Royal Mecca Clock Tower is an investment in national pride

World Following in the footsteps of the Ottoman Empire through its sheer scale and glitz, the colossal Saudi clock tower may just succeed in changing the watches of the world.

Following in the footsteps of the Ottoman Empire through its sheer scale and glitz, the colossal Saudi clock tower may just succeed in changing the watches of the world, writes Frederick Deknatel 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.

The clock tower and complex is a hospitality project and, its developer hopes, a magnet for tourists. For the King Abdul Aziz Endowment that is behind the development, Abraj al Beit is part of a plan to triple the number of pilgrims that Mecca can handle during haj, to 10 million. The development reportedly will boast the most building floor space in the world, tying with Dubai International Airport's Terminal 3. It could hold 65,000 people during the haj amidst its hotels, luxury apartments, malls, prayer halls and conference centres. The clock, six times the size of Big Ben, represents an investment in national pride, with the requisite Islamic flavour. Its 21,000 white and green lights - visible from 30 kilometres away - will flash five times each day, calling the faithful to prayer.

The first of its four faces, 40 metres in diameter, began ticking at the start of Ramadan and will run for a three-month trial - the first step, some hope, toward supplanting the 126-year-old Greenwich meridian with "Mecca time". It's only prudent, some clerics and scholars argue, since Mecca is the "true global meridian" and "in perfect alignment with the magnetic north", according to the popular Egyptian TV cleric, Yusuf al Qaradawi. A 2008 conference in Doha that he and others attended, called "Mecca, the Centre of the Earth, Theory and Practice", argued that Mecca was the centre of the globe and that "the English had imposed GMT on the rest of the world by force when Britain was a big colonial power", according to the BBC. Mohammed al Arkubi, the manager of the Fairmont hotel located in the coveted clock tower, put it simply: "Putting Mecca time in the face of Greenwich Mean Time. This is the goal."

But credible science says definitively that Mecca is not on a line with the Magnetic North Pole. And Greenwich Mean Time has already been replaced - since 1972 - by a global network of atomic clocks (which keep the more egalitarian Coordinated Universal Time). The rhetoric around the giant Mecca clock seems unaware of the history of clock building and time setting in the region. A century ago, Sultan Abdulhamid fashioned himself as an Islamic reformer carrying on the spirit of the Tanzimat, the liberal reorganisation of the empire that historians generally date from 1839 to 1876, when a new Ottoman constitution was drafted. Abdulhamid suspended that constitution in 1878 but continued to modernise Ottoman cities, one of the Tanzimat's central objectives.

"The Ottoman Sultan, the Meiji emperor, the Russian tzar, the Habsurg emperor were all drawn towards the 20th century at different tempos," the historian Deringil writes in The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876-1909. But they all trod "down broadly similar paths." In the early 1900s, clock towers were likely as much a novelty to residents in Jaffa as they were in a wayward town in modern-day Russia or Germany. Trains and clock towers were the product of a competition between kings, based on "how their peers were playing the role of 'civilised monarch'", as Deringil puts it. Western Europe was the model - industrial France and Britain, home of Big Ben, which opened in London in 1859, in honour of Queen Victoria. The development of clock towers across the Sultan's Arab provinces was a nod to all that, not just an autocrat's assertion of control and progress. They reflected a desire to be modern, if not western. They were "secular bids for legitimacy", as Deringil writes, that sprang up near the multitude of mosques that were also built or refurbished and stamped with the Sultan's seal across the empire at the time.

But today Abdulhamid is not remembered for his clocks: he ruled during an era of great Ottoman public works, in particular the Hijaz Railway that connected Istanbul with Medina. (It never reached Mecca, as intended.) A self-described defender of the faith and promoter of an essential, Islamic Ottomanism, Abdulhamid reasserted his right to the title of caliph, which previous Sultans had shunned. Today the only monarch who claims such a title is the king of Saudi Arabia. In 1986, in a move to bolster the kingdom's Islamic standing after the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and counter the rise of internal Islamist critics, King Fahd adopted a new title, "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques". "Your Majesty" and other secular honours were out. King Abdullah, Fahd's successor, is a kind of reformer too - who, as The Economist says, "deserves much credit for the general lightening of tone" in the conservative kingdom. He has pushed quiet social changes in the Saudi context - still no female drivers - and put billions into education and public works. He has a much smaller dominion than Abdulhamid, and will, it seems, be satisfied with one, giant clock.

And yet when Abdulhamid's clock towers were springing up across the Middle East, the world had only recently adapted the arbitrary Greenwich standard. GMT was established during the height of the British Empire, when its ships ruled the sea lanes and set their chronometers, which measure time and longitude astronomically, relative to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. In 1884, 25 nations at the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC adopted Greenwich as the prime meridian. Like any monarch seeking to be modern, Abdulhamid and his advisers used clocks, ultimately set to that distant standard, to signal a newly ordered world - or at least "an appearance of order," in the historian Timothy Mitchell's terms.

In the Sultan's jubilee year of 1900-1901, clock towers were announced in Arab towns like Acre, Haifa, Safed and Nazareth, and in new or refurbished public squares in Tripoli, Aleppo and Jaffa. Beirut's clock tower, central to the new skyline of the growing Ottoman port city, had just been built in response to local demands for a public clock with the mandatory Muslim prayer times. (A number of "foreign institutions" had public clock towers in Beirut, the governor wrote to the Sultan, but "all of them with a western clock"). The clocks were "components of a concerted imperial policy," as Jens Hanseen writes in Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital, to plant a modern, Ottoman architectural identity in provincial cities. They were a sign that "the empire would evolve with the times, its days properly divided into hours and minutes," according to Adam LeBor's description of the Jaffa clock tower in City of Oranges.

The champions of Mecca time who describe GMT as an imposition from the West are gazing at the 21,000 green and white lights atop the Mecca clock tower, and not at history. If anything, it was the Turkish Sultan who imposed Western time on his Arab provinces, even if many Arab administrators, merchants and residents were calling for it. It was the way to be modern - Abdulhamid and his advisers promoted a European standard of time as a measure of municipal reform meant to extend a modernising but fading Ottoman identity beyond Istanbul. More than a century later, the Mecca clock tower, arguably one of the least attractive buildings to be erected during the last decade's skyscraper boom, has a rather more modest aim despite its grandiose pretensions: to challenge the international timekeeping standard through size and flash alone.

Frederick Deknatel, a former Fulbright fellow in Syria, is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation and other publications.