Before wristwatches and smartphones public clocks chimed time away
Today, knowing what time it is becomes a problem only if the battery of your smart phone is dead and there is no one around to ask. For previous generations, it was different. For millennia, people measured their days and nights by the movement of the sun and stars, or waited for a rooster to crow.
The first contraptions used to measure time date back to Antiquity, but gained momentum in the late Middle Ages when the clockwork mechanism was invented. The growing urban population and increased economic activity needed a better way to divide day and night into time for work and time for recreation.
Clocktowers soon became ubiquitous all over Europe. Tall and impressive, they were visible from afar and announced the passage of time to the local population.
In those days, Bulgarians lived under Ottoman rule, and the first clocktowers appeared in their lands somewhat late, probably at the turn of the 16th-17th centuries. By the end of the 18th century and particularly in the 19th century the construction of clocktowers all over Bulgaria had become routine. Their appearance reflected the increased activity of Bulgarians busy in their shops and workshops, in industries vital to the Ottoman markets. These towers, usually equipped with bells, were also used to announce major events in local life, such as a fire or an attack.
The architecture of the clocktowers changed over time. The earliest look more like fortifications, with strong stone walls and tiny window openings – for a reason. The second half of the 18th century was a time of bandit raids, so clocktowers were used as a place of refuge by the local population. The towers from the 19th century were more elegant, reflecting the increased European influence over art, architecture, lifestyle and politics in Bulgarian lands.
After the liberation in 1878, clocktowers in Bulgaria changed in accordance with the new European fashion. Older clocktowers were upgraded with new mechanisms and dials. The construction of standalone towers was replaced by structures incorporated into the new public buildings.
In Bulgaria the decline of clocktowers of all types occurred in the 1970s and the 1980s, when a number of towns saw their old centres – houses, streets, clocktowers and all – demolished during a mass attempt to impose Socialist urbanism.
Today, most of the surviving clocktowers in Bulgaria are in smaller cities and towns, a sad reminder of the times when they used to mark the hours for thriving communities busy in trade and manufacture.
Today Berkovitsa is but a sleepy backwater in Bulgaria's northwest, the most economically depressed region in the EU. Its clocktower is one of the few reminders that this was not always so. Built in 1764, it had a clockwork mechanism brought from faraway Bessarabia, near the Dniester River. The tower is 21m high and has the fortress-like appearance typical of the period.
Burgas Railway Station
Clocks have always been and always will be an important part of any railway station. The railway station in Burgas boasts one of the most beautiful examples in Bulgaria. The station was built in 1903, and was a great achievement for the time: modern and spacious, in the best European fashion of the day. The design was so successful that it was copied for the railway station in Varna.
The clocktower in Byala, yet another quiet town in northern Bulgaria, was built in 1872. Initially, it was a church belfry and received its first clockwork mechanism in 1906. It was a Made-in-Switzerland piece of machinery, donated by a former finance minister. The clock is still working, although the tower itself has undergone some changes. In 1952, the cross that used to stand on top was replaced with a Communist five-pointed star. For some reason, in 1960 the star was replaced with an amphora-shaped figurine, which remains there to this day.
This Stara Planina mountains town became an industrial centre in the 18th century, which prompted the construction of a clocktower. That structure was lost in 1798, when it was burned to the ground during a bandit raid. Its replacement, constructed in 1811, was also lost eventually.
The clocktower that you see today in central Gabrovo was built in 1835, with pro bono labour given by the citizens and donations from the local craft guilds. It is 27.7m high and a fine example of the typical clocktower of its days: a fortress-like lower part and an elegant tower rising above the commotion of the market streets around. Its bell is older, made in 1792 in Vienna and had an inscription in German. Initially, time was measured with the ringing of the bell, but in 1882 a proper clock-face was installed.
Of the two water fountains that used to flow at the base of the tower, only one survives today. Another survivor from the past is an old Ottoman inscription, built into the wall, that recalls the construction of the 1811 clocktower.
The tower was restored in the 1960s, and the clockwork mechanism in the 1980s, but today it no longer works properly.
The year when the first clocktower was built in the Bulgarian lands is lost to history, but it happened some time in the second half of the 16th or the beginning of the 17th centuries in Plovdiv, a multicultural city of lively trade and commerce. Constructed atop one of the city's hills, the clocktower was such a novelty that it stuck in the local imagination.
Even today, it remains firmly embedded in Plovdiv's topography. The hill is still called Sahat Tepe, or Clock Hill, although for some time its official name has been Danov's Hill.
The clocktower now atop Clock Hill, however, is not that famous structure. The original, which was built of wood, burned down at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1809, it was replaced with the current one, at 17.5m high, and its mechanism was made in Vienna and installed in 1883.
The clocktower in central Razgrad is the 1864 incarnation of an older clocktower from the 18th century. It is about 26m high, and its bell was imported from Hungary in 1731. The original clockwork mechanism is in the city museum, after it was replaced with a new one in the 1970s. Curiously and rather unusually, Razgrad used to have a second clocktower. It has not survived.
Whether it was built in 1775, 1777 or 1779 is a question historians disagree on, but one thing is certain: Sevlievo's clocktower is one of the oldest preserved in Bulgaria. Today it is one of the few historical landmarks left in the town.
The clocktower in Shumen was built in the 1740s, at the same time as the most prominent Ottoman structure in the town, the beautiful Tombul Mosque. It is 18m high and used to announce the time with two bells that rang every 15 minutes. There is a richly decorated water fountain at the base, along with an elaborate Ottoman inscription relating to the construction of the tower. There used to be a mosque nearby, known as Sahat Mosque after the clocktower, but it does not exist anymore.
You do not need to read the building inscription, which tells that Svishtov's tower was built in 1763, to guess its age. Its fortress-like architecture says it all. The mechanism still works, although it is not as old as the tower. It is a 1890 replacement, made in Austria.
Inside Tryavna's clocktower
Tryavna's clocktower is perhaps the most recognisable in Bulgaria, and for a reason. It is the only one that still stands in its original urban environment. Tryavna was lucky to escape the large-scale demolition of old city centres in the 1970s and the 1980s, and preserves its 19th century core almost intact. As the tallest building there, the 21m clocktower has been the natural focus of life and a source of local pride ever since its construction in 1812. The clockwork mechanism has been working ever since it was installed in 1815, and is maintained with enthusiasm by the current keeper, a local pensioner. He is also responsible for the tower's other peculiarity: the only Foucault's Pendulum in Bulgaria is to be found there.
Rising to almost 18m, Zlatitsa's clocktower appeared in 1777, when the town prospered through trade and manufacture. The clock still works, although the mechanism is not the original one but a 1922 replica made by a local enthusiast, who also sponsored the restoration of the tower.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners