The Lighthouse of Alexandria

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The Pharos lighthouse on Roman coins minted in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD.

In 1994, a French team of archaeological divers conducted a salvage inspection in the eastern harbor of Alexandria in the hope of finding the site of the famous lighthouse of Alexandria. Thanks to the efforts of early pioneers, who dived at the site in the 1960’s, the French team had a good idea where to begin their search.  To their surprise they discovered what appeared to be huge blocks and remains of stonework and sculpture. Suspicious that they had stumbled across something very significant, they marked and surveyed the underwater site with satellite imagery. Results confirmed that they had discovered the site of the lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The lighthouse or Pharos of Alexandria, once stood at the entrance of Alexandria’s harbor welcoming seafarers from all over the Mediterranean Sea. It also stood as a symbol of ingenuity and grandeur of Ptolemaic Egypt. Its story begins with the founding of the city under Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Months earlier Alexander had marched across the Egyptian border and seized power. He had taken control of the rich Nile Delta from the Persians without a fight and began to immediately look for a location to build a city in his name. He settled on a sea location some twenty miles west of the Nile delta, where he began building around a small Egyptian town called Rhacotis. Rhacotis would become the Egyptian quarter of the renamed city of Alexandria. A few months after its foundation, Alexander would leave Egyptian never to return, leaving his priced city to continue to expand under his governors. It wasn’t until Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, seized power of Egypt after Alexander’s death, that Alexandria as a city would prosper and boom.

Under Ptolemaic rule, Alexandria would become the largest and richest Greek city in the world. As part of Ptolemy vision, he aspired to make Alexandria the cultural and intellectual envy of the Greek speaking world, something that would rival Athens itself. In fact, Alexandria would attain that status very quickly under the Ptolemaic dynasty, becoming the cultural centre of intellectual debate and the study of science. No other institution better exemplified the Ptolemies’ grand vision for the city than the Museum of Alexandria, which included the Great Library. The museum became the supreme centre of research and teaching complimented by the library, which would boast the greatest collection of books in the ancient world.

Ptolemy I, next envisaged making Alexandria into one of the richest shipping ports in the known world. To help aid his goal, he first had to build a landmark that would guide travellers and traders to the city. In the early 290’s BC, he began construction of what would become one of the architectural masterpieces of the ancient world. Though, it was commissioned by Ptolemy, it would be completed by his son and successor in 280 BC.

Unlike many modern lighthouses today, which serve as warning signals of danger, ancient lighthouses like the Pharos, functioned as an entrance marker to the city. Later, it is believed it also became a defensive fortress. Imagine sailing beneath its shadow, awe-struck by its size and beauty. A powerful symbol of Ptolemic power.

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A mosaic depicting the stumpy base of the lighthouse of Alexandria after an earthquake had destroyed it. Mosaic is found in the Roman/Byzantine town of Olbia, Libya.

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Three-demensional reconstruction of the Pharos.

Standing at an estimated height of 120 plus metres, it was situated on a rocky island connected to the mainland by a long breakwater. The Pharos was built from huge blocks of stone weighing on average seventy tons, where it climbed the height of three storeys, with its bottom being square, the next level octagonal and its third storey cylindrical. It was magnificently finished with a gigantic statue of Zeus. However, the crowning glory was its beacon, which burned day and night. Its beacon was magnified by reflective mirrors that, if true, could be seen from a great distance out at sea, some 50 kilometres away.

It was the first lighthouse to be constructed and at the time stood as the tallest structure of the ancient world (with the exception of the Great Pyramid). Why it no longer stands today as an engineering marvel of the ancient world is anyone’s guess ? Most accounts link its demise and eventual destruction to periodic earthquakes that occurred throughout the region over the centuries. The most significant earthquakes that led it to eventually crumble to the bottom of the sea were in 1303 and 1323. Today, many of the 2,500 pieces of stonework that were discovered between 1994-98, still sit at the bottom of the sea to remind us of what was once the Pharos.

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On route to rediscovering the great Pharos, archaeologists were in awe of the size of the huge blocks in the bay of Alexandria. Source UNESCO

Photo credit: The header image of the Pharos lighthouse on Roman coins minted in Alexandria is used under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The three-dimensional reconstruction of the Pharos is used under the Wikipedia Attribution license. Image is by Xlance. The underwater archeological photograph from UNESCO is used under the fair use rationale. I believe my inclusion of the underwater photograph, in particular shows the reader an important historical archaeological moment. 



Categories: Archeology, History, Monuments and Sites

Tags: , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. The pharos destroyed by the forces of nature…and the library by the hand of man…what a loss to succeeding generations.

  2. Great post, Robert.
    I’ve always been fascinated by this structure. Indeed all the 7 wonders of the ancient world fire the imagination so. I wish someone would develop a virtual reality world where we could observe them up close and even walk within then. Cheers!

  3. Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    I don’t do a lot of ancient history on this blog, but Robert Horvat has done a great job on this article about the great Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world. I did not know that underwater archaeologists had located its remains. Very cool!

  4. Really interesting article Robert. I love reading about ancient history, I just find it too intense to blog about as it’s very research heavy, you have inspired me to tackle something ancient though 🙂

  5. Great stuff. And isn’t it right that the current Egyptian government is intending to ‘recreate’ the lighthouse in Alexandria?
    Also, do you happen to know where the original lighthouse was situated in relation to Cleopatra’s Palace? The discoveries of remnants of Cleopatra’s complex beneath the sea is one of the most fascinating archaelogical stories I’ve ever come across…

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