If you were a monarch a century ago, you invested in the “inevitable technical trappings of modernity,” in the words of the Turkish historian Selim Deringil: trains, telegraphs, factories, steamships, world fairs and clock towers, which ordered people around hourly workdays, travel timetables and other benchmarks of modern life. The Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II was no different, and he celebrated his silver jubilee by building clocks: elegant towers in public squares from Izmir to Jaffa. The last Sultan to hold absolute power in Istanbul before being deposed by the Young Turks in 1909, Abdulhamid was a kind of reformer, even if he is dismissed in Turkey as the last despot before constitutionalism and Ataturk.
Abdulhamid’s clock towers were grand for their time – three storeys, made of stone, not too garish. He commissioned over a hundred clock towers throughout the Ottoman Empire as symbols of modernity and projections of Istanbul’s power in the increasingly restive provinces. How would Abdulhamid’s ghost look upon the colossal, seven-tower Abraj al Beit complex underway in Mecca today? Centred on the 600-metre Royal Mecca Clock Tower and its claims to house the world’s largest clock atop the world’s second tallest skyscraper, the project is nothing if not grandiose. But it is also a contradiction: it recalls and, at the same time, seeks to rebuke the era of modernisation and technological development in the late Ottoman Middle East.
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