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.