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Egypt’s first ticking clock ticks again

Egypt gets ready to announce the return of its oldest ticking clock, which French King Louis Phillippe gifted to Muhammed Ali Pasha, then-ruler of Egypt, in 1846.
This picture shows a view of the clocktower of the 19th-century Ottoman mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha at the Citadel in Cairo, Egypt, May 26, 2021.

CAIRO — The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has recently announced the completion of the restoration, maintenance and development works at Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi Citadel in Cairo, including the restart of the citadel’s clock tower, Egypt’s first ticking clock, after decades of nonoperation.

In a statement published on its Facebook page Sept. 16, the ministry announced that “the clock has been repaired by Egyptian craftsmen after years of nonoperation. The trials of the clock’s automatic winding [mechanism] have begun in order to ensure its continuous, uninterrupted operation.”

It continued, “The restoration of the clock tower has been completed, and the colors have been enhanced to give it back its original luster. Maintenance and reinstallation of the stained glass panels and the rims of the circular iron columns located on the upper part of the column were also completed.”

Egypt received the clock in 1846 as a gift from the King of France, Louis Philippe, to Muhammad Ali Pasha, then-ruler of Egypt. It was placed inside a metal tower decorated with inscriptions and stained glass panels, in the center of the northwestern hallway of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. 

The clock was supposed to be placed inside the palace of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the Shubra area, but it was stored in the palace until it was moved to the mosque during the reign of Khedive Abbas I in 1856.

The clock was a return gift to Muhammad Ali Pasha's gift to France, which was the Luxor Obelisk that dates back to the era of Ramses II, placed in the Concorde Square in Paris.

Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Sector at the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that the maintenance and restoration of the clock tower have succeeded despite their difficulty, noting that the clock’s operation would be officially announced in the coming weeks after putting the final touches to the maintenance works.

In November 2020, the French Embassy in Cairo announced that Francois Simon-Fustier, an expert in watch manufacturing, was sent to Cairo, upon Egypt’s request, to examine the possibility of restoring the clock and prepare a report about it.

On Dec. 1, 2020, Simon-Fustier, who had just begun his task in Egypt, posted on Facebook snapshots of Cairo from the top of the clock tower.

Talaat explained that the French expert was hired because the clock is French-made, and French experts have great knowledge on how to look after it.

He said that Fustier sent a report to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities regarding the condition of the clock and the need to repair it.

However, Talaat said that the task of repairing the clock was eventually assigned to an Egyptian expert from Luxor, upon his request. The expert communicated to the ministry the problems that hindered the clock’s operation, and the ministry decided to give him the opportunity of repairing it.

Talaat noted, “After several months of work, the clock’s original luster has returned, and its bells could be turned on again. The maintenance team also thought up a plan for automatic winding of the clock without human assistance.”

He added, “The clock had gone defunct due to the lack of periodic maintenance for long periods in previous times, apart from the need to charge it constantly and to wind it twice a day.”

According to Egyptian media, this was not the first attempt to repair the ticking clock. In 1943, King Farouk ordered its reparation, but it stopped working three days later. In 1984, it was repaired again, but it broke down after several days and stopped working until now.

Egyptian historian Bassam el-Shammaa told Al-Monitor over the phone about the historical importance of the clock, noting that the Egyptian government should use the restoration and maintenance of the clock to promote tourism, especially in France, as it is of French origin, not to mention the French interest in antiquities and Egyptian history.

Shammaa praised the capabilities of the Egyptian manpower and expertise, which were able to restore life to the ticking clock after decades of nonoperation.

During a tour to inspect the restoration and maintenace works at Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi Citadel and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali in mid-September, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani said that the Egyptian government is seeking to complete the works and develop services in the region to advance the tourism and antiquities sectors. 

According to Anani, the government seeks to promote Egypt’s pioneering role as a major modern and sustainable tourist destination, through its rich and diverse tourist, natural, human and archaeological resources and elements, and to preserve the unique Egyptian cultural heritage for future generations.

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