Double Time: the Exciting Story of the Clock Tower

by Eli Ilan

How did your last week go?  Quickly?  Slowly? It’s interesting how time is relative and always in motion. In Jerusalem, it’s not just time that changes - but also clocks.

This is the story of the famous clock tower which stood for 15 years atop Jaffa Gate, right across from the Tower of David, a story of the last days of a struggling empire and essentially, about the significance of the concept of time in our lives.

Once upon a time:
Over 100 years ago, at the end of the 18th century, public places under the sovereignty of the Ottoman empire measured time in a special way. Time in Ottoman, Muslim places was based on the cycle of the five daily prayers.  Every action - like opening stores, schools and scheduling meetings - was set in relation to the time of the prayer which was nearest to it.  The time of the prayers was set by the “muwaqqit” (“timekeeper” in English) in the mosque. Every day the prayer schedule was updated according to calculations based on the time of sunset. 

Thus, a European visitor described the situation in an Ottoman city in 1880. “Consequently there is a daily alteration of a few minutes, and this makes it extremely difficult to keep your watch right, and not to be too late or too early for everything.  No two clocks or watches in the whole town are, I believe, exactly alike.”  

This method for marking time existed until the 19th century when the Ottoman sultan wanted to synchronize with industrialized, advanced Europe.  As part of this plan, and to portray a sparkling, modern image, the Ottomans constructed no fewer than 43 clock towers in different cities in thei empire between the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

At that time, Jerusalem was developing, and had attained important, international status and joined the “festival” of the clock towers.
In 1904, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, publisher of the newspaper “Hashkafa”,  wrote, “The city’s most important square for pedestrians and their carts is adjacent to Jaffa Gate; and, in order to further beautify this portal,  the ruling powers of the city directed the municipality to build a beautiful tower above the gate to house a large clock for the city.”

In 1907 the ruler of Jerusalem, Ali Ekrem Bey, erected the Jerusalem clock tower atop Jaffa Gate.  The impressive tower became a focal point and aided in connecting two systems of counting time:  two faces of the clock displayed European time and the other two faces showed Ottoman time!

מגדל השעון בשער יפו
Photo: United States Library of Congress, Matson Photograph Collection

The clock tower didn’t remain in place for very long, though.

After the British conquest of the city, the Civil Governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, decided that the tower did not match the inspiring, biblical character which defined the rest of the cityscape.  Despite protests from segments of the Jerusalem public, the tower was dismantled in 1922.
The disassembly of the clock tower represents, even today, both physically and symbolically, the end of Ottoman control In Jerusalem. In a larger sense, the clock tower gave an additional perspective on the very idea of time and its significance, and shed light on the wonderful ability to connect between the East and the West, and between different traditions, attitudes, and habits. All this is present in the story of one clock in the most central spot in the city.
Thanks to Dr. Avner Wishnitzer for his informative article, “Time Webs:  On Schedules, Clock Towers, and the Transformation of Urban Rhythms in the Ottoman Empire” which appeared in the journal “Zmanim”, Issue 119 (Summer 2012).