Ibn Khalaf Al-Muradi’s Kitab Al-Asrar (Book of Secrets) is an 11th-century Andalusian Arabic manuscript describing how to construct several mechanical devices. Most of them have some sort of practical use, ranging from small clocks to an oscillating battering ram, but the first device in the manuscript is a strange toy. Operated by a series of pulleys and metal pans and channels that transfer water, it seems to have no function other than to animate the figures it showcases: a maiden at the door of her house, four gazelles drinking water, three snakes, and a young man within a well.
You can see a modern reconstruction of the device in this video, from 0:23-0:45.
The movements of the figures seem to tell this little tale:
A boy loves a girl and tries to pay her a secret visit. He hides in the well on her family’s property one night and calls out her name. When he does, there are four gazelles drinking from the nearby stream and the girl opens the door upon this lovely tableaux. But before the boy can climb out of the well to reach her, three venomous snakes rise up and frighten off the gazelles – and the girl. So the boy hides in the well again to wait for another chance to see his love. But the snakes keep coming again, and again, and again.
Or, from the girl’s side:
One night, a girl hears a boy calling her name. She comes to the door of her house and sees four gazelles drinking. But before she can investigate further, the gazelles rear up in fear – and she realises there are snakes and she shuts the door against them. Until the boy calls her name again. But before she can meet him, the snakes rear up and frighten – every time.
Either way it’s like a poem crafted into a machine. And by telling the story this way – through a machine rather than words – creates an interesting effect by emphasising repetition. The tragedy of this story is not a single failed meeting, but a perpetual failure of the young man and woman to connect. And they keep trying again! And getting thwarted over and over.
Sadly the book does not delve into what inspired the designer to create this machine. But I do wonder. Was there a real incident that he couldn’t get over? Is it a metaphor for one person facing repeated rejection in love (or too much fear to pursue love at all)? Is it about the danger of clandestine relationships? Or of outside forces interfering too much even when a couple are willing…?