When the day started in the evening

When the day started in the evening

When the day started in the evening

The last observatory in the Islamic world, which was also the first and only observatory in the Ottoman Empire, was constructed by Takiyuddin Mehmed bin Maruf, who had been invited to Istanbul from Egypt on the order of Sultan Murat III (1574-1595).

What is time? It is how we segment our days, years, centuries and millennia – to give a bare-bones definition of it. We’ve just passed into a new year based on how years are calculated in today’s society. But what about the past? And how is it that almost 100 percent of the world has accepted a calendar based on European/Christian calculations? And what if you lived in an Islamic culture instead?

People mostly accept the first notions of time passing must have been with the changing of seasons and that became the need to understand when crops ought to be planted and later harvested. It was in no way precise, perhaps until someone figured out how to measure the movement of the sun – the sun dial. The earliest records come from the Near East. It seems we have the Sumerians to thank for providing the basis for astrology, thought to have started with an Acadian scientist somewhere between 2500 and 2000 BC. The ancient Egyptians, for their part, needed to calculate the annual rise in the level of the Nile River for the sowing of their crops and divided the year into 365 days.

The Greeks, on the other hand, contributed to the discussion by separating time from religion and placing it firmly in the realm of science. Somewhere along the timeline, the decision was made to divide the day and night into two equal parts of twelve hours. This became the most commonly used system until about 1600 AD, following the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.

The Ottoman observatory

The ninth century AD saw the birth of astronomy among the Muslims, although the need to determine the proper time to pray would have had a profound effect on the need for accurate observations. The system in play divided the night and day into two equal parts but, depending on the season, the daytime hours would be longer during the summer and shorter during the night. The instruments used to determine the hours, the sundial and the astrolabe, were maintained at twelve equal hours each, in spite of reality. The first observatory was founded in Bagdad in the first half of the ninth century, then a second one and yet another in Isfahan in the eleventh century, then the famous fifteenth century observatory in Samarkand. 


Server Dayıoğlu notes in his work on the clock rooms of Istanbul that there’s no information about whether or not observatories were set up in Anatolia under the Seljuk rulers. “Astronomy and mathematics are acknowledged as having begun in the Ottoman Empire with Mahmud bin Mehmed, also known as Mirim Chelebi. The last observatory in the Islamic world, which was also the first and only observatory in the Ottoman Empire, was constructed by Takiyuddin Mehmed bin Maruf, who had been invited to Istanbul from Egypt on the order of Sultan Murat III (1574-1595). The observatory had instruments and geometry books to carry out astronomy at that time; a committee of 15 people conducted observations under the guidance of Takiyuddin.” Unfortunately, this observatory, which was located on the hill above Tophane, was shortly thereafter demolished.

Ottoman time

In spite of all the studies in the fields of astronomy and mathematics, the Ottomans continued to follow the system of dividing the day and night into two equal 12 hours. The night began at six in the evening and lasted for twelve hours until six in the morning. The day then lasted from six in the morning until six at night – the second twelve hours of the day. So a person would have to reset his clock, if they had one, every twelve hours. Since most people didn’t, they had to rely on other methods, especially since knowing the hour of prayer was important. For that reason, timekeepers were assigned to small rooms attached to mosques. It was their responsibility to know the exact time for prayers. Several of these rooms still exist in Istanbul, although they may have acquired other uses.
The Ottomans, however, seem to have been the first to have constructed elaborate, mechanical timepieces. According to a book published by V.H. Hagopian in 1907, the first Turkish clocks were made by the Mevlevi dervishes as a means of helping “initiates of the order observe fixed prayer times during long periods of meditation. More reliable than sundials and not requiring as much attention as a water clock, the clocks also provided a focus for the communal life of the monastery.”


Hagopian goes on to say, “Clock-making required a combination of talents. The purely mechanical aspect drew upon the genius of scholars like Taqi al-Din, who had studied Arabic and Persian scientific writings, while making the outer encasement required the coordinated skills of metalworkers, cabinet makers and jewelers. Available manuscripts say very little about the actual method of manufacture, but it is apparent the Mevlevis spent several years on each timepiece, with only the most basic of hand tools.”

These early watches often had intricately embellished cases. In some instances, the design took the shape of the Mevlevi’s unique headgear – a felt hat surrounded by a turban. Another example is the jeweled wall clock built around 1650 and covered with inlaid rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Yet another example is a pocket watch from 1702, on which is sown the hours, minutes, Gregorian and Arabic calendars and the signs of the Zodiac.

One of the richest clock collections in the world is in Topkapı Palace. The collection consists of 380 clocks the sultans received as diplomatic gifts or purchased. Aside from Turkish clocks, there are timepieces from Germany, Austria, England, France, Switzerland and Russia. The Turkish clocks, including wall clocks, table clocks and watches, date from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth century. 

For anyone interested in earlier clocks and instruments used for determining time, then the Istanbul Museum for the History of Science in Islam is the place to go. Located in Gülhane Park in the shadow of Topkapı Palace, it contains many models built on the basis of manuscript descriptions as well as original instruments.