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lighthouse of alexandria, pharos of alexandria

Medium: Stone

Dimensions: 103 to 118 m in height

Date: 297-283 BC

Location of Creation: Island of Pharos, Egypt

Current Location: Destroyed

Period: Ptolemaic Kingdom, Ancient Greece (Hellenistic Period)

Theme: Engineering

Subject: Lighthouse

brief summary

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is considered one of the most incredible masterpieces of engineering. Its construction continues to baffle experts, on how advanced it was, a testimony of the Greeks genius knowledge on the topic.

general description

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, also called the Pharos of Alexandria, was a lighthouse built during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (280–247 BC), a pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt. A very tall structure, estimated to be over 100 meters in height, it was made of stone. Although building lighthouses was not a novel idea, its massive size, structure, construction and rare silhouette, all were new for the time. In addition, the fact that the lighthouse was always lit, adds to the mysticism surrounding its dimensions. Located on the easter end of the island of Pharos, that was at a short distance from the coast, it is believed that its construction lasted only the course of 15 to 33 years (probably between the reigns of Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II), around 297 to 283 BC, at a total cost which is estimated to be twice that of the Parthenon. Built  of limestone from a quarry nearby, they were united by using an old  grooving technique. Ruins can still currently be found in the port of Alexandria.

3D reconstruction of the Lighthouse.

Its architecture is monolithic, of about 135m in height. Organized on three levels, the top third floor was cylindrical. It had an access ramp on the first floor with arches on each side. The first floor was pyramidal and square of about  71m high, with a terrace at the top. Built on an elevated platform; its interior was hollow, containing only about 50 rooms and a wide ramp. It is similar to the temple of Osiris, also built by Ptolemy II. The second floor, 34m high, had an octagonal shape, with an internal staircase rather than a ramp. The last floor had only 9m and also possessed an internal staircase to reach the top. Various descriptions of the time also described a statue at its top, estimated to have been a statue of Zeus.

 

Schematic drawing of the Lighthouse, by archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1909).

3D reconstruction of the Lighthouse.

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it was the third longest surviving ancient wonder (surviving until 1480 when it collapsed in ruins); it was the model for all maritime activity around the Mediterranean, and the archetype for all lighthouses from then on; for centuries, only the Pyramid of Giza was tallest, making it the second tallest man made structure of the Ancient World.

The lighthouse as depicted in the Book of Wonders, a late 14th century Arabic text.

The lighthouse is believed to have been built by Sostratos of Cnidus, a powerful man of close connection to King Ptolemy I, as his name was found on the lighthouse. Other speculations claim that Sostratos might have been a financier of the structure rather than its architect. The lighthouse was  abandoned after being damaged by earthquakes  between 956 AD and 1323, it was demolished definitively during the 14th century. In 1480, the Sultan of Egypt turned the remains of the ruin into a medieval for. Today, arious expeditions have been undertaken to the underwater remains of the Lighthouse, and to this day, visits can be organized with divers. There are plans outlined in 2016 by the Ministry of State of Antiquities in Egypt, to turn the ruins into an underwater museum.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria on coins minted in Alexandria in the 2nd century: 1 – reverse of a coin of Antoninus Pius; 2 – reverse of a Commodus coin.

A mosaic depicting the Lighthouse of Alexandria, from Libya c. 4th century AD.

Alexandria, a cosmopolitan city already in the 3rd century BC, was a fundamental source of knowledge for the Ancient world. Its strategic location (towards the Mediterranean sea) made it an important commercial location, adding to this, a great social and intellectual climate, in multiple fields of study including mathematics, science, astronomy and architecture, that was fundamentally used to mark the importance of the civilization. Because the port had become a central point in trades, and the layout of Egyptian coast was incredibly dangerous (with reefs and irregular surface) and many ships were being sunk, the necessity for the lighthouse emerged. Securing the port, the lighthouse also acted as a symbolic element, as a rare building due to the difficulties of construction and maintenance, it marked power, knowledge, and further added to establishing Alexandria as a fundamental city of the Ancient world. The lighthouse added to the list of valuable things in Alexandria including the tomb of Alexander, the Serapeum temple, and the famous library.

Pharos of Alexandria (1572) by Maarten van Heemskerck.

According to legend, the island of Pharos was hit with many shipwrecks, which was the main reason for the building of this lighthouse, to help better guide the ships during the night. The construction of the Alexandria Lighthouse made the term “Pharos” the etymological root for the word “lighthouse” (Greek – φάρος) in many of the Romance languages, some Slavic and even some other languages from East Europe: Portuguese (farol), Spanish and Italian (faro), French (phare), Catalan, Romanian and Bulgarian (far), Turkish, Serbian and Russian (far; фар; фара – from “headlight”).

In the XII century, two descriptions were made and recorded of the lighthouse. One made by Edrisi, in 1154,  who described it rather extensively.

“One notices the famous lighthouse which has no equivalent in the world in terms of structure and solidity; for, independently of what is made of excellent stones of the kind called caddzan, the foundations of these stones are sealed together with molten lead, and the joints are so adherent that the whole is indissoluble, that the waves of the sea, on the north side, continually strike this edifice. They ascend by a broad staircase, built in the interior, as are ordinarily those which are practiced in the towers of the mosques. The first staircase ends towards the middle of the lighthouse, and there the edifice becomes narrower by its four sides. In the interior and under the staircase were built rooms. Starting from the middle gallery, the lighthouse rises to its summit, narrowing more and more, not beyond, however, that a man can always make the turn while ascending. From this same gallery one ascends again, to reach the summit, by a staircase of dimensions narrower than those of the lower staircase. The lighthouse is pierced, in all its parts, with windows destined to procure daylight for persons ascending, and so that they may properly place their feet in ascending. This edifice is singularly remarkable, on account of its height as well as its solidity; it is very useful in that it lights night and day of fire to serve as a signal to navigators; the people of the ships recognize this fire and are directed accordingly, for it is visible from a maritime day [100 miles] away. During the night, it appears as a brilliant star; during the day one distinguishes the smoke.”

1- CC BY-SA 4.0, SciVi 3D studio

3- CC BY-SA, Emad Victor SHENOUDA

4 – CC BY 4.0, Bodleian Libraries

5- CC BY-SA 3.0, by Ginolerhino