The past is not static, or ever truly complete; as we age we see from new positions, shifting angles. A therapist friend of mine likes to use the metaphor of the kind of spiral stair that winds up inside a lighthouse. As one moves up that stair, the core at the center doesnt change, but one continually sees it from another vantage point; if the past is a core of who we are, then our movement in time always brings us into a new relation to that core.
The Atlas Obscura serves as this age’s compendium age’s wonders, curiosities, and esoterica. But what about previous ages?
Recently I talked to Atlas founder Dylan Thuras at length about the word “wonder,” and we both ended up wondering what sort of Atlas-esque entries writers from, say, ancient Rome or Medieval Persia might have created. With a different mindset, a different understanding of science and the natural world, and different codes of aesthetics and ethics, how would earlier aficionados of obscurities and off-the-beaten-trail sites of pilgrimage have engaged with wonder? What did they feel, when looking up at an impossible structure or out onto a bizarre natural landscape? What did they find wonder-inspiring, exactly, and why?
With these questions in mind, I’ve set out to describe just some of the wonders of the past, both familiar (the Great Pyramids, where kings went to chillax eternally) and esoteric (the artificial oyster lakes of Rome, the most oyster-obsessed city in the world).
The first site I’d like to visit is this series’ eponym (“name-thang”) the lighthouse, or the Lighthouse, to be more reverent.
The Pharos, the great lighthouse at Alexandria, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, in that world’s most crowded, second-richest city. At an estimated 400-feet, it was taller than every structure on earth during its life except the two largest pyramids, and it needed to be: It guided ships into the busiest and most important port in the West, second to none, not even Rome - which was richer only thanks to war-loot.
Today the Pharos, named after the island on which it stood, is fallen: In fact, its parts were used to build a little citadel on the spot where it once stood, Fort Qaitbey, in the 1400s. But for hundreds of years, the lighthouse was more than an important cog in the commerce of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. The Pharos was a symbol. It inspired something in those who beheld it. For one, it was taaall. Moreover, it was beautiful an elegant, symmetric, four-sided, phallic temple to Poseidon and his son Triton, the gods of the sea, whose blessings every sailor desired as they set out on shallow-keeled, single-masted ships to haul tons of cargo, back when shipping was rolling the dice, playing Russian roulette with the storms. If you had to get the attention of a god, the Pharos definitely seemed like a good way to go about it.
But it didn’t have to serve a specific religious purpose to inspire. To the average Egyptianwhether he was Greek, Roman, or Kemet (native Egyptian)the Pharos was larger than life. It had no rival in consciousness. There were no mountains in Lower Egypt, and no large buildings other than sprawling but squat temples and warehouses. Even for those notables who’d visited, say, Antioch, the Pharos put its potential challengers to shame. Other lighthouses were tall, but the dimensions of the monstrous Pharos were simply on a different, Olympian scale.
After Caesar ended the Greek rule of Egypt, the Romans improved on the Pharos, adding a mirror to reflect a lamp and bring sailors home at night, as the sheer blazing white bulk of the Pharos did during the day, standing against the sky like Alexandria’s middle finger to the rest of the commercial ports of the Iron Age Mediterranean.
But what made this wondrous and not merely functional? Phallic imagery and quasi-religious significance aside, it may be hard for us postmodern lazyboneses to grasp just how truly wondrous a very, very functional thing like the Pharos or the aqueducts, or the Great Wall could prove. Think about it. There is no electricity. There is no natural gas, little animal oil. At night, in the teeming city, the second-most populous in the world, there are few lights.
As a sailor, in a crappy bark, coming home at night, you know well that the harbors end in sand. It’s Egypt, after all. You really need to find your way, and you’re bringing back countless luxuries from beyond the breadbasket of North Africa. You’re carrying, say, fragile and useful ceramics from Greece, rare work-shopped metal goods from Asia (Turkey), soft Celtic wool, and very much in demand Roman wine. You’re an investor. If the ship goes down, even if you survive, your life could be over. You could be sold into slavery. Slaves were not people of another ethnic group, after all; they were just very poor Romans. Repeat: If you don’t see where to park your boat, you become a slave.
Suddenly, you blink and it’s there: The sole yellow light, mirrored out into the lonely sea by huge polished metal discs (the ancients didn’t have the mica mirrors we do now). Your life and livelihood are safe. You are free. You can drop anchor, unload your wares, fill up with grain in the morning, and set out again, for home.
The Egyptian observer sees you. The Egyptian has watched the Pharos rise; his descendants, the mirrors light up the harbor at night. These marvels are not incremental, expected, “progressive,” or slight. Nor are they magic, the work of the gods. For all the lighthouse’s dedications to the sea divinities, it is a secular, commercial, scientific wonder, a wonder that needn’t have existed. Ships could have crashed; life would have gone on, retarded by the danger of the sea, the realm of gods alone, of pure chance. But the Greeks made a functional wonder real. They didn’t build Olympus, but they did build something 400-feet-tall, both sacral and secular, that impressed every writer who ever saw it, and surely impressed the average stevedore, farmer, fisherman, and baker.
Wonder is not, after all, the flip side of the mundane. Wonder is something more than that, and something perpendicular to our expectations. If the mundane is what we expect, every day (the highway to work, or the subway), the wondrous is not the inverse (surprise! a quantum explosion has changed the highway into a rollercoaster!), but a new vista onto ourselves. We still go to work most of us work every day, no matter how wondrous our world and the road is not going to one day become a rollercoaster. But over there, just past the first exit, may stand something that makes us feel differently about the road, about work, and about our present world.
The lighthouse at Alexandria inspired this sense in the Greeks, Romans, and Kemet. They didn’t stop praying to Poseidon or using the mirrored flame functionally, but they did think differently about the scale on which they lived and dreamed. The hard-earned geometries of Euclid and the Roman engineers suddenly seemed a lot realer and more useful.
Looking back on the work of the earlier inhabitants of northern Egypt, the builders of Fort Qaitbey had to admit that, for infidels, the Greeks and Romans were inspiring architects. Like the Colossus of Rhodes (another fallen wonder, used as scrap for other structures), the Pharos could not be rebuilt at the time it was ultimately dismantled and repurposed. The wonder it had inspired for so long had dulled and been used up and changed again, as Egypt, supposedly changeless, had evolved. Alexandria was still teeming but no longer preeminent, and there were other tall buildings and methods of making harbors safe and the shipping of goods profitable.
Still, even in the late Middle Ages, some Egyptian must have been able to travel to the lighthouse’s island and stare up and imagine it in its heyday, the pride of the city, of the nation-as-commercial-entity. (Pyramids and temples like Abu-Simbel are great, but they don’t bring in tax dollars.)
Unlike Babel, the Pharos never challenged the gods’ supremacy (or God’s/Allah’s); it confirmed that man beseeches the invisiblebegs and kisses the hems of Fortune’s skirtsand will probably always do so: Space stations hang timidly in a void, after all, barely protected from cosmic rays, meteors, and a host of other dangers.
The Pharos belongs to a squat, difficult past. But the wonder with which its contemporaries beheld it can be experienced by any of us.