Lighthouse at Alexandria
290 - 270 BC
Guide Ships to Alexandria's Harbor.
1303 AD by earthquake.
450 ft. (140m)
|Made of: Stone
faced with white marble blocks with lead mortar.
to be the only ancient wonder with a practical application.
A Climb Up the Pharos Lighthouse
In the fall of 1994
a team of archaeological divers donned scuba equipment and entered
the waters off of Alexandria, Egypt. Working beneath the surface,
they searched the bottom of the sea for artifacts. Large underwater
blocks of stone and remnants of sculpture were marked with floating
masts so that an electronic distance measurement station on
shore could obtain their exact positions. Global positioning
satellites were then used to further fix the locations. The
information was then fed into computers to create a detailed
database of the sea floor.
scientists were using some of the most high-tech devices available
at the end of the 20th century to try and sort out the ruins
of one of the most advanced technological achievements of the
3rd century, B.C.. It was the Pharos, the great lighthouse of
Alexandria, one of the Seven
Wonders of the Ancient World.
The story of the
Pharos starts with the founding of the city of Alexandria by
the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.. Alexander
started at least 17 cities named Alexandria at different locations
in his vast domain. Most of them disappeared, but Alexandria
in Egypt thrived for many centuries and is prosperous even today.
Alexander the Great
chose the location of his new city carefully. Instead of building
it on the Nile delta, he selected a site some twenty miles to
the west, so that the silt and mud carried by the river would
not block the city harbor. South of the city was the marshy
Lake Mareotis. After a canal was constructed between the lake
and the Nile, the city had two harbors: one for Nile River traffic,
and the other for Mediterranean Sea trade. Both harbors would
remain deep and clear and the activity they allowed made the
city very wealthy.
A modern lighthouse
often is designed as just a single, slim column, unlike the
Pharos. Alexander died in 323 B.C. and the city was completed
by Ptolemy Soter, the new ruler of Egypt. Under Ptolemy the
city became rich and prosperous. However, it needed both a symbol
and a mechanism to guide the many trade ships into its busy
harbor. Ptolemy authorized the building of the Pharos in 290
B.C., and when it was completed some twenty years later, it
was the first lighthouse in the world and the tallest building
in existence, with the exception of the Great Pyramid. The construction
cost was said to have been 800 talents, an amount equal today
to about three million dollars.
designer is believed to be Sostratus of Knidos (or Cnidus),
though some sources argue he only provided the financing for
the project. Proud of his work, Sostratus desired to have his
name carved into the foundation. Ptolemy II, the son who ruled
Egypt after his father, refused this request, wanting only his
own name to be on the building. A clever man, Sostratus supposedly
had the inscription:
SOSTRATUS SON OF
DEXIPHANES OF KNIDOS ON BEHALF OF ALL MARINERS TO THE SAVIOR
chiseled into the
foundation, then covered it with plaster. Into the plaster was
carved Ptolemy's name. As the years went by (and after both
the death of Sostratus and Ptolemy) the plaster aged and chipped
away, revealing Sostratus' dedication.
The lighthouse was
built on the island of Pharos and soon the building itself acquired
that name. The connection of the name with the function became
so strong that the word "Pharos" became the root of the word
"lighthouse" in the French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian languages.
There are two detailed
descriptions made of the lighthouse in the 10th century A.D.
by Moorish travelers Idrisi and Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh. According
to their accounts, the building was 300 cubits high. Because
the cubit measurement varied from place to place, however, this
could mean that the Pharos stood anywhere from 450 (140m) to
600 (183m) feet in height, although the lower figure is much
The design was unlike
the slim single column of most modern lighthouses, but more
like the structure of an early twentieth century skyscraper.
There were three stages, each built on top of one other. The
building material was stone faced with white marble blocks cemented
together with lead mortar. The lowest level of the building,
which sat on a 20 foot (6m) high stone platform, was probably
about 240 feet (73m) in height and 100 feet (30m) square at
the base, shaped like a massive box. The door to this section
of the building wasn't at the bottom of the structure, but part
way up and reached by a 600 foot (183m) long ramp supported
by massive arches. Inside this portion of the structure was
a large spiral ramp that allowed materials to be pulled to the
top in animal-drawn carts.
On top of that first
section was an eight-sided tower which was probably about 115
feet (35m) in height. On top of the tower was a cylinder that
extended up another 60 feet (18m) to an open cupola where the
fire that provided the light burned. On the roof of the cupola
was a large statue, probably of the god of the sea, Poseidon.
A depiction of the
lighthouse by the 16th-century Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck
The interior of the upper two sections had a shaft with a dumbwaiter
that was used to transport fuel up to the fire. Staircases allowed
visitors and the keepers to climb to the beacon chamber. There,
according to reports, a large curved mirror, perhaps made of
polished bronze, was used to project the fire's light into a
beam. It was said ships could detect the light from the tower
at night or the smoke from the fire during the day up to one-hundred
There are stories
that this mirror could be used as a weapon to concentrate the
sun and set enemy ships ablaze as they approached. Another tale
says that it was possible to use the mirror to magnify the image
of the city of Constantinople, which was located far across
the sea, and observe what was going on there. Both of these
stories seem implausible, however.
The structure was
said to be liberally decorated with statuary including four
likenesses of the god Triton on each of the four corners of
the roof of the lowest level. Materials recently salvaged from
the sea by archeologists, including the stone torso of a woman,
seem to support these stories.
The lighthouse was
apparently a tourist attraction. Food was sold to visitors at
the observation platform at the top of the first level. A smaller
balcony provided an outlook from the top of the eight-sided
tower for those that wanted to make the additional climb. The
view from there must have been impressive as it was probably
300 feet above the sea. There were few places in the ancient
world where a person could ascend a man-made tower to get such
How then did the
world's first lighthouse wind up on the floor of the Mediterranean
Sea? Most accounts indicate that it, like many other ancient
buildings, was the victim of earthquakes. It stood for over
1,500 years, apparently surviving a tsunami that hit eastern
Mediterranean in 365 AD with minor damage. After that, however,
tremors might have been responsible for cracks that appeared
in the structure at the end of the10th century and required
a restoration that lowered the height of the building by about
70 feet. Then in 1303 A.D., a major earthquake shook the region
that put the Pharos permanently out of business. Egyptian records
indicate the final collapse occurred in 1375, though ruins remained
on the site for some time until 1480 when much of the building's
stone was used to construct a fortress on the island that still
There is also an
unlikely tale that part of the lighthouse was demolished through
trickery. In 850 A.D. it is said that the Emperor of Constantinople,
a rival port, devised a clever plot to get rid of the Pharos.
He spread rumors that there was a fabulous teasure buried under
the lighthouse. When the Caliph at Cairo, who controlled Alexandria
at this time heard these rumors, he ordered that the tower be
pulled down to get at the treasure. It was only after the great
mirror had been destroyed and the top two portions of the tower
removed that the Caliph realized he'd been deceived. He tried
to rebuild the tower, but couldn't, so he turned it into a mosque
As colorful as this
story is there does not seem to be much truth in it. Visitors
in 1115 A.D. reported the Pharos intact and still operating
as a lighthouse.
Did the divers actually
find the remains of Pharos in the bottom of the harbor? Some
of the larger blocks of stone found certainly seem to have come
from a huge building. Statues were located that may have stood
at the base of the Pharos. Interestingly enough, much of the
material found seems to be from earlier eras than the lighthouse.
Scientists speculate that these may have been recycled in the
construction of the Pharos from an even older building.
The area is now an
underwater archaeological park. Tourists with diving gear can
swim about the remains of the great Pharos lighthouse while
they wonder what it would have been like to climb to its ancient
heights a thousand years ago.
ancient coin depicting the lighthouse.
Lee Krystek 1998-2011.