Ottoman clocktowers

- by Alexander Jones -

Sultan Abdul Hamid II became the ruler of the Ottoman Empire on the 31st of August, 1876. 25 years later, to celebrate his silver jubilee, 144 clock towers were built in important cities throughout the empire. Celebratory towers were built from Tipoli (modern day Libya) to Damascus (modern day Syria), which still stand alongside older Ottoman clock towers already built in places like Belgrade, Baghdad and of course Istanbul. Of those built in the early 1900s, 72 clock towers fell outside the borders of the modern-day Turkey and 7 are in modern day Israel-Palestine.

Jaffa clock tower and neo-classical Ottoman sayara
Most of the towers sit atop or alongside the saraya, an Ottoman administrative building which stood at the centre of most important cities and was a combination of castle, palace, government building, regional headquarters, barracks and even sometimes an inn. The most famous of all the clock towers is undoubtedly in Jaffa. Today it stands in front of the saraya, in a large square known to everyone as 'clock tower square'. Tour guides often repeat an apocryphal tale which claims that a Jewish clock maker, variously either Yossef Moial or Mortiz Schoenberg, provided the time pieces after getting fed up with constantly being asked what time it was by residents who didn't have a personal watch. The name specifically doesn't really matter - what is important is that it proves the existence of civic minded Jewish residents in pre-Balfour Palestine. The tower was heavily restored in the 1960s, when the stained glass was added, and again in 2001 when the tughra (a monogram serving as the sultan's official seal that incorporates his name, his titles, his father’s name and blessings) was replaced by 3 glass versions and the remaining marble one restored.

In Safed you can see the clock tower built into the saraya itself - as the foot of the tower and one of the corners of the building are one and the same. In the main square of the old city of Nablus, the clock tower has recently been restored and is directly opposite the Victory Mosque and the Ottoman saraya. Visitors to Acre (Akko) will see the tower atop the central caravanserai known as Khan al-Umdan. Haifa's clock tower has been altered and now only one face still tells the time, but it is nevertheless still standing in the centre of the city despite several wars and numerous bombings. The saraya in Nazareth has a stubby tower on top, with holes suitable for clocks, but even the Israeli Antiquities Authority say they are unsure if it was ever used to tell the time.

The clock tower in Jerusalem, before it was demolished
The final tower was destroyed in 1922. It was built into the walls of the old city of Jerusalem, at the Jaffa Gate. During British modernisation of this key access point from West Jerusalem, the elegant clock tower was demolished. There was also apparently a good deal of Oriental romanticism behind this decision, as legend has it many of the British felt that it looked too European and ruined the ascetic of the holy city's skyline.

Which brings us to the most interesting point. Just what do these towers tell us about turn of the century Ottoman Empire? In the West there is a prevailing idea that this was a time when the Ottomans were nothing more than the 'Sick Man of Europe'. While it is undoubtedly true that the Empire was in a period of decline, and ceased to exist altogether in World War One, this is a highly Eurocentric outlook. The 19th century saw reforms know as tanzimat enacted, while under Abdul Hamid II and especially in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire underwent a period of modernisation with a completely revised education system and the implementation of the Empire's first telegraph and railway systems. While things did not always move in one direction, and a privilege was as likely to be revoked as granted, when viewed from the East the Ottomans of this era were very much seen as the bridge to Europe and new ways of life.

In 1892 the first railway in the Middle East opened, linking Jaffa to Jerusalem, using the know-how of a French company. Meanwhile the Ottoman alliance with Germany brought scientific and military reform. It was this modernisation which created the need for accurate time keeping in the first place. Prior to the arrival of the trains, time keeping was done in the mosques using often quite sophisticated sun and moon observations. Prayer times would be announced from the minaret but this level of accuracy could never match the need of a modern railway system.

So although the Ottoman Empire in 1900 may look like a dying beast to Western eyes, to those here in the Middle East the clock towers were symbolic of a massive, Ottoman-led wave of modernisation. And you can see many of the clock towers on our tours! We have Jaffa-Tel Aviv walking tours starting beside the clock tower every Sunday, Monday and Friday. You can see the Nablus tower every Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and the Nazareth tower on Sundays and Wednesdays.


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