The Story Told By The Keeper Of The Pharos
A Greek Legend
In the year 279 B.C., the Pharos, the great lighthouse, stood on the island of Pharos off the northern coast of Egypt. On a fair morning in that year, Sethos, keeper of the light, and Menna, his sister's boy, were looking down from the top of the tower at the city of Alexandria.
"I want to know how it all began," Menna was saying, "You promised to tell me sometime . . . today?"
"'Tis a big story," answered Sethos deliberately. Sethos was a man of calm movements and steady eyes -- Menna's favorite uncle. Menna knew well enough that he could no more be hurried than a sea wave could be hurried to break upon the shore before its time.
"But this is the day to tell the story," added Sethos, looking down at the dazzling city of Alexandria, "this is truly the day."
"Boy," he exclaimed, with vigor, as he took hold of Menna's arm, "know you today is the greatest day you have ever seen -- perhaps ever will see -- this day of the festival, of the dedication of the tower?"
Of course Menna knew all that. For, already, at the time of the morning sacrifices, the priests and King Ptolemy Philadelphus had dedicated the newly-finished tower "to the gods, the preservers, for the benefit of mariners," and, in accordance with the king's decree for a day of celebration in honor of his father, Ptolemy, and his mother, Berenice, an immense festival was now in progress. All Alexandria was having a holiday. Everyone was enjoying the varied amusements which were to last from sunrise to sunset. Temples, palaces, gardens were thronged.
Chariots, on their way to the race course, were whizzing at breathless speed. Slow-moving elephants, a recent gift to Ptolemy, trod their heavy pace, and behind them stretched a line of camels, with tinkling bells. High-stepping, delicate, Arabian horses, richly caparisoned, had borne their skillful riders in the long procession to the temple of Isis. Besides Egyptians and Greeks, many foreigners were at the festival -- Phoenicians, Libyans, Arabs -- all taking part in the gayeties of this first national celebration.
"Know you what a great day this is?" repeated Sethos.
"Yes, I know," said Menna, looking over at the war-fleet brooding like a flock of seabirds on the unruffled water of the Great Harbour. "But I want to hear about the Pharos -- our Pharos." And he patted the white marble coping as though he loved it. "I can watch the festival go on while you talk."
For Menna had climbed the wide spiral staircase of the lighthouse early this morning on purpose to hear the story he knew his uncle might tell him, if inclined. Like every Alexandrian, he had been watching the Pharos grow higher and higher, year after year. It had been begun in the reign of the present king's father. To Menna, that seemed a long way back, for he himself was only twelve years old. But now, at last, the tall tower was finished. A fortnight ago, his father had taken him out in his boat to show him the immense inscription on the sea side of the tower. It was a Greek inscription in letters of lead, a cubit high and a span wide, that read:
"Sostrates of Cnidus, son of Dexiphanes, to the gods, the preservers; for sailors."
There were four main stories of the tower decreasing in size toward the top, and the inscription was at the top of the lowest story. Above it, was a square platform with figures of Tritons. Menna had felt awed when he looked up at the tower. The mighty Pharos! More than four hundred feet it rose into the air and looked fifty miles out to sea. Menna had felt a tingling pride, that day in the boat -- pride because he himself had actually seen the majestic tower finished; and, to himself, he said the Pharos should belong to him and he to the Pharos, forever.
Sethos, turning from the railing of the lantern platform on which he and Menna stood, said briefly, "I'll tell it, then, boy. There'll never be a better day for it." And as they seated themselves on a low, stone bench, the keeper of the tower, with his eyes constantly on the watch seaward, began his tale.
"This tower really rests upon a huge, glass crab," said Sethos, in a matter-of-fact tone, "and a magician has prophesied that some day a cavalcade of horsemen will lose its way when riding through the three hundred rooms of the colonnaded court from which the tower rises, and will ride into an enormous crack in the crab's back and will be drowned."
Menna looked up quickly at his uncle's face as though to ask a question, but Sethos went on talking in an even tone.
"The lantern beside us, Menna, has to be kept glowing, night and day; at night I have the beacon fire to give reflected light; in the daytime the sun's light is enough. And over our heads is the magic mirror, five spans wide and five spans long, but I am forbidden to reveal to anyone its manner of working. 'Tis made of marvelous and diverse materials. When I sit in a particular place under the mirror, I can see, out there on the ocean, ships invisible to the naked eye. I could see a fleet of enemy ships even a hundred leagues distant. The magician who prophesied about the horsemen has also prophesied that a bold man will some day break into the tower garrison and, while the men are asleep, will come up here and shatter the magic mirror, but," and Sethos spoke positively, "it will not happen in my time."
Menna thought best not to ask why, though the lighthouse keeper paused a moment.
"And nothing will ever break the tower itself, boy," went on Sethos. "The marble blocks are strongly cemented together with melted lead. The Pharos is imperishable, even though high waves are constantly breaking against its northern side. This Pharos of ours will outlast everything -- a wonder of the world! Eight hundred talents of silver it has cost to build it, and everyone at the festival in Alexandria, today, has helped pay for it, even the Phoenicians and other foreigners. All had to send tax-money. Yes, the Pharos will certainly last forever."
Menna nodded his head wisely.
"The light from this tower seen from afar," said Sethos, "looks like a star. Sailors have mistaken more than once; but they must learn, or the limestone reefs down there will be their ruin." Sethos pointed toward the low-lying northern shore.
"Now, Menna," he went on, "if I talk about the Pharos, I must talk about Alexandria. For the Pharos is Alexandria, let me tell you, and Alexandria, the Pharos. A long time ago Alexandria didn't exist--only a little village over there; they called it Rhakoti. This was long before the island of Pharos was connected with the mainland by that seven-furlong, stone causeway you took this morning. Rhakoti, the site of present Alexandria, was . . . "
The lighthouse keeper's words were interrupted by a melodious sound coming from one of the statues below on a cornice--a statue that told the hours of the day in loud or soft tones.
"Uncle," said Menna, "does that other statue down below us really shout an alarm if a hostile ship comes in sight?"
"Yes," answered Sethos, "and the outstretched finger of the third statue, there, follows the course of the sun all day long. But about Rhakoti -- hear this! When the king had chosen the site for his new city, he assembled workmen and artists and engineers, and ordered great pillars and stones brought from our Egyptian quarries--from lands beyond the sea, too. First, he had the workmen mark, with chalk, some lines on the ground to show the size of the city. When the chalk gave out the workmen used meal, but birds flew down and ate that up! Next, he made a plan for having all the foundations laid at the same moment, when the omens should be favorable. This was what he did. He had a column set before his own tent, with a signal-bell on top. Then along the lines for the city walls he had smaller bells placed, and cords joining them with the large bell, so that, when the signal-bell should ring, the small bells would instantly ring. The king fell asleep, and a bird chanced to light on the cord of the large bell, so, of course, all the little bells rang, too. The workmen immediately obeyed orders and started their work, to the surprise of the king when he awoke!
"Now, after some progress had been made in building the city walls, what happened, think you, boy? They were amazed, one morning, to find no sign of their work -- not a stone in place! Watching the next night, they discovered odd-looking beings who came out of the sea and took stones and all else back with them into the water. This troubled the king very much. His shepherd, too--the one called "a beautiful person"--who had charge of the king's thousand sheep--was soon in distress. For one day, when his sheep were grazing beside the sea, the shepherd saw a fair damsel come out of the water near him.
"Young man," the damsel said in a courteous manner, "I am Lady Marina. Will you wrestle with me for something in return?"
"What would you give?" the shepherd asked.
"If you throw me, I will be yours," Lady Marina replied; "if I make you fall, I will have a sheep out of your flock."
"Content" the shepherd said. They wrestled and the lady straightway threw him and, taking a sheep, went into the sea. The same thing happened every evening for many weeks, until the king, riding near the shepherd one day, noticed how sad he looked.
"What is the matter?" asked the king.
"'O King (life, health, and wealth), my lord," replied the shepherd, "one of thy sheep is destroyed daily." Then he told the cause.
After hearing the shepherd's words the king said, "Take off thy garment."
The man obeyed, and the king, clothing himself in the garment, sat in the shepherd's usual place by the water and told the shepherd to go away.
"When the lady, Marina, came out of the sea, the king wrestled with her and instantly threw her.
"You are not my former match," said the damsel. "To reward you, however, for your victory, I will tell you how to complete the building of your city, for I know you greatly desire this. Know, O King (life, health, and wealth), that the land of Egypt is a land of enchantment. The sea is full of spirits and demons. They are the ones who take away your buildings. To prevent them, follow these instructions. Make large tanks or boxes with transparent sides of glass, and fit covers securely over the top. Put into these tanks men skilled in painting, and put with them meat, drink, and painting equipment. Then fasten the covers down, attach cords from the tanks to ships, and let down the tanks like anchors into the sea. Moreover, be sure that you put little bells on the cords, so that the painters may ring when ready to come up out of the water. Bid the painters paint pictures of the sea-demons that dwell below the waves."
"The king did all as Lady Marina commanded, and at the end of a week the painters rang the bells and came out of the water bringing the pictures which they had painted.
Then Lady Marina said to the painters, "Make now statues of copper, tin, stone, earth, and wood like your pictures, and set these statues on the shore nearest your building; then when the sea-demons come to demolish the buildings, they will think the statues are opposing spirits ready to fight, and in fear they will return empty-handed to the sea."
"Everything happened as Lady Marina predicted, for when the sea-demons saw figures exactly like themselves on the shore they fled to the sea and never returned. The building of the city then went on without any hindrance; one marble building after another went up until the whole city of marble shone."
"It's shining today," said Menna, taking a long breath.
"Yes," said Sethos, "it never needs a light, it shines of itself. It's a magnificent city. But there's no more of the tale today, boy; down the spiral staircase you go now, for the next time the statue sounds 'twill be high noon, when you go with your father to see the palace."
Menna pulled himself out of the dream of the past, for he knew his uncle was to be obeyed. As he stood up, he looked down once more at the brilliant city below the tower. He could see the straight, intersecting lines which were the streets; the undulating line which he knew must be the procession returning to the temple of Serapis; and, nearer the Great Harbour, the fantastic gardens of the Mouseion lying beyond the palace area of Ptolemy. All Alexandria, from the Gate of the Moon at the west, to the Gate of the Sun at the east, shone in a golden light, like a king's crown.
When the boy had gone, the keeper of the tower strolled a few steps back and forth on the platform, and looked toward the Rosetta mouth of the Nile and then toward hazy Lake Mariotis and the mysterious Libyan desert beyond, with its sands of miraculous color. The fingers of the Nile were quietly outstretched toward the waiting sea. Well did the keeper of the tower know all that could be seen from the Pharos, day or night--the expanse of ocean which often seemed a cloud below him; the land of Egypt ever full of mystery; the endless heavens. For a few minutes he stood, silent as the Pharos itself. Then he took his seat directly under the northern edge of the magic mirror, and gazed over the sea.
Sources And Further Reading
Sacred Texts Tower Legends by Bertha Palmer Lane