A lighthouse is an inspiring symbol. It points to the bestowal of light. It offers guidance and safety to the seafarer. Yusuf ibn ash-Shaykh has been fascinated by the lighthouse of Alexandria. According to some legends the lighthouse was more than 650 meters high; that its marble cladding was so bright that a tailor could thread a needle by its light at midnight; that its beacon could be seen as far as Istanbul; or that it cost 23 tons of silver to build – almost twice the cost of the Parthenon in Athens.
Yusuf ibn ash-Shaykh’s Kitab Alif Ba (= the Book of the letter A and B) is more factual. Because of his description the lighthouse of the city founded by Alexander the Great remains to this day a symbol of the very idea of travel. Yusuf was a Spanish architect and a builder who erected 25 mosques and sank 50 wells in his native Malaga. He is known to have made a pilgrimage to Makkah in 1165. His book contains a very precise description of the lighthouse of Alexandria.
A lighthouse is called in Arabic manarah, which means a place of fire that is used for illumination. The English word “minaret” has been derived from manarah.
Shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar uses the symbol of minaret (now the tower of a mosque) in order to point to lust, name, fame, habit, cherished possessions and self-projection. It symbolizes self-promotion in any form, or in terms of any rank or station, so that you establish yourself as a worshipper of form or self, conform his lines in Persian:
Taa madrasah o menaarah wiraan nashud
In kaar-e-qalandari ba-saamaan nasud
The Islamic school and minaret need to be destroyed,
Before the work of a free spirit can succeed.
To return to the actual lighthouse of Alexandria, its destruction started in 1323 because of an earthquake. Ibn Battuta visited Alexandria in 1326 just 3 years after the earthquake that toppled it, pointed out that already “one of its facades was in ruins. When he visited the city again in 1349 the lighthouse “was such a total heap of rubble that it was not possible to get into it anymore, nor even to go up to its door”. It was replaced by a small watchtower that stood until 1480, when over its ruins a fortress has been built. This fortress still guards the port of Alexandria to this day.
I conclude with an anecdote of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi. It deals with a lighthouse wherein his shaykh, al-Mahdawi, lived.
“I once met one of the wandering pilgrims on the sea-coast between Marsa Laqit and the lighthouse. He told me that on the same spot he had come across one of the ‘substitutes’ walking upon the waves of the sea. He said: ‘I greeted him and he returned my greeting. This was a time of great injustice and oppression in the country, so I asked him what he thought of all the terrible things that were happening in the country. He glared at me angrily and said: ‘What is that to you or to God’s servants? Don’t speak of anything but that which is good! May God grant you help and accept your apology for this’.”