NOVEMBER 17, 2018
ELLIE GA BOARDS a rowboat in Egypt and disembarks from a jetty at the beginning of Square Octagon Circle. We see the hazy Mediterranean harbor and the fleet of fishing boats — some with painted glyphs of eyes (an ancient custom that gave “sailors extra eyesight while navigating”). Ga then transfers to a dive boat to begin her mission, a search for the remnants of an ancient lighthouse.
Square Octagon Circle is a narrative documentation of the author’s research into Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The culmination of a five-year project, the book is a mixed-media work, full of colorful images, interview fragments, and passages of poetry. Like the author’s previous work The Fortunetellers (2007), which chronicled her residency on a research boat in the frozen Arctic, Square Octagon Circle draws on both science and mythology to create a multilayered contemplation of the seen and the unseen, knowledge and the unknown.
The Pharos Lighthouse was finished during the reign of Ptolemy II in the third century BCE. When Egypt became part of the Umayyad Caliphate in the mid-seventh century, “the new rulers found the Lighthouse so awe-inspiring that they wrote more about it than the Great Pyramids.” Even so, little was understood about the structure, and even less is known today. (The lighthouse was severely damaged by earthquakes and gradually reduced to ruins in the late Middle Ages.) Seen as “a beacon to ships and a beacon to the spirit,” it became an inspiration for the minaret, which derives (as Ga explains) from the Arabic manara, meaning “tower of light.”
Ga’s quest faces many difficulties. Underwater photography was banned by the Ministry of Antiquities in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. “I fear that I’ll get caught again,” the author confesses. “Every time I dive I’m breaking the big rule.” Yet the ban also links up with her musings about how the unseen can be discovered and shown. Her search is often “a game of hide-and-seek: some days you can find the ruins, some days you can’t.”
Square Octagon Circle is a reformatted version of an archive Ga physically assembled and employed during her researches. The overall design and the inclusion of various ephemera make the experience of diving into the volume both deeply personal and aesthetically satisfying. The cover of the book is as dynamic as its contents, centered by a multilayered die-cut foldout in the three shapes mentioned in the title — shapes that describe the outline of the lighthouse as seen from above: a square base, topped by a tapering octagon, collimating in a circular apex. The text consists of short paragraphs or fragments interspersed with images, including many underwater photographs — a collage literally held together by (photos of) the author’s hands. This intimate detail shows the human element of the project, the subjective magic that such obsessive research often thrives on.
The ancient lighthouse — or what remains of it — isn’t merely a beautiful physical object to puzzle over; it is a vivid image of a long-lost civilization still present in our shared memories. Ga notes both the vestiges of antiquity that remain and the various modern layerings, including graffiti and other reminders that civilizations still rise and fall. As she observes:
There are few archaeological traces of the ancient Lighthouse above ground, though its iconography is used as decoration throughout the city, especially on Fouad Street where I live, one of the oldest streets in Alexandria. The Lighthouse is pictured in internet cafes, the sides of buses, military resorts, the old stock exchange, university entrances and in painted murals.
As this passage reminds us, historical artifacts, however fragmented by time, continue to live in our everyday culture. To get at the mystery of such survivals, Ga deploys a palimpsest of media: many of her images are photographs of transparencies on a light box — layers of books, texts, images, all tabbed and flagged for research and absorption. Far from seeming academic, this visual archive has a startling immediacy that captures the adventurous nature of Ga’s years-long search.
The author’s deepest strength is her curiosity. She proceeds by intuition and the determination to make discoveries, while recognizing that these discoveries might not yield what she had hoped for. One section of the book, entitled “Alabaster Tomb,” shows her method in operation. Ga has been told that the current minister of antiquities has no interest in Egyptian history before the arrival of Islam, which means Ga will have to forge ahead while struggling to evade the bureaucracies in her way. Their lack of curiosity highlights the power of her own.
Ga consults numerous archaeological experts, whose insights propel her search. Jean-Yves Empereur, who holds exclusive rights to excavate Pharos Lighthouse, tells her: “For an archaeologist, discoveries are never over. If you visit a site ten years later, it’s completely new. It changes everyday. It’s living.” As another of the author’s sources comments, the hybrid geometry of the lighthouse contains meanings yet to be revealed:
Will we be capable of one day deciphering the symbolic language that the ancient Greeks associated with geometry? […] Why does Plato write that the square is the earth, for example? Personally, I have no idea. What is beautiful is not the object; it’s the measure […] a story of mathematics.
Thumbing through Ga’s work is like diving and tumbling beneath the sea. Sometimes the experience has an astonishing clarity, while at other times it’s cloudy, analogous to the enigma the author faces. “You go down in a solid green and you hit the bottom before you see the bottom,” she says. Whenever the reader comes close to drowning in this labyrinth, Ga swims to the rescue with penetrating insights and revelatory asides.
Much like certain kinds of experimental literature or poetry, Square Octagon Circle allows for a multifaceted reading experience. One can get lost in the book’s formal artistry or one can follow the various historical, mythological, archaeological, and anecdotal rabbit holes Ga has tunneled out. In the words of one of her guides, the effect is “to make the Lighthouse speak through its small parts.” Ga has assembled these fragments into a richly alluring work of science and art.