Archives for the month of: March, 2012

The Egyptian Navy is doing drills in the water around Qait Bey so foreigners are prohibited from diving around the harbor for the next five days. In place of diving among the stones of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, I set myself the task of collecting every image of the lighthouse I encounter: plastered around town in numerous iterations and found in internet cafes, brightly painted murals, buses and university logos. I go to a silver shop to have a coin of the lighthouse made, using an image found on ancient Roman coins. After much discussion with the owner, he asks me what the image is suppose to be. I say rather off-handedly, “It’s a lighthouse.” Then, realizing I’m in Alexandria I add, “It’s Pharos.” His face lights up and he yells to a person tucked away in the back room. A teenage boy appears carrying the Pharos lighthouse, in pure silver, 2 kilos in weight, 60 centimeters high.

His face is beaming as he says, “I made it for, for, for…”

I expect him to say he made it for the French archaeological team that works on the Pharos site and I don’t anticipate the end of his sentence:

“I made it for…for…for Mubarak!”

Belief in divine will, or destiny, is contagious when living in Egypt and I can’t help but feel utterly grateful to the Egyptian Navy for putting a wrench in my diving plans which lead me to stumble upon this particular silver shop amid all the other silver shops in the area. Though I wish divine will had intervened by reminding me to pack my audio recorder that morning and I desperately want to press pause on our conversation, run home, get my recorder and the resume his story. My mind wanders to this possible scenario and I miss a bit of his story but I remember he said that the final silver Pharos sculpture for Mubarak was 90 centimeters high and what we are looking at now is the maquette.

Not wanting to second guess destiny, I figure leaving my recorder at home meant a second chance, a pre-meditated meeting and after a couple of days of hounding I get my companion, fluent in Arabic, to come with me to the silver store to get the story recorded. She remembers the shop as a child and mutters under her breath that the owner isn’t too friendly. She’s surprised that this is the man who I described as beaming in front of his creation the other day. After preliminary discussions about the progress of my coins I sheepishly say that my friend would very much like to see the Pharos. Again the call to the back room, again the teenage boy carries the statue on its wooden plinth and sets it down on the glass vitrines stuffed with silver amulets of eyes, palms and verses from the Quran etched onto pendants.

Naturally, the Arabic version of the silversmith’s story is elaborate and detailed. The main points being: the Egyptian Navy wanted to give a present to Mubarak and they decided on the lighthouse. The silversmith, not knowing what the lighthouse would have looked like, is given a picture–the classic Herman Thiersch image from 1908. The silversmith designed the sculpture as a hollow silver structure. Inside he inserted a red light to mimic the illumination of the lighthouse. The sculpture was housed in a small wooden closet and when the doors were open, the red light was suppose to emanate. Unfortunately, the electrical component of the the sculpture was cut, as governmental security did not allow presents for Mubarak containing electricity. My companion asks if he had known about the lighthouse before and he said “yes, but I did not know what it looked like. I have only heard about it.” He says he grew up in Tabia, an ancient quarter on the sea which is now, after thousands of years of changing sea levels, joined with what was once Pharos island. He remembers that as a boy, if they didn’t have electricity the lighthouse was so close to their window that it gave them light at night.

 I came prepared for this interview with my own sculpture of the lighthouse– consisting of three geometric shapes: a cylinder, octagon and square. Based on archaeological evidence, there isn’t much besides these shapes that we can be sure of. As I place my sculpture next to the ornate silver Pharos, I hear in my head the voice of the head archeologist-architect of the French mission who has for years been working on Pharos and whose proportions I used for my portable lighthouse sculpture. She said to me in an interview, “You know, if you think about it the lighthouse was really ugly. Really ugly.”

Placing my lighthouse next to the silver lighthouse brings an awkward, befuddled silence to what had seconds ago been an animated conversation involving everyone who works in the store. I have my companion explain why my lighthouse is the way it is and hearing that it has done nothing to overturn the prevailing silence, I hurriedly take a photo of the two sculptures side by side and shove my sculpture back into my bag.

Pharos Dives 1-4


After being rowed from the dock to the boat, we motor over to our first stop in the harbor: an unmarked building where our dive-guide jumps out with copies of our passports. The tangle of colorful fishing boats around us usually have an eye painted at their sterns. Seen all through the Mediterranean, this is an ancient practice started perhaps to ward off the evil eye or to give boats extra sight in voyage. Here in Egypt the eyes are slightly different then elsewhere, they are painted like the eyes of Pharaohs. Despite being in wetsuit and hood, the sunny day is already turning cool. Our guide returns and we head to our next stop: the coast guard. The coast guard is a makeshift shack with carpets hanging over the entrance for shade and privacy. A plastic table and three chairs. A private ‘sheesa-teria,’ one of my companions remarks. Our guide hops off again and takes a seat in one of the chairs, signaling that it will be a while. Next to the coast guard shack are men with fishing poles resting against a six meter long pink-granite stone: part of the door jamb of the Pharos lighthouse, heaved up from the water during one of the archaeological campaigns.

After getting the final go ahead, we motor through the narrow entrance of the harbor formed by two breakwaters. We are now in the wave-ridden open sea, directly across from Qait Bey citadel. The waves are extremely choppy and it seems our small motor boat will tip over. Our guide is in a hurry for us to get out of the boat and straps us into our diving vests and pushes us into the sea. With no time to see if my regulator is working properly, I hit the water  forgetting both my camera and the fact that the water is cold. It’s not a shocking cold and gets absorbed quickly by the wetsuit. Being a little cold is a pleasant distraction from the mild seasickness seeping in. After much effort we make it to the yellow balloon, the rendezvous point for descending. There’s little visibility as we descend. Even though the site is shallow (a mere 6 meters) it seems we are in free-fall for quite some time before we land on a rock. There are thousands of stones strewn on the seafloor but today only one or two can be seen at a time. As we start the tour of the rocks, the swell has a dizzying effect—rhythmically jerking the body a meter back and then two meters forward. Our guide points to different stones using our pre-determined system of gestures: arms crossed in a v-shape with clenched fists means a Pharonic stone; one fist across the chest is a Roman stone; an extended hand turning from left to right means lighthouse; hands on top of a head signaling a crown: Ptolemaic. Two fists down on the thighs: a sphinx. It is hard to notice the difference between the stones as I’m distracted by the growing fear that I will throw-up into my regulator.

Dives #2 & #3

The sea is rough but not nearly as agitated today so I bring my brass lighthouse sculpture underwater for a photo shoot. As our dive-guide predicted, the visibility is really, really bad. Much worse than last time, which was also pretty bad. Again the wall of brown and green clouds and no visible bottom to swim towards. A meter of visibility at the most. Probably less. Luckily our guide is wearing yellow flippers and I’m able to follow him. We loose my companion almost instantly. My guide gestures emphatically that I am to hold onto this rock and not move. How long I wait at the rock I don’t know. Elapsed time is impossible to calculate underwater, perhaps because there is no horizon to measure time passing against. 5 minutes and 30 minutes are indistinguishable from one another.

On my rock, I  think about Honor Frost and Kamal Abu-Saadat, who in the 1960’s mapped this area by hand, using pre-GPS methods of triangulation and string. The accuracy of their maps is mind-boggling as the French archaeological mission of the 1990s discovered when they superimposed their computer-generated maps on top of the handmade ones. My artistic job today of assembling and filming my sculpture underwater is difficult enough, as it keeps toppling from the swell and the pieces fall into the cracks of the remnants of the actual lighthouse, in what becomes comical re-enactment of the real Pharos’ demise. After giving over my sculpture to the dive-guide who is enthusiastically taking over the project, I go shooting up to the surface. Without weight of the solid brass sculpture, I’m underweighted and I struggle to head down to the bottom again as my make-shift underwater production team is so engrossed in the filming, they haven’t noticed my disappearance.

Dive #4

When the sterns of the fishing boats point towards the harbor, this means the wind is coming from the west. The sea is almost flat today and after the routine round of stops and permissions, four hours later we motor past the two breakwaters into open sea. Today conditions are at their best with visibility at about 3 meters, maybe even more. It’ a perfect day to attempt to learn orientation by drawing maps underwater. Today I can differentiate between reefs and rubbish, between the fragments of the lighthouse and the large concrete blocks that were dumped on top to protect the citadel. I can see the full length of the door jamb of the lighthouse, similar in size to the one next to the coast guard shack. With the added visibility, the heaps of stones become forms with personalities: a headless sphinx, the base of a column, a donut, a butterfly.

Using both sides of two slates, I make four maps. My maps are incomprehensible as my wandering eye can’t focus on one stone at a time. Determining the distance between two objects underwater is as ineffable as estimating the time passing. As there are no boats in this area, I resurface every so often to see where I am in relation to the citadel. In the end I pack away my surveying aspirations, in favor of random doodles of rock formations.

Saviour among the Greeks, this watchman of Pharos, was set up, lord Proteus,
         by Sostratus the Cnidian, son of Dexiphanes.
Since in Egypt there are no lookout-points or mountains as on the islands,
         and the harbor stretches flat,
for that reason, cleaving the air sheer and steep,
         this tower shines forth across countless leagues
by day, and all night long the mariner running with the wave
         will see the great fire blazing from its peak,
and though he may run to the Bull’s Horn itself, he would not miss
         Zeus the Savior, O Proteus, in sailing hither.
                           —Inscription attributed to Pharos Lighthouse, epigram of Posidippus, 3rd century BCE


When the great Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria was built in the 3rd century BCE, it was only 10 meters shorter than the great pyramids at Giza—scraping the sky at about 110 meters. It was practically not a lighthouse at all in the modern sense because in most cases the function of a lighthouse is to guide ships away from danger. A lighthouse as big as Pharos really isn’t necessary. However, in ancient times lighthouses were guiding ships towards certain areas. Especially in Alexandria, because the northern coast of Africa is flat and featureless. Without mountains or high coastlines, a sailor would practically have to be on the land to see the land. Yet even if a ship followed the beacon of this soaring tower, its safety from the rocks and the shallows was not guaranteed, as the number of Hellenistic shipwrecks in the area attest to.

To hug the coast while sailing was a dangerous and time-consuming way to travel so ancient mariners had to rely on environmental navigation to sail in open seas.  They developed a keen eye for observing natural phenomena—such as the changes in sea color, the variety of seabirds and patterns of the wind. The wind was the most important natural force in ancient seafaring and it has marooned my attempts this week to dive among the submerged remains of the Pharos Lighthouse.

There are eight general wind directions in the Mediterranean and there are also local winds associated with certain regions. The Hamseen winds (Arabic for fifty) come from the south, from the desert, blowing sporadically for 40 or 50 days. An ancient seafarer could utilize the Hamseen wind to sail north from Egypt. He could start a little before the beginning of the Hamseen and the wind would blow him all the way to Turkey and he’d be happy and then he would wait until the Hamseen wind subsided, at which point he could take the Etesian wind back to Egypt.

I’m told the Hamseen wind will arrive soon and that it will be very warm and everything will be covered in sand. Sometimes the sand during this period can travel as far as England. Usually, the predominant winds in Alexandria are the Etesian winds from the northwest. These winds dominate the summer months, bringing the murky, dirty water from the western coast. Marine archaeologists avoid diving in Alexandria’s harbor during this period. The ideal time for diving will be soon with the arrival of the northeast winds that clean the harbor of the muck. I’m told that the southern wind is also very good for diving though I’m not sure why.

ohh I couldn’t sleep from the wind last night, it is a southern wind…helas..have a good day.

The wind has been blowing very hard here for the past few days. Today it seems to be coming from all directions as women struggle to keep their hijaabs in place, as the waves leap over the wall of the Corniche. A street vendor’s plastic turquoise rubbish bin blows into the street, momentarily stopping the torrential traffic on Sharia Fouad–no small feat. There’s a joke that the few traffic lights in the city are mere decoration as police men in wooden booths manually operate the lights on their whims.  In the car with two companions, a man in his 70s and a woman in her 30s, they recall the first 18 days of the the revolution—how people spontaneously took to the streets to direct traffic and young school children no more than 10 years old acted as crossing guards in front of their schools. They agree that the traffic moved much better during this time. Engrossed in telling the story, my older companion rather appropriately runs a red light. Pulling over, he tells us to wait in the car while he goes to give the officer some money. My younger companion dissuades him, saying he can’t do that anymore, not since the revolution. The old man dismisses her with his hand as he walks over to the police officer who is waiting with arms crossed. The old driver says, “I’m so sorry I didn’t see the light please take 5 pounds for yourself, please.” “I want 10,” the police man says.

Even after the winds subside, a few days will be needed before any attempts at diving. Sun, clear skies and a calm sea can be misleading as it is the swell under the surface that effects diving around the Pharos Lighthouse site. The swell is said to have a mind of its own as it lingers long after the winds and the waves have changed direction. The swell can march great distances. It can cross an ocean. It tells us that a storm has blown somewhere at some point. It’s the messenger of what happened before. An aftercast.