Any trip to Prague would have to be deemed incomplete without a stop at the Astronomical Clock.
The Pražský orloj has been keeping Praguinians, Praguites, Praguers… um, residents of Prague informed for over six hundred years.
We’re not just talking telling time either, this bad boy does way more than that… and with a show!
Back in 1410, clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadan and mathematics and astronomy professor Jan Šindel were brought together to create a clock to replace the old one in the tower of Prague’s Old Town Square.
They really went to town.
Their creation not only tells time in four different variations, but also the date, times for sunrise and sunset, the position of the sun in the zodiac and the phases of the moon.
We stood staring at the complicated system of dials, rings, hands and pointers and must say, as impressive as it was, we were pretty much at a loss as to what any of it meant.
Let’s see, if the big hand is on the VII and the little hand is… wait, which little hand?
We were going to need a helping hand.
Lucky for us, when we went inside the tower to purchase tickets for the climb to the top, an incredibly helpful lady had detailed information about the clock’s functions in several languages.
We chose English.
She was happy to part with the pamphlet for a couple dozen Koruna, or what we laughingly call Czech Bucks.
Since we were already in the tower, we decided to go on up before figuring out the complicated timepiece.
On the way up the stairs (there is a really cool elevator, but we would have missed half the fun) we got an inside, behind the scenes look at some of the mechanical workings of the clock.
From the observation deck at the top we had an jaw-dropping view, not just of The Old Town Square, but of the entire city of Prague.
We stood there mesmerized until the clock was about to strike – we wanted to be right in front of it for the show – so we scurried back down to stake out a spot in the gathering crowd.
Utilizing our handy-dandy guide we began to decipher the faces.
The higher of the two faces, the astronomical dial, displays sunrise and sunset, phases of the moon, and the sun’s place in the zodiac, along with Babylonian time, Old Bohemian or Italian time, German time and Sidereal time simultaneously.
Babylonian time, the most ancient time on the clock, is the same as the time used in the Bible.
The day is divided into twelve hours beginning at dawn, so that noon would be the sixth hour, three in the afternoon the ninth, and sunset is twelve.
The length of each hour changes as the days grow longer and shorter over the course of the year. The sun on the clock shows this as it passes through the markings for daylight that indicate sunrise and sunset along with the Babylonian hours throughout the seasons.
Old Bohemian, better known as Italian time, dates back to the middle ages.
It is similar to our modern time, the day has twenty-four hours, but begins at sunset.
This is marked by a human hand pointing to the Gothic Arabic numbers on the outermost ring of the clock.
Because sunset changes through the year, the outer ring moves ever so slowly to adjust.
German time is basically the time that we know and love.
The day is divided into twenty-four hours, in two twelve hour segments, beginning at midnight. This is shown by the same human hand as the Italian time except that it is pointing to the stationary Roman numerals in the second row from the outside.
The last of the clock’s time displays is for Sidereal time. This is a timekeeping method based on the stars as opposed to the sun.
Astronomers developed it so that they would know exactly where to point their telescopes to find specific stars at any given moment.
The little gold star attached to the zodiac wheel of the clock marks the Sidereal time. Each day has twenty-four equal hours, but is about four minutes shorter than a solar day. This adds up to an extra day each year making every year leap year in Sidereal time.
In addition to these times we found the phase of the moon, sunrise and sunset as well as the sun’s position in the zodiac precisely presented on the clock face. But four o’clock had arrived and the real show was beginning.
Once again our handy-dandy guide kept us abreast of the situation.
Every hour, on the hour, the clock breaks out quite a conglomeration of characters to commemorate the passing of another sixty minutes.
Eight figures adorn the outside, four representing characteristics that were honored back in medieval times and four that were despised.
The honorable folks, a philosopher, an angel, an astronomer and a chronicler, are on the bottom row and are stationary, but their dishonorable counterparts above them come to life every time the clock strikes the hour.
A skeleton representing Death rings his death knell bell while Vanity looks in a mirror.
The other two show that some things never change.
Incredibly prejudiced stereotypical depictions of a Jewish fellow, holding a money bag to represent Avarice, and a Turk representing the invading Muslim hordes, round out the four evils.
Good thing the parade of the twelve apostles was going on through the little windows up above to take our minds off the guys down below.
Once the disciples finished their march, a rooster popped out at the very top of the clock and crowed while a real live human trumpeter, dressed in full medieval tights and puffy shirt regalia, sounded his horn from the tower.
Cock-a-doodle cuckoo, cuckoo!
This bizarre amalgamation of icons is actually the culmination of several additions over the centuries, no doubt adding to the oddity and eccentricity. As with many historic landmarks, the clock has been constantly renovated, refurbished and repaired.
First the calendar dial was added around 1490. This face tells the date, each saint’s feast day, a pictorial depiction of the seasons for each month and the zodiac signs.
Around that same time the first of the moving figures appeared.
About a hundred years later Jan Taborský did extensive renovations, added the German time and the phases of the moon to the astronomical face.
Over the next century more repairs were carried out and the rest of the figures made their debut.
Several more renovations and face lifts were required up until World War II, when the wonderful chronometer was nearly destroyed.
At the end of the war, as the Czechs were overthrowing the occupation, the Germans felt the need to bomb the living crap out of the square and clock tower.
Just the kind of “up yours” parting shot that made the Nazis so darn popular in the countries that they conquered.
By 1948 the clock was up and working once again, making it the oldest working astronomical clock in the world and a must see in the beautiful city of Prague.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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