In his celebrated novel The Clock Adjustment Institute, the 20th-century Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar writes, ‘The watch which is the most intimate friend of its owner, the companion to the beat of his pulse at his wrist, a friend at his breast sharing all his joys and sorrows, heated by the warmth of his body and espoused by his organism, and the clock which stands on his table and experiences with him all the happenings of the time span which we call a day, both inevitably come to resemble their owner, and become accustomed to think and live like him.’
Clocks might have far more sophisticated mechanisms today, but in beauty and magnificence, those of the past are unsurpassed. The collection of 376 clocks and watches dating from the 16th to early 20th century at Topkapi Palace demonstrates this beyond all doubt. Most of these timepieces are diplomatic gifts from Western countries, some of which were used in the palace harem and pavilions, while the most valuable were kept in the Treasury.
In 1477 Sultan Mehmed II requested the Duke of Venice send mechanical clockmakers to the Ottoman capital. The first Ottoman automatic clockmaker was the astronomer Takiyuddin, who was at the same time chief astrologer to Sultan Murad III (1574-1595) and who founded an observatory in Istanbul. Takiyuddin was the first Eastern author of a book on mechanical clocks and built a watch that said prayer times. Unfortunately, not a single 16th-century Turkish clock has survived to the present day.
In the 17th-century European clockmakers in search of new markets set up workshops in Galata in Istanbul. Here foreign and Ottoman clockmakers worked together. The palace craftsmen also included clockmakers. The earliest surviving Turkish clocks date from the 17th century and are exquisite examples of handcraftsmanship. Altogether just fifty antique Turkish clocks dating between the 17th and early 20th centuries are in the collection today, although we know the names of numerous Turkish clockmakers from archive documents.
Two Turkish wall clocks in the collection were made by Bulugat and Þahin, respectively, and date from 1650. They both have a single hand showing the hours and are known in Turkish as ‘shield’ wall clocks due to their circular shape. Two of the most outstanding 17th-century watches in the collection are a weight-driven mural lantern clock signed Abdurrahman, and a silver table clock dated 1687 and bearing the signature of the maker Mustafa Aksarayî. An early brass pocket watch made in 1702 by Þeyh Dede has separate calendar dials. Eighteenth-century Turkish clocks reveal a distinct English influence. The finest examples of the weight-driven bracket clocks of this type were made by Enderunlu Zihni, Ibrahim of Edirne, Osman, Mustafa of Vidin, and Zemberekcioglu.
In the 19th century, when Turkish clocks were produced in the most significant numbers, the most exciting type was the skeleton clock, which originated in France. These clocks were made without a case so that the wheels, escapement, spring, pendulum, and balance of the mechanism could be seen, and were protected from dust by a glass bell. Many of these were made by Mevlevi clockmakers and are distinguished by having the form of the tall Mevlevi dervish headdress. The collection includes Mevlevi clocks by Ahmed Gulþeni ul Mevlevi, Sultan Mahmud II’s horologist Ahmed Eflaki Dede and his pupil Mehmed Þukru, and Huseyin Hakî. There are also clocks by Sultan Abdulaziz’s clockmaker Suleyman Leziz. The earliest European watches in the Topkapý collection date from the 16th and 17th centuries, but are few compared to the 18th and 19th centuries. A 16th century German Renaissance clock is the oldest bracket clock in the collection.
An early pendant watch -worn around the neck- with its original leather case, was made in Nuremberg in 1580. The most splendid of the 19th-century German clocks and watches is a pocket watch given to Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) by the German emperor Wilhelm II. The earliest French timepiece is a pendant watch dated 1675 by the Paris maker De Beaupre. An Austrian bracket clock with a gold case set with precious stones is one of the most valuable pieces and dates from the 1720s. English clocks and watches dominate the collection, the earliest being a gift from Queen Elizabeth I that at the time was worth 500 pounds sterling. A necklace or pendant watch in the form of a tulip dates from 1654. Chiming bracket clocks are the most numerous type, many being made by Markwick-Markham, an English firm of clockmakers produced for the Turkish market. The collection also includes 18th century enameled and jeweled pocket watches by Julian le Roy, a skeleton table clock from the reign of Louis XVI, a clock in the form of a lyre, and a table clock in a neo-gothic case dating from the second half of the 18th century. The celebrated French watchmaker Breguet produced watches for the Ottoman palace. The collection contains one of his so-called pendule sympathique clocks – of which he made only seven – presented as a gift to Mahmud II by Napoleon. These clocks were designed for use with exceptional pocket watches, which were placed in a holder in the top of the clock, and during the night were adjusted and wound automatically.
In the 19th century, Swiss watches replaced those of English manufacture in the Ottoman market. Courvoisier Frères or Chaux de Fonds and Courvoisier et Cie produced pocket watches for the Ottoman palace. Those with portraits of sultans Abdulaziz and Abdulmecid on the lids reflect the fashionable style of the time. The watches used in a model of Izmir Clock Tower made in 1901 and presented to Sultan Abdulhamid II by Izmir Municipality are of Swiss manufacture. One of the most valuable items in the collection is a table clock with a griffon figure sent as a gift to Abdulhamid II by the Russian czar Nicholas II, on the 25th anniversary of the sultan’s reign. The mechanism is Swiss, and the case was made by Fabergé, the famous jeweler at the Russian court.