The Lighthouse of Alexandria

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When Alexander the Great died, one of his generals and best friends, Ptolemy, took Alexander’s corpse and went to Egypt to establish a new pharaonic dynasty.

One of the things he did during his reign was to begin construction on what would become one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 

It stood for over a thousand years and was unlike the world had ever seen.

Learn more about the Lighthouse of Alexandria and what eventually happened to it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

As I’ve discussed in previous episodes, the City of Alexandria was one of the most important cities in the ancient world. 

It was established by Alexander the Great, who named it after himself. It sat in an extremely strategic location where the Nile River met the Mediterranean Sea. 

While Alexander founded the city, it was one of his top generals Ptolemy, and his successors who established the city as the seat of a new Egyptian kingdom. 

When the city was founded, it didn’t have the Great Harbor that it eventually became known for.  The city was built on an isthmus, and it had several small islands off its shore. 

The Alexandria harbor in the third century BC looked very different than it does today. Today, a great deal of land has been reclaimed to create the modern harbor.

Back then, the small islands off the shore were dangerous to ships that were arriving in Alexandria.

The largest of the islands off of Alexandria was known as Pharos Island. The word “pharos” later became the name given to the lighthouse. 

A small community of people lived on the island, and they made a living by wrecking.  Wrecking is just salvaging cargo from ships that wreck against the rocks on the island. 

Ancient navigation was difficult and dangerous. In the Mediterranean, sailors seldom would sail out of sight of land unless they absolutely had to. The preference was to stay within sight of the shore so they could easily navigate. So long as you knew where the shore was, you could easily figure out direction and location.

The problem was there was always the risk of running aground, especially at night. There could be rocks, shoals, or small islands which were hazards to ships. 

When Ptolemy came to power around 305 BC, he knew that if Alexandria were to become an important port city, which was the key to becoming an important city overall, he needed to shore up the situation in the harbor. 

To that end, he hatched the idea of a lighthouse. The lighthouse would serve as a literal beacon to ships to both identify and navigate to Alexandria at night. 

This lighthouse wasn’t just going to be an ordinary lighthouse. It was to be the biggest in the world by a wide margin. It would serve as a symbol of the greatness of the city and help establish the port of Alexandria into what it was to become.

There are many structures in the ancient world that we don’t have much information about, and we don’t really know what they looked like. A good example is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. 

We know very little about the Hanging Gardens; some even doubt if it ever existed. 

In the case of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, we know quite a bit. Because Alexandria was a center of learning and one of the world’s most important cities, plenty of writers wrote about the lighthouse. 

Also, because the lighthouse lasted so long, we have a collection of people from across time and cultures who have described it. 

Contemporary images of the lighthouse also appeared on coins and other drawings, which is something we don’t have for other structures. 

While Ptolemy I conceived the idea of the lighthouse, it was his son Ptolemy II who began construction. Sometime around 286 BC. 

Estimates of the time it took to build the lighthouse range from 12 to 33 years.

The architect was believed to have been Sostratus of Cnidus, who was a Greek architect and engineer. There are stories that he had his name embedded into the lighthouse in metal letters with the approval of Ptolemy II. 

The total cost of the construction was estimated to be 800 talents of silver. A talent was the heaviest unit of silver in the ancient world, and the size varied from culture to culture, but it was approximately 27 kilograms or 60 pounds of silver at the time. 

The structure itself was built in three different sections. Most of the stones used in construction were limestone and granite. 

The base was a large, four-sided square structure, with walls that probably slopped gently inward.  The base held government offices and stables. It also had a spiral ramp on the inside, which could be used by horses and wagons to carry fuel up to the top of the first section. 

On top of the square section was a smaller tower in the shape of an octagon. 

On the top of the, middleoctagon section, was a circular tower. 

At the top of the circular tower was the lighthouse beacon. There was a giant bronze mirror at the top, and at night fires would be kept lit from dusk until dawn. 

The reason for the large ramp that could accommodate horses was to transport the constant supply of fuel that the lighthouse needed. 

During the day, the giant bronze mirror could be used to reflect sunlight. 

At the very top was a statue of either of Zeus or Posiedon. 

The structure’s total height is estimated to have been between 103 to 118 meters or 338 to 387 feet. 

For its entire lifespan, it was the second tallest human-built structure in the world, just behind the Great Pyramid. 

While the lighthouse was built on an island, it was difficult to constantly transport fuel and equipment to the island for its operation. That necessitated the construction of a causeway between the island and the mainland. 

The causeway was known as the Heptastadion, named after the fact that it was seven stadia in length, a Greek unit of measurement. The total length of the causeway in modern units was approximately 1,200 meters or ¾ of a mile. 

The heptastadion effectually created a double harbor. To the east of the heptastadion was the Grand Harbor or Portus Magnus. To the west was the Portus Eunostos or old harbor. 

There were gaps in the heptastadion with bridges over them which allowed ships to go from one harbor to the other without having to sail into open water. The reason for this was that one harbor or the other might be preferable to dock in depending on the direction of the wind. 

The lighthouse and the heptastadion were the key components of creating the exceptional Alexandria harbor, which was critical to Alexandria becoming one of, if not the most important cities in the ancient world. 

The strategic importance of the lighthouse was not lost wishing to control the city.

Julius Caesar wrote in his Commentaries on the Civil War, 

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. In view of this, Caesar took the precaution of landing his troops while the enemy was preoccupied with fighting, seized the Pharos, and posted a garrison there. The result was that safe access was secured for his corn supplies and reinforcements.

FYI, Caesar always wrote in the third-person Something which Gary would never do. 

The lighthouse was in use for a very long time. However, what eventually did it in was earthquakes. Alexandria is within 500 kilometers of two different fault lines. 

The first earthquake to do major damage was in 796. By that time, the lighthouse had been in service for over 1000 years. 

There were then earthquakes in 951 and 956. The 956 earthquake did major structural damage to the lighthouse and knocked the statue off the top, but it was still serviceable. 

The final earthquakes which sealed the fate of the lighthouse took place in 1303 and 1323. 

At this point, 1500 years after its construction, the lighthouse was no longer able to function as a lighthouse because the damage was so severe. 

The great Islamic traveler Ibn Batuta, on whom I previously did an episode, visited Alexandria in 1326 and said that one of the faces of the tower was in ruins, but there were still small offices inside. When he returned in 1349, he reported that he couldn’t even climb in the door anymore because the rubble was so high. 

The lighthouse was nothing more than a ruined stub of what it once was. 

It wasn’t until 1480 that the last remnants of the lighthouse were removed by the Sultan of Egypt to construct a fort in its location at the mouth of the harbor. The fort, known as Fort Qaitbay, was made out of many of the stones from the lighthouse and still stands there today. 

Most people aren’t aware that the last remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria were still standing just a dozen years before Columbus sailed to New World.

Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the third longest surviving behind the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

While the lighthouse was gone by the start of the 16th century, as it turned out, bits of it were still around. As the lighthouse was standing right on the seashore, when part of it collapsed, the material fell into the water. 

No one ever bothered to look for the remains of the lighthouse in the sea until the 20th century. 

In 1968, a UNESCO underwater archeology team found pieces of the original lighthouse on the seafloor just a few meters away from the fort. 

It wasn’t until 1994, however, that a French team finally did an extensive audit of what was still there. 

They discovered and photographed several enormous granite blocks weighing between 50-60 tons. They also discovered 30 sphinx statues and 5 obelisks, some of which date back well before the construction of the lighthouse. 

In 2009, I actually went diving in the Alexandria harbor and was able to see the blocks and sphinx statues.

I did it in February, which was a very cold time to go diving, but I assume the water would be much warmer if I did it pretty much any other time of the year. 

The dive isn’t very deep. I think the deepest we went was about 9 meters, but the water was very murky with poor visibility.

I could clearly see the big blocks and a few sphinx statues. I don’t recall seeing any of the obelisks, however.

If you are SCUBA certified and you ever find yourself in Alexandria, I highly recommend doing the lighthouse dive. Most of the things I’ve done during the course of my travels I’ve met other people who have done them as well. 

However, I can’t say I’ve met another person who has also done the lighthouse dive. It is one of the only places in the world you can do an actual honest-to-goodness archeology dive that isn’t just a shipwreck. 

Today, when most people think of ancient Alexandria, they probably think of the library. However, in the ancient world, the lighthouse was really the star attraction of the city. 

Most people never set foot in the library or the maeusem, however, everyone who sailed into Alexandria couldn’t help but see the lighthouse.

It was the lighthouse, not the library or the Tomb of Alexander, which was the symbol of the city. 

The cultural influence of the lighthouse can still be felt today.  The Greek word for a lighthouse is “faros.” 

It is believed that the minarets in many early Egyptian mosques were modeled after the lighthouse. 

In 2015, the Alexandrian and Egyptian governments proposed the construction of a new lighthouse on the harbor in Alexandria to go with the new library, but to date, no firm plans have been put in place. 

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was basically a 40-story building that managed to survive for 1500 years. 

Given the lifespan of most structures throughout history, the fact that it survived that long while still serving its original purpose for most of that time is remarkable. 

The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria was more than deserving of its inclusion on Philo of Byzantium’s list of the greatest wonders of the world.