Pharos


Pharos was the name of the island off Alexandria where the great light stood; what did they burn there? Coal, oil, wood. Papyrus. The fire blazing before a mirror. That reflected by day the Mediterranean sun. Three tiers; square, octagonal, circular. Made out of blocks of white stone. Roman coins struck in the Alexandrian mint show a triton at each corner. Another statue, of Poseidon, stood on top; later there was a church. A causeway ran to the mainland and the island is now a peninsula. The lighthouse was commissioned by Ptolemy Soter late in the 4th century BCE and completed during the reign of his son Philadelphos. The builder, forbidden from putting his name to the work, nonetheless left an inscription under a layer of plaster on a wall at the base of the tower: Sostratus, the son of Dexiphanes, the Cnidian, erected this for the Saviour Gods, on behalf of those who sail the seas. These words were concealed beneath another text honouring the Ptolemies; in time, the plaster wore away, revealing the name of the architect. Pharos became the word for lighthouse in many languages: Greek, Bulgarian, Italian, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish; in Arabic, el fanar. Minarets were built after the three-tiered design and in Egypt the Pharos of Abuqir, a funerary monument modelled on the lighthouse, with which it is roughly contemporary, still stands; the second tier hexagonal not octagonal. The Pharos lasted a millennium and a half and was known as far away as China: In the country of O-Ken-Tho a stranger, Chu-Ko-Ni by name, built on the shore of the sea a great pagoda, wrote Sung dynasty customs man Zhao Rugua in 1225. The tower was 200 feet high. Four horses walking abreast could ascend by a winding ramp two thirds of its height. Within the tower was a well joined by a tunnel to a great river. In the upper and lower parts of the pagoda twenty thousand men could be stationed. At the summit was an immense mirror. If warships of other countries tried to attack, the mirror detected then beforehand and the troops made ready to repel them. But in recent years there came to O-Ken-Tho a foreigner who asked for work in the guardhouse below the tower and was employed to sprinkle and to sweep; one day he found an opportunity to steal the mirror and throw it into the sea . . . The habit of destroying lighthouses or other warnings to sailors is very old. Wreckers believed the sea’s bounty was theirs by right. A haunted poem by Robert Southey tells how Dutch pirate Ralph the Rover cut loose the bell on Inchcape Rock, whose sound caused mariners to bless the 14th century Abbott of Abroath for placing it there; a year later, Sir Ralph was himself wrecked on Inchcape Rock and, as his ship sank, heard the Devil below ringing his knell. It was upon Inchcape (from the Gaelic, Innes Sgeip, meaning beehive island, after the shape of the rock) that the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson built the Bell Rock lighthouse, which J M W Turner painted. The Lighthouse Stevensons, as they were known, erected other structures on other perilous rocks. Their names repeat a harsh sea music: Inchkeith, Kinnaird Head, Duncasby Head, Stroma, Muckle Flugga, Cape Wrath, Butt of Lewis, Flannan Isles, Ardnamurchan, Skerryvore, Dhu Heartach. The tower at Ardnamurchan was built by Louis’ uncle Alan on an Egyptian theme, with a frieze of beast and bird-headed gods around the base of the catadioptric lamp, designed by the Fresnell brothers, Augustin and Leonor, of Paris, and their lens maker, Soleil. When French writer Arthur Rimbaud lay dying at the Hopital de la Conception in Marsailles, he dictated a final letter to his sister Isabelle. It was addressed to the director of the hospital and reads: Item – 1 tusk only; Item – 2 tusks; Item – 3 tusks; Item – 4 tusks; Item – 2 tusks. M. le Directeur, I should like to ask whether I have left anything on your account. I wish to change from this service today. I don’t even know its name, but whatever it is, let it be the Aphinar line. All those services are there all over the place and I, crippled and unhappy, can find nothing – any dog in the street could tell you that. Please therefore send me the tariff for services from Aphinar to Suez. I am completely paralysed and so wish to embark in good time. Tell me when I must be carried on board. The Aphinar line – le service d’Aphinar – is unknown but some have heard in the name an echo of el fanar, pronounced affanar. Isabelle remembered her brother weeping: I shall go under the earth, he said, and you shall walk in the sun. The voyage from Pharos into Africa, with a cargo of phantom ivory, was his last and perhaps never ended. That great fire extinguished, that broken mirror, that pile of strewn white stones. The whole earth is now a pharos, a light house, leaking the full spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation into the cosmos. We want to transform our flesh and blood and bones into something ineffable, for our breath to mist infinity. To pour our quotidian as a beam of photons into eternity. And yet we know that all we make will in time fall to pieces undone again.

 

from: The Evolution of Mirrors (Otoliths, 2008) where it appears under the title Towards Aphinar. Pic shows the Pharos of Abuqir.

 

 

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