The Lighthouse of Alexandria

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The Seventh Wonder of the World

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was begun by Ptolemy in the Third Century BC and completed by his son, Ptolemy Philadelphos, on the island of Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt.

With an estimated height of 380 to 660 feet, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, along with the Colossus of Rhodes and the Mausoleum of Mausollos.

Background

Pharos was a small island just off the coast of Egypt, near the city of Alexandria. The island was linked to the mainland by a man-made bridge. Together, the island of Pharos and the bridge formed half of Alexandria’s harbour.

Because of Egypt’s low-lying coastal geography and lack of geographical features, a lighthouse was determined to be necessary in order to make it easier for ships to find the entrance to Alexandria`s harbour. The Lighthouse originally functioned as a landmark, providing ships with a visual aid for navigation during the day. The Lighthouse is traditionally pictured with either a light-reflecting mirror or a signal fire. It is thought that these were added by the Romans in the First Century AD.

Description of the Lighthouse

According to legend Ptolemy had forbidden Sostratus, the architect of the Lighthouse, from engraving his name anywhere on the structure. Sostratus did so anyway and the following inscription was carved on the inside of the Lighthouse. “Sostratus, the son Dexiphanes, the Cridian, dedicated this to our Saviour gods on behalf of all those who sail the seas.” He then had this inscription covered with plaster. On top of that he had another inscription carved, this one praising Ptolemy as the builder of the Lighthouse. Over time, plaster wore away and Sostratus’ hidden inscription was revealed.

In 1166, the Arab traveller, Abou Hagana Youssef Ibn Mohammed el-Andaloussi wrote an account of his visit to Alexandria, which included a description of the Lighthouse.

He described the Lighthouse as being built on the far end of the island and wrote that the island of Pharos was almost totally surrounded by water, except on the south and east sides. He also wrote that the Lighthouse measured 28 feet per side and that it was specially strengthened on the seaward side in order to withstand the pounding action of the waves. The interior of the Lighthouse was accessed by a 600 foot ramp.

This description of the Lighthouse has come under scrutiny; however, as some scholars claim that the dimensions given in the el-Andaloussi account are not correct. These assertions are based on a drawing of the Lighthouse done by German archaeologist Hienrich Thiersch in 1909. Based on the scale of the foreground objects in the drawing, the Lighthouse appears to be approximately 80 feet per side, while the el-Andaloussi account claims that the Lighthouse measured 28 feet per side.

Construction and Destruction of the Lighthouse

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was constructed with limestone blocks and built in three sections. The bottom section was square-shaped and built around a central core. The middle section was octagonal, while the upper section, which housed the signal beacon, was circular.

Roman coins depict the Lighthouse adorned with statues of Poseidon and Triton, the son of Poseidon and the messenger of the sea.

The Lighthouse suffered increasing amounts of damage from earthquakes between the 10th and 14th Centuries. By the 15th Century, the structure had collapsed into a pile of rubble. In 1480, the Lighthouse had mostly collapsed into the harbour. The Sultan of Egypt used some of the remaining blocks to build Fort Qaitbay on the same site.

The first remains of the Lighthouse were uncovered on the harbour floor in 1994, with additional ruins having been identified since on satellite and sonar images.

Works CitedPetersen A.: Dictionary of Islamic Architecture, page 188. Routledge, 1996.

 

 

The copyright of the article The Lighthouse of Alexandria in Greek History is owned by Terry Long. Permission to republish The Lighthouse of Alexandria in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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