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Reading Clocks, Alla Turca

Time and Society in the Late Ottoman Empire

Up until the end of the eighteenth century, the way Ottomans used their clocks conformed to the inner logic of their own temporal culture. However, this began to change rather dramatically during the nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire was increasingly assimilated into the European-dominated global economy and the project of modern state building began to gather momentum.  In Reading Clocks, Alla Turca, Avner Wishnitzer unravels the complexity of Ottoman temporal culture and for the first time tells the story of its transformation. He explains that in their attempt to attain better surveillance capabilities and higher levels of regularity and efficiency, various organs of the reforming Ottoman state developed elaborate temporal constructs in which clocks played an increasingly important role. As the reform movement spread beyond the government apparatus, emerging groups of officers, bureaucrats, and urban professionals incorporated novel time-related ideas, values, and behaviors into their self-consciously “modern” outlook and lifestyle. Acculturated in the highly regimented environment of schools and barracks, they came to identify efficiency and temporal regularity with progress and the former temporal patterns with the old political order.

Drawing on a wealth of archival and literary sources, Wishnitzer’s original and highly important work presents the shifting culture of time as an arena in which Ottoman social groups competed for legitimacy and a medium through which the very concept of modernity was defined. Reading Clocks, Alla Turca breaks new ground in the study of the Middle East and presents us with a new understanding of the relationship between time and modernity.

312 pages | 14 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2015

History: European History, History of Technology, Middle Eastern History

Middle Eastern Studies

Religion: Islam


“Among the most brilliant moments of historical writing are often those that reveal the amazing and unique stories of dramatic change in things we usually take as givens. Wishnitzer’s Reading Clocks, Alla Turca is one such moment. His meticulously detailed account of perceptions, technologies, and the regulation of time in the vast Ottoman Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is a wide-ranging, exciting adventure in learning why time matters!”

Walter G. Andrews, University of Washington

“The social construction of time is an astonishingly difficult topic to pursue, and Wishnitzer brilliantly mines almanacs, timetables, and schedules for what they can reveal about how the peoples of the Ottoman Empire experienced and discussed time—but more impressively, he brings his analytical skills to bear on literary sources one might not expect, notably poetry, to broaden and deepen his account. Through a nuanced reading of these varied sources, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca demonstrates that there was no sudden shift from the seasonally oriented forms of reckoning time that prevailed among the Ottomans before the modern period, to the abstract, homogeneous form of time which dominates modern life today. This is an ambitious and important examination.”

Paul Sedra, Simon Fraser University

“If you want to understand nineteenth-century Ottoman history through the story of time, then this is your book. Wishnitzer tells a complex tale, not of one single temporal culture, but of time organization as an arena of competition waged by state and societal forces, meshing ‘center’ and ‘peripheries’ and featuring variegated practices. This book will fascinate Middle East historians and any scholar interested in the riddle of modern time.”

Cyrus Schayegh, Princeton University

“Wishnitzer’s Reading Clocks, Alla Turca breaks new ground in the study of the late Ottoman Empire by examining the shift from old-style to new-style—mean-time—temporal reckoning. By focusing on the important but overlooked question of this crucial transition in its many vicissitudes, ranging from the way that schedules increasingly regulated daily activities to an internalized clock consciousness, Wishnitzer skillfully demonstrates the value of what he aptly terms ‘temporal culture’ for elucidating some of the many changes affecting late Ottoman society. At the same time, the book is alive to both the continuities and the changes—the losses as well as the gains—involved in adjusting to the new temporal order and is careful to include these in the elegant analysis offered in these pages.”

Benjamin Fortna, SOAS, University of London

“Brilliant . . . Wishnitzer offers the reader a nuanced, detailed, and captivating analysis of the changes the Ottoman temporal culture went through in the long nineteenth century. Hence, this is primarily a book on cultural history. But the analysis it presents also draws on theoretical perspectives from sociology and anthropology . . . It is a work that is significantly rich in terms of both the factual information it contains and the conceptual approaches to which it relates.”

Journal of the Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World

Reading Clocks Alla Turca puts Ottoman studies in particular, and Middle Eastern history in general on the map of the ‘temporal turn’ that lately has been receiving a renewed interest. . . . Wishnitzer employs sophisticated approaches to modernity, state-society binary, and the issues of agency. . . . With the accounts of sunset-time sadness, the ferry-waiting wife at the window, the anxiety of running late, Wishnitzer brings in the creative forces of poetry and fiction, and strongly weaves a universe sufficiently chaotic that is irreducible neither to state-compelled reforms nor a world saturated with homogenous time.”

Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association

“From sociology via anthropology to social and cultural history, time as an aspect of social relationships has recently become an object of empirical scholarly inquiry. Reading Clocks, Alla Turca is the first extensive study that brings the insights from these fields to bear on Ottoman history. It is a study of the changing temporal regimes, daily rhythms, and the meaning of time among the Ottoman state elite from the eighteenth century to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. . . . While Reading Clocks is a study in social history, it is highly relevant for scholars working in other fields as well.”

New Perspectives on Turkey

“Drawing on a wealth of sources, from erotic poetry to military timetables, ferry schedules, police reports, and political cartoons, Wishnitzer's book engages the reader in a deeply tangible experience of late Ottoman temporality. . .an original and highly readable study.”

International Journal of Turkish Studies

“A remarkably focused and coherent work. . .It is likely to widen the scope of late Ottoman history, while at the same time it will also certainly draw the attention of a broader audience interested in non-Western modernity.”

Mediterranean Historical Review

“An intellectual tour de force and a pioneering work. . .There is no doubt that this exemplary study will be the
standard book on this subject for the foreseeable future. Students of Ottoman and Middle Eastern history, cultural
transformation, and the history of science will be indebted to Wishnitzer for his major contribution.”

American Historical Review

Table of Contents

Note on Terms, Names, and Transliteration

Chapter 1 Reading Clocks, Alaturka
Chapter 2 Clerk Work
Chapter 3 Military Time
Chapter 4 On Time for School
Chapter 5 Ferry Tales
Chapter 6 No Time to Lose

Conclusion Reading Clocks, Alafranga


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