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Ismail al-Jazari: The Muslim inventor who may have inspired Leonardo da Vinci

Uncover the story of the 12th century polymath who laid the groundwork for modern engineering, hydraulics and robotics.

View from above of a combination lock
Waqas Ahmed (s'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) (The Khalili Collections)

After centuries of being side-lined by scholars, it is now widely acknowledged that scientists, artists and philosophers in Renaissance Europe were informed and inspired greatly by the works of their preceding Muslim counterparts. Not only did the latter play a crucial role in preceding much of Western classical invention and thought, but they also made countless ground-breaking discoveries of their own.

The Khalili Collections is home to some of the world’s most important objects from across 1400 years of Islamic culture. Its decades of research and exhibitions have helped spotlight the creative output of Islamic civilisation and its influence on the West.

Ismail al-Jazari

One of the most fascinating cases is that of the 12th/13th century inventor-artist Ismail al-Jazari, who not only laid the groundwork for modern engineering, hydraulics, and robotics, but recorded his designs in a manner that would excite any enthusiast of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. In fact, it is often claimed they may have inspired Leonardo himself.

Al Jazari worked at the court of the Artuqids in Diyarbakir (in the Mesopotamian region of Jazira), where he became chief engineer. He completed his magnum opus shortly before his death in 1206, in which he recorded 100 beautifully illustrated ingenious devices. These ranged from water-raising machines and clocks to musical robots.

He operated at a time when innovation in science, art and philosophy in the Islamic world was at its peak. The chemistry of Jabir Ibn Haiyan and the mathematics of Al Khwarizmi were already leading to breakthroughs across and beyond the vast lands of Islam. Hisown contemporaries included the great philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Arabi. In fact, Al-Jazari acknowledged the debt his work owed to those that came before him.

Averroes and Pythagoras, detail of the fresco The School of Athens by Raphael
Ibn Al Arabi manuscript, ink on paper

The Surviving Commission

In 1206, Al Jazari’s Book of Knowledge became available to wealthy patrons who commissioned works based on its designs. Sadly, very few of these early commissions are known to have survived the decades.

One of Al Jazari’s well-known inventions was the first ever four-dial combination lock for a chest or casket. Only five caskets from the early 13th century with such a four-dial combination lock on the lid are known to still exist. One of those, arguably the most resplendent, was created in the early 13th century at the maestro’s birthplace in Jazira and is held at the Khalili Collections.

The lid has four dials, each with 16 letters in abjadi (numerical value) order and pointers which can still be turned, although the lock mechanism is now missing.

The combination lock on the Khalili chest, as on the other known examples in the group, mirrors Al Jazari’s design in the Book of Knowledge almost precisely. In the book, he sketches a chest with four combination lock dials in the four corners of the lid, each using sixteen out of the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet, representing numbers, in a system known as Abjad numerals. Interestingly, a key trademark of Al Jazari’s lock is the use of letters without a diacritical mark – a point, or sign added to a letter to distinguish it from another similar letter. This is clearly the case on the beautifully preserved dials in the Khalili example.

The Khalili chest is decorated with silver-inlaid scenes depicting courtly pursuits and Christian motifs. Given the period and location of this casket – as well as the intricacy of the artisanship – it is reasonable to assume that it was commissioned by a wealthy Christian patron after Al Jazari’s design. While other examples remain unpublished, and scant information is available about others in the group, the Khalili chest may be the only one bearing decorations which relate directly to Christianity.

View from above of a combination lock

Leonardo da Vinci

The impact of Muslim scientists on Leonardo in general can be seen both implicitly and explicitly throughout his notebooks. His studies into geometric proportions were evidently informed by Thabit ibn Qurra, his work on optics by Ibn Al Haytham (Alhazen) and on mathematics by Al Kindi. More evidently, Leonardo references Ibn Sina (Avicenna) on multiple occasions in his anatomical investigations. In fact, one can even find scribbled on one of his folios what appears to be the head of a Middle Eastern scholar.

Leonardo sought out the patronage of Muslim rulers, such as Ottoman Sultan (Bajazid II)/ He petitioned him with the proposition of several ingenious designs, one of them being a fantastic bridge which would connect Europe and Asia, known today as the Galata Bridge in Turkey.

His appreciation of Muslim scientific innovation, together with his perpetual fascination with mechanical design meant that he must have been familiar with the work of the great canon of Muslim inventors and engineers. The methods of early Islamic inventors such as Abbas Ibn Firnas (who, incidentally, is said to have first attempted human flight, predating Leonardo by half a millennia), the 9th century Banu Musa brothers and the 11th century Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi, were all known to have been celebrated and acknowledged among scholars across Renaissance Europe. It is therefore not much of a leap to think of Leonardo as being astounded and inspired by the thoughts of such a kindred spirit as Al-Jaziri.

One could imagine how Leonardo would have been truly inspired by the fact that Al Jazari illustrated his designs with such artistic flare. Here was a fellow scientific polymath and inventor who developed a visually magnificent way of recording and presenting his designs, letting the wilds of his scientific imagination run free, just like Leonardo had dreamed of doing himself.

Despite Leonardo being by far the most prolific inventor and notetaker of the Italian Renaissance (his work covering over 12000 folios), unfortunately most of his designs were not built to survive to the modern day. But perhaps one could say this was part of the point – like Al-Jaziri, the purpose of designing and depicting such elaborate machines was to push the limits of human imagination and ingenuity. It was a way to dream. And it is this instinct of bold, relentless creativity that binds the greatest thinkers and creators in human history.