Light Upon Light

In Djibouti City, a forgotten lighthouse carries the flame

By / December 2013

When I moved to Djibouti I first thought the square three-story building in the slum suburb of Balbala was a mosque, albeit a strange one. White-washed walls, an orange stripe down the center of the northern side, and a green dome on top that I couldn’t quite make out. Maybe it was a mosque with a fat, low minaret. But there was no visible door and the windows on the upper levels were high and narrow, like slits.

The windows on the first floor were boarded up and painted over. Typically, mosques in Djibouti are more inviting, with flung-open doors and windows without glass or screens. Mosques fill with men kneeling or sitting or chatting, flip-flops and black faux leather sandals lined up on the front steps. Here, there were no shoes and the only men visible sat on wobbling green khat stands and chewed massive wads of the leafy amphetamine.

If it wasn’t a mosque, I figured the building was a shrine. In Djibouti, when a sheikh dies, his followers place green or red flags at the burial site. People visit the shrine to pray and seek blessing and sometimes there are small white structures near the shrines. Maybe I simply couldn’t see the flags from the road.

So I was surprised to discover that the building was neither a mosque nor a shrine but rather a historic fort dating from the time of  French colonialism. The structure also functions as a lighthouse, the third of its kind in Djibouti. According to the London Gazette of August 21, 1894, the French government gave notice on June 6 of that year of a new lighthouse constructed in Djibouti, at Fort Ayabley. The lighthouse was “exactly on the line joining Direction Hill and Pyramid, and with Ambuli House bearing E by N. ¾ N.”

Or did the lighthouse date to 1912? My guide, Sayiid, a friend who worked for Djibouti Telecom, wasn’t sure. He had scribbled facts about the lighthouse on a blue post-it note and now passed it to me over the gearshift in his truck. The note read (in French): Built in 1912, in line with Obock lighthouse built in 1820 or 1830. Details weren’t Sayid’s forte. He explained that the two lighthouses were in line with a third on Maskali Island in the Gulf of Tadjourah.

Sayid didn’t know the distance between the lighthouse and the sea or whether or not it was still in operation. He didn’t know about the fort that surrounded the lighthouse or how far the beam spread or the rate at which the light blinked. He did know that there had never been a ship run aground in Djibouti and he was willing to drive me to see the lighthouse, willing to ask if we could go inside even though no foreigners I spoke with and no locals I asked knew anyone who had ever been inside.

Somali doesn’t have a word for lighthouse. Djiboutians who speak French use phare. Otherwise, Djibouti’s lighthouses are known as biliqbiliqta. The word comes from the sound the light seems to make when it’s switched on and made to blink at regular intervals.

Sayiid pulled up to the Ayablay Lighthouse, or Fort Ayablay, at the peak of the highest hill in the city, seven kilometers south southwest of the harbor. The dusty white color and non-intimidating structure blend the building into the rest of Balbala. Graffiti on the lighthouse and surrounding wall declares vive IOG, “long live Ismail Omar Guelleh,” Djibouti’s president. The swooping scribbles camouflage the lighthouse as any other average wall, invisible in the scrum of wooden houses and aluminum roofs and more graffiti.

Eight men watched me climb out of Sayiid’s silver Toyota pick-up truck. He had his doubts about whether or not we would be allowed inside but was as curious as I was. He introduced me and explained that we wanted to visit the lighthouse. “Is this possible?” he asked.

“Go in, go in,” one of the men said. His cheek bulged with khat and I understood the welcoming wave better than the green spittle-thickened words. I followed Sayiid up two stone steps, worn and crumbling, and through an unassuming green metal gate, the same utilitarian style as my own front gate in Ambouli neighborhood on the other side of the wadi. Mud or ash or smoke stains, I didn’t linger long enough to discern which, streaked the wall and the blackened stone gave the fort the feeling of having survived a recent battle, of wounded endurance.

A woman squatted in front of a wooden shack inside the compound and rhythmically beat laxoox batter for tomorrow’s breakfast of spongy sorghum flatbread. A young boy sat in the shade of a plastic bag-strewn thorn tree. The woman nodded, expressionless, when Sayiid asked if we could see the lighthouse. She hollered for a man named Mohammed, and the boy pounded on the wooden door at the base of the building.

Mohammed answered with a command to come in. He lay on a thin mattress in a room lit by the sunlight sneaking through widely-spaced planks of a makeshift door, prison bar-shaped beams of light scattered across the cement floor. A macwiis, a men’s sarong the color of eggplant covered him like a blanket from his armpits to his knees. He rolled over and called, without rising, for another man named Mohammed.

Mohammed number two bounded down a set of narrow metal stairs, pulling up, zipping, and belting his baggy blue jeans on the way. While the Mohammeds discussed our visit, my eyes accustomed to the shadowy interior. The lighthouse walls were made of thick stone and shelves had been notched out at random intervals. Clothes and books and cooking utensils piled on the dugout spaces. Wooden slats covered arched windows, locked tight against the dust and heat of Djibouti’s blistering summer. An unused freezer blocked part of the entryway and I leaned against the door, the metal cooling my skin through my shirt, sweater, and scarf, to let the younger Mohammed squeeze back up the steps.

Mohammed peered over his shoulder and motioned for us to follow. Sayiid glanced at me and grinned. “They are welcoming us to go all the way to the top,” he said. “I’ve never been to the top. I was born in Quartier 4 and I don’t know anyone who has ever been inside, or to the top. This is very kind of them.”

It was, indeed, kind of them. The lighthouse still functioned, under the operating auspices of the Port of Djibouti and the coastguard. This Afar family of Mohammeds, and others, maintained the lighthouse and lived in the keeper’s quarters. We were asking to see the lighthouse, and by necessity, to traipse through their home.

I inched sideways up the steep staircase behind the men. Mohammed stopped on the second floor and told us to go ahead. He stayed with another young man on a bench: a radio, a pile of khat, and two Coke bottles between them. Sayiid and I continued on our own.

The third floor windows sagged open and the only objects here were batteries, charging for the dark night ahead. One more staircase, steeper and narrower than the last, a green wooden door designed for people of hobbit height, and we reentered the blazing sunlight, on top of Djibouti Town.

“Wow,” Sayiid said. I echoed him and then we both fell silent. From Turtle Island, where the United States military is putting in a new shipping dock, to the port, over all of Balbala, and the desert disappearing into Ethiopia beyond the horizon, all the city lay stretched out below us. White minarets of actual mosques and fluttering green flags of actual shrines pierced the view. Tadjourah’s mountain ranges on the opposite side of the gulf formed a low, dark divider between sky and ocean.

Sayiid later said he remembers when there was nothing in Balbala but this lighthouse. No shantytowns, no night schools, no women selling fresh-squeezed mango juice, no fields of children playing football, no Italian Hospital. The French established a barricade at the edge of Djibouti Town and checked the permission papers of everyone passing in or out. This kept Djiboutians nearly locked into their coastal constraints until independence in 1977 when Sayiid was eleven years old.

Now the once-barren land rings with the call to prayer from dozens of mosques and the clatter of stores, wedding music, bicycle horns of men selling baguettes, children, cooking, donkey carts, and buses. But still, the lighthouse rises above it all.

The Quran says, in Surah 24:35, that Allah guides those he wills to his light. He is “light upon light.” The Ayabley lighthouse once provided light in a dark crook of the world. The lighthouse used to beam strong and clear across the hills and the salt flats and the harbor but now that Djibouti has regular, reliable electricity, the lighthouse is harder to pinpoint. It is now as symbolic and historical, in a sense as spiritual, as it is practical.

Two bulbs, the size of dinner plates, were encased in a glass lantern and covered with a green roof, facing north northwest. From six o’clock until dawn the lights blink, biliqbiliq. Sayiid and I admired the view and the lights and the blue mosquito net draped in the corner where someone could man the lighthouse, sleep, stay malaria-free, and enjoy the steady breeze all night long.

“1912,” Sayiid repeated. 1894 or 1912, either way, I respected Sayiid’s confidence in his date. Few other Djiboutians dared to venture a guess when I ask. Sayiid went to the effort to find a date and to write it down and he spoke it with pride. On our slow descent down the ladder-like stairs, we stopped to thank the two Mohammeds. I spoke Somali for the first time of the afternoon.

“I’ve lived here for ten years,” I said, “and have never seen so much of Djibouti at one time.”

“That’s impossible,” the younger Mohammed said, referring to my Somali, not the view. “What are you?”

“I’m American,” I said, “and it is possible. Though quite difficult.”

He laughed, shook my hand, and returned to his radio and khat. Outside, in the courtyard, I looked at the wall with the narrow windows. Just the right height and width for a weapon to aim and shoot through. The lighthouse and fort is a reminder of war, a testimony to freedom, and a safety beacon. At the strategic point where the Red Sea turns into the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti’s primary economic driver is her port and this lighthouse has been steering ships in and out for more than a century.

I gave the woman who had let us in, and her son, a pack of gum. I thought about Sayiid, forty-two years old and proud of his nation’s history. Of this little boy, living in the center of history and the present. His mother, making a home of a wooden shack between windows for weapons. And of the Mohammeds inside, guiding ships past Obock, past the Maskali Islands, safely into the port, around the Horn of Africa, night after night.

Sayiid drove me home and we argued about whether there had been four floors or three floors. We laughed at how barely five minutes after leaving such a unique and historical landmark, we had already forgotten something as fundamental as how tall it was. We rehashed our climb and I concluded that there were four staircases.

Sayid concluded there were three. Details aren’t his forté.


Rachel Pieh Jones is an EthnoTraveler contributor. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Running Times. She blogs at


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