For Whom the Clock Ticks? Cannon Balls, Cruise Ships and Capital Accumulation on the Bosphorus

Editor’s note: Istanbul is the Metropolis of the Month for September. This is the sixth entry in the series. You can read additional entries, as they are published, linked at the conclusion of this post.

By Yasemin Akçagüner

As the ferry approaches the port of Karaköy on the European bank of the Bosphorus, the mast of a 174 year old clock tower peeks out from behind the shiny façade of a new waterfront commercial development. The Tophane Clock Tower is nestled between the newly redesigned Istanbul Modern Art Museum and a 1.2-kilometer-long shopping center and cruise ship port called Galataport. Built in 1848-49 under Sultan Abdülmecid as the clock tower of the Ottoman Imperial Cannonball Foundry (Tophane-i Amire), the Tophane Clock Tower is the oldest standing Ottoman clock tower in Istanbul. Originally located on the waterfront and a stone’s throw away from the Nusretiye Mosque (1822-26), the clock tower was shielded from sight and in a decrepit state for many decades until its recent restoration as part of the much criticized Galataport project. The history of the Tophane Clock Tower offers a unique vantage point from which to understand the Galataport project as a new chapter in the longer history of the politics of urban development in the Tophane neighborhood.

A site for the disembarkation of foreign ships since at least the early nineteenth century, the Tophane port in the district of Karaköy, with the Tophane Clock Tower at its center, has long projected an image of imperial grandeur and of contemporaneity with modernizing Europe. This show of imperial might and aesthetic contemporaneity worked to disguise the Ottoman Empire’s peripheralization within the emerging global economy—its reduction to semi-colonial status as an exporter of raw materials for European industry and subsequently as a captive market for cheap European commodities. The Galataport project continues this tradition of masking economic peripheralization, this time in the neoliberal economy of AKP-era Turkey.[1] As the Turkish Lira rapidly depreciates, the Galataport mall serves once again as a marketplace, but this time to the exclusion of local consumers who cannot afford the goods and services on offer. The Galataport becomes, in the eyes of Istanbul residents, a playground for cruise line passengers chasing favorable exchange rates. They do so in the shadow of the Tophane Clock Tower, which remains at once in place and out of place, endowing the commercial project of an AKP-backed private developer with historical caché.

Photographs of the clock tower before (November 2015) and after (September 2022) the restoration. The clock tower’s restoration as part of the Galataport project unearthed an additional level of the clock tower which includes the base and pedestal that were previously buried underground. In summer of 2022 a new wall was erected to pen the clock tower in and separate it from the surrounding public space. Photograph by author.

The Galataport project introduces to Istanbul a concept familiar in the United States, and especially in New York—that of privately-owned public space. Jerold S. Kayden, who coined the term, defines privately owned public space as: “1. a plaza, arcade, or other outdoor or indoor space provided for public use by a private office or residential building owner in return for a zoning concession 2. a type of public space characterized by the combination of private ownership and zoning-specified public use.”[2]  The term can only be approximately applied, and only to a subsection of the Galataport project, however—the waterfront walk path that is walled off from the sea whenever cruise ships dock. And even this walk path, which is sandwiched between parked cruise ships and the Galataport strip mall with an array of high end shops and restaurants, is accessible only after going through metal detectors.

The Galataport project was branded from the very beginning as a project for public benefit. Billboards plastered all around the construction read “Tarih Senin. Gelecek Senin.” (History is yours. Future is yours.) and “Şehir Senin. Deniz Senin.” (The City is yours. The Sea is yours.). Unsurprisingly then, the debate within the architecture and urban planning community in Istanbul, as well as within the Turkish-language press more broadly, revolved around the problematic of designating the sea shore—by law a public space in Turkey—for private development.[3] On the one hand, the project renovated and opened up a formerly inaccessible section of the Bosphorus to semi-public use. On the other hand, by turning this section of the shore into a gated commercial area and cruise ship port, it raised new kinds of barriers to accessing a space that is meant for the use of all.

Critics of the project argue that the Galataport project shows the Turkish government’s zeal to put private profit over public good, while supporters of the project believe that the cruise ship tourism Galataport stimulates will benefit Turkey’s economy in the long run. The former position bears a degree of false nostalgia, while the latter presents unfounded optimism. As the history of the Tophane Clock Tower demonstrates, the quay of Tophane was historically a space of imperial ceremony geared primarily towards conveying the majesty of the Sultan to foreigners arriving in Istanbul by sea—not a space of public recreation for Istanbul’s residents. Meanwhile, the longer history of defensive developmentalism in the Ottoman Empire, which I will not attempt to deal with in this short blog post, shows how becoming a marketplace for foreign commodities in a (neo)liberal economy has served primarily  to enrich a small class of elites.[4]

“Tophana – Entrance to Pera” by Thomas Allom, in Robert Walsh, Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor: Illustrated (London ; Paris: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1838).

In the early nineteenth century, prior to the building of the Tophane Clock Tower, the neighborhood of Tophane was “the great point of embarkation, either for the Bosphorus of the Sea of Marmara,” wrote Robert Walsh, an Irish priest who resided in Constantinople in the 1820s. “In a country where there are no carriages, nor, properly speaking, roads to run them upon, water is the great medium of conveyance. This then is the resort of a continual moving mass, of all nations and costumes. Along the shore, beside a modern slip and platform, light caïques, and the heavier barges of the Princess’ Islands, are in constant attendance. Above is a range of coffee-houses, where the caïquegees sit over their coffee and chiboque till a passenger appears, and they are invited to attend him.”[5] In 1848 when it was first built, the Tophane Clock Tower turned the quay into a ceremonial space, displaying the European face of the Ottoman Empire to foreign envoys and merchants disembarking in the Karaköy quay.


Francis Bedford’s 1862 photograph of the Nusretiye Mosque and Tophane Clock Tower. Cannons from the cannon foundry are in the foreground. The sea reaches within a few meters of the clock tower. Francis Bedford, Cairo to Constantinople : Francis Bedford’s Photographs of the Middle East (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2013).

The clock tower’s location used to be directly on the waterfront as seen in the Francis Bedford photograph of 1862 which displays the Nusretiye Mosque in the background and the cannons from the cannon foundry lined up in the foreground.[6] In a formalist reading, scholars have interpreted Ottoman clock towers as agents of Westernization and secularization, owing to the towers’ architectural styles ranging from neo-classical to baroque.[7] But taking into account the alla Turca time their clocks displayed, their locations and monumental relationship to nearby mosques provides an alternative reading of the significance and function of these clock towers.

Section of Pervititch map showing the locations of the Tophane Clock Tower, Tophane Kasrı (small summer palace), Nusretiye Mosque and the Tophane Military Barracks/Cannon Foundry, relative to each other, from Jacques Pervititch, “Tchikour-Boston: Top-Hane,” Plan Cadastral d’Assurances, January 1927, Depo, İ.B.B. Atatürk Kitaplığı Sayısal Arşiv ve e-Kaynaklar.

The Tophane Clock Tower, which is about fifteen meters high, does not surpass the height of the minarets of the Nusretiye mosque. The cannons from the cannon foundry are placed in a line in front of the Bosphorus in a show of military might. All components are visible from the sea, with the vertical mosque minarets and the clock tower contributing to the silhouette of the city. The composition of these elements is accessible to locals as well as foreign emissaries and tradesmen who came from the sea on their ships or “caïques” (lightweight, wooden boats) and docked at the nearby Karaköy quay where the customs buildings were located. Furthermore, the Tophane Kasrı (Pavillion) stood between the clock tower and the military barracks and was used to greet foreign statesmen who arrived by sea; a number of peace agreements were signed in the Pavillion. Thus, this piazza with the mosque, the clock tower, the barracks, and the pavilion is among the first spaces a foreign statesman or tradesman of importance would have entered having disembarked from their ships onto the quay. Today, the merchants and envoys of the nineteenth century are replaced by cruise ship passengers, and the clock, pavilion, and barracks no longer serve their Ottoman-era ceremonial functions. The barracks are today part of the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, and the pavilion is currently undergoing restoration as part of the Galataport project. The Tophane Clock Tower, whose time telling function is no longer relevant, serves a different aesthetic function from when it was originally built. The clock tower’s restoration as part of the Galataport project serves to lend cultural and historical distinctiveness—an Ottoman flavor—to the Galataport commercial development, which is otherwise a strip mall in the International style built for cruise line passengers scavenging for deals in a depreciated currency.

Strategically placed in the vicinity of the port, the clock tower originally represented a Europeanized face to those coming by sea. The clock tower is not only European in its typology but also stylistically. The four-story tower exhibits a collage of European architectural styles, starting with Renaissance classical orders (doric columns on the first level, ionic pilasters on the second) and ending with Baroque-style floral corbels on the third and fourth levels that echo the ornamentation of the neighboring Nusretiye mosque. The chronology represented stylistically along the tower gestured towards the Empire’s contemporaneity with European architectural fashions.

All levels of the clock tower are adorned, in some way or form, with stone spheres that represent the cannonballs manufactured in this very neighborhood in the Imperial Cannonball Foundry. The spheres emphasize the clock tower’s symbiotic connection with the Imperial Artillery but also point to different modalities in telling time, audible and visual. Cannonballs were blasted to mark sunrise and sunset times audibly in the Ottoman Empire, and navy ships relied on the sound of the blasts to calibrate their clocks. In fact, the Irish priest and traveler Robert Walsh remarked in his description of Tophane: “There is nothing, perhaps, in which a Turk more delights, than in the discharge of a cannon. It is, therefore, the sound that is heard every day, and almost all day long. It announces the rising and setting of the sun; the birth of a child, and the death of a traitor; the movement of the Sultan in all directions; the opening and closing of the Ramazan and Bayram, and other religious periods.”[8] The Tophane clock tower brought with it a new, mechanical visibility to time.

Despite its European style and typology, the clock tower remained alla Turca in its function. It displayed the same solar apparent (alla Turca) time that was previously marked by cannonball blasts and calls to prayer. In alla Turca time, twelve o’clock was set to reflect sunset time —the time of the evening prayer—and the clocks required recalibration every few days as a result of the change in seasons.[9] This meant the muwaqqit or timekeeper of the Nusretiye Mosque needed to climb up the narrow staircase inside the Tophane clock tower and recalibrate the clocks, in addition to calculating the times of the daily prayers. Thus, the clock tower depended on the mosque for its proper functioning and is better understood as part of the Nusretiye mosque complex. This is also true for the three other clock towers built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Dolmabahçe, Yıldız, and Şişli Etfal clock towers) which were all built in conjunction with specific imperial mosques.

Sebah & Joaillier 1890 photograph of the clock tower taken facing southeast towards Galata and away from the Nusretiye Mosque. The clock tower, surrounded by cannon carriages, is in the middle with the Tophane Kasrı to the right in the photograph. The seashore has been filled in, from Engin Özendes, Photography in the Ottoman Empire, 1839-1923 (Fulya/Istanbul: YEM Yayın, 2013).

Moving towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were several changes to the space around the clock tower. A photograph from 1890 by Sebah & Joaillier shows that the sea immediately in front of the clock tower was filled in for the building of a quay. This quay is also visible in the Pervititch insurance map of 1924, which establishes the spatial relationship of the elements I have mentioned. The clock tower has a commanding presence over the open, empty, square-like public space immediately surrounding it. It is adjacent to a quay that is geometrically regularized, as well. In fact, the military barracks behind the clock tower and the structures along its sides enclose the space surrounding the clock tower, creating a U-shaped military barracks complex with a clock tower in the middle. The open, courtyard-like space allows the surveillance of soldiers by their superiors, enabling the superiors to enforce punctuality on the soldiers in line with the time of the clock tower. The regularized geometric open space around the clock tower allows the exhibition of the newly minted cannons to both the residents of Istanbul and the foreign visitors coming to the city by sea, creating a space for glorious ceremonies welcoming visitors and dignitaries. Thus, the Tophane clock tower, as the first clock tower in Istanbul, set a precedent for the use of clock towers as architectural tools of imperial legitimation in the Ottoman Empire.

The current Galataport project squanders an opportunity to showcase the historical silhouette of this section of the shoreline when viewed from the sea, a silhouette marked by the minarets of the Kılıç Ali Paşa and Nusretiye mosques as well as the Tophane clock tower. On the Galata side, the pedestrians who utilize the newly reconstructed walk path, or rather those pedestrians who put up with multiple metal detector scans to access a constitutionally public yet in practice privatized patch of shoreline, are met with several meters-tall barriers that separate them from the cruise ships in a complete obstruction of their views of the Bosphorus. However, the historic function of the Tophane neighborhood and quay as a space for the trade of goods and the mixing of people of all nations, as Robert Walsh would describe it, continues in the form of cruise ship tourism with the Galataport project.

 Today the Tophaneclock tower stands in the middle of a gated commercial square only accessible to pedestrians through metal detectors. The Galataport shopping mall offers a selection of mid- to high-end stores where only a small segment of Istanbul’s population can afford to shop. It is impossible to access the waterfront without going through metal detectors, and the barriers between the cruise ships and the walk path mean the sea is altogether obscured from view even when the “waterfront” walk path is accessed. It brings to bear the question: what does the clock tower’s restoration and current presence in the midst of Galataport legitimize?

The Tophane clock tower caters today to cruise ship passengers in search of cultural authenticity amidst a commercial development without meaningful public function for the residents of Istanbul. Although Istanbul residents have been excited for a project that promised to create spaces for the public’s enjoyment of the Bosphorus, the locals who do visit can be heard complaining about the lack of sea access and the prices of merchandise and services. When the clock tower first appeared in 1848 it was as a tragedy—a failed attempt at disguising the Ottoman Empire’s integration into the global economy on unequal footing with Europe. Following its restoration, it now appears a second time—this time as farce.

This piece benefited greatly from conversations with Rana Irmak Aksoy and Gabriel Young. I thank them for their help and patience. I also thank Francesco De Salvatore for insightful comments on an earlier draft of the piece and the editorial team at The Metropole.

Additional posts on Istanbul


Yasemin Akçagüner is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Columbia University, New York. She studies the history of temporalities, science, and medicine in the late Ottoman Empire. 

Featured image (at top): View of Galataport and the Tophane quay from the sea. The tip of the Tophane Clock Tower’s mast peeks out from behind the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. Photograph by author.


[1] AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – Justice and Development Party) has been the ruling political party in Turkey since 2002 and is headed by current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

[2] Jerold S. Kayden, “WHAT ARE POPS?,” Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS) and The Municipal Art Society of New York, https://apops.mas.org/about/what-are-pops/.

[3] See the Boğaziçi Kanunu (Bosphorus Law) No. 2960 of 1983, https://www.mevzuat.gov.tr/mevzuatmetin/1.5.2960.pdf.

[4] For an in-depth discussion of the concept, see James L. Gelvin, “Defensive Developmentalism,” in The Modern Middle East : A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 71–86.

[5] Thomas Allom and Robert Walsh, Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor: Illustrated (London ; Paris: Fisher, Son, & Co, 1838), 21.

[6] Hakkı Acun, Anadolu Saat Kuleleri. (Ankara: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi 1994), 19.

[7] Mehmet Bengü Uluengin, “Secularizing Anatolia Tick by Tick: Clock Towers in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42, no. 1 (2010): 17–36.

[8] Allom and Walsh, Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, 20.

[9] For an in-depth discussion of the phenomenon of alla Turca time see Avner Wishnitzer, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca : Time and Society in the Late Ottoman Empire (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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