great lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt, stood on the island
of Pharos. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2011)
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.
Ironically, these 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.
Around 290 - 270 BC
Guide Ships to Alexandria's Harbor.
1303 AD by earthquake.
Height 450 ft. (140m)
of: Stone faced with white marble blocks with lead mortar.
Said to be the only ancient wonder with a practical application.
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.
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.
of the Lighthouse
The lighthouse's 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 GODS
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.
A Climb Up the Pharos Lighthouse
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 more likely.
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.
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 miles away.
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 a perspective.
ancient coin with the likeness of the Pharos on it.
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 stands today.
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 instead.
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.
Pharos at night. Copyright
Lee Krystek, 1998.
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
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.
Lee Krystek 1998-2011. All Rights Reserved.