Living in Athens years ago, I’d grab a souvlaki for lunch and head for a favorite spot. On the steps of the Parthenon (an option now impossible). Or near an 8-sided marble tower below the Acropolis.
Being a newcomer, I thought “my” tower dated to medieval times. Its cap of rooftiles didn’t resemble classical buildings. Its marble walls, still whole. Finally a university student took the time to tell me about this ancient timekeeper.
“A clock that dates to the first century BC?” I said, sure that I’d misunderstood.
“Also a weather place, to follow the eight winds,” he replied, naming the wind gods. Zephyr and Boreas, I knew. But Notos, Kaikias, Skiron?
From that moment, the Tower of the Winds became my research baby. Its complexity shocked me – the whole thing was automated! Its inventor, the astronomer Andronikos, utilized a spring at the acropolis to gravity-flow feed the tower’s interior clock, called a clepsydra or “water thief.” Besides its bas reliefs of the wind gods and a revolving weathervane of Triton, whose wand indicated the panel of the prevailing wind, other rods and markings cast shadows that allowed viewers to read the time of day – even the time of year.
I wondered: Athens was a graveyard of broken marble columns. Why hadn’t my tower met the fate of other architectural marvels?
Exquisite timing. Early Christians saved it by surrounding the tower with their church and cemetery. Centuries later, when the Ottoman Empire invaded, the Sufis, a sect of whirling dervishes, adopted the tower as their spiritual dance floor.
I like to think that Andronikos, who painstakingly gave the gift of time to the Athenians, was rewarded in turn by his wonder becoming timeless.
About the author: Vicki León is the author of Working IX to V and most recently, How to Mellify a Corpse.