Fantastic Fountains and Where to Find Them: A Re-examination of the Textual and Material Evidence on Liquid Architecture from the Medieval Islamicate World

In: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World
Federica A. Broilo Adjunct professor of Islamic art, Università degli Studi di Urbino Carlo Bo Urbino Italy

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Tracking the circulation and exchange of ideas, models, and technology in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages allows for easier comparison between cultural systems, and although different, were not kept in sealed boxes. This is undoubtedly the case with zoomorphic fountains in Byzantium and the Islamicate Mediterranean. Much has been written on the history of fountains from varying perspectives, resulting in literature that is comprehensive and diverse. However, this contribution uniquely employs sources never used before, including poetry, tales from The Arabian Nights, and other fantastic literature, to understand better fountains and their zoomorphic fountainheads, and present a fresh perspective on the subject.


Tracking the circulation and exchange of ideas, models, and technology in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages allows for easier comparison between cultural systems, and although different, were not kept in sealed boxes. This is undoubtedly the case with zoomorphic fountains in Byzantium and the Islamicate Mediterranean. Much has been written on the history of fountains from varying perspectives, resulting in literature that is comprehensive and diverse. However, this contribution uniquely employs sources never used before, including poetry, tales from The Arabian Nights, and other fantastic literature, to understand better fountains and their zoomorphic fountainheads, and present a fresh perspective on the subject.

1 Introduction

Much has also been written in recent times about the use of water and the architecture related to it, especially in the medieval Mediterranean concerning the study of garden history. This study, far from definitive, aims to add to the existing literature on the subject by questioning the viability of using alternative sources such as fantastic literature for the study of art history, or in this specific case, for the study of zoomorphic fountainheads found today in museums and private collections worldwide. Bearing in mind the problems related to using this type of literature, my research seeks to provide a comprehensive picture of the context when these artifacts were used without forgetting to draw on parallels with the Byzantine world. A detailed comparison of sources and artifacts has allowed us to conclude that some of the descriptions considered purely fantastic are perhaps more truthful than we thought.

The starting point for this research was a passage from a tale in The Arabian Nights that drew my attention. It was included at the beginning of the story in the Twenty-First Night (the critical edition of The Arabian Nights from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, edited by Muhsin Mahdi) and describes a palace (actually a grand residence or castle) with a spacious courtyard surrounded by four alcoves and a fountain in the center. The fountain is noted for four golden lions emitting water from their mouths, which seemingly were made of gems and pearls.

There are several noteworthy elements, including the material used to produce the fountains, namely red gold, which would be the very element giving the beasts in the story a fantastic appearance. Although there are numerous fountain heads (even lion-shaped) preserved in private collections and museums, there are none made from this precious material. The generally accepted theory is that these precious objects (if they existed) were melted or destroyed and so simply did not survive. Indeed, in the Byzantine context, for example, we have stories confirming this kind of tradition, but given the number of zoomorphic figures made from copper-alloy (or “bronze” as it is usually noted in art history books and museums) and other materials, the red gold we find in abundance throughout fantastic literature and other historical sources probably was not gold.

After analyzing various sources, including fantastic literature, poetry, and contemporary historical texts, these were also compared with surviving examples from Byzantine literature to produce a more comprehensive picture. Additionally, a limited number of well-known objects were taken into consideration and compared with the above-mentioned texts. This kind of comparison between literary sources and material culture has provided a better grasp of certain topos in medieval Arabic literature, namely, understanding how water sprayed from the mouths of these fountains can be associated with gems and pearls.

2 The Arabian Nights: A Possible Source for Art History?

The Arabian Nights (also known as The Thousand and One Nights) are undeniably a very controversial source rarely used by historians. Problems related to their content, early history, and origin have challenged scholars for several generations. After their appearance in the Western world during the twelfth/eighteenth century, they have been often relegated to the realm of fairytales, and their use as reliable sources of information discouraged. However, can the work really be that problematic? Robert Irwing, the author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, underlines that there are particular problems in studying such a body of fiction: part literature and part folklore, partaking of the characteristics of both written and oral culture (Irwing, 1994: p. 215).

The oldest known surviving fragment of The Arabian Nights was found in Egypt but originated probably in Syria during the third/ninth century. It was discovered in 1949 by Nadia Abbott, who at once understood the importance of the finding and quickly ensured its publication (Abbot, 1949). Initially published in 265/879 on two-joint folia of light brown paper with fine texture, it also contains six miscellaneous pieces, e.g., the draft of a letter and some legal testimony. The two folia constitute a flyleaf, originally blank, and the first folio of The Arabian Nights. The latter consists of the title page with five lines: “A Book, of tales from a Thousand Nights, There is neither strength nor power except in God the, Highest, the Mightiest,” while the first page of text contains sixteen fragmentary lines describing how Dinazad asks Shirazad to tell her stories (Abbot, 1949: pp. 130–3).

The earliest mention of The Arabian Nights appears in the Kitab al-Fihrist (376/986) of Ibn al-Nadīm (Irwin, 1994: p. 49). Compiled in fourth/tenth-century Baghdad, it was an encyclopedic index of books. To quote the author, “it was a catalog of books of all people, Arab and foreign, existing in the language of the Arabs, as well as of their scripts, dealing with various sciences” (Dodge, 1970: p. 1). In chapter eight, Ibn al-Nadīm refers to The Arabian Nights as the Arabic translation of a Persian book, the Hezār Afsān, meaning “The Thousand Stories.” However, according to the Fihrist, this version contained only 200 tales (Irwing, 1994: pp. 49–50). In the same century al-Masʿūdī (255–346/869–956), in his monumental encyclopedia, Murūj al-dhahab wa maʿādin al-jawāhir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems), also refers to the Persian Hezār Afsān, explaining that while the Arabic translation is called Alf Khurafa (A Thousand Entertaining Tales), it is generally known as Alf Layla (A Thousand Nights).1

In 1958, Shelomo Goitein found among the documents in the Cairo Geniza the earliest use of the full title, The Thousand and One Nights, in the notebook of a sixth/twelfth-century Jewish book dealer.2 As Daniel Newman rightly noted, it’s not very easy to make any statements about what exactly happened to The Arabian Nights between the third/tenth and ninth/fifteenth centuries. Nevertheless, based on currently available evidence, it can be safely assumed that there was a more or less stable “core” to which an unstable collection of stories was progressively added through various compilations (Newman, 2019: p. 75).

The history of the manuscript is one confusing tale. Coincidentally, the oldest manuscript surviving of The Arabian Nights (except the fragment mentioned above dating to the third/ninth century) is a three-volume manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France known as MSS Arabes 3609–11 (Fig. 1). The text can be dated to the late-ninth/fifteenth century, not from the eighth/fourteenth century as earlier scholars believed, and served as the basis for the first seven volumes of Antoine Galland’s translation into French, published between 1704–17. Until the translation into French by Galland during the twelfth/eighteenth century, The Arabian Nights were practically unknown in Europe, although individual stories had been included in medieval and Renaissance story collections (Irwing, 1994: p. 43).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Two pages from the oldest known Arabic manuscript of The Thousand and One Nights. (MSS Arabes 3609–11) Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

The earliest printed copies of The Arabian Nights in Arabic are the Shirwance text of 1814–18 (known as Calcutta I), Breslau text of 1824–43, Bulaq text (printed in the Bulaq suburbs of Cairo, 1835), and the Macnaghten text of 1832–42 (commonly known as Calcutta II) (Irwing, 1994: p. 21). The first edition, Calcutta I, is an indiscriminate copy-and-paste of stories from a late Syrian manuscript and a work containing classical anecdotes (Haddawy, 1990: p. xvıı). The Breslau edition was initially claimed to be based on a Tunisian manuscript of The Arabian Nights sent by a certain Mordecai ibn al-Najjar, but in actuality, this proved to be a fabrication (Haddawy, 1990: p. xvıı). The Bulaq text is also based on a later Egyptian manuscript (twelfth/eighteenth century, now thought to be lost), but the language was amended, corrected, and improved by the editor Abd a-Rahman al-Safti al-Sharqawi, thus compromising the original text (Haddawy, 1990: p. xvıı). Calcutta II was based on a twelfth/eighteenth-century Egyptian manuscript copied in 1829, with corrections and interpolations in the substance and the style, according to the first Calcutta and Breslau editions (Haddawy, 1990: p. xvıı). In 1984, Muḥsin Mahdī published the critical edition of the MSS Arabes 3609–11, the Syrian manuscript of The Arabian Nights from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Mahdī believed that Galland’s manuscript contained nearly all of what was available in the Mamluk period, some forty stories told over 282 nights and recorded in Syria. Afterwards, in Egypt, more stories were added to meet consumer demand, possibly equaling the number of nights in the title (Irwin, 1994: p. 57).

Despite having been wrongly relegated to fairytales, The Arabian Nights are a valuable source on the history of the Middle East in the medieval and early modern world. For one, Patrice Coussonnet uses a story from The Arabian Nights, “ʿAli the Cairene,” as the basis of his study on ninth/fifteenth-century Mamluk Cairo (Coussonnet, 1989). More recently, Irmeli Perho has used other tales to interpret daily life in the Mamluk period (Perho, 1999). At the end of the article, Perho admits that The Arabian Nights is certainly a valuable source but must be used carefully (Perho, 1999: p. 161). Consequently, when used together with other archeological and historical materials, the stories are a never-ending source of information for Middle Eastern history.

Could the architectural details described in the stories provide insights beneficial to art historians? In the introduction of his Italian translation of The Arabian Nights, Francesco Gabrieli seems categoric in his judgment and considers all the descriptions of castles, gardens, parks, and pavilions devoid of any documentary value. In his opinion, the descriptions are “mannered and often imaginative” and as much “real” as those portrayed in Western fairytales (Gabrieli ed., 2013: p. 27). Conversely, shouldn’t fairytales reveal details about the society of their intended audience? After all, through telling and retelling, The Arabian Nights were modified, conforming to the general life and customs of Arab societies that adopted them. If they can be used for social history, is it correct to dismiss them entirely in art history?

In his Culturgeschichte des Orients Unter der Chalifen, Alfred Von Kremer used the description of a fountain adorned with lion spouts from the tale “The Fisherman and the Jinn” to assume that these fountains were standard equipment in a wealthy household of caliphal Baghdad (Bargebuhr, 1956: pp. 235–6). This statement was deemed wrong by Frederick Bargebuhr, who labelled it as “fairytale motifs to keep up the spirit of the boon, echo of fabulous rumour in distant lands and bygone days” (Bargebuhr, 1956: pp. 235–6). Even if Von Kremer might have been wrong in considering caliphal Baghdad as the story’s actual setting, I believe that Bargebuhr and Gabrieli have been equally too quick in dismissing all the architectural descriptions contained in The Arabian Nights as fairytale motifs (Fig. 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2

Fountain of the Lions, the Alhambra, Granada; detail of the marble lions

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© photo by the author (2018)

A major problem was deciding which texts to cite for this study. After much deliberation, I decided to consult Muḥsin Mahdī’s critical edition of the MSS Arabes 3609–11, the Syrian manuscript of The Arabian Nights from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Mahdī, 1984). The Arabic text was then compared with Husain Haddawy’s English translation (Haddawy, 1990), and eventually, the extracts quoted in this article are from his work unless otherwise noted. Even though the Syrian manuscript is the oldest found, I added passages from more recent editions, despite their disputed authenticity, since the Syrian version edited by Mahdī only contains 282 nights. For this reason, I also have included texts from Malcolm Lyons’ translation (Lyons, 2010) based on the Macnaghten text (or Calcutta II) and Francesco Gabrieli’s translation (Gabrieli ed., 2013) based on the Bulaq edition, collated with Calcutta II.

The following is the first excerpt appearing in The Arabian Nights with reference to a zoomorphic fountain. It is discussed in a sub-story titled “The Tale of the Enchanted King” within the overall story “The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon” (Mahdī, 1984: vol. I, p. 113). In short, the story recalls a sultan journeying to a faraway land and intent on solving a great mystery concerning some colorful fishes. Upon arriving at the destination, he finds himself in front of an enchanted castle that seems to be uninhabited.

The palace was furnished with silk carpets and leather mats and hung with drapes. There were also settees, benches, and seats with cushions, as well as cupboards. In the middle[,] there stood a spacious courtyard, surrounded by four adjoining recessed courts facing each other. In the center stood a fountain, on top of which crouched four lions in red gold, spouting water from their mouths in droplets that looked like gems and pearls, and above the fountain[,] singing birds fluttered under a high net to prevent them from flying away.

Haddawy, 1990: p. 65

This was furnished with silks, starry tapestries, and other hangings, but there was no one there. In the centre was an open space, leading to four halls. There was a stone bench, and one hall next to another, then an ornate fountain and four lions of red gold, from whose mouths water poured, glittering like pearls or gems. Round and about were birds[,] and over the top of the palace, there was a net of gold that kept them from flying away.

Lyons, 2010: vol. I, p. 40

The floor was covered with carpets, and in the center, there was a basin in which four red gold lions emitted a jet of water similar to pearls and precious stones from their mouths; inside[,] there were birds, which a net placed above the castle prevented them from going out.

Gabrieli ed., 2013: p. 90

The three descriptions above are quite similar, although maybe unsurprisingly, the oldest version is the most detailed. The castle-palace is described as having a central courtyard with four alcoves (iwan) and in the middle a fountain (shadirwan), containing four crouching lions made of red gold (al-dhahab al-aḥmar). The lions are not only aesthetic, they spout water from their mouths into the fountain, with each droplet of water resembling jewels and pearls. This is an important detail that should not simply be considered a literary motif, as we will see later. In short, are these descriptions a figment of the narrator’s imagination, or are they based on real-life examples?

3 North African Lions

The first comparable example is located in North Africa and can be found at the Qalʿa of Beni Hammad, Algeria, near the modern city of Bishara, and about 200 km southeast of the capital Algiers. In September 1971, Rachid Bourouiba discovered a basin in the shape of a four-lobed square from the court of Qaṣr al-Manār in the Qalʿa of Beni Hammad (Bourouiba, 1971: p. 235). The qalʿa is one of the oldest and best-preserved fortified complexes from medieval Islamic civilization. Situated at an altitude of 1000 m on the southern slope of Mount Maadid at the northern limit of the plains of Hodna, it is surrounded by mountains. The site had probably been chosen because of its strategic military position (and to benefit from the passing overland caravan routes). Founded by Ḥammād ibn Buluqqīn ibn Zīrī in 397–8/1007–8, it was destroyed by the Almohads in 547/1152.

The qalʿa was the capital of the Hammadian dynasty for nearly 150 years before declining (Golvin, 2000: pp. 334–45). Its brief apogee came in the period between the Hilalian Arabs’ invasion and the decision of the Fatimid imam-caliph al-Manṣūr (r. 483–98/1090–1105) to open an outlet reaching the sea at Bijaya. Eventually, roads and trade routes became dangerous, and there was an increasing decline in trade and agriculture. The lack of security within the internal territories increased the importance of trade by sea, which made the port of Bijaya the most important economic center in the kingdom, to the detriment of the qalʿa. Eventually, in 459/1067, al-Nāṣir (r. 497–515/1104–21) moved the court to Bijaya, which he named An-Nāṣirīya, and he built a splendid palace: the Qaṣr al-Lūlūa or Palace of the Pearl. From 481–558/1088–1163, the decadence of Hammadite power was marked by the rapid decline of qalʿa in favor of the new capital Bijaya (Amara, 2001: pp. 91–110).

The new qalʿa covered a large walled area of almost 150 ha with a bazaar, mosque, monumental minaret, and several hammams and palaces. The most famous residences are the Dār al-Bahr, Qaṣr al-Manār, and Qaṣr al-Salām (Bloom: 2020: pp. 88–93). In 1887, Paul Blanchet carried out the earliest archeological survey of the site (Blanchet, 1897: pp. 467–9). The first methodic excavation was a three-month archeological campaign undertaken by Léon de Beylié and Georges Marçais in 1908 (De Beylié: 1909). Lucien Golvin resumed the excavations at the qalʿa through a series of campaigns during 1951–6. Although work was interrupted by the Algerian War of Independence, it continued between 1960–2 (Golvin, 1962: pp. 391–401; 1965). Between 1962–75, archeological work at the site was led by Rachid Bourouiba (Bourouiba: 1975), and incredibly during the 1971 season, a fountain was discovered in a building on the western side of Qaṣr al-Manār. This palace formed part of a series constructed by al-Manṣūr, then prince heir to al-Nāṣir (454–81/1062–88). The building is organized around a square courtyard paved with marble, and in the center is a stone basin decorated with lion figures and geometrical patterns. It is surrounded by a gallery adorned with green and white ceramic tiles, serving various rooms: in the north, a room with a niche bordered by two columns (hall of honor, perhaps an iwan), in the south, a small oratory with partially preserved stucco decoration, including epigraphical friezes with a Quranic inscription (Fig. 3). The decor, the presence of a [prayer] niche, and its position led to the conclusion that it was a private oratory reserved for the Hammadid prince – the fountain with its basin likely was used for ablutions.3

Figure 3
Figure 3

Building to the west of Qaṣr al-Manār in the Qalʿa of Beni Hammad, Algeria; (1972, Marilyn Jenkins-Madina Archive, Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

The basin has the shape of a truncated pyramid surmounted by a low-height parallelepiped figure. The external lateral faces are not decorated, unlike the basin’s interior, where four rectangular niches are adorned with lions. The lions’ bodies are depicted in profile with the four limbs, ribs, and tails carved in bas-relief, while the heads are viewed from a frontal perspective. The carved lions did not serve an exclusively ornamental purpose but functioned as waterspouts. During the 1960s, Golvin reported finding a gray marble slab sculpted with fishes and a zig-zag pattern typical of the shadīrwāns used in the salsabil fountains (Golvin, 1965: pp. 122–7; pl. 43: 1–2). A classic salsabil fountain consists of a waterspout in the back wall of an alcove or iwan with an inclined marble slab called shadīrwān. The water flows through a long and thin channel running through the middle of the iwan to a pool in the center of the courtyard (Tabbaa, 1987: p. 34). Even though the evidence does not indicate the shadīrwān recovered by Golvin was part of this lion fountain, enough visual evidence remains to support the hypothesis that this basin originally formed part of a salsabil. Also found in the qalʿa is a fountain waterspout in the form of a lion (inv. IS.244), today in the National Museum of Satif, Algeria. Carved from a block of ochre stone, it measures 12.5 cm high, 25.5 cm wide, and 10.5 cm deep (Fig. 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4

Lion fountainhead (IS.244); ochre in color, sculpted in stone as if lying on four legs from the Qalʿa of Beni Hammad, Algeria; National Museum of Sétif; 406–547/1015–1152; H 12.5 cm; L 25.5 cm; W 10.5 cm

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© Museum with no Frontiers (MWNF)

After comparing these finds from the qalʿa with a painted representation of a salsabil on the ceiling panels of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo (building completed 537/1143), we can recognize several correlations (Kapitaikin, 2011: vol. I, pp. 451–63). All the elements are related: the shadīrwān with the sculpted zig-zag decoration, the quatrefoil carved marble basin, and the fountainhead in the shape of a lion. A similar combination has been discovered in the excavations of Fustat by ʿAly Bahgat and Albert Gabriel (Bahgat and Gabriel 1921). Bahgat and Gabriel recovered several lion-head stone waterspouts which may have been used within such devices, and a shadīrwān was actually recovered in situ within the salsabil of Maison VI. (Bahgat and Gabriel, 1921: p. 62, fig. 21). This combination appears to have been very successful throughout the Fatimid period until the Mamluks.4 In fact, the endowment deed (waqf) for the zawiya and sabil of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq (788–815/1386–1412) in Cairo describes a later device similar in detail:

inside the sābil room on the right is a gilded shādhurwān with a gilded salsabīl. [112] Above the shādhurwān there is an arched niche covered by colored marble mosaics, colored segmented marble, amazing decorations, and sil profiles. There are some lions [113] made of gold-plated bronze that are used for having the water flow over the shādhurwān; and at the bottom of said shādhurwān is a white alabaster basin for [collecting] the water.

Lamei Mostafa, 1989: p. 40

Returning to fifth/eleventh-century Algeria, the qalʿa remained the capital of the Hammadid dynasty until 484/1091, when al-Manṣūr transferred his court to Bijaya. Nonetheless, it remained an important city, even after losing its capital status and role as the “economic hub of the central Maghreb.” Unlike the palaces in the qalʿa, the palace of al-Manṣūr at Bijaya is known only through documentary sources. It was described in the verses of the Dīwān by the Sicilian poet Ibn Ḥamdīs (448–527/1056–1133). He praised the palaces built by al-Manṣūr in two separate qasāʾid: CCCXIV and CCCXLVI in the Italian translation of Schiaparelli (Ibn Ḥamdīs, 1998). However, only one of the two poems clearly refers to the palace at Bijaya (Description of a palace built by al-Manṣūr in Bijaya), while the other alludes to other palaces at the qalʿa (Praise of al-Manṣūr). In one poem, he mentions “the banks of a basin where there are lions who humble themselves to the prince’s might.” (Ibn Ḥamdīs, 1998: p. 396). This part seems to describe lions crouching rather than standing. The palace at Bijaya also has a fountain with crouching lions spouting water like crystals, and when hit by sunlight, the golden color of their bodies mimicked fire. Basically, it was red-gold, similarly to lions from “The Tale of the Enchanted King” discussed above. There are other tales from the Syrian manuscript of The Arabian Nights mentioning “red-gold” as the preferred material for a fountain. One good example comes from “The Christian Broker’s Tale: the Young Man with Severed Hand and the Girl” contained in “The Story of the King of China’s Hunchback’s” cycle (Mahdī, 1985: vol. I, p. 297). The protagonist of the story enters a house in the Habbaniya quarter of Cairo:

I walked through the hallway and came to a hall, raised seven steps above the ground and surrounded by windows, overlooking a garden that delighted the eye with running streams and all kinds of fruits and birds. In the middle of the hall, there was a square fountain at whose corners stood four snakes made of red-gold, spouting water, as if it were jewels and pearls.

Haddawy, 1990: p. 267

This passage is particularly significant because the house described is not a sultan’s palace in some fantasy kingdom. Instead, it depicts the house of a syndic named Barqut Abu-Shamah in Cairo. A house containing a fountain (fisqiya) with four snakes made of red gold (al-dhahab al-aḥmar) does not appear frequently in The Arabian Nights. The Syrian manuscript features two cases mentioned above where it is used as a material for zoomorphic fountains (lions and snakes). It also appears six other times in reference to doors (2), masonry coverings (1), ornaments (1), saddles (1), and tables (1). This is rather insignificant compared to the number of instances when gold (75) is mentioned or silver (27). Interestingly, only two zoomorphic fountains mentioned in the Syrian manuscript have animals made of red-gold. Nevertheless, further use of red-gold in relation to fountains appears in later versions of the Arabian Nights. In “The History of Gharib and His Brother Ajib,” the two protagonists, Marʾash and Gharib, reach the fantastic Carnelian City and enter the Golden Palace: “then, when they got to the palace itself, they found four recessed rooms, no one of which resembled another, and in the middle of the palace was a fountain of red gold, above which stood statues of lions with water flowing from their mouths, as well as other astounding sights” (Lyons, 2010: vol. II, p. 720).

Muraash and Gharíb entered the palace and marveled at its beauty. Going from place to place, they passed through seven vestibules and, when they reached the interior of the building, they found themselves in front of four arcades, each of which was different from the other. In the center of the building, there was a fountain of red gold on which there were effigies of lions in gold, from whose mouths the water flowed.

Gabrieli ed., 2003: p. 1804

Much like in “The Tale of the Enchanted King” discussed above, our protagonists enter an open space, a courtyard surrounded by four iwans, and at the center stands a fountain of red gold with lion waterspouts. The lions are not a prerogative of The Arabian Nights, having appeared in the poetry of Ibn Ḥamdīs, but there are other examples. Almost contemporary to descriptions of the palaces built for al-Manṣūr are the verses of another Sicilian poet, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad al-Buthayrī dedicated to the palace of Roger II in Palermo:

behold the royal palace, where joy has taken up its abode;
marvelous dwelling, on which God has bestowed perfect beauty!
Behold the theatre shining on every structure of architecture,
the superb gardens, in which the world has come into flower,
the lions of its fountain, that pour forth waters of Paradise.
Ruta, 2001: p. 47

More recently, two lions of white marble have been re-discovered in the Sala dei Venti, within the Torre Gioaria in Palermo. Dating to the sixth/twelfth century, the two lions might represent the only surviving part of the fountain from the Aula Verde, also mentioned by the chroniclers of the Norman period. The pierced head should correspond to a pipe allowing water through the mouth. These can be associated artistically with the twelve famous lions from the Alhambra fountain in Granada. Similarly, the Hammadite lions from Qaṣr al-Manār and the examples from Palermo and Granada are all carved in stone. Intriguingly, in Qaṣr al-Manār, they are sculpted in bas relief and placed within the basin, while those from Palermo and Granada are free-standing figures. However, based on the location of the water conduits, the latter two most likely supported a basin and were not placed above. Nevertheless, their stone construction makes it difficult to connect them to the fountains in The Arabian Nights. The material and the position of the lion waterspouts do not correspond to those described in the tales. This is probably why Bargebuhr dismissed the fountains of The Arabian Nights as fairytale motifs. Additionally, the fantastic animals from these fountains are made of red-gold, not stone, they are positioned at the edge of the pool or basin, and finally, they pour water into the pool.

4 Fantastic Fountains and Where to Find Them

When it comes to fountains, it’s impossible not to mention the example that once stood in the Umayyad Palace of al-Nāṣir, Madinat al-Zahrāʾ. Described in detail by Ibn Ḥayyān (377–467/987–1075) in his Kitāb al-muqtabis fī taʾrīkh rijāl al-Andalus and quoted by al-Maqqarī (985–1041/1577–1632), it notes:

among the wonders of Az-zahrā, says Ibn Hayyān, were two fountains, with their basins, so extraordinary in their shape and so valuable for their exquisite workmanship, that, in the opinion of that writer, they constituted the principal ornament of the palace. […] As to the small one, which was of green marble, it was brought from Syria by the said Ahmed, although others assert that it came likewise from Constantinople with Rabi’. […] The smaller one, above all, appears to have been a real wonder of art. It was brought from place to place until it reached the seashore[,] when it was put on board a vessel and conveyed to Andalus. When the Caliph received it, he ordered it to be placed in the dormitory of the eastern hall called al-Mūnis, and he fixed on it twelve figures made of red-gold, and set with pearls and other precious stones. The figures, which were all made in the arsenal of Cordova, represented various animals; as for instance, one was the likeness of a lion, having on one side an antelope, and on the other, a crocodile; opposite to these stood an eagle and a dragon; and on the two wings of the group a pigeon, a falcon, a peacock, a hen, a cock, a kite, and a vulture. They, moreover, were all ornamental with jewels, and the water poured out from their mouths.

Maqqarī, 1964: p. 236

The fountain described by Ibn Ḥayyān is relevant for several reasons. Firstly, the Umayyad caliph al-Nāṣir had it decorated with twelve figurines pouring water from their mouths. The figurines were made in Cordova for this specific fountain, and each had been in the shape of a different animal. However, the most striking detail is that the figurines mentioned were made of red gold, alike the lions and snakes in the fantastic fountains from The Arabian Nights. In Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, Renata Holod explains that no golden or silvered animal spouts from Umayyad Spain are extant today (Holod, 1992: p. 46). The same could be said for Fatimid Egypt and Syria. Equally, with most metal sculptures from antiquity, one can assume that the majority did not survive and eventually were melted. We know, for instance, that in Constantinople, the emperor Michael III melted a golden tree with chanting birds, two golden lions, and two golden griffins, for a total of 20,000 lbs. of gold to mint new coins (Mango, 1972: p. 161, n. 49).

Nonetheless, scattered throughout various private collections and museums are a number of zoomorphic copper-alloy sculptures classified as fountainheads, which once adorned grand residences, palaces, and even churches in Byzantium, Fatimid Egypt and Syria, and Umayyad Spain.5 Among the objects were both realistic and fantastic animals, including deer, gazelles, griffins, hares, and lions, whose symbolical meaning would have been clear to the contemporary audience. These artifacts, despite differences in hydraulic systems, shapes, and sizes (as discussed below), have a common denominator, they were forged in copper-alloy.

In one of his notes to the Italian translation of The Arabian Nights, Gabrieli explains that the text makes use of the wording “red-gold,” distinguishing it from “white-gold,” the common denomination for “platinum” (Gabrieli ed., 2013: p. 1603). In Ibn Ḥamdīs’ verses about the Hammadid palaces, or in the description of Madinat al-Zahrāʾ of Ibn Ḥayyān, the zoomorphic spouts are composed of red-gold (al-dhahab al-aḥmar). The same red-gold is utilized in the fountains from The Arabian Nights. However, is this red-gold a mere artifice, an embellishment, a pure literary topos repeated by historians, poets, and storytellers? Anna Contadini has recently noted that the wording “red-gold” might refer to gilded bronze since some of the recovered bronze sculptures were undoubtedly gilded (Contadini, 2020: p. 215). The best example is a relatively small sculpture (1943/41L1) in the form of a deer from the Archeological Museum of Madrid known as the MAN deer (Contadini, 2020: p. 217, fig. 3; Gómez Moreno, 1951: p. 336). The animal is datable to the second half of the fourth/tenth century and measures 32.3 cm in height and 31.5 cm in length. This sculpture probably served as a fountain waterspout because, apart from the legs, its body is hollow, and the underside is pierced, allowing water to pass through and cascade from the mouth. Its elaborate gilded decoration could certainly have misled the viewer, who might have mistaken it for gold. However, a problem remains – this technique would have given the artifact a golden appearance, not necessarily identifiable with the red-gold or al-dhahab al-aḥmar found in fantastic narratives and poetry.

When we look at medieval “bronzes” from al-Andalus and Egypt, the commonality among them is their usually dark green patina. Originally, polished bronze had a beautiful golden red coloring, but when oxidized, it can chemically change, leaving a green (with variations) colored surface area. While the majority of the medieval Islamic figures exist today with a green patina, a few have survived with their original red-gold coloring. This is the case, for example, with the Fatimid “bronze” in the form of a gazelle (lot. 85) dating from the second half of the fourth/tenth century or the first half of the fifth/eleventh, which was sold at Christie’s in 2011.6 The gazelle measures 19.5 cm high and 15 cm long, so it is substantially smaller than the MAN deer but has an opening on the underside that could indicate its use as a fountainhead.7 The most striking aspect is the coloring, which has retained the luster of bronze and given it a beautiful golden-red patina (Fig. 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5

Gazelle (lot. 85); Fatimid Egypt, fourth–fifth/tenth–eleventh centuries; bronze; H 19.5 cm; L 15 cm

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© Christie’s

Therefore, it seems legitimate to hypothesize that the much-praised red-gold is nothing else but bronze. In the appendix to the Italian version of the Thousand and One Nights edited by Francesco Gabrieli, the latter decided to include his translation of the “Story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp” despite all the controversies regarding its authenticity. In any case, I thought it would be appropriate to include the passage when Aladdin finds himself resting in a beautiful garden with a fountain: “when they were tired of walking and contemplating, they entered a large garden that enlarged the soul and delighted the eye: fountains gushed among the flowers, and waters flowed from the mouths of bronze lions as if they were made of gold” (Gabrieli ed., 2013: p. 2790).

Further confirmation can be traced to Byzantium, specifically to a zoomorphic fountain from Constantinople, often compared with Caliph al-Nāṣir’s fountain in Madinat al-Zahrāʾ. It was described in the Vita Basilii, a biography of Basil I, the first Byzantine emperor of the Macedonian dynasty who reigned between 253–73/867–86. The text, probably written around the middle of the fourth/tenth century, emphasizes Basil’s building activity, particularly concerning the works in the Great Palace at Constantinople (Broilo, 2011: p. 92). This particular fountain was situated in the atrium on the western side of the newly-built Nea Ekklēsia inside the Mesokēpion (The Middle Garden):

On the western side, in the very atrium, stand two fountains, the one to the south and the other to the north […] The fountain to the north is made of so-called Sagarian stone (which resembles the stone called Ostrites) and it, too, has a perforated pine-cone of white stone projecting from the center of its base, while all [a]round the upper rim of the fountain the artist has fashioned cocks, goats, and rams of bronze, and these by means of pipes, vomit forth jets of water onto the underlying floor. Also[,] to be seen there are cups, next to which wine used to spout up from below to quench the thirst of passers-by.

Mango, 1972: p. 191

This fountain is especially relevant since it appeared to have a basin of colorful marble with bronze zoomorphic figurines on the edge of the rim. Basil’s fountain, with all the elements that characterize it, from the colored marble of the basin to the choice of animals, corresponds to the example described in the private quarters of Madinat al-Zahrāʾ. A significant difference is a material used for the figurines: bronze in the anonymous Byzantine text and red-gold for Ibn Ḥayyān. Given the circumstances, I am inclined to believe that the red-gold animal waterspouts in Madinat al-Zahrāʾ were nothing else but perfectly polished bronze.

We are aware of at least two bronze zoomorphic fountainheads traced to the caliphal metal-working workshops at Madinat al-Zahrāʾ. The first is the Córdoba stag (inv. 500) from the Museo Arqueológico Provincial de Córdoba (Dodds ed., 1992: pp. 210–11, cat. 10). It measures 61.6 cm high together with the plinth and is datable to the second half of the fourth/tenth century. The second is the Doha hind (MW.7. 1997) from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (Allan, 2002: p. 19; Contadini, 2020: p. 219). Much like the Córdoba stag, it is attached to a plinth but is slightly smaller, measuring 48.1 cm high (Fig. 6). The survival of the Córdoba stag and the Doha hind was quite fortuitous and makes for an interesting story. In the tenth/sixteenth century, Ambrosio de Morales (919–99/1513–91), a Spanish historian, while writing about “Old Córdoba” in his book Antigüedades de las ciudades de España, tells quite a tale about two bronze animals, a deer and a hind, that he found were used as fountainheads in two nearby monasteries:

in old Cordova many antiquities have been found, belonging to different typologies and times. Among those is the beautiful pila [rectangular basin] of white marble measuring two varas [1 vara equal 0,8358 m] long and one vara high, which now serves as a fountain in the monastery of San Geronimo, in the main cloister. Inside this rectangular basin, there are a deer and a doe made of brass, richly decorated and slightly smaller than a kid. The deer pours the water into the basin, and the doe is in the sumptuous Monastery of our Lady of Guadalupe, in the fountain, which is in front of the refectory.8

Figure 6
Figure 6

Doha hind (MW.7.1997); Madinat al-Zahra, Umayyad al-Andalus 328–400/940–1010; cast and incised gunmetal (copper-alloy); H 48.2 cm; L 41.9 cm; W 12 cm (including base)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© Museum of Islamic art in Doha

Morales’ “Old Córdoba” is nothing else than Madinat al-Zahrāʾ from where, according to tradition, the nearby ninth/fourteenth century Real Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Valparaíso, quarried materials for its construction. In fact, in the second half of the tenth/sixteenth century, the monastery exhibited finds coming from Madinat al-Zahrāʾ. Morales’ account is problematic in the sense that he first mentions two brass deer, a male and a female, standing on a rectangular basin of white marble in the main cloister of the Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Valparaíso. Soon after explaining that the stag pours water into the basin (Valparaíso?), the doe is mentioned with the fountain in front of the refectory at the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Convento de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Baena founded by Pedro Fernández de Córdoba in 1529?). Nevertheless, the two bronze animals share the same peculiar hydraulic system with their legs welded to a rectangular pedestal. Unlike the MAN deer, where the water passed through a tube in the pedestal and into the legs, the water then filled the animal’s body and eventually exited from the mouth (Contadini, 2020: p. 216). A similar hydraulic system, although later, appears in Sophrosyne (Temperance), an eighth/fourteenth-century allegorical poem attributed to Theodore Meliteniotes (c.720–95/1320–93). The hero accompanies the goddess, for whom the poem is named, to her abode, which he portrays in great detail. He had to pass a river, bridge, large iron gate, several walls, and guardian monsters. The palace is resplendent with gold, silver, and precious stones (Schlauch: 1932: pp. 507–8). The pool in the garden is described as follows:

in the very middle of this Garden, there was a pool of generous width, having little depth toward the bottom. It was an incredible structure made with rock crystal[s] of the purest whiteness. On the lips of this admirable pool stood a chorus of numerous birds and animals, also hewn in rock crystal. The mouths of these animals and birds were opened by some kind of mechanical device. Some were receiving the streams of water in their feet through some pipes and were again spitting them forth through their mouths inside the pool, pouring like a spring.

Dolezal and Mavroudi, 2002: pp. 154–5

The ekphrasis mentioned above is relevant because the animals surrounding the pool received a stream of water “in their feet” through piping, similarly to the Córdoba deer and the Doha hind. It is still possible that smaller waterspouts in the shape of animals were made in precious materials of gold or silver and even rock crystal,9 but archeological evidence in this respect is rather scarce. On the other hand, there seems to be enough evidence of similarities between the residences described in the fantastic narrative and the Fustat excavations. The houses excavated in Fustat (Bahgat and Gabriel, 1921) indicated their plans followed an open courtyard with a central fountain (fisqiya) or water basin (Fig. 7). It was recorded: “[…] in the center stood a fountain, on top of which crouched four lions in red-gold, spouting water from their mouths in droplets that looked like gems and pearls […].” (Haddawy, 1990: p. 65). A common element of their plan was a suite of three rooms fronted by a portico, looking onto the central courtyard and rectangular alcoves, recesses, or open-fronted rooms on the remaining sides of the courtyard (Harrison, 2016: p. 46). “In the middle[,] there stood a spacious courtyard, surrounded by four adjoining recessed courts facing each other […].” (Haddawy, 1990: p. 65) The central areas in the qaʿas10 uncovered in Fustat were either unroofed, partially roofed, or simply covered by a tent (suradiq) (ʿAli Ibrahim, 1984: 47). “[…] and above the fountain singing birds fluttered under a high net to prevent them from flying away.” (Haddawy, 1990: p. 65)

Figure 7
Figure 7

Example of a house excavated in Fustat, plan centered in an open courtyard with a central fountain (fisqiya) or water basin; After, Bahgat and Gabriel, 1921

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

Another significant detail emerging from the Fustat excavations was the fountains. We noted above that every house of some importance had a fountain or fisqiya, consisting of rectangular brick structures with central basins in various shapes, often stepped inward at the mid-point of their depth (Harrison, 2016: p. 159). A relatively commonplace form descends as a rectangular shaft before becoming octagonal in its lower extent, thereby creating triangular shelves in the corners (Harrison, 2016: p. 161). In general, ceramic pipes fill the basin with water, while the presence of small copper jets in the four corners transported water as well (Bahgat and Gabriel, 1921: pp. 102–3, figs. 52–4.). Although zoomorphic bronze fountainheads had not been excavated in Fustat, it is not difficult to imagine how four bronze figurines would have been arranged on the corners of the basin in correspondence with the above-mentioned copper jets.

5 Vocal Fountains

There is another typology of fantastic fountains found in the pages of the Arabian Nights. These are fountains with zoomorphic waterspouts that also contain a noise-making mechanism. Vocal statues, like the famous example from Memnon in Egypt, which emitted melodic sounds in blowing wind, of course, were well known in classical antiquity. They can be found in Greek romances, both ancient and medieval, but not in relation to fountains (Schlauch, 1932: p. 502). Alternatively, in different stories of The Arabian Nights, there is mention of fountains producing sounds by the medium of wind and water. The first appears in “The Story of Jansha.” At one point in his adventure, Janshah finds a castle guarded by an older man called Sheikh Nasr, King of the Birds. Janshah is allowed to enter the castle, but he is told not to visit one specific room. However, he cannot resist. In the forbidden room, he finds a garden and a fountain:

he stretched out his hand, opened the door of the room and entered. There he found a large pool, beside which was a small pavilion built of gold, silver and crystal, with windows of sapphires, paved with green chrysolite, hyacinth gems, emeralds and other jewels, set on the ground like pieces of marble. In the middle of this pavilion was a golden fountain filled with water, and around the fountain were statues of wild beasts and birds made of gold and silver, with water spouting from their bellies. When a breeze blew, the wind would enter their ears[,] and each would make its own characteristic noise.

Lyons, 2010: vol. II, p. 405

This description is intriguing for several reasons. Firstly, in the castle of the king of the birds, the sculptures of birds and wild beasts are not pouring water from their mouths, as we have seen until now, but from their undersides. Secondly, they emit sounds when the wind blows through their ears, with each animal producing a different tune. From the details in the story, there seemed to be a very sophisticated sound-producing mechanism.11 Similarly, in another tale, “Story of the King Omar an-Numan and his sons Sharkan e Dau al-Makan,” one of the protagonists, Sharkan, enters a house where: “windows opened all around the hall overlooking gardens full of trees and streams of water. In the room, there were statues in which the air that entered set in motion the devices located within the mouths, so as to give the observer the illusion that they were talking” (Gabrieli ed., 2013: p. 353).

There is a long tradition of automata in both Byzantium and the medieval Islamic world. It is important to remember that both Byzantine and Islamic automata were based on the same principles devised by engineers of late antiquity, such as Heron of Alexandria, a first-century CE Greco-Egyptian mathematician and engineer who wrote the two works Pneumatika and Peri Automatopoietikes, describing in detail wonderful mechanical devices. This is not the place to elaborate on this topic, but we know from several chroniclers that automata were present at the court of Emperor Theophilos (196–227/812–42) and Constantine VII Porphyrogenites (292–348/905–59). Similarly, in third/ninth-century Baghdad, the Banū Mūsā brothers compiled their Kitāb al-Ḥiyal (Book of Ingenious Devices), a book on automata and mechanical devices. Al-Jazarī subsequently wrote a book on automata, the Kitāb fī ma ʿrifat al-ḥiyal al-handasiyya (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), for the Artuqid sultan Mahmūd al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ Nāṣir al-Dīn (597–619/1201–22). The work is divided into six sections with descriptions and explanatory drawings on fifty types of devices. The chapters cover: 1) the construction of clocks showing the passage of the “constant and solar hours”; 2) the construction of vessels and figures used for drinking; 3) the construction of pitchers and basins for phlebotomy and washing; 4) the construction of fountains that change shape and “machine for the perpetual flute”; 5) the construction of a machine for rising water; and 6) the construction of “different, dissimilar thing” (Canby and Beyazit, et al., 2016: p. 189). The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices contains quite a few musical automatons. The fourth category deals primarily with fountains, but there are also four perpetual flutes using flowing water to compress air through a flute, thus replacing the flutist.

One more exciting example of vocal fountains comes from the Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange (ʿal-hikayat al-ʿajiba waʾl-akhbar al-gharibaʾ).12 The manuscript of this book (MS Aya Sofia MS no. 3397) was discovered by Helmund Ritter, a German Arabist, in Istanbul and presented at a conference in 1933. Although the manuscript is anonymous and incomplete (the second half is missing), it probably contained forty-two tales from “a well-known” book that had been first collated in the third/tenth century, even though the Istanbul manuscript is from a later date. Tales of the Marvellous have many affinities with The Arabian Nights, given they partially share material. In “The Story of the Four Hidden Treasures and the Strange Things That Occurred,” from the former, the protagonists wander into: “an open space with fine trees in leaf and water gushing from the mouths of lions and birds’ beaks into a pool lined with gold, whose radiance dazzled the eyes. From the statues came tuneful sounds that captivated the heart” (Lyons, 2017: p. 82).

In a similar fashion, The Arabian Nights describe a musical fountain in the “Story of Ibrahím, son of al-Khasíb and of Giamila, daughter of Abu ʿl-Laith governor of Basra”:

in the center you could see a body of water to which you went down a golden staircase encrusted with precious stones, and in the middle of that a gold fountain with large and small masks from whose mouths the water flowed. When those masks, hit by the gushing water, emitted various sounds, it seemed to those who heard them that they were in Paradise.

Gabrieli ed., 2013: p. 2615

The sound from those fountains is delightful, far from the ferocious roaring produced by the mechanical lions at the court of Constantine VII Porphyrogenites described by Liutprand of Cremona. Anna Contadini hypothesized that the two large “bronzes” known as the Pisa Griffin13 and the Mari-Cha Lion are not fountainheads but rather zoomorphic sound-producing bronzes (Contadini, 2018; 2020). Contadini discovered in both animals an inner vessel, attached to the rear of the underside and opening only in the front. Since this inner vessel could not have had a hydraulic function, she suggested that it functioned as part of a noise-making mechanism. The type of bronze utilized in the body would have amplified the sound, making the statues resonate like a bell (Contadini, 2020: p. 228). The Pisa Griffin and the Mari-Cha Lion seem to be the last remnants of these acoustic mechanisms that we would otherwise only have known from descriptions. Even though there isn’t evidence that these two particular “bronzes” ever functioned as waterspouts, we know that some zoomorphic fountainheads were able to produce relaxing sounds or even the voices of different animal species.

6 Different Jets and Delicious Content

Not all zoomorphic fountainheads necessarily spout water from their mouths. We have seen before in “The Story of Jansha” with the fantastic palace for the king of the birds that fountains in the shape of birds and wild animals spouted water from their undersides. Ibn Ḥamdīs, in describing the marvels of the Hammadite palaces, offers detailed descriptions of a related fountainhead in the shape of a giraffe pouring water from the nostrils: “there is also a giraffe in the hollow of whose nostrils the water passes, showing its jet as if it were flying. It is fixed there like a rod, that when you pierce an armor, you realize that the cusp has become hooked” (Ibn Ḥamdīs, 1998: pp. 395–6).

Particularly interesting in this regard is a tiny bronze sphinx (5/1978) from the David Collection in Copenhagen (Von Folsach, 2002: p. 313, fig. 499). Measuring only 12 cm high and 10.8 cm long, the sphinx was probably a fountain figure allowing water to emerge in three jets: through the sphinx’s mouth and the mouths of two dragons (or griffins) heads at the end of the sphinx’s wings (Fig. 8). Its provenance, eastern Asia Minor, and its dating, sixth-seventh/twelfth-thirteenth centuries, place it geographically and temporally further away than the pieces considered. Fantastic animals like sphinxes and dragons14 are not part of the North African and Andalusian repertoire. On the other hand, they appear in Anatolia,15 the Levant, and Northern Mesopotamia. The David Collection in Copenhagen has another waterspout in the shape of a sphinx (inv. no. Isl 56) (Fig. 9). Considerably larger, measuring 37 cm high, this sphinx is cast, modeled, and carved fritware painted with an opaque white and turquoise glaze (Von Folsach, 2002: p. 158, cat. 187). It was found in Rafiqa, Raqqa’s twin city, in 1924, together with a cock (inv. no. Isl 57) (Fig. 10) and the figure of a horseman (perhaps fighting a dragon), today with the National Museum in Damascus (5819/4). They are fountain figures, and all have pipes to carry water through the figures’ heads. Both the sphinx and the cock (Von Folsach, 2002: p. 158, cat. 186) are decorated with dragon or griffin heads, the sphinx at the end of the wings, and the cock at the end of the tail, respectively. The possibility that the dragon heads at the end of the sphinx were additional waterspouts should be considered. However, water spouting from multiple openings is pretty rare but had been mentioned in an eighth/fourteenth-century Greek romance, Byzantine Achilleïs. In the story, the heroine’s garden has a fountain decorated with statues of leopards and lions and water spurts from multiple openings (breasts, ears, heads, and mouths) as well (Dolezal and Mavroudi, 2002: p. 128). Ibn Rustah, in his geographical compendium known as Kitāb al-Aʾlāq al-Nafīsa (Book of Precious Records), describes a fountain in the Great Palace of Constantinople. The main source for his description is a certain Hārūn ibn Yayā, a Palestinian who was held captive in the Byzantine capital probably between the years 266–77/880–90. The fountain coincidentally appears to be the zoomorphic example in the atrium of the Nea Ekklēsia built by Basil I. Unlike the description contained in Vita Basilii, Ibn Yayā’s account is more detailed, and the different fountainheads seemed to have spouted water from their mouths and ears into the marble basin underneath:

in the courtyard facing east, there is a carved marble basin, which measures ten cubits in width and ten in height: it rests on a column that rises four cubits from the ground and is surmounted by a lead dome, in turn, surmounted by another silver dome which is supported by 12 columns, each four cubits high. At their top, there are statues depicting animals: on the first, there is a hawk, on the second a lamb, on the third a bull, on the fourth a rooster, on the fifth a lion, on the sixth a lioness, on the seventh a wolf, on the eighth a partridge, a peacock on the ninth, a horse on the tenth, and an elephant on the eleventh. On the twelfth stands the statue of the angel.

Panascìa, 1993: pp. 160–1
Figure 8
Figure 8

Sphinx (inv. no.5/1978); eastern Asia Minor, sixth–seventh/twelfth–thirteenth centuries; cast bronze; H 12 cm; L 10.8 cm; The David Collection, Copenhagen

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© The David Collection
Figure 9
Figure 9

Sphinx (inv. no. Isl 56); Raqqa, late-sixth–twelfth century; cast, modeled, and carved fritware painted in an opaque white and a turquoise glaze; H 37 cm; The David Collection, Copenhagen

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© The David Collection
Figure 10
Figure 10

Cockerel (inv. no. Isl 57); Raqqa, late-sixth/twelfth century; cast, modeled, and carved fritware, painted blue, turquoise, and manganese under a transparent glaze; H 38.5 cm; The David Collection, Copenhagen

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© The David Collection

From observing the surviving “bronze” fountainheads, it is clear that based on the shape and the width of the mouths’ openings, the stream of water would have looked substantially different. A large number of pieces are characterized by very wide mouth openings. Among them are the already-mentioned Doha hind and the Córdoba and MAN deer. We can also add the Bargello quadruped (inv. no. 63c) from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Italy (Scerrato, 1966: pp. 71–3). This artifact is datable to the fifth/eleventh century, and it is only 12.4 cm high. Substantially bigger is the Bardo ram (2817) from the Bardo Museum in Tunis, made of cast bronze and 32.5 cm high (Fantar ed., 1992: p. 271). It can be dated to the fourth–fifth/tenth–eleventh centuries from Ifriqiya (Fig. 11). Even wider is the mouth-opening of a group of bronze waterspouts in the shape of lions. The first, (I. 1959) from the Museum of Islamic Art in the Pergamon Museum (Ettinghausen and Grabar, 1987: pp. 197–200), was cast in bronze, measures 11.5 cm high, and can be attributed to Fatimid Egypt. A second example also from Fatimid Egypt is a sitting lion from the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, known as the MIA lion (MIA 4305). It measures 21 cm high and also was made of cast bronze (O’Kane, 2006: pp. 74–5, fig. 65). The last, known as the Monzón Lion (7883) from the Musée du Louvre, Paris (Dodds ed., 1992: pp. 270–1, cat. 54), is the biggest, measuring 30.8 cm high, and can be dated to the Almohads during the sixth–seventh/twelfth–thirteenth centuries (Figs. 12a–c).

Figure 11
Figure 11

Ram (inv. 2817); Fatimid-Zirid Ifriqiya, fourth–fifth/tenth–eleventh centuries; Bardo Museum, Tunis; cast bronze; H 32.5 cm

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© Museum with no Frontiers (MWNF)
Figures 12a–c
Figures 12a–c

The Monzón Lion (inv. 7883); al-Andalus, sixth–seventh/twelfth–thirteenth centuries; cast bronze; H 30.08 cm; L 54 cm; Musée du Louvre

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340024

© Musée du louvre

In “The History of Gharib and His Brother Ajib” from The Arabian Nights, statues of lions with “water flowing from their mouths” were described. Likewise, in the verses of the Blind Poet of Tudela (d. 520/1126) appears, a marble fountain in the shape of a lion: “it is a lion, but if I wanted to give an accurate account of it, I would say: it is a rock. It looks like it is the Leo [of the constellation] of the sky, which with its mouth is spewing the Milky Way” (Pérès, 1953: p. 334).

Bronze fountainheads in the shape of lions with wide mouth openings also appear in Constantinople during the rule of Emperor Theophilus (r. 214–27/829–42). Mentioned in a collection of Byzantine historical texts known as Theophanes Continuatus, one passage related to the building activity of Theophilus in the Great Palace included a zoomorphic fountain placed into a building and shaped with a lunate C known as the Sigma:

next to the fountains are steps of white Proconnesian marble, and in the middle of the said steps is a marble arch supported on two columns slender as reeds. There, too, next to the long side of the Sigma have been erected two bronze lions with gaping mouths. These spouted water and flooded the entire hollow area of the Sigma, thus providing no small amount of pleasure.

Mango, 1972: p. 162

Both verses of the Blind Poet of Tudela and the description in Theophanes Continuum refer to the type of openings observed today in the Monzón lion. Materials might differ; marble, for example, described by the Blind Poet of Tudela and “bronze” in the Byzantine text, but we have already seen how heads of zoomorphic fountains were made of either material, adding credibility to the sources. Moreover, Ibn Bashkuwāl (d. 579/1183), an erudite connoisseur on the history of al-Andalus living in sixth/twelfth-century Córdoba, reports that in the palaces of the caliphal capital, water flowed from the mouths of different animals. These were composed of marble, metal, and other stones, thereby verifying that the presence of a single material did not exclude others (Torres Balbás, 1987: p. 747).

Conversely, additional figurines were provided with piercings where water would exit in a thin and slightly arched stream. This elegant effect is like the one shared in the stories “The Tale of the Enchanted King” and “The Christian Broker’s Tale,” when streams of water spouted from the lions and snake as “droplets that looked like gems and pearls.” A similar effect is still visible today in the garden fountain of the Acequia in the Generalife at Granada, where the thin streams of water jetting into the air look like tiny shiny pearls. The exact description also was included in a poem by al-Baṭalyawsī (444–521/1052–1127) and reported by Ibn H̱āqān (480–528/1087–1134) from Seville. In one part, after spending the day with al-Maʾmūn in his pleasure villa (munya), he told the author of the Qalāʾid al-ʾIqyān (Collars of Gold or Necklace of Rubies) about his experience and noted a fountain with lion-shaped waterspouts changing water into pearls (Pérès, 1953: p. 152). Regarding the three bronze lions mentioned above, the Pergamon example is the only one that might have held a waterpipe in the mouth, producing a similar thinner water jet.

In a further text, the thin stream of water is compared to blades and snakes. Ibn Wahbūn (b. 480/1087), a celebrated poet and learned man from Murcia, described a jet of water pouring from a fountainhead shaped like an elephant in the palace of al-Muʿtamid in Sevilla as a blade: “water pours down, like a blade [of a sword], from an extraordinary elephant that never shows weariness. He has grazed on tender silver which [passing through his mouth] has become solid, but we see that he is very little afraid of losing weight” (Pérès, 1953: p. 334). In Ibn Ḥamdīs, it looks like the lions are drawing streams like swords, which melt without fire and become a pond. The comparison with the sword blade illustrates a sharp and elegant jet of water, one that could be expected from figurines such as Christie’s gazelle. In another poem, Ibn Ḥamdīs again compares the stream of water to snakes:

On the edge of the basin, there are lions who
humble themselves to the Prince’s might.
Their souls aimed to hurt people,
so, they were taken from their bodies,
and the freshness of the water seems to be extinguishing
a fire lit by their ferocity.
It seems that the snakes that come out of their mouths
are going to throw themselves into ponds
Ibn Ḥamdīs, 1998: p. 396

The snake metaphor, and the sword blade, successfully convey the idea of a thin and arched stream of water pouring from zoomorphic fountainheads into a basin or a pool.

Occasionally, fountains or pools could have been a receptacle for something other than water. We have already seen how the fawwārāt of al-Muqtadir in Samarra gushed rosewater and musk during the visit of Byzantine envoys. In Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes, Paulina B. Lewicka explains that at particular festive events and parties in Mamluk Cairo, a drink called as-sukkar wa-l-laymūn, basically a sugary lemonade, was poured into pools or fountains provided with cups from which officers and soldiers could drink (Lewicka, 2011: p. 480). A similar custom is also recorded in the Vita Basilii concerning the zoomorphic fountain in the atrium of the Nea. The fountain is said to have “cups, next to which wine used to spout up from below to quench the thirst of passers-by” (Mango, 1972: p. 195). This tradition seems confirmed by Ibn Rustah, in the Kitāb al-Aʾlāq al-Nafīsa (Book of Precious Records):

in the same courtyard, 200 steps from the dome, there is a cistern from which the water reaches the statues placed on top of the columns. It is customary, on feast days, to fill it with the contents of 10,000 amphorae of wine and 1000 of white honey, poured in addition to the wine[,] which is also scented with nard, carnation, and cinnamon to the extent of the weight of a camel. The tank is well covered so that it does not appear to the eye. When the emperor leaves the palace to go to the church, having arrived here, he lays his gaze on the statues and the wine that gushing from their mouths and ears collects at the bottom in the basin that is filled with it; and each of the dignitaries accompanying him, who have come with him to attend the party, takes a sip.

Panascìa, 1993: p. 161

According to this text, on feast days, the fountain was filled with sweet and spiced wine from which the emperor and his retinue would drink. In the seventh/thirteenth century, al-Qazwīnī, who reports in his book ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt (Wonders of Creation), the description given by Ibn Yayā, adds that the cistern was filled with wine on Palm Sunday. More wine is recorded in Theophanes Continuatus concerning the so-called Mystical Fountain of the Triconch:

this building adjoins the peristyle of the Sigma, which we have already mentioned so that the two form a kind of unit. The latter [i.e., the peristyle of the Sigma] gives on to an opened terrace in the middle of which is a bronze fountain having a rim crowned with silver and a gilded cone. This is called the Mystic Fountain of the Triconch on account of the adjoining buildings, namely the Mysterion and the Triconch. […]. At the time of receptions, the fountain was filled with pistachios and almonds as well as pine nuts, while spiced wine flowed from the cone for the enjoyment of all those who stood there and were desirous of partaking.

Mango, 1972: p. 162

Aside from wine, expensive almonds, pine nuts, and pistachios were added to fountains for special celebrations. As extraordinary as this might sound, the best supplement for a pool comes from medieval Cairo. In the Kitāb al-Hadāyā wa al-Tuḥaf (Book of Gifts and Rarities),16 we find that a certain Nāẓir al-Juyūsh Abū al-Mulūk Turkān Shāh b. Sulṭān al-Juyūsh Yaldakúsh, the Turk “who prepared food in Cairo for the Kurds, whom he invited in the year …[lacuna]. It included a pool filled with qaṭāyif [pastry] saturated with strongly perfumed syrup and butter. It is said that he spent three thousand dinars to fill the pool” (al-Qaddūmī, 1997: p. 133).

7 Fantastic Trees and Birds

Through this article, we have mentioned the silver or golden trees with mechanical singing birds from Emperors Theophilus and Constantine VII Porphyrogenites. However, in all these extraordinary trees, only the silver tree of the ʿAbbasid caliph al-Muqtadir at Samarra seemed to have worked concurrently with a fountain. Again, it’s described in the fifth/eleventh-century Kitāb al-Hadāyā wa al-Tuḥaf (Book of Gifts and Rarities) together with a lengthy description of al-Muqtadir’s palace when two Byzantine envoys visited in 305/917: “al-Muqtadir gave out the order for the opening of the cupola (qubbah) and the working of the tree, which came out of the ground by means of various mechanical devices until it filled the cupola. The fountains (fawwārāt), gushing forth rosewater and musk, were turned on, and the figurines (tamāthīl) of birds perching on the tree chirped” (al-Qaddūmī, 1997: p. 153).

Another example seems to have existed in the Hammadite palace of al-Manṣūr at Bijaya. Ibn Ḥamdīs mentions not one, but several golden trees in the garden: “how many trees of native gold stand their trunks there, to your infinite wonder. Oh, portent! They water the Garden with jets of water that spurt out from the fruits and branches. On these graceful birds perch, which have no seconds in beauty” (Ibn Ḥamdīs, 1998: p. 395).

Although it’s unknown if the garden trees in Bijaya were artificial or living, perhaps they had some sort of mechanical device attached, but certainly, the birds were mechanical. If the latter was accurate, we might find a precedent in the extravagant Garden of Khumārawayh, the son and successor of Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn (220–70/835–84), the Tulunid emir of Egypt, a vassal state of the ʿAbbasid Caliphate (Swelim, 2015). The Egyptian historian al-Maqrīzī (765–846/1364–1442) writes that Khumārawayh had enlarged the palace and turned the maydan into a garden planted with rare trees and exquisite roses. The stems of the trees, though unsightly, were coated with sheets of gilt copper, while leaden trunk pipes supplied water, not only to the trees but to canals and fountains irrigating the garden with water wheels (Yeomans, 2006: p. 40). Thus, it would seem that either completely artificial creations or real trees equipped with different kinds of mechanisms and decorations existed in the gardens and courtyards of palaces. For instance, the golden tree of Theophilus was adorned with perched birds singing musically and utilized a device kept inside the palace (Mango, 1972: p. 161), which was akin to the completely artificial silver tree of al-Muqtadir at Samarra.

Al-Manṣūr’s trees appear to be in the palace’s garden. Ibn Ḥamdīs describes them again in a second poem as “golden plants that look like a spell, which leaves a deep trace in mind” (Ibn Ḥamdīs, 1998: p. 426). Did this arrangement contain natural or artificial trees covered with metallic sheets and transformed into fountains like those fashioned for Khumārawayh in his garden at al-Qaṭāʾiʿ? The verses of Ibn Ḥamdīs are a bit obscure, but it’s clear that the presence of artificial birds perched on branches would stream water into a lower basin: “you look at the beak of the latter made of clear water, like water gushing of silver. Silent, they are counted among the eloquent, and if they sing, they trill whistling with the water. It seems that on every branch, there is some liquid silver, spun, that goes down, and that it shows you in the pool where the drops fall, like, unthread pearls above the emerald” (Ibn Ḥamdīs, 1998: p. 427).

The water supplying fountainheads in the shape of birds must have come from a mechanism hidden within the trunk of the golden tree, indicating the tree was artificial. I am inclined to think that the birds, giraffe, lions, and trees were all part of a very complex fountain, which must have remained in the imagination of the Sicilian poet. Undoubtedly, it was enough to be the subject of two different poems. A parallel can be found in Toledo, with a description of festivities hosted by the ṭāʾifa ruler al-Maʾmūn (r. 434–67/1043–75) for the circumcision of his heir. In a similar fashion to the Hammadite palace in Bijaya:

in this room[,] there were ponds at whose corners were placed figures of lions forged in gold with great art … [and] in the [middle] of each pond was a basin of marble in the form of an altar, of great size, of wondrous form and extraordinarily engraved, for on each of their sides they were worked with figures of animals, birds, and trees: in the middle of each basin stood a tall silver tree over which water cascaded like light rain, producing a soft murmur.

Contadini, 2020: p. 229; Rosser-Owen 2007: p. 91

In Toledo, the water seems to fall from the top of the silver trees, while in Bijaya, it cascades into the pool from the beaks of birds perched on its golden branches. Natural or artificial, birds appear very often in conjunction with fountains. Returning to The Arabian Nights, this theme appears in “Tale of the Enchanted King,” where the open court with the fountain of lions is covered by a net preventing birds from flying. In the “The Story of Sul and Shumul” from the Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, one of the protagonists, Sul, enters a wealthy house in a remote realm:

soon after that[,] the two of them took me to sit in a beautiful, well-built house with high pillars, ninety-six spans long, made of onyx, yellow, red, white, and green, with two stone benches and two facing halls. There was a pool with a fountain, seats facing each other and a network of seven pipes, with Taliqan matting and Samanian carpets. In it were birds of all kinds, ring-doves and pigeons, blackbirds, bulbuls and nightingales[,] as well as peacocks, all of which were netted in so that they could not fly away.

Lyons, 2017: p. 251

Sometimes, artificial and natural birds are part of the same environment, much like in “The Hunchback’s Tale” from The Arabian Nights. They appear in the house of Barakat the naqib, known as Abu Shama, situated in the Habbaniya neighborhood of Cairo:

I entered a vaulted hall with seven doors, round which were windows overlooking a garden with fruits of all kinds, gushing waters and singing birds. The walls were treated with sultani gypsum in which a man could see his own face, while the ceiling was ornamented with gold, showing inscriptions in lapis lazuli, encompassing all the qualities of beauty and dazzling those who looked at it. The floor was laid with variegated marble and strewn with carpets, coloured silks and mattresses, while in the centre was a fountain, at whose corners were birds made of pearls and other gems.

Lyons, 2010: p. 183

Despite several mentions of birds used as fountainheads in al-Andalus, Constantinople, Egypt, and North Africa, only one copper-alloy figurine known as the MIA cockerel (MW.220.2003) has survived today.17 It was not exhibited, having been in a private collection for the last 200 years. More recently, it was sold in 2003 at Christie’s to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (Anedda and Pala, 2014: p. 716). The rare gilt-bronze figure, datable to the fourth-fifth/tenth-eleventh centuries, was attributed to Umayyad al-Andalus. Measuring 43 cm high and related to the Córdoba deer and Doha hind, it might have originated in Madīnat al-Zahrā’ since Ibn Ḥayyān specifically mentions a cockerel among the animals adorning the fountain of al-Nāṣir. I suspect that the Doha bird also shares a similar hydraulic system when compared to the other examples because it does not have a circular piercing on the underside. However, further study is needed.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to consider a fountain and the extraordinary mechanical tree viewed by William of Rubruck at the court of the Great Khan at Karakorum in 652/1254 (Tatár, 2011: pp. 77–105). Although culturally and geographically distant from the fountains discussed above, it contains related elements, including a dispensary for various drinks, an ingenious hydraulic system, a noise-making mechanism propelled by bellows (unfortunately, it wasn’t functional), and zoomorphic waterspouts. Designed especially for Mönke Khan by a French artisan, it stood at the entrance of his palace and served drinks through a semi-automatic18 dispenser, ante litteram:

since it was shameful to introduce skins of milk and other drinks at the entrance to the grand palace, master William the Parisian19 had a large silver tree built. At its roots sat four pure silver lions with a reed in their mouth from which they pour white mare’s milk. Inside the tree, four channels go to the top. The top of the tree falls down, and on each channel, there is a golden snake whose coils wind around the trunk of the tree itself. From one of the channels flows wine, from another caracomos (purified mare’s milk), from the other boal, that is to say, a drink of honey, and from the last the rice beer, which they call terracina. For each drink, a silver jar is ready at the foot of the tree, which collects the liquid in four channels. On the top of the tree[,] William had made an angel with a trumpet and under the tree a room large enough to hide a man. Inside the tree, a liquid duct rises up to the angel. William had initially built bellows, but they didn’t create enough air. Outside the building, there is a room where drinks are stored. In this room, there are servants ready to pour it when they hear the angel’s trumpet sound. The branches of the tree are made of silver, as well as the leaves and fruits.

When there is no drink, the head of the cupbearers shouts for the angel to blow the trumpet. According to this order, the man hidden in the room under the angel blows as hard as he can into the channel that goes up to the angel, who brings the trumpet to his mouth and makes it sound loudly. The servants who are in the drink room, when they hear the trumpet sound, each pour the drink that is entrusted to them in the corresponding channel, and the channels carry the liquid up and down in the vessels designed to welcome it, from where the cupbearers draw it and then carry it into the palace to serve it to men and women.

Guglielmo di Rubruck, 1987: pp. 186–7

The silver tree fountain of Mönke Khan at the Karakorum, with elements from Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamicate world, could be considered the summa of all the marvelous fountains described above, which was the rationale for including it in this collection of fantastic fountains and where to find them.

8 Conclusion

Even though Von Kremer may have been wrong when relying on a description from the story “The Tale of the Enchanted King” to imply that zoomorphic fountains were part of the décor in wealthy Baghdad houses, his intuition to use The Arabian Nights was brilliant. We have to consider that those fantastic narratives in their original form, e.g., The Arabian Nights or Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange were meant to be read aloud by professional or amateur storytellers. These narrators modified the text, making it conform to the daily life and customs of the audience. Even if the tales were traced to a Persian original (with Indian influences), they endured several revisions rather than mere translation into Arabic. To quote Stephen Yeomans, it is “a culture that provides the imaginative context and imagery permeating the other visual arts” (Yeomans, 2006: p. 41). If we recognised that many of these fantastic stories originated in Cairo, we would expect to find cultural references to the life and customs there.

Fantastic literature, as in the case of the Thousand and One Nights, is undoubtedly a great source of information, even if it’s problematic. While not usually considered appropriate for art historians and lacking precise methodology, it could lead to greater results if reconsidered. When compared with historical sources and material evidence, fantastic literature provides additional source material and a myriad of new and interesting insights. These fountains, containing zoomorphic waterspouts, sometimes with vocal mechanisms, and made of red-gold, were probably genuine. Today, the evidence is scattered in many museum collections worldwide and in the verses of poets and historians. The figures are truly fantastic, not because they are fairytale themed, but rather because they are the product of amazing artisanship and engineering. Perhaps art historians should revisit The Arabian Nights and other similar texts in a new light.

About the Author

Federica A. Broilo is a specialist in Islamic art and architecture. She holds a Ph.D. in Oriental Studies from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. She worked as an adjunct professor of Islamic art in Venice and Urbino, Italy, and as an assistant professor at the Department of History of Art at Mardin Artuklu University in Turkey. Between her MA and PhD, she worked on several archeological excavations and collaborated with UNESCO as an external consultant. Her primary research is on space and water in Byzantium and the Islamicate world.

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