Long before the fantasy of the robot, the production of mechanical devices in the form of moving animal or human figures was well documented in the Islamic lands. The knowledge of such works was transmitted from Greek and other sources, and may also represent aspects of continuity with late antique urban practice. As early as the eighth century a monumental water-clock featuring mechanical birds and snakes was apparently installed at one of the gates of the Friday Mosque of Damascus. In addition, the presence of such marvels features in accounts of pre-modern courts often in surprising contexts: at the court of the Zayyanid rulers of Tlemcen in North Africa, for example, the birth of the prophet Muhammad was celebrated by the performance of an automaton in the form of a clock with moving animals from which emerged a servant girl bearing a paper on which the hours of the day were versified.
As this suggest, mechanical devices could transform acts of labor into gestures of wonder for courtly entertainment. Mechanical marvels often featured subaltern or exotic figures, an aspect captured in Arabic manuals detailing the construction of such devices, which were sometimes heavily illustrated. Standing at the intersection between the histories of art and of science, such manuals also attest to the complex interrelations between the command of technology and the articulation of authority. The phenomenon continued into the early modern period, when European clocks featuring moving figures were imported to the Islamic lands, or sent as diplomatic gifts to Islamic courts.
In keeping with the theme of this semester’s lecture series, Body and Senses, this workshop brings together scholars whose work addresses aspects of the economy, technology, and transcultural reception of pre- and early modern mechanical devices and the knowledge and theory underlying their popularity from Anatolia and Egypt to Syria and Iraq.
12.30-12.35 Introduction, Finbarr Barry Flood, Silsila/NYU
12.35-1.00 George Saliba, Farouk K. Jabre Center for Arabic & Islamic Science & Philosophy, AUB & Columbia University, "Revisiting the Function of Mechanical Devices in Islamic Civilization"
1.00-1.25 Alessia Zubani, Excellence Research HASTEC, "The Maiden that Fooled the Poet: Exploring Mechanical Devices in the Medieval Islamicate World"
1.25- 1.50 Holley Ledbetter, University of Michigan "The Racialized Scentscape of Fatimid Automata"
1.50-2.15 Jessica Keating, Carleton College, "Diplomatic Stasis: German Automata at the Ottoman Court"
2.15-3.00 Questions and Discussions