The Lighthouse of Alexandria
© 1998, Francesca Jourdan
After years of marching and fighting, Alexander, later to become Alexander the Great (356 BC -323 BC), finally entered Egypt in 332 BC after defeating Darius III in 333 BC. According to a myth, it is said that Alexander may have been the only natural son, not of Philip II, but of Nectanebo II (360-343 BC), the last of the native pharaohs, his mother Olympia having had an affair with him [Clayton, 1995]. Once in Egypt, he went to the Oasis of Siwa, where a priest apparently saluted him as the son of the god. Plutarch (45 AD - 125 AD) writes that the priest wished to address Alexander in Greek as “Paidion” (my child) but that the word actually came out as “Paidios” (son of Zeus). Alexander, from then on, saw himself as the son of Zeus-Amon.
Soon, the great monarch planned to found a new city. His actual intentions are barely mentioned by early sources. According to tradition, the city was founded in January 331 AD [Empereur, 1998]. Plutarch mentions in Alexander’s Life that a prophet visited the king in a dream and apparently convinced Alexander of having found the right spot. At the mouth of the Nile, Alexander founded many cities bearing his name, among which was Alexandria. It would always remain the greatest and mightiest of all his cities. The Arabs, in order to remember that he had been re-baptized Iskander after his conquest, called and still call the city Iskandarîyah.
Once a mole had formed between the island of Pharos and the mainland, two harbors were formed, the Western and the Eastern. Behind these harbors the city grew, divided into five quarters, each named for the first five letters of the Greek alphabet. The general urban design is associated to the most famous architect of the time, Dinocrates of Rhodes, following the very latest principles of grid town planning, devised earlier by Hippodamus of Miletus, the ‘inventor’ of the grid system of streets. The limestone ridge offshore that formed the island of Pharos had made a harbor there since prehistoric times.
According to Homer, “[i]n this island is a sheltered cove where sailors come to draw their water from a well and can launch their boats on an even keel into the deep sea”. In Geography, Strabo (58 BC-25 AD) describes the island as oblong; he also says that the coast is harborless and has on either side reefs and shallows so that, when coming from the open sea, a marker safely lets sailors and boats in. Many sources confirm that the island was uninhabited.
Under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC), Alexandria developed as an urban center: a lighthouse had been built on Pharos island, and Demetrios of Phalere ordered the construction of a Museum or “university” where scholarship flourished and where the most intelligent minds of time were accredited, as well as exempted from taxation.
The other great institution in Alexandria was the Great Library, one of two most important libraries of the Ancient World. Thanks to Demetrios, it obtained copies of all known scrolls of any consequence, and it is said to have contained over nine hundred thousand papyri. Religious Christian fanatics burned the Great Library in 391 AD. Since 1986, the UNESCO is trying to reconstruct a new Alexandrine Library.
Alexandria is the most beautiful city, and the most loved among all the Alexandrias. Few visible traces are left of its antique splendor about which Greek, Latin and Christian historians have written. The ever-increasing importance of Alexandria meant that its harbors had to be properly indicated, for the Egyptian coast has few landmarks to safely guide the sailor. It was then surely a necessity to build the lighthouse.
The Pharos was the first architecturally designed and developed lighthouse, the latest building to be added to what is now known as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It stood where the Fort of Kait Bey, built by the sultan Ashraf Qaitbay (now a small marine museum and the only proof left of the Arab defense system of the fifteenth century), is now located. The Pharos gave its name to the building and its use as a word for ‘lighthouse’ in most languages (i.e., phare in French, faro in Italian and Spanish).
Who actually built the Pharos and the precise date of its erection are still being debated. The monument was begun around 285 BC under Ptolemy I Soter, “the Savior” (305-282 BC), Alexander’s childhood friend who, after Alexander’s death in 323 BC, set up a dynasty of Pharaohs first based in Memphis and which was moved to Alexandria itself in 320 AD. This new city on the Mediterranean coast soon became a major trading center and its famous Lighthouse, a Wonder of the Ancient World and the city's symbol, as the Statue of Liberty is that of New York City. Its building might have been completed under Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
A certain Sostratus the Cnidian, architect and donor of the Lighthouse as well as a wealthy Alexandrian courtier and a diplomat, officially inaugurated the Lighthouse. The dedication on the monument apparently reads: “Sostratus the Cnidian, friend of the sovereigns, dedicated this, for the safety of those who sail the seas,” according to Strabo’s Book VIII. Lucian wrote that it reads: “Sostratus, son of Dexiphanes, the Cnidian, dedicated this to the Savior Gods on behalf of those who sail the seas”. The Savior Gods could be a reference to Ptolemy I Soter, “the Savior,” and his wife Berenice.
Posidippus, in his epigram celebrating the erection of the Pharos (thus making him the most reliable of the contemporary writers), refers to Zeus Soter, that is, Zeus the Savior. Indeed it was he who acted as a marker on the very top of the Pharos on that long, low, and flat coastline. The statue of Zeus Soter was on top of the Pharos and possibly added at least five meters to the monument’s height. The Pharos was then clearly dedicated to him. Yet this statue is also known to be identified as the statue of Poseidon, with an oar.
Pliny the Elder specifically refers to the fact that “[King Ptolemy] gave permission to the architect Sostratus the Cnidian to inscribe his name upon the edifice itself”. A Sostratus is known as the envoy of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Ptolemy I’s son, and it can be assumed that he and the man connected with the Pharos are the same.
Possibly built, according to Strabo, of white limestone (wrongly thought to originally be marble), the Pharos of Alexandria was built on an island in the harbor of the city. It was the key of Alexandrian defenses and its primary function was to guide approaching ships to the harbor. It is still debated whether actual fires were burned on the top of the tower, or whether mirrors were used to reflect sunlight. Since ships rarely sailed along coasts at night, there may have been little need for light after dark. The building was ultimately ruined in the fourteenth century after having been damaged in several earthquakes. According to Pliny the Elder, it cost 800 talents to build the monument. “A talent was a weight of silver, 581 pounds (25.4 kg) avoirdupois, i.e. about 928 ounces of silver (26,308 grams); this multiplied by 800 gives a cost of 742,400 ounces (21,046,668 grams) which works out at just over £ 4 million (at 1987 prices of silver bullion)” [Clayton & Price, 1988].
Homer was the first to mention Pharos as an island in the Odyssey. Just like Pliny the Elder, he locates the island of Pharos a day’s sail from Egypt. One legend tells of the beautiful Helen visiting the island with her husband Menelaus. Finding an old man, he asked him what exact island they had landed on. “The man replied that it was Pharaoh’s. Menelaus misheard and requestioned, ‘Pharos?’ to which the old man replied in the affirmative, repeating the word pharaoh in the old Egyptian pronunciation which brought it out as ‘Prouti’s’, which Menelaus misinterpreted as ‘Proteus’, a name he knew as that of the sea deity to whom Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea, had granted the gift of prophecy. Therefore the combination of an old man’s diction and Menelaus’ mishearing gave the world the name of Pharos for the island with its patron deity being Proteus. In fact, when Alexander arrived in Egypt, the island of Pharos was simply known as the home of the sea-god Proteus.” [Clayton & Price, 1988]
What is actually known about the Pharos and its specific physical appearance is actually very little. According to Epiphanes, it was approximately 560 meters (1839 feet) high! It was said that its light was visible from the sea at 35 miles (56 kilometers). Yet other sources, such as Lucian of Samosata (115-180 AD) extend that to 300 miles (482.7 kilometers)! It was a three-story structure with an approximate height of 100 meters (333 feet): 60 meters (198 feet) for the first stage (quadrangular), 30 meters (99 feet) for the second (octagonal) and 10 meters (33 feet) to the tip of Zeus Soter’s scepter topping the third stage (cylindrical). Despite the various differences in representations, one thing is certain: the basic form of the representation of the Pharos was always the same.
One story relates that a friend of the sultan Ahmed Ibn Touloun convinced the latter that Alexander the Great had hidden treasures under the lighthouse. This would then be the reason why the tower had been dismantled. Believing his work to be over, the friend disappeared and was never found. The Sultan then realized that the man was a spy, whose goal had been to destroy the tower; he then ordered the monument to be repaired [Empereur, 1998].
From Arab historical sources, of which the most famous is Ali al-Mas’udi’s (historian and geographer), it is known that the Pharos was badly damaged in several earthquakes, in 956 AD, in 1303 (the worst) and 1323. The fullest available description comes from the Arab traveler, Abou Haggag el-Andaloosi, who visited the monument in 1166 AD. He noted that the “doorway to the Pharos is high up. A ramp about 183 meters 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.” The traveler Ibn Battuta describes the Pharos, when he last visited it in April 1349, as “in so ruinous a condition that it was not possible to enter it, let alone climb up to the doorway”.
Today the site of the Pharos is covered by the great Islamic Fort of Kait Bey, built on and from the ruins of the collapsed lighthouse. It is an area difficult of access. The memory of the Pharos is kept alive in Alexandria in a modern carving made of white marble, which can be seen upon entering the gardens to visit the Kom-es-Shafur catacombs.
In the nineteenth century, with the opening of the Suez Canal, Alexandria, the “Pearl of the Mediterranean”, seemed to regain the ancient prestige by becoming the main center of collecting merchandise from the hinterland. Alexandria, for a long time considered the Paris of the Middle East, today is the first harbor of Egypt, its main financial center and a commercial locality facing the Mediterranean Sea, with more than five million inhabitants.
Since classical times, the Pharos Island has disappeared beneath the waves. In recent years, sub aqua divers have found evidence of a rock-cut temple. In 1963, a colossal stone statue of Isis, nearly 10 meters tall, was discovered underwater. This has to be associated with the temple of Isis Pharia, which stood close by the Pharos on the island itself. In 1979, the Italians Vailati and Curto led an expedition which led them to believe that Alexander the Great was buried under the Lighthouse.
Starting with Hermann Thiersch, archaeologist and author of Pharos. Antike Islam und Occident (1909), work in the Pharos area was performed. The Egyptian Kamal Abou el-Sadaat and the British archaeologist, Honor Frost, went underwater together six times. Of these excavations, the Centre d’Études Alexandrines (CEA) [website: http://www.greece.org/alexandria/cea/index.htm], created in 1990, profits much. In 1992, the CEA was asked to perform underwater excavations in the Fort Kait Bey area. Since then, many statues and artifacts, mostly of the Ptolemaic period, have been found. The French archaeological expedition and the CEA, led by Jean-Yves Empereur, have been searching the sea, hoping to find Cleopatra’s Palace and the Pharos - the latter is yet to be found.
The future plans regarding Alexandria are many and ambitious. Currently, Egyptians, French and Italians are actively working on them; as it often happens though, great ideas cannot count on equally great endeavors in order to be fulfilled. In the meantime, the movement created by archaeologists has woken up the city which, for at least forty years, was Egypt’s sleeping beauty.
- Bernand, A. 1995. Alexandrie des Ptolémées. Paris: CNRS Editions.
- Clayton, Peter A. 1995. Chronicle of the Pharaohs. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Clayton, Peter A. & Martin J. Price. 1988. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. London & New York: Routledge.
- Empereur, Jean-Yves. 1998. Le Phare d'Alexandrie. Une merveille retrouvée. New York: George Braziller.