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by Archaeology Newsroom

Wonder Machines from the Orient

The medieval Byzantine and European history of technology is closely related to technological developments in the Islamic world. A crucial factor of these relations is the multi-layer antagonism between Arab Muslim states and Byzantium. The development of technologies of amazement and wonder was a strategy that apparently played an important role in this political and military rivalry. As a political weapon such devices were installed in reception halls of palaces. Although no archaeological evidence has survived so far, we do have Byzantine and Arabic reports concerning palace automata. Only Arabic sources mention automata in reception ceremonies in Baghdad, whereas the oldest ambassador reception in a Byzantine palace hall decorated with automata is reported in an Arabic source. This text, however, is not reliable, since it is rather a narrative influenced by Arabic imagery than a realistic description. There is more evidence and a lot of controversy as regards the Arabic origin of such devices. The Arabic technical term hiyal implied an ingenious or tricky structure often related to an artificial wonder. Most probably both Arabic hiyal and Byzantine automata originate from the Greek-Roman late antiquity. Famous Arab authors like the brothers Banu Musa (9h cent. ad) and Al Jazari (12th-13th cent. ad) present devices similar to those conceived by Heron (1st cent. ad) or refer to Greek scholars such as Archimedes (3rd cent. B.C.) and develop further ingenious devices. Some of them, like the water-raising machines, are explicitly related to large-scale use and can be still found operating in Arab countries. The effect of amazement has apparently entered the connotation of these mechanical constructions, since even in Arabic cosmographies of the fourteenth century they are most often mentioned as (technological) wonders.