Sundials - World's Oldest Clocks

North American Sundial Society

Athens Tower of WindsIn the old Roman Agora on the slope of Athen's ancient Acropolis hill is the Tower ofWinds.  Today, completing two years of restoration, the interior was re-opened to the public this summer in August, 2016. The Tower had been closed for the last 200 years.  The story of the Tower starts in the first century, BCE, probably during the reign of Julius Caesar.

The Tower was designed by Andronikos Kyrrhestos (Andronicus of Cyrrhus), an astronomer and maker of celestial instruments. Andronicus constructed a white marble sundial for the sanctuary of Poseidon and Amphitrite on the island of Tinos.  The sundial becamse so famous that Andronicus was invited to Athens where he erected the magnificent 14 meter Tower called the Aerides (the Winds) . It was built on the eastern side of the Roman Agora in Athens and meant to have utilitarian value. "No one knows who funded its lavish construction - the octagonal monument is made almost entirely of Pentelic marble, the same used for the Parthenon and rarely found in buildings other than temples," said Stelios Daskalakis, head conservator.

Atop of the octogon tower now rests the fully-preserved roof made of 24 marble slabs, resting on a Corinthian capital. Once a bronze statue of Trition, the god of the sea, was set on the roof to turn in the wind as a weather indicator.  By night, water flowed through a hydro-mechanical system designed by Andronicus from a cylinder inside the Tower.  The water level lead to an exterior indicator creating a night time clock or  clepsydra. During the day the Tower was a public time teller with eight sundials.

On each octogon wall of the Tower is a winged figure carved in relief, in total representing the eight Anemoi - the eight gods of wind in Greek mythology (Boreas, Sciron, Zephyr, Lips, Notos, Euros, Apeliotes, and Caecias).  Beneath each frieze is a sundial. The shadow was cast by a horizontal gnomon and  today the hour lines appear faint, but still visible. Theodossiou, et. al. have drawn each of these sundials:

The Tower had been half-buried by material accretion over the centuries. In the early Christian period the Tower was converted into a baptismal chapel (with surviving traces of angelic frescos on the wall) and the area outside the north east entrance was a Christian cemetery.  In the 14th century, Kyriacus of Ancona mentions the Tower as a temple of Aeolus, while an anonymous traveler refered to it as a church. In the 18th century under Ottoman rule, the Tower was used as a place of worship by the Sufi Muslim Whirling Dervishes, with a mihrab niche carved in the wall to point to Mecca.  The Tower was used by the Dervishes as a smoking room.  "In 1799 [Lord Elgin] began planning the transfer of the entire monument to Britain. But it was considered a sacred place and [the Muslims] did not allow the monument to be uprooted," said Daskalakis.

The Tower of Winds was excavated in 1837 and 1845 by the Greek Archaeological Society.  Restoration work was carried out between 1916-1919 by the late professor of Byzantine Studies, Anastasio Orlandos, and in 1976 by the First Ephorate of Antiquities. The most recent restoration, begun in 2014 by the Athens Ephorate of Antiquities, is lead by Stelios Daskalakis and now the Tower interior is open to the public.

This article is the result of a Reuters announcement of the Tower's opening by Korlina Tagaris and Phoebe Fronista: and with detailed information from the North American Sundial Society article "The Tower of The Winds In Athens - The water clock and its eight vertical sundials", by Efstratios Theodossiou, Vassilios N. Manimanis, and Petros Mantarakis, NASS Compendium Vol. 13 Nr. 4 Dec 2006.

Additional reading:  Drawing of the sunidals from Theodossiou, et. al. and photo of the Tower of Winds from Alex Kurtiakov

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