Huge propellers of light turn at night in pitch darkness surrounded by an infinite sea and bathe, with their tentacles of light beams, the sleepy boats that wearily travel to their harbours and anchorages. On the stone towers, night watchmen control the light, cherish the miraculous mechanisms turning at night, and they gaze awake at the immenseness around and within themselves. Under the foundations of the hovering towers, the raging sea roars, the winds yell, the waves explode into bubbles jetting all the way to the lantern room top. It seems as if the propeller of light, turning around under the stars will pull out the very tower from its foundations. This house of light was built solidly so as to endure all the force of the elements, which it has to resist for centuries. Like a huge pulled out stone helicopter, it seems as if it will fly somewhere off the hilltop on a desert island immersed into the boiling sea that bites at it, destroys it, and crushes it. It seems as if its huge propeller of light will lift it up among the stars, where it will become one star among the many stars in the heavens.

This feeling needs to be experienced: nights on a desert island in the lantern room on top, the splutter of the sea, the force of the wind, the infinity of the universe, the horrible loneliness of a human being at the moment when winds are raging, when the island is shivering under millions of cubic metres of raging sea, when the world is falling apart. We need to be able to understand live-inlighthouse keepers.

The Croatian archipelago is an impressive maritime area with islands reaching out of the sea, which were actually the mountains of what once was the mainland connecting the present Adriatic coasts, from the high Dinarides to the plain parts of the Apennines. It was a vast land where herds of bisons, deers and does grazed for millions of years, and above them griffon vultures searched for carcasses. It had vast plains where rivers and streams flew, and where large forests and meadows flourished. Then, in an unbelievable geological cataclysm, the sea rushed in and flooded the inhabited areas of the huge and fertile plains, turning its heights along the east slopes of the Dinarides into approximately a thousand and two hundred islands, islets and cliffs, and turning its fertile plains and synclinal folds into the sea bed. These islands of unbelievable shapes created a labyrinth of channels, bays, coves, harbours big and small, jutting capes above the sea surface. Similarly, the vast line of underwater islands, that is, underwater banks, fishery marine habitats in the underwater environment, and shallow waters, reefs and rocks hidden just slightly below the sea surface dangerous for navigation were also created.

The west side of the Adriatic coast that has no islands and is like a straight line all the way from Venice to Otranto, with the exception of the peninsula of Gargano, gave the Dalmatian archipelago the name Terra nauta. It was a poetic name for the unbelievable labyrinth of longitudinal channels winding between the islands and the mainland, among points, among islands and into a vast meander of sea routes. A document from the 17th century stated that a man called Nicolo came from Terra Naute to San Benedetto del Tronto in his trabakul, a traditional sailing ship from the eastern Adriatic. It was a poetic name for the land of navigation, for Dalmatia whose Illyrian name (delma - sheep) determined the cattle-breeder nomadic identity of Illyrian natives of Dalmatia. This Roman people of Dalmati on the Dalmatian coast and islands, and Greeks who started to colonise the Dalmatian islands and coast in the 4th c. BC were definitely maritime peoples who lived from the sea and navigation. From the first mythological travels in the Mediterranean to the late 19th century, when sails were replaced by engines, Dalmatia was truly Terra nauta. All sea routes ran from Otranto to the NW Adriatic coasts and back. During the Age of Sail it was dangerous to sail along the Italian coast, particularly in winter because of the bora, which would drive ships into sandy shallow waters and sandbanks, as there were no longitudinal channels, and no natural coves to hide in the lee, unlike the eastern Adriatic coast. For the same reason, Pope Alexander III was the first Pope to come to Croatia. On his way home from the port of Vasto (to the NW of Gargano) to Venice, he sailed via Palagruža to the island of Vis, then to the town of Zadar, and along the coast of Istria to Venice. This ended in the late 19th century when the “wind from stiva”, as seamen called the steam engine metaphorically, was used to propel ships instead of the wind.

Tonko Borčić Bako, a diver from Komiža, found the remains of seven shipwrecks dated between classical antiquity and the 18th century near an underwater reef called Pupak to the east of Palagruža Island, close to the Galijula islet.  This reef is only one metre below the sea surface during low tide, and is very dangerous for both night and day navigation. This has been proven by “Ships Graveyard” with all the wrecks and cargo remains around the reef at fifty to a hundred metres’ depth. Such “graveyards” are numerous along the eastern Adriatic coast. In ancient Greek and Roman times people sailed only by day and in summer. They would never set sail until the fig leaf was large enough to cover the palm of a hand. Yet, this great number of shipwrecks meant that seamen were not aware of how dangerous the reefs were.

After the fall of Venice in 1797, and a short-lived Napoleon’s rule, Austria took over the north and east coasts of the Adriatic. Austria, the most powerful country then, became a maritime country for the first time. The Croatian coast and islands became a part of the Austrian Empire. Austria introduced order into the state administration, organised land and sea communications, and applied strict legislation to achieve proper functioning of social organisation from the furthest island all the way to Vienna.

Austria started systematic construction of seaports, piers, harbour master’s buildings, quarantine stations, and lighthouses. The complete network of marine signalling was created. Monumental stone lighthouses were built on the coastline and the islands, and on cliffs and reefs.

The first lighthouse in the history of navigation was the architectonic miracle of ancient times, one of the Seven Wonders of Ancient World, which was built on the island of Pharos in forty-two years, in the 3rd c. BC. It stood in front of the harbour of what would become Alexandria, in Egypt, the town built by and in honour of Alexander the Great, a Greek military genius. It is 117 metres high, which makes it the tallest lighthouse ever. After one thousand five hundred years it collapsed in an earthquake in 1303.  At night, wood-and-resin fire burning in the lantern could be seen from 300 miles away, and during the day from the tower top where a huge statue of Poseidon the god of the sea stood, a mirror reflected sunlight which could be seen from 170 miles away. Legend has it that it was used to detect and burn enemy ships.
The common noun lighthouse is derived from the name of the island of Pharos as: phare in French, faro in Italian, Spanish and Galician, far in Albanian, Catalan, Bulgarian and Romanian, farol in Portuguese, feral / ferol in Dalmatian, ????? in Greek.There is a scientific discipline, pharology, the name of which is derived from the name of the Alexandrine island of Pharos, and it is the science of lighthouses and signal lights. Accordingly, pharologist isthe scientist dealing with pharology.
Before Austria took over, the eastern Adriatic had been lit by celestial lights, the moon and stars. Seamen used to orientate themselves using the stars. Through generations-long experience they learned to avoid dangerous reefs and shallow waters. When the invention of the steam engine signalled the end of sailing ships, and when, thanks to the use of steam ships, navigation in the Adriatic intensified, networks of lighthouses needed to be constructed. Monumental structures were built on dangerous capes on the coast and islands, on uninhabited islands and rocks in the open sea. There was nothing around them but harsh stone, endless blue sea and skies; which emphasised the monumental structure and beauty of these buildings, and the architectural skill of ancient master-builders who constructed buildings to last for eternity.       

One of the biggest lighthouses in the Adriatic is the one on the island of Palagruža. It was built by the Austrian Maritime Administration, with its headquarters in Trieste, and the chief builder was Vicko Marinković Mestrazane from Komiža, the island of Vis. It was built between 1874 and 1876. People in Komiža always remember the day of the lighthouse takeover. Building inspectors came from Trieste. Inspectors and builders were served a rich and abundant meal prepared by the builder’s sister Nina. As they started to eat in the lighthouse, the glasses and plates started to “dance” on the table. This was due to a strong earthquake on Palagruža. When it was over, the chief inspector said, “We can leave now; the Almighty did our job with this earthquake. Our Lord has tested this lighthouse and we need not check anything else.”

Many seamen who come across this outermost Croatian island, impressed by this monumental stone building with 40 windows on top the hundred-metre hill of Palagruža, will wonder why such a colossal building was needed on such a small desert island amidst the infinity of the sea. The answer is that the island of Palagruža, as the outmost island of the Croatian archipelago, which is much closer to the Italian than to the Croatian coast, had the role of being the marine entrance into the powerful Empire. Such a maritime entrance was there to impress arrivals and to demonstrate the power of the Austrian Empire at the very first contact. The monumental lighthouse corresponded to the monumental imperial palaces in Vienna, the capital of the Empire.

What are these people, the live-in lighthouse keepers like? Who are these lonely people willing to be isolated for such a long time? Are they eccentrics who can live away from society and face the infinity around them, and within them, people who in times without electronic communication are strong enough to choose loneliness on a desert island, to see the sense in a Robinson Crusoe’s kind of isolation?

Jurka Zanki was the only inhabitant of the island of Svetac for years. She was not a lighthouse keeper who would go to the mainland or another island and live among other people when the shift was over. She lived all alone with chickens, cats and a donkey, alone in her day-dreams, her never told stories, her memories of all the people who were no longer on the island, who had either died or left it. For years, her window with the trembling light of her paraffin lamp was the only lantern in the darkness of the inaccessible and harsh island of Svetac.

Many lighthouse keepers say that on these desert islands they communicate with the world more than they can in big cities. Is this not one of the many paradoxes of islands? The Italian word (isola)means “island”, and is derived from Latin (insula); it appears in European languages as Latinisms: to isolate, insulation/isolation, insulated/isolated. This means that the mainland sees the island as land separate from the world, communication, and society. However, the number of words of foreign origin in islanders’ speech proves the fact that the sea is no obstacle, but the way, and that the sea does not isolate, but connects. The Croatian word put meanstheway, the Greek word pontos means thesea,and the Latin word ponte means the bridge. They are all derived from Indo-European origins. For ancient Greeks, a great maritime people, the word for the sea is the way, because for them the sea was the way, not an obstacle to the way. The other great ancient culture, the Roman culture, used the same word to mean a bridge (ponte). Accordingly, these distant lighthouses scattered all over the open sea islands are not just signals for secure navigation towards a safe haven, they are also intersections of seaways where the curious travellers stop to see the raw beauty of the island and the stone lighthouse structure, whose harmony, grace and elegance emphasise the rough environment, huge rocks covered in caper bushes and wild vegetation, and the vast blue skies and surrounding sea.   To even anchor on the island whose only inhabitants are sea gulls, lizards and lighthouse keepers, to feel the universe, spend time with the lantern keeper, bathe in the genuine salty water, to be deaf for a moment at least to the noise of civilisation, to the noise of hustle and bustle, to text messages, and reports on global turbulence of networked world, for a moment to feel eternity and incompleteness of the transient life, is the experience that can happen to anyone who, respectfully and intentionally wants to get to know themselves, and on their own initiative approach an island with a single building: the house of light, a tower thrust into the blue skies.  It is only in a lighthouse that you can experience contact with archetypal forces or elements. They are the big salty Water carried by the force of the dynamic element of Air which crushes the stone whose principle of durability and firmness yields to the soft principle of Water in eternal movement. From the top of the lighthouse, Fire closes the archetypal Tetrad of elements contained in everything that exists, as explained by ancient Greek philosophers who are the founders of European philosophy.             

Yet, lighthouse keepers may be right when witnessing the intensity of communication on desert islands, because there are more and more travellers who, avoiding the rat race, in their boats approach the desert islands to immerse themselves in genuine waters.

The lantern remains in our subconsciousness as oniric topos of experiencing the contact with archetypal elements, with what is Genuine, with the Inception. The experience of the lantern is not an adventure, but the experience of the return to the source of life, contact with the universe around us and within us.

Joško Božanić