By: Grayson Kennedy
The overarching theme of this collection is the representation of different cultures under Muslim rule as shown in The Elephant Clock by Al-Jazari. By the 1300s, Islamic lands spanned from Egypt to China. Muslims established complex trade routes with foreign lands, collecting a vast amount of wealth and knowledge, and we see their pan-Asian contact reflected in Islamic art. Multicultural hubs such as Baghdad hosted scriptoriums made up of artists from many regions. The goal of these scriptoriums is to accumulate a wealth of foreign knowledge to benefit Islam. The following selected pieces feature figural representations of people from different cultural regions that made contact with Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia. Al Jazari’s The Elephant Clock includes elements of Persian, Egyptian, Mongolian, Chinese, Greek and Indian artistic traditions.
Drawn in A.D. 1315, The Elephant Clock is a single page from the illuminated manuscript The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. This folio was illustrated using ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Al-Jazari, the author of the original manuscript, was a Muslim inventor and engineer who worked as chief engineer for the Artuklu Palace in modern day Turkey. Rather than creating theoretical illustrations, his folio acted as a practical guidebook to the construction of mechanized wonders. It featured incredibly advanced technology for the time, boasting not only astonishing creativity but also technical achievement. Many of the devices featured in the book were made specifically to entertain royalty. Such items include clocks, drinking vessels, fountains, automated devices for bloodletting and washing your hands, and heat or hydraulic instruments.
The Elephant Clock folio illustrates an intricate clock drawn with enough detail to actually give visual evidence as to how the device would work in real life. The faint inscriptions in the top left corner offer instructions on how to create a real working prototype.The clock runs similar to a Rube Goldberg machine. Every thirty minutes, after the bird atop the structure sings, the rider hits the elephant with his goad. The movement of the goad causes the bird to turn, and then a pellet falls from the falcon’s mouth into a dragon’s mouth. The pellet rolls down the dragon and drops into a pot, then rolls a little further and hits a gong. This then drops onto a dish floating on water within the elephant’s body. When there are enough balls weighting the dish it eventually sinks, indicating the turn of every half hour. Turning of the scribe resets the clock.
The inscriptions were written by calligrapher Farrukh ibn `Abd al-Latif in naskhi Kufic:” الفصل الثاني صح فصل “ (Farrukh). Nakshi script, in comparison to other styles of Kufic calligraphy, is more rounded, cursive, and easily legible. It was meant to be more instructional than artistic, hence the need for legibility. The artist uses multiple colors in this illustration. We see the use of blue, yellow or gold, grey, green, brown, and especially red. The image is centered in the page, and is read vertically in the direction of the ball drop. There are symbols written around some of the figures, and kufic is scribbled beside the elephant’s trunk. The animals are semi lifelike, as we see the scale-like plumage of the blue bird, the underbelly scales of the dragons, and even the wrinkles of the elephant’s ear. The drawing is flat, focusing on the process of the machine more than perspective or depth. There is more outlining in black ink than shading, although the elephant does feature a blend of brown into its grey skin along its back. The vegetal motifs are highly ornate, exemplifying a Muslim preoccupation to detail, a technique developed by the Muslim Abbasids during the previous century.
Lands from the far reaches of Islam’s trade routes inspired the creatures featured in this device. The Asian elephant representing India is draped with a Persian carpet decorated with an Islamic vine motif and multicolored tassels. The Abbasid capitol was Baghdad, the multicultural nucleus of their empire from which they spread their influence across the continent until 1250 AD. We see that even after they were disbanded, their artistic influence has remained. China is represented by the dragons and Egypt with the phoenix atop the dome. The dragons are recognizable as distinctly Chinese by their serpentine bodies, red coloring (the Chinese symbol of power and prosperity), and curved, deer-like horns. The phoenix is recognizable because its feathers are colored primarily red, a nod to it’s mythic ability to set itself on fire. Many territories to come into contact with the Muslims are represented, but only Muslims and Indians are given human representations. It wasn’t as uncommon to feature figures in this secular 13th century Arab style of illustration as it was in more orthodox, religious texts.
The mahout, or elephant driver, wears a red robes and white loin cloth. His head is encircled by a gold nimbus and his skin is a dark, almost blue pigment. This could refer to him being Indian. The howda, a canopied seat for riding on the back of an elephant or camel, accommodates two figures (both wearing turbans), the dragons, two birds, a spring (explain), and the dome. The howda also features decoratively carved pointed arch, green columns with capitols, and stone carvings with vegetal motifs. These are common in Central Asia and the Middle East. One Muslim human figure protrudes out of the howda, holding the box that feeds the ball into the dragon’s mouth. The other turbaned figure sits on a platform at the base of the howda, but most of his body is rubbed off. These two people are both lighter skinned than the rider, perhaps indicating their Arab descent.
Whether inspiration or appropriation, the inventions of Al-Jazari aimed to include imagery of the regions that helped fuel the Muslim Empire’s extensive wealth and power. This multiculturalism reflects the Quran teaching of supporting diversity and acceptance of others. The Prophet Muhammad spoke to his followers in his farewell sermon,
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood” (Peace).
The Elephant Clock embodies the scientific and cultural merging of civilizations. This could be interpreted as a celebration of equality, a declaration of Muslim power, or perhaps both simultaneously. The following works all represent the different peoples and cultures represented in Al-Jazari’s work, and how they came to play different roles in Muslim art. This same respectful representation of foreigners occurs in other manuscripts.
Barham Gur and the Indian Princess in the Black Palace on Saturday is a folio from Haf Pakir (Seven Portraits) of the Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami, created around 1141-1217, during the Tirmurid Period in what is now present-day Pakistan. The calligraphy was written by Maulana Azhar and illustrated using ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. The Haft Pakir (Seven Beauties, or Seven Portraits) is a romantic epic poem about the life of the Sasanian king Bahram Gur. The epic features seven princesses, all of whom are wedded to Bahram. On each day of the week, the king visited one princess, who would tell him a story attributed to the mood of her specific color of dress. This particular illustration depicts Bahram Gur’s visit on Saturday to the Indian princess, who lives in a black pavilion. The king and his bride wear dark robes patterned in gold, matching the black-domed palatial structure. They lounge and drink as female servants and performers attend to their every need. The illuminated golden text boxes are painted as part of the ornamental palace structure palace architecture. This work is significant in that it represents an Indian figure and a pre-Islamic Persian ruler. Here an upper-class woman represents India, while in The Elephant Clock it is symbolized by the Indian elephant and working class man. The featured Indian women is shown with light brown skin, slanted eyes, and a slender face. Her husband, a Tirmurid, has a rounded, fairer face than his wife. The Timurid dynasty were a Sunni Muslim dynasty and of Mongol lineage. Their aesthetic is distinct for depicting humans as round faced with slanted eyes, and for using extremely lavish geometric and floral patterns to decorate textiles, architecture, and manuscripts. They tend to depict their figures as fair skinned, thus it’s curious that they still show the Indian princess as darker.
The Mountains Between India and Tibet from Jami Al-Tavarikh also features an Indian figure. It was drawn between 1314-1315 A.D. using ink, paper and gold. The text was originally Persian, but later translated into Arabic (Adamjee). The paintings from this folio’s manuscript are typically narrow and horizontal in format. They draw reference from pre-Mongol Persian and Arabic texts, Chinese writing and art, and even Byzantine manuscripts. The artists of such manuscripts transformed existing models of manuscripts to create entirely new compositions. This synthesizing of styles would eventually influence the development of Ilkhanid painting.
The Mongolian man and Indian women are indicated by their dress, their countries divided symbolically by the river running from the mountains. In the Elephant Clock, the Arabic figures are also recognizable by their costume. While Mongolia is not directly represented by Al-Jazari, India is shown in the illustration. India was significant to Muslim empire for their trading of textiles, silks, spices and metals. The Mongolian figure hints at the later transformation of Muslim non-Mongols painted with Mongol features and costumes during the Mongol invasion. The artist depicts Mongolian clothes differently than other Arab styles. The man wears light white trousers and an open skirt with a dotted blue fabric with red stripes. His torso is wrapped in a large blue cloth. He wears a traditional pointed Mongolian hat with white beads, possibly indicating wealth. The depiction of Indian woman is influenced by the East Asian style of depicting fair-skinned, almond eyed women, her culture indicated by her red sari. Because of the Chinese influence, her appearance seems fairer and more East Asian than than the brown skinned Indian women in Bahram Gur. We see here different cultural interpretations of someone from the same region, indicated how cultural style and the era could dramatically effect the way people were depicted.
Greek Physician Erasistratos with an Assistant is featured in Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica of Dioscorides (1224 CE). Dioscorides, a Greek doctor, was considered the father of apothecary. The entire book contains 600 images depicting plants and animals with their titles written in several languages. The work is Greek only in it’s original authorship, but its origin isn’t reflected in the style of the illustration. The Greek figures are represented as Middle Eastern men. The two male figures are turbaned and wear clothes with distinctly Islamic floral designs. They occupy a space in the middle of the page, illustrated between lines of kufic script. This text was so influential that it was frequently referred to by Turkish and Islamic scientists in their own academic writing. In the 10th century, during the rule of ʻAbd al-Rahman III (891−961), the caliph of Cordova, the work was translated into Arabic. This version of the book was continuously edited until the final product was created in the 9th century, from which stemmed many copies. This final illustration and translation of the manuscript exemplifies the transfer of knowledge across centuries and different cultures. The influence of Greek invention is a critical part of The Elephant Clock’s functionality. The water clock system used by al-Jazari was supposedly first attributed to the Greeks. Muslims often repurposed the ancient techniques of the Greeks to advance their own empire, building upon previous medicinal and technological advancements.
The 14th-century Persian manuscript showing Genghis Khan and three of his four sons exemplifies the spread of Mongolian culture as they invaded Islamic territory. The inscription on the folio explains the history of the invasion, “In Jumada II 601 (January 1205), commenced auspiciously Genghis Khan arrayed his army and set out on a campaign against Qāshīn, the territory that is also called Tangqūt…” (The Library). The folio depicts the men with round faces, almond eyes, and the distinct pointed helmets of Mongolian warriors. Dress continues to play an important role in recognizing different culture, just as the Mongolian man in Mountains Between India and Tibet marks Mongolia as separate not only by the river but also by the figure’s distinct style of fashion. This folio is from History of the World (aka Jami’ al-Tawarikh) by Rashid al-Din, and is an expansive collection of ancient history. In 1314 it was produced in the city of Tabriz, which at the time was ruled by Ilkhanid rulers, descendants of the Mongol Chingiz Khan. At the time, the Mongols controlled Persia as well as most of present-day Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Arabic copy of Jami’ al-Tawarikh covers the history of the world up until the 1300s, including the history of the Mongols, Chinese, Franks and Indians (Saudi). The Jami’ al-Tawarikh manuscript demonstrates a fusion of stylistic techniques and imagery from multiple cultures. It was created in Persia, a center of trade and thus one of the multicultural capitols of the Muslim world. The collection of artists (some of whom where slaves) in Persian scriptoriums had a huge influence on cultural aesthetics and the integration of new styles into Muslim art. In The Elephant Clock, Persia is represented as a woven rug laid across the back of the Indian elephant. This carpet pays homage to Persia as a melting pot of culture, art, and literature.
This collection of folios, spanning across different dynasties and cultures, explores multicultural representation in Islamic works. Over the ages, invading forces, contact with traders, and an influx of artists taken from different regions has introduced new aesthetic styles and interpretations. What makes these manuscripts so fascinating it that the origin cultures are often still given recognition, even if the work is trying to follow a distinct aesthetic. People from across the Middle East and Central Asia are represented by their dress, their facial features, and by contextual clues purposely added to folio illustrations. The focal point of this multiculturalism is Al-Jazari’s The Elephant Clock, a culmination of all of the peoples to come into contact or culturally influence the Muslims. The Elephant Clock provides both animal representations and personifications of the peoples of Arabia, China, India, Persia and Egypt. The following works show how manuscripts represented different peoples by skin color, costuming, and other visual indicators of culture.The Elephant Clock pays homage to the multicultural influences that allowed the Muslim people to develop inventive, groundbreaking advancements in visual style. The success of Islam is attributed in part to such diversity, in turn exhibiting the ideals of tolerance proposed in the Quran.
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