As I walk around the special collection in the Istanbul Topkapı Palace Museum, which also contains limited mechanical watches from across the world, it seems like I am on a journey through time. There are watches from all countries in this collection of timekeepers collected by the Ottoman dynasty. Seeing clocks made by Mevlevi Ahmed Eflaki Dede, who is regarded as one of the earliest clock craftsmen of the Ottoman era, Mehmet Şükrü, and Süleyman Leziz Bey still in working order makes me so happy. The chapter in the book by Otto Kurz European Clocks and Watches in the Near East, in which it explains the journey of clocks and watches from the East to the West in the 14th and 15th centuries, comes to my mind. I am setting out to meet clockmakers and repairers in Istanbul to gain more information on the fate of clocks that were once made with great effort and patience.
Clocks of Sultans First of all, I am visiting the workshop of Recep Gürgen, a clockmaker who has maintained the clock collections in the Topkapı and Dolmabahçe Palaces with great care for many years. The walls and tables are full of clocks that I have never seen before. Each of these has survived as a witness of a different period. Although Gürgen has knowledge of all kinds of clocks and watches, he is actually a palace clockmaker. He first became acquainted with his occupation in the 1960s when he was just 14 years old. A few years after learning the basics of clock repairing, he began to work with Wolfgang Meyer, grandson of German Johann Meyer who was a clockmaker for Abdulhamid II –this is how his adventure began. “The construction of clocks in the palace was different. As there were so many rooms there were large numbers of clocks in the palaces. In Topkapı Palace alone, there were 300, and in Dolmabahçe Palace, there were 200 clocks. When I worked with clock craftsman Wolfgang Meyer, I also had the opportunity of maintaining and repairing these clocks.” I am startled by the gong-like sound of an antique clock. An imposing clock beside me on the table attracts my attention. This clock, embellished with handmade decorations and Ottoman writings, is a piece of artwork. Gürgen, who explains that towards the end of the 1800s clocks were produced in the Haliç (Golden Horn) shipyard, says, “In the old times, the most important inventions were made under the state. These clocks appeared in the furnished sections of the palaces. There are only four or five examples similar to this left in Turkey.” As I bid farewell to Recep Gürgen who has carried out maintenance and repaired almost 20,000 clocks to this day, the phrase on his business card “There is no clock impossible to repair.” sticks in my mind. Leaving this special workshop that has a view of the Golden Horn, I head towards the Grand Bazaar to meet clockmaker Ali Riza Balcı.
Clock Craftsmanship in the Heart of the Bazaar I am in the colorful world of the Grand Bazaar that hosts millions of visitors every year and is known as the world’s largest covered bazaar… Passing through shops selling rugs, jewelry, souvenirs, and antiques, I reach the tiny shop in the Inner Bazaar (İç Bedestan). In the shop window, there are tens of shining pocket watches in working order waiting for buyers. Ali Riza Balcı’s story of how he became interested in watches began when he was at university. When he was studying history at Istanbul University, he learned how to repair mechanical pocket watches from an expert in the Grand Bazaar. Since then -almost forty years ago- he has repaired pocket watches that are 200-300 years old and heirlooms or part of his customers’ collections. Balcı, who says that there are watchmaking schools in many European countries, tells me, “As horologists, one of our greatest dreams was to have an horology school in Turkey, and eventually, in recent months, the Micro-mechanic and Watch Technology Department was opened in Bursa. Watchmaking is a culture and trend, and it is important to teach it to the new generations in order to ensure this culture continues.” I am fascinated by the elegant enamel decoration on a 200-yearold, gold-plated pocket watch I picked up. Balcı explains that this watch is exclusively handmade and was produced in France, and adds, “A watch is like a living organism. Every watch awaits another watch, because we complete the missing pieces with new watches that are brought to us, and this is how we give life to these watches.” Balcı explains that there is no room for even the tiniest mistake in watchmaking, and carries out his trade with great care. The craftsman says that the global brands began to produce electronic watches in the 1980s, but over time, they realized that a watch is a piece of art, and began to produce mechanic watches again.
Historical Clocks of Historical Towers I leave the Grand Bazaar, and set out for the shop in the backstreets of Şişli owned by Metin Coşkun who has become an expert in the clocks of the clock towers. Inside the shop, there is the echoing rhythm of tens of pendulums. As I wait for the craftsman to arrive, for a few minutes, I relax by the sound of the clocks. The craftsman, who began his occupation at the age of eight, has been in this trade for almost 50 years. In recent years, he has been involved in repairing clocks. “Repairing clock towers is the “nirvana” of this trade. Not every horologist can reach this level. Clocks can survive without breaking down for 100 years. Over time, the wheels become worn, and after removing these one by one, we redesign and produce these pieces. On completion of the repairs and maintenance, the clocks continue to operate for many more centuries.” Pointing out that there are almost twenty historical clock towers in Turkey, Metin Coşkun says the clock towers in squares represent the authority of the state and signify the importance given to the people. Currently, Coşkun is repairing the clock of the Saint Esprit Cathedral in the yard of Istanbul’s Lycée Notre Dame de Sion. He explains that the old clocks operate by gravity, and weights tied onto the end of weight lines enabling the wheels to turn, which produces energy. He adds, “Apart from craftsmanship, there is also art in restoring the clocks. While restoring these clocks, we have to maintain their original appearance and the same acoustics. Without spoiling their historical texture, we model these on wood and employ the same color on the actual monument.” The sparkle in his eyes clearly reveals his passion for his trade.
From Family Heirlooms to Collections I continue on the Anatolian side of the city. I’m on my way to Moda, the colorful district of Kadiköy, to meet Nezihi Arıcı who comes from a family that has continued the craftsmanship of clock repairs for four generations. The clocks on the walls that have been restored by the expert welcome visitors. The cuckoo, pendulum, and glass bell clocks, and pocket watches immediately take me back to my childhood. Apart from being an expert in wall and table clocks, Nezihi Arıcı redesigns and modernizes old wrist watches, and sells them online. Among them there are also expensive collections. The craftsman, who has carried out watch and clock repairs for half a century, explains that during the 1980s he traveled around European countries like an archaeologist researching and collecting old watches and clocks. “During that period I brought back not only mechanical clocks, but also 50 electronic watches. Naturally, people who saw these for the first time purchased them immediately. But electronic can never replace mechanical clocks. The life of mechanical clocks is eternal.” During our conversation, a Viennese-made wall clock from the 1800s begins to chime. “This clock belongs to a collection. Many people bring British-, French-, and German-made clocks inherited from their families to be repaired. Even today, handcrafted cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest region in Germany are brought to us; we repair these and send them home.” Nezihi Arıcı says that the sound of these clocks has a meditative effect, and adds that repairing them also has a curing effect from aches and pains. He continues, “A clock has a spirit, and we make a great effort to get these in working order. A wall clock is a part of a home’s furniture, its decoration. As you walk through the door, the first thing you do is look at a clock. And when you look at this, you feel happy. It warns you about where you come from, and where you are going in life. Clocks have many meanings. A clock relaxes people like the sound of a stream, the chirps of a bird; it enables you to concentrate and eliminates tiredness. The sound of a clock helps you to recover.” I look at my wrist watch which is a family heirloom. It’s telling me that it is time to go. As I leave the world of clocks and watches, I realize that the story of these horologists will continue for many more years to come.