“Time is hope… time is obscurity… pushing forward while slipping back… ever beginning anew… set your watch not… and watch your life unsettle as a result…”
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, The Time Regulation Institute
It takes an extraordinary imagination to comprehend the flow, the antiquity, and the power of time. And yet, we believe we can accompany time on its march, through the usage of timepieces. At best, it will take you around nine seconds to read this sentence. For the Solar System to complete a single lap around the Milky Way however, 230 million years will have to pass.
While galactic years seem far removed from being part of daily concerns, we calculate regular years as the sum total of 365 days and 6 hours for the sake of convenience. Using the system developed by the Ancient Greeks with inspirations drawn from the Babylonians, we divide each hour into 60 minutes, and each minute into 60 seconds. Using intricate mechanisms made up of gears driving one another at ratios based on their diameters and the number of teeth, we convince ourselves that we can measure time.
Pera Museum invites you to a journey through time to explore the most demanding of mechanical systems: clocks.
Anatolian Weights and Measures Collection is one of the three main collection categories of Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Pera Museum. Established by Suna and İnan Kıraç in the 1980s, this worldwide collection includes all primary weight units and measurement instruments used in Anatolia for nearly four thousand years since the second millennium BC, and it features 10,000 weighing and measuring tools used in a variety of fields from surveying to commerce, and by various professionals including architects, moneychangers, mariners, and pharmacists. One of the crown jewels of the collection is the mechanical clock by the last Ottoman master clockmaker, Mustafa Şem’i Pek.
In the first leg of our voyage, we accompany the clock on its journey from the Pera Museum’s storage, where time stands still during its unending march, to the workshop of a clockmaker. It takes 2,100 seconds for the clock to leave the storage and arrive at the workshop. Meanwhile, a beam of light travels 186,000 miles per second.
If we were able to travel as fast as a beam of light, we would be able to cast our gaze to five centuries ago, to a time where a man named Takiyüddin, the royal astronomer of Murad II in the 16th century Istanbul, wrote about mechanical contraptions that dared to measure time. Takiyüddin referred to these clocks as “devices that require grueling labor and modest artisans to manufacture.” Apparently, the making of a mechanical clock was seen as a difficult and arduous challenge, even for the royal astronomer of the Sultan.
During the 17th century Ottoman Empire, European clockmakers in search of new markets began playing their trade in the Galata district of Istanbul, where consulates were located. From the 17th century to early 20th century, less than 50 domestic clocks were manufactured. Despite the Ottomans’ growing fascination with mechanical timepieces, there were virtually no clock towers in the Empire until the last quarter of the 19th century, save for a single exception. By the end of the century, however, numerous towers were constructed one after another, along with façade clocks known as mebani.
The only artisan in İstanbul known to build clock towers in that era is Mustafa Şem’i Pek, who is also the maker of the clock in our collection. Born in the 1870s, Mustafa Şem’i was made apprentice to a clockmaker at an early age. According to his memories conveyed through Recep Gürgen–one of his apprentices and the clockmaker who repaired his clock today for Pera Museum–Mustafa Şem’i would spend long hours in his workshop in Çemberlitaş during the period when he served as a mathematics instructor at Sultanahmet Vocational School.
Mustafa Şem’i’s workshop occupied the top floor of store 29 in Çemberlitaş. While he was known for being meticulous at his trade and his perfectionism in clock making tools, he was famed for his town clocks, clock towers, and façade clocks. The two clocks that adorn the entrance of the Ministry of War building, today serving as the main campus of the Istanbul University, were manufactured by him in the 1900s.
He also produced façade clocks for a number of educational institutions, including Robert College. Today, in Boğaziçi University, the front façade of the building named Albert Long Hall houses a round-face Mustafa Şem’i clock. The façade clocks of the Haydarpaşa Railway Station, Haydarpaşa High School, and Maritime Lines buildings, among many others, bear his signature. These clocks around the city were built during the reign of Abdülhamid II for the purpose of introducing and promoting the concept of “working hours” to students, and to citizens visiting government offices in Istanbul for business.
Mustafa Şem’i’s continued to work from his office in Çemberlitaş until his death in the 1950s. During his life, he introduced systematic standards to clock making with a catalogue he published, in which he gave a detailed account of certain aspects of the trade such as craftsmanship and prices. His clocks, built from strong materials and with great skill, are durable and accurate -as accurate as a clock can be…
Clock #31 by Mustafa Şem’i, one of the outstanding pieces in the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation’s Anatolian Weights and Measures Collection on display in Pera Museum, was restored by Recep Gürgen. Its main timekeeping element–the pendulum–was rebuilt. The clock takes its energy from its weight; and the form of its machinery, dial and gears serves as the unique signature of its maker. After waiting long years to tick once more, the clock is now on display, having been brought back to working condition.