Pharos and Pharillon

Pharos and Pharillon

by E. M. Forster

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The author of A Passage to India offers personal and historical reflections on the Egyptian city of Alexandria in these essays, articles, and poems.

As a noncombatant during the First World War, E. M. Forster was stationed with the British Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt. He fell in love with the place, which had once been a cultural crossroads of the world, and with a young Egyptian man named Mohammed el Adl. Pharos and Pharillon collects Forster’s many reflections about the city, its history, and his experiences there.
Organized in two parts, the book begins with Pharos, the great Lighthouse of Alexandria, and seven stories that paint a poetic picture of the ancient city. The second half, Pharillon, consists of four stories set during the British-occupied Alexandria of the twentieth century. It includes Forster’s moving introduction of the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy to the English-speaking world. The division in the book is signaled by Cavafy’s now famous poem, “The God Abandons Antony.”
First published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1923, Pharos and Pharillon remains an enlightening portrait both of the city and the author. Forster’s “spiritual unity with Alexandria is, perhaps, the most important aspect of the book. . . . E. M. Forster found himself in Alexandria and Alexandria is to be found in E. M. Forster” (The New York Times).
This ebook has been professionally proofread to ensure accuracy and readability on all devices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504058957
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 94
Sales rank: 36,966
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Edward Morgan Forster (1879–1970) was born in London and attended the Tonbridge School and King’s College, Cambridge. A substantial inheritance from his aunt gave Forster the freedom to pursue a literary career and travel extensively, and he wrote some of the finest novels of the twentieth century, including A Room with a View, A Passage to India, and Howards End. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the Order of Merit in 1969.

Date of Birth:

January 1, 1879

Date of Death:

June 7, 1970

Place of Birth:


Place of Death:

Coventry, England


B. A. in classics, King's College, Cambridge, 1900; B. A. in history, 1901; M.A., 1910

Read an Excerpt




The career of Menelaus was a series of small mishaps. It was after he had lost Helen, and indeed after he had recovered her and was returning from Troy, that a breeze arose from the north-west and obliged him to take refuge upon a desert island. It was of limestone, close to the African coast, and to the estuary though not to the exit of the Nile, and it was protected from the Mediterranean by an outer barrier of reefs. Here he remained for twenty days, in no danger, but in high discomfort, for the accommodation was insufficient for the Queen. Helen had been to Egypt ten years before, under the larger guidance of Paris, and she could not but remark that there was nothing to see upon the island and nothing to eat and that its beaches were infested with seals. Action must be taken, Menelaus decided. He sought the sky and sea, and chancing at last to apprehend an old man he addressed to him the following wingèd word:

"What island is this?"

"Pharaoh's," the old man replied.


"Yes, Pharaoh's, Prouti's" — Prouti being another title (it occurs in the hieroglyphs) for the Egyptian king.



As soon as Menelaus had got everything wrong, the wind changed and he returned to Greece with news of an island named Pharos whose old man was called Proteus and whose beaches were infested with nymphs. Under such misapprehensions did it enter our geography.

Pharos was hammer-headed, and long before Menelaus landed some unknown power — Cretan — Atlantean — had fastened a harbour against its western promontory. To the golden-haired king, as to us, the works of that harbour showed only as ochreous patches and lines beneath the dancing waves, for the island has always been sinking, and the quays, jetties, and double breakwater of its prehistoric port can only be touched by the swimmer now. Already was their existence forgotten, and it was on the other promontory — the eastern — that the sun of history arose, never to set. Alexander the Great came here. Philhellene, he proposed to build a Greek city upon Pharos. But the ridge of an island proved too narrow a site for his ambition, and the new city was finally built upon the opposing coast — Alexandria. Pharos, tethered to Alexandria by a long causeway, became part of a larger scheme and only once re-entered Alexander's mind: he thought of it at the death of Hephæstion, as he thought of all holy or delectable spots, and he arranged that upon its distant shore a shrine should commemorate his friend, and reverberate the grief that had convulsed Ecbatana and Babylon.

Meanwhile the Jews had been attentive. They, too, liked delectable spots. Deeply as they were devoted to Jehovah, they had ever felt it their duty to leave his city when they could, and as soon as Alexandria began to develop they descended upon her markets with polite cries. They found so much to do that they decided against returning to Jerusalem, and met so many Greeks that they forgot how to speak Hebrew. They speculated in theology and grain, they lent money to Ptolemy the second king, and filled him (they tell us) with such enthusiasm for their religion that he commanded them to translate their Scriptures for their own benefit. He himself selected the translators, and assigned for their labours the island of Pharos because it was less noisy than the mainland. Here he shut up seventy rabbis in seventy huts, whence in an incredibly short time they emerged with seventy identical translations of the Bible. Everything corresponded. Even when they slipped they made seventy slips, and Greek literature was at last enriched by the possession of an inspired book. It was left to later generations to pry into Jehovah's scholarship and to deduce that the Septuagint translation must have extended over a long period and not have reached completion till 100 B.C. The Jews of Alexandria knew no such doubts. Every year they made holiday on Pharos in remembrance of the miracle, and built little booths along the beaches where Helen had once shuddered at the seals. The island became a second Sinai whose moderate thunders thrilled the philosophic world. A translation, even when it is the work of God, is never as intimidating as an original; and the unknown author of the "Wisdom of Solomon" shows, in his delicious but dubious numbers, how unalarming even an original could be when it was composed at Alexandria:

Let us enjoy the good things that are present, and let us speedily use the creatures like as in youth.

Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments, and let no flower of the spring pass by us.

Let us crown ourselves with rose-buds before they are withered.

Let none of us go without his part in our voluptuousness, let us leave tokens of our joyfulness in every place, for this is our portion and our lot is this.

It is true that, pulling himself together, the writer goes on to remind us that the above remarks are no elegy on Alexander and Hephæstion, but an indictment of the ungodly, and must be read sarcastically.

Such things they did imagine and were deceived, for their own wickedness hath blinded them.

As for the mysteries of God they knew them not, neither hoped they for the wages of righteousness nor discerned a reward for blameless souls.

For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be the image of his own eternity.

But it is too late. And all racial and religious effort was too late. Though Pharos was not to be Greek it was not to be Hebrew either. A more impartial power dominated it. Five hundred feet above all shrines and huts, Science had already raised her throne.


A lighthouse was a necessity. The coast of Egypt is, in its western section, both flat and rocky, and ships needed a landmark to show them where Alexandria lay, and a guide through the reefs that block1 her harbours. Pharos was the obvious site, because it stood in front of the city; and on Pharos the eastern promontory, because it commanded the more important of the two harbours — the Royal. But it is not clear whether a divine madness also seized the builders, whether they deliberately winged engineering with poetry, and tried to add a wonder to the world. At all events they succeeded, and the arts combined with science to praise their triumph. Just as the Parthenon had been identified with Athens, and St. Peter's was to be identified with Rome, so, to the imagination of contemporaries, "The Pharos" became Alexandria and Alexandria the Pharos. Never, in the history of architecture, has a secular building been thus worshipped and taken on a spiritual life of its own. It beaconed to the imagination, not only to ships, and long after its light was extinguished memories of it glowed in the minds of men. Perhaps it was merely very large; reconstructions strike a chill, and the minaret, its modern descendant, is not supremely beautiful. Something very large to which people got used — a Liberty Statue, an Eiffel Tower? The possibility must be faced, and is not excluded by the ecstasies of the poets.

The lighthouse was made of local limestone, of marble, and of reddish-purple granite from Assouan. It stood in a colonnaded court that covered most of the promontory. There were four stories. The bottom story was over two hundred feet high, square, pierced with many windows. In it were the rooms (estimated at three hundred) where the mechanics and keepers were housed, and its mass was threaded by a spiral ascent, probably by a double spiral. There may have been hydraulic machinery in the central well for raising the fuel to the top; otherwise we must imagine a procession of donkeys who cease not night and day to circumambulate the spirals with loads of wood upon their backs. The story ended in a cornice and in statues of Tritons: here too, in great letters of lead, was a Greek inscription mentioning the architect: "Sostratus of Cnidus, son of Dexiphanes, to the Saviour Gods: for sailors" — an inscription which, despite its simplicity, bore a double meaning. The Saviour Gods were the Dioscuri, but a courtly observer could refer them to Ptolemy Soter and his wife, whose worship their son was then promoting. For the building of the lighthouse (279 B.C.) was connected with an elaborate dynastic propaganda known as the "As-good-as-Olympic Games," and with a mammoth pageant which passed through the streets of Alexandria, regardless of imagination and expense. Nothing could be seen in the pageant, neither elephants nor camels nor dances of wild men, nor allegorical females upon a car, nor eggs that opened and disclosed the Dioscuri; and the inscription on the first story of the Pharos was a subtle echo of its appeal.

The second story was octagonal and entirely filled by the ascending spirals. The third story was circular. Then came the lantern. The lantern is a puzzle, because a bonfire and delicate scientific instruments appear to have shared its narrow area. Visitors speak, for instance, of a mysterious "mirror" up there, which was even more wonderful than the building itself. Why didn't this mirror crack, and what was it? A polished steel reflector for the fire at night or for heliography by day? Some writers describe it as made of finely wrought glass or transparent stone, and declare that when they sat under it they could see ships at sea that were invisible to the naked eye. A telescope? Is it conceivable that the Alexandrian school of mathematics and mechanics discovered the lens and that their discovery was lost and forgotten when the Pharos fell? It is possible: the discoveries of Aristarchus were forgotten, and Galileo persecuted for reviving them. It is certain that the lighthouse was equipped with every scientific improvement known to the age, that it was the outward expression of the studies pursued in the Museum across the straits, and that its architect could have consulted not only Aristarchus, but Eratosthenes, Apollonius of Perga, and Euclid.

Standing on the lantern, at the height of five hundred feet above the ground, a statue of Poseidon struck the pious note, and gave a Greek air to Africa seen from the sea. Other works of art are also reported: for example, a statue whose finger followed the diurnal course of the sun, a second statue who gave out with varying and melodious voices the various hours of the day, and a third who shouted an alarm as soon as a hostile flotilla set sail from any foreign port. This last must belong to an even more remarkable building, the Pharos of legend, which we will measure in a moment. The lighthouse was the key of the Alexandrian defences, and Cæsar occupied it before attacking the city. It was also the pivot of a signalling system that stretched along the coast. Fifteen miles to the west, on a ridge among masses of marigolds, the little watch-tower of Abousir is still standing, and it reproduces, in its three stories, the arrangements of Sostratus.


"I have taken a city," wrote the Arab conqueror of Alexandria, "of which I can only say that it contains 4000 palaces, 4000 baths, 400 theatres, 12,000 greengrocers, and 40,000 Jews." It contained a lighthouse, too, for the Pharos was still perfect and functioned for a few years more, lighting the retreating fleets of Europe with its beams. Then a slow dissolution began, and it shrinks, looms through the mists of legend, disappears. The first, and the irreparable, disaster was the fall of the lantern in the eighth century, carrying with it scientific apparatus that could not be replaced. Annoyed (say the Arabs) with the magic mirror that detected or scorched their ships, the Christians made a plot, and sent a messenger to Islam with news of a treasure in Syria. The treasure was found, whereupon the messenger reported something supreme — the whole wealth of Alexander and other Pharaohs which lay in the foundations of the lighthouse. Demolition began, and before the Alexandrians, who knew better, could intervene, the mirror had fallen and was smashed on the rocks beneath. Henceforward the Pharos is only a stump with a bonfire on the top. The Arabs made some restorations, but they were unsubstantial additions to the octagon, which the wind could blow away. Structural repairs were neglected, and in the twelfth century the second disaster occurred — the fall of the octagon through an earthquake. The square bottom story survived as a watch-tower. Two hundred years later it vanished in a final earthquake, and the very island where it had stood modified its shape and became a peninsula, joined to the mainland by a strip of sand.

Though unable to maintain the lighthouse on earth, the Arabs did much for it in the realms of fancy, increasing its height to seven hundred feet, and endowing it with various magical objects, of which the most remarkable was a glass crab. There really were crabs at Alexandria, but of copper, quite small, and standing under Cleopatra's Needle; America possesses one to-day. Oriental imagination mixed two monuments into one, and caused a Moorish army to invade the Pharos and to ride through its three hundred rooms. The entrance gate vanished, and they could not find their way out, but ever descending the spirals came at last to the glass crab, slipped through a crack in its back and were drowned. Happier, though equally obscure, was the fate of another visitor, the poet El Deraoui. Who sings:

A lofty platform guides the voyager by night, guides him with its light when the darkness of evening falls.

Thither have I borne a garment of perfect pleasure among my friends, a garment adorned with the memory of beloved companions.

On its height a dome enshadowed me, and there I saw my friends like stars.

I thought that the sea below me was a cloud, and that I had set up my tent in the midst of the heavens.

Only occasionally does the note of disillusionment and bitterness creep in. Jelaled Din ibn Mokram complains that:

The visitor to Alexandria receives nothing in the way of hospitality except some water and a description of Pompey's Pillar.

Those who make a special effort sometimes give him a little fresh air too, and tell him where the Pharos is, adding a sketch of the sea and its waves and an account of the large Greek ships.

The visitor need not aspire to receive any bread, for to an application of this type there is no reply.

As a rule, life in its shadow is an earthly ecstasy that may even touch heaven. Hark to Ibn Dukmak:

According to the law of Moses, if a man make a pilgrimage round Alexandria in the morning, God will make for him a golden crown set with pearls, perfumed with musk and camphor and shining from the east to the west.

Nor were the Arabs content with praising the lighthouse: they even looked at it. "El Manarah," as they called it, gave the name to, and became the model for, the minaret, and one can still find minarets in Egypt that exactly reproduce the design of Sostratus — the bottom story square, second octagonal, third round.

The Fort of Kait Bey, built in the fifteenth century and itself now a ruin, stands to-day where the Pharos once stood. Its area covers part of the ancient enclosure — the rest is awash with the sea — and in its containing wall are embedded a few granite columns. Inside the area is a mosque, exactly occupying the site of the lighthouse, and built upon its foundations: here, too, are some granite block1s standing with druidical effect at the mosque's entrance. Nothing else can be attributed to the past, its stones have vanished and its spirit also. Again and again, looking at the mosque, have I tried to multiply its height by five, and thus build up its predecessor. The effort always failed: it did not seem reasonable that so large an edifice should have existed. The dominant memory in the chaos is now British for, here are some large holes, made by Admiral Seymour when he bombarded the Fort in 1882 and laid the basis of our intercourse with modern Egypt.



Alexander the Great founded Alexandria. He came with Dinocrates, his architect, and ordered him to build, between the sea and the lake, a magnificent Greek town. Alexander still conceived of civilization as an extended Greece, and of himself as a Hellene. He had taken over Hellenism with the ardour that only a proselyte knows. A Balkan barbarian by birth, he had pushed himself into the enchanted but enfeebled circle of little city states. He had flattered Athens and spared Thebes, and preached a crusade against Persia, which should repeat upon a vaster scale the victories of Marathon and Salamis. He would even repeat the Trojan war. At the Dardanelles his archæological zeal was such that he ran naked round the tomb of Achilles. He cut the knot of Gordius. He appeased the soul of Priam.


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