Clock towers

They gave way to wrist watches when those tiny accessories ceased to be a luxury. But even though they may have lost their former popularity, they remain among the foremost elements of urban aesthetics for their architectural features.

Ever since he set foot on earth Man has controlled Time. In recent years however he has become its slave. We are locked now in a struggle to set aside time to be able to decide ‘what, when and how’ to get things done in the perpetual flow of so many activities like jobs, appointments, and transportation timetables. Consequently, we can’t lead our everyday lives without a watch or knowing what time it is. The concept of the clock, which has become a necessity, has turned modern man into a mechanical creature constantly chasing time and alienated from both himself and nature. In the hustle and bustle of the established order we usually forget that it is we who need to rule time, not time us.

When clocks first began to occupy an important place in our lives, how was this recorded in the pages of history? While a person in antiquity might want to know what year it was, he had little need to know the hour of the day. The first clocks were made about five thousand years ago in the Middle East. We know that four-cornered towers known as obelisks were used in Egypt to tell time. Time pieces, which in  human history evolved from sundials to sand and water clocks and eventually pendulums, finally ended up as mechanical instruments either on wrists and in pockets or on walls, and as clock towers on city squares. The first examples of such towers began to appear from the 13th century onwards in churches and palaces on the European continent. Following them, at the start of the Modern Age, clock towers became widespread as a symbol of the technology that characterizes modern life. The clock tower of the Strasbourg Cathedral, for example, is inscribed in the pages of history as the world’s first.

The appearance of clock towers in Turkey coincides with the Ottoman period. Becoming part and parcel of everyday life towards the end of the 16th century, clock towers began to rise in ever increasing numbers in our towns and cities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Erected all around the country, these elegant structures became widespread during the reign of Abdulhamid II, who was particularly interested in the science of clocks. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his accession to the throne in 1901, the Sultan ordered the construction of clock towers in all the provinces under his rule. A large number of clock towers thus went up in the parts of the Balkans and the Middle East then under Ottoman rule, as well as in many parts of Anatolia. As we learn from Dr. Hakkı Acun’s study, ‘Clock Towers of Anatolia’, there was a total of 144 monumental towers including 52 that have stood the test of time and survived to our day, twenty that have been destroyed for various reasons, another 72 that fell outside our borders after the founding of the Republic; a further eight were added later in the Republican period. Regarded as among Turkey’s cultural and historical assets, these towers were designed as visual monuments in a variety of architectural styles.

Built in styles such as Baroque, neo-Classical, Empire and Oriental, these magnificent structures also presented different images in terms of the design of their bodies which could be cylindrical, polygonal, square, or consisting of interlocking prisms narrowing towards the top.  While some were extremely simple in design, others stand proudly with all their adornments. On some of them the tughra, or ornamental calligraphic signature, of Abdulhamid II appears, while others exhibit inscriptions of varying content on their doors or walls. But it would be wrong to attribute the building of towers exclusively to Abdulhamid II’s firman. At the same time, they represent the westernization process that transformed the face of the Ottoman empire. Towers were a symbol of the modernizing zeal seen in every area of life, particularly in public buildings, following the reforms known as the Tanzimat. Acknowledging the transition of Ottoman Muslim society’s telling time by the call to prayer to a more scientific method, they added momentum to the modernization process.

Most clock towers are visible from far and wide because they were built on squares or high ground in centers of settlement. Some of us make dates beneath them, some of us use them as landmarks when giving directions, some of us have souvenir photos taken below them. Some clock towers, in addition to showing the time, have also been used as fire towers and meteorological stations. The fountains below them gave water to the thirsty, and people over the years have used their guiding lights as a beacon in the fog.

If we consider clock towers in terms of their locations, we can divide them into three different groups depending on whether they are located on city squares, on hills or atop buildings. In Turkey we encounter the largest number of such towers, each one a cultural monument, in Istanbul, perhaps because it was the capital city in the period in which they were built. These monuments, which exhibit the features of the residential districts in which they are located, were placed in rather close proximity to one another. The clock towers at the Sirkeci Railroad Station, at Kasımpaşa Naval Hospital, at Tophane, Dolmabahçe and Yıldız Palace and at şişli Etfal still arouse memories of the old city. To them need to be added the clock towers on Büyükada and the campus of Boğaziçi University. With their extraordinary architectural motifs, the clock towers of Izmir, Kocaeli, Dolmabahçe, Yıldız and Tophane stand out for the aesthetic features that distinguish them from their counterparts. The tallest of these structures that soar into the sky are the 33-meter-high clock tower at Bursa and the 32-meter-high tower at Adana. The clock towers of Gerede
and Mudurnu meanwhile stand out from the others  because they are made of wood. Towers like those at Adana, Antalya, Erzurum and Gümüşhacıköy are the finest examples of those that rise above a building, while the towers at Bilecik, Göynük, Kastamonu, Mudurnu and Sivrihisar are positioned on hilltops. The last examples of these magnificent structures are the clock towers of Alaca, Boyabat, Çerikli, Gaziantep, Gerze, Karabük, şefaatli and Yerköy, which were built in the Republican period. And to all those enumerated here must also be added the clock towers at Damascus, Podgorica, Herceg Novi and Sarayevo, which were built in the Ottoman period in areas that fall outside Turkey’s borders today.

Despite their age, almost all these towers have undergone renovation over time. The system of marking time by the call to prayer was changed following the adoption of the western calendar and system of telling time in 1926. This was followed by the elimination of the old Ottoman or Arabic numerals on clock faces following the Alphabet Reform of 1928 when Turkey switched to the Latin alphabet. The majority of towers built either on squares, on hilltops or atop buildings continue to perform their function today. But a portion of them unfortunately stand sadly abandoned due to disinterest and neglect. 

Clocks speak a language peculiar not only to time but to themselves. As units of measuring time, clocks over the centuries have evolved continuously from the early sundials. In the process they morphed through various stages from mechanical to digital, gradually transformed into products of technological design. Clock towers with their giant bodies are gradually falling prey to the time they once told. It is high time now to restore these vanishing mementos of the past, and to preserve them by according them status as historic monuments.