Monday, July 16, 2012

Tehran's Museum of Time

Time Museum in Tehran
By Heidi Noroozy

Tucked away on a shady lane in the Zafaranieh district of North Tehran stands a wedding cake of a mansion, painted blue with intricate white trim. Once the home of Hossein Khodadad, a wealthy merchant who made a fortune in shipping and textiles, the estate is now a museum dedicated to that most elusive of subjects: time.

Through the ages, people have devised ingenious ways to measure and keep track of time, from sundials to electronic clocks. When I think of the many practical instruments that we use divide the day into hours, minutes, and seconds, the first thing that comes to mind is the good old tick-tock. The museum’s designers must have been thinking along the same lines, since they filled Mr. Khodadad’s mansion with mechanical timepieces of all types. The collection includes cuckoo clocks hanging on the walls and pendulum clocks with their system of weights and chains housed in plain wooden cases. Others are so ornate they’d be right at home in a European palace—clocks set into porcelain vases, paired with bronze sculptures, and mounted on inlay cabinets.

Many of the exhibits are noteworthy because of their owners, such as the timepiece that once belonged to Fath Ali Shah Qajar, who ruled Iran from 1797 to 1834. Others are gimmicky—a tiny clock set into a silver cigarette lighter.

My favorite exhibit in this unusual museum is the Evolution of Time display in the garden surrounding the mansion. It contains replicas of unusual devices from different historical periods and cultures. Here is a selection:

A Sumerian sundial based on a design that is 6,000 years old. The Sumerians, who occupied a part of Mesopotamia now located in southern Iraq, were among the first people to use sundials to track time.

This rather crude clepsydra, or water clock, is a timepiece that measures time by the regulated flow of water into and out of a vessel, where the amount of liquid is then measured.

A candle clock has hour markings set into the wax that show the passage of time as the candle burns down.

Chinese fire clocks like this dragon-shaped one work by lighting a stick of incense strapped to the dragon’s back. As the incense burns, the flame breaks threads connected to balls that drop onto a sounding board and mark the hour.

A most unusual piece is this sundial in the shape of a book. The pages mark the hours, and each sheet contains numbers that represent the minutes. The book’s angle is adjusted according to the position of the sun, and the shadow cast onto the pages shows the current hour and minute. The number marked on the vertical page is a 12, or high noon.

Inside and out, the museum documents the march of time over the course of human history. The building is only 80 years old, but its architecture mimics the style of a 15th century Safavid mansion. It even contains a room that replicates the interior of Shah Abbas’s Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan. And the history of its former owner is irrevocably linked to the shifting of dynasties, for the Khodadad family fled Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, leaving their property to be confiscated by the new regime. Their textile factories ended up part of the military-industrial complex operated by the Revolutionary Guards, and many of the clocks in the museum’s collection were confiscated from other wealthy Tehran families with ties to the former shah.

If you can’t make it to Tehran to visit the museum in person, you can still take a virtual tour with this video clip from Iran’s English-language network, Press TV:


  1. What a beautiful, though quirky, museum. I am especially enthralled by the book sundial.

  2. I agree with Patricia, it's beautiful. I'd go just for the architecture.

  3. It sounds like a beautiful museum! I wonder though, how much trouble must it be to keep all of the clocks in sync? :)

  4. So cool. Just curious, how long did it take you to get through the museum? All those clocks must make it tough to lose track of time, huh? ;)

  5. Patricia, I think any writer or book lover should have one of those sun dials in their back yard. I learned how it worked, but not who invented it, unfortunately.

    Edith, the building is stunning, inside and out.

    As for synching the clocks, Beth, I don't even know if they were wound or in working order. I was usually more interested in the artwork around the clock than the timepiece itself :)

    Supriya, the museum isn't very big. Only about 4 or 5 rooms, upstairs and down. We spent a couple of hours there, but a bug chunk of it was eating ice cream in the cafe.