal an-nafic fî sina’at al-hiyal, tasnif Abi l-‘Izz Isma’il al-Jazarī, Aleppo 1979.
  14. v. al-Kawâkib ad-durrîya fi l-bankamât ad-dauriya, ed. Sevim Tekeli, Ankara 1966, p. 46, 144, 221.
  15. al-Jâmi’ bain al-‘ilm wa-l-‘amal, Ms. Ahmet HI, pp. 13-14, 19; Engl. trans. D.R. Hill, The Book of Knowledge, p. 21, 23.
  16. v.Otto Mayr, The Origins of Feedback Control, in: Scientific American (New York) 223/1970/111-118, esp. p. 114; D.R. Hill, The Book of Knowledge …, p. 279.
  17. Lynn White, Preface to the English translation by D.R. Hill.
  18. The Book of Knowledge … p. 279.
  19. al-Jâmi’ bain al-‘ilm wa-l-‘amal, Ms. Ahmet III, pp. 129-130; Engl. trans. D.R. Hill The Book of Knowledge …, pp. 76-77; E. Wiedemann, Uber die Uhren im Bereich der is-lamischen Kultur. Unter Mitwirkung von F. Hauser, in: Nova Acta. Abhandlungen der Kaiserlich Leopoldinisch-Carolinischen Deutschen Akademie der Naturforscher, vol. C, No. 5, Halle 1915, pp. 100-101 (reprint in: Natural Sciences in Islam, vol. 41, Frankfurt 2001, pp. 21-293, esp. pp. 120-121).
  20. Al-Jāmi’ bain al-‘ilm wa-l-‘amal, Ms. Ahmet M, pp. 322-327; Engl. trans. D.R. Hill, op.cit. pp. 186-189.
  21. Al-Jāmi’ bain al-‘ilm wa-l-‘amal p. 279.
  22. al-Jāmi’ bain al-‘ilm wa-l-‘amal, Ms. Ahmet HI, pp. 78-84; Engl. trans. D.R. Hill, op.cit. pp. 60-61.
  23. al-Jāmi’ bain al-‘ilm wa-l-‘amal, Ms. Ahmet HI, pp. 249-264; Engl. trans. D.R. Hill, op.cit. pp. 140-148.
  24. The Book of Knowledge …, p. 279.
  25. ibid. pp. 279-280.
  26. Peintures de manuscrits arabes a types byzantins, op.cit. p. 216 (reprint op.cit. p. 386); E.Wiedemann, liber die Uh-ren im Bereich der islamischen Kultur, op.cit. pp. 52-53 (reprint op.cit. pp. 72-73).