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The Lighthouse of Alexandria

The Lighthouse of Alexandria

In 48 BC, Julius Caesar wrote: “Now because of the narrowness of the strait there can be no access by ship to the harbor without the consent of those who hold the Pharos.” This tiny limestone island in the harbor of Alexandria was the site of the Great Pharos (Lighthouse), the final wonder included by Antipater on his list of the original 7 wonders of the world.

Pharos was linked to the mainland by the Heptastadion, a great stone mole (pier) built for Alexander the Great. In 305 BC, Ptolemy Soter declared himself king after Alexander the Great’s unexpected death. Soter commissioned the construction of the lighthouse, which was completed sometime between 280 and 247 BC during the reign of his son, Ptolemy Philadelphos. The tower cost 800 talents and required significant slave labor. It stood between 393 and 450 feet (120-140 meters) and was formed of white marble and limestone — the giant interlocking blocks were sealed with molten lead to withstand the crashing waves of the Mediterranean.

An architectural marvel, the lighthouse consisted of three unique stages. The lower level was a massive square; a great spiral ramp provided accessibility. The middle level was a tall, eight-sided tower. Finally, the top level was an open, cylinder-shaped “house” for light. Coins from the Alexandrian mint show a statue of Poseidon or Zeus atop the lighthouse.

Staircases throughout the structure, along with a dumbwaiter mechanism, aided in the transport of fuel. During the day, a circular mirror provided illumination. At night, a great bonfire was maintained. According to ancient claims, the light could be seen from 30 miles away. Thus, ships could navigate by the Pharos, which also functioned as a military lookout.

The architect was Sostratos, a Greek from the city of Cnidus. According to legend, he was forbidden from including his name on the monument — only the name of the reigning king could appear. Nonetheless, Sostratos had an inscription carved at the base: “Sostratos of Cnidus, son of Dexiphanes, to the Gods protecting those upon the sea.” This was covered with a layer of plaster that served as a foundation for the official inscription honoring Ptolemy the King. Over time, the plaster slowly wore away, revealing the permanent inscription with the name of Sostratos.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria stood for over a thousand years, surviving earthquakes in 956, 1303 and 1323. In 1165, Ibn el-Andaloussi wrote: “The doorway to the Pharos is high up. A ramp about [600 feet] long used to lead up to it. This ramp rests on a series of curved arches; my companion got beneath one of the arches and stretched out his arms but he was not able to reach the sides. There are 16 of these arches, each gradually getting higher until the doorway is reached, the last one being especially high.” After the 1323 quake, it was no longer possible to enter the ruin, according to Arab traveler Ibn Battuta. The remnants finally disappeared in 1375 when a medieval fort was built using the fallen stone.

Only one of the 7 wonders of the world, the Giza Pyramid, remains. Of the lost world wonders, the Great Pharos was last to be built and last to fall. The Lighthouse of Alexandria was the prototype for all present-day lighthouses. “Pharos” became the etymological origin of “lighthouse” in Greek, Persian, many Romance languages, and even Slavic languages like Bulgarian.

In 1994, French archaeologists found remains of the Great Lighthouse on the sea floor of Alexandria’s harbor.