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The Modern City and the Old Clock Tower

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The significance of the old Sarajevo clock tower located near the Gazi Husref-bey mosque goes beyond local traditions. It is believed that this very clock tower is the only one in the world still using once important but today very unusual standard of time. Even among the locals there are those who pass by this ancient clock tower without even asking themselves what this specific time means. Many foreigners taking one glimpse at it conclude simply that it stopped working long time ago but, the truth is quite the opposite. Its time keeping is impeccable and the standard of time it uses is rare and unique.

The Gazi Husrev bey Mosque and Sarajevo Clock Tower
Gazi Husrev bey Mosque and Sarajevo Clock Tower

Gazi Husref-bey

The name of Gazi Husref –bey is well known to all Sarajevans. He was a statesman, military leader, spiritualist and the most important benefactor of Sarajevo. In a short period he was able to transform a small town, then known as Saray-Bosna, into one of the most important trading hubs of the Balkans. His endowment (vakuf) is still maintained in accordance to three vakufnamas, three documents where all the objects are enlisted and a specific amount of money was allocated for their maintenance as well as for every job position. In addition a lot of property and many shops were made part of this endowment and they still serve as a continuous source of revenue. This enabled many objects to be built after Gazi Husref bey passed away using the income generated by this institution.

Gazi Husref-Bey Mosque

There is no mention of the clock tower in any of the three vakufnamas even though it became an important part of this legacy. The first mention of the clock tower is from the 17th century but some think it could have been built already in the 16th century. Over the years it witnessed fires and wars but the clock tower was continually restored and maintained. One of the most important changes took place in the late 19th century when the height of the tower was elevated and a new clock mechanism was brought from England because the old one was outdated. The clock-face that up until that time could be seen only from the courtyard of the mosque was added to the remaining sides of the tower as well.

Ala Turca Time

The specific time keeping used by this clock tower is referred to as the “ala turca” time and its distinct feature is showing midnight at the moment of sunset.  This label was predominantly used in the 19th century Balkans when the Ottoman empire was disappearing from the region and a new, modern culture was making inroads into the territory once called European Turkey. The term ” ala turca” referred to all the things pertaining to the Ottoman (Turkish) empire and “ala franca” referred to the the modern (Frankish) European culture, dress-code, music etc.

Although this clock is actually connected to the time of sunset many people believe it is a lunar clock tower. Lunar clock is usually part of an astronomical clock showing phases of the moon (new moon, full moon) and has a dial indicating numbers 1 to 30. Many such clocks can still exist throughout Europe, from the astronomical clock in Prague to Le Gros Horloge in Rouen. The Sarajevo clock tower is not related to the moon in any way but since Muslims all over the world are following a lunar calendar (at-taqwīm al-hijrī) people believe the clock itself is also a lunar one. In fact the clock has 12 dials and shows midnight at the exact moment of sunset which is the moment when one day ends and another day begins in Islamic tradition. Five minutes on this clock correspond to five minutes on our modern clocks, the only difference being the starting point of the time keeping.

The Time Keepers

Religious duties in Islam are precisely time determined. Knowing the time of sunset (and thus the sunset prayer) enabled Muslims to determine the time of daily prayers, thus the GHB clock tower was of utmost importance during the Ottoman period. In the former times the astronomers and scientists had to use specialized tools such as astrolabes, quadrants, and sun dials to determine the ever so important astronomical phenomena. Many such tools can still be found in the Gazi Husref-bey’s museum in the section called Time Measuring. A person in charge of keeping time is called muvekit / muwaqqit i.e. the time keeper (from arabic waqat meaning time). Even today, many centuries after being constructed, the Gazi Husref-bey’s clock tower is maintained by an official muvekit. who is adjusting the clock mechanism to the sunset time which changes throughout the year. The current muvekit is performing his duty for more than forty years, even during the siege of Sarajevo the time on the clock tower was kept with absolute precision. Muvekit’s knowledge of astronomy was of crucial importance in the previous centuries but today, when even the Islamic world has switched to the western time keeping standard the role of muvekit is more symbolic than functional.

Astrolabe from the 16th century Cairo

Modern Use

Still, the clock becomes more important during Ramadan, a holy month in Islam, when Muslims all over the world fast during the day thus performing their holy duty. The fast ends with the official moment of sunset which varies all over the world depending on the geographic location. Upon the exact moment of sunset in Sarajevo the old clock strikes midnight, the lights on Gazi Husref-bey’s mosque are illuminated and almost instantaneously a canon blast from the Yellow Fortress is heard across the city followed by the call to prayer. This is a clear signal to all the Muslims that the time has come to break the fast. Sarajevo is known to be the city where East and West coexist in harmony but we could also say that the ancient and the modern have blended effortlessly here that it seems one simply cannot do without the other.


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