What is a lighthouse? Heroic defier of great waves? Prince of rocks? Siren winking at sailors?

What is a lighthouse, really? Shepherd of the waves? A poet scoffing at storms, writing reassuring words in light? A stopover for migratory birds seeking refuge from harsh winds? Or is a lighthouse, as many architects have said, merely a tower? A savior who rescues lives about to be lost in fog from the clutches of the angel of death?

To understand what a lighthouse is we first have to commune with islands, waves, storms, rock cliffs, seagulls, lighthouse keepers and their families, and the children who are born and grow up in lighthouses. To familiarize ourselves with the landscapes that surround them. And we certainly have no right to talk about lighthouses until we have sat out a storm inside one.

Yes, what a lighthouse means depends on your relationship with it! If you are on the sea, a lighthouse is a light of hope; if you are passing one in the night, it is a tower transmitting light. If you live inside one, it means loneliness, even though urban sprawl is bringing the lighthouse ever closer. And lighthouse keeping is such a demanding job that I am reminded of the words of the keeper at Mersin: “Letting the light go out is tantamount to killing a man!”

There are more than four hundred lighthouses scattered along the coasts of Turkey. From Kızılada Lighthouse at Fethiye and Bodrum’s lighthouse inside the yacht harbor to İğneada Lighthouse on the Black Sea coast near the Bulgarian border and the Deveboynu Lighthouse gazing down from the ancient  hilltop city of Knidos, all instill in navigators a sense of confidence. Even though anyone setting out to sea today is equipped with the latest in electronic instruments, if those instruments happen to fail it is again the lighthouse that shows the way.

“... Lighthouses are the Mediterranean’s legacy; like temples, they cannot simply be left in the hands of the coast guard or the port authority. They can be classified in general by the year in which they were built, their dimensions and style of construction, and their location, either on a pier, a headland or an island. Also relevant are their situation relative to the sea, the nature of their solitude, their relationship with nearby ports, and whether they are keen to be a port themselves one day. In the end what matters is who and which ship’s course they illuminate (someone has written, in words laden with longing, that their pale, intermittent gleams are filled with yearning). There’s no point asking for what reason some lighthouse keepers have chosen solitude in order to illuminate the sea. Lighthouses occupy a respected place on navigational maps; and victims of maritime disaster never fail to mention them in their memoirs.” So says Croatian writer Predrag Matvejevic in his ‘Book of the Mediterranean'.

Seventy-six-year-old Sacide Gül, who kept the Yelkenkaya Lighthouse at Gebze until she retired in 1997, is one of the most respected in the profession, which is passed down from father to son. I arrived at the lighthouse before dawn in the rain and stepped inside wearing the slippers Sacide Hanım handed me at the door. As I was trying to discern in her face the lines traced by being born and growing up in the shadow of a lighthouse, she explained, “Before we had electricity, we used to get around here with kerosene lanterns.” When I asked her how many children she had, she said, “I have three sons, one daughter, and a lighthouse!”  A reply that reveals the extraordinary one-on-one bond between lighthouse keepers and their families and the lighthouse. What better way of saying, “I love the lighthouse like a child”.

Throughout the day Gelidonya Lighthouse swims in a sea of light. Below it lies the Mediterranean. In the words of Cevat Şakir, aka the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, “If that blue is the sea’s own, then dip your pen into it and write blue, blue on sheets of  white.” As the sun sets, the sky turns from blue to orange, then red, then pink, then purple, indigo and finally black, putting a person under its spell, like a beautiful poem. Then Turkey’s highest lighthouse, towering 227 meters above the sea, begins to blink. In its wake the Milky Way is suspended over the night like a giant chandelier. Shooting stars trace the sky and the constellations peer down on you from a map of lights. A person longs to shoot a film here, or compose a poem. To bask in the moonlight, to weep... And no matter how strong you think you are, you realize that you fear being alone.

Anyone who buys a house in Şile will be awakened frequently in their bed the first night. Not due to anxiety but because of a light plunging in through the curtains. This light will enter and leave their bedroom countless times until morning, always at the same interval. Leaping out of bed in consternation, when they look out they will see the lighthouse. Later they will learn that this lighthouse is Turkey’s most powerful. In time the old lighthouse, built in 1859, will make friends with Şile’s new residents; and after a rain will even send all the colors of the rainbow in through the window.

Prof. Havva Işık, chairman of the Department of Archaeology in the School of Arts and Sciences of the University of the Mediterranean, and her excavation team discovered building stones near the sea on the beach at Patara in 2002. At the end of the dig’s exciting and suspense-filled second year, Havva Işık was certain that what they had unearthed here was the world’s oldest lighthouse. And one of the conclusions she reached was that the lighthouse had been toppled by a tsunami that struck its southeast corner. What’s more, she thought that the human skeleton they found amidst the ruins was that of the lighthouse keeper, who had tried to flee when the giant waves rocked the tower.

Did the lighthouse keeper think when he saw the waves in the distance that he could save himself by climbing the tower? Or had they come in the night when he was tending the fire? Or was the lighthouse actually toppled instantly in an earthquake, and the rubble later washed over by the tsunami? The uncertainty surrounding the Patara Lighthouse will of course be dispelled one day. But tell me, can science explain this coincidence? The name of the woman who discovered the world’s ‘oldest’ tower spewing ‘light’ is Havva Işık, Havva being the Turkish of ‘Eve’ of Adam and Eve, the world’s oldest woman, and Işık meaning ‘light'!