The Lighthouse of Alexandria: Why and how was it Built?

History of the Lighthouse of Alexandria

The Lighthouse of Alexandria | Image by archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1909).

Completed by Ptolemy II of Philadelphus in the third century BCE, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was a breathtaking architectural and engineering marvel of the highest order. Estimated at around 400 feet, the Lighthouse was erected off the coast of the City of Alexandria, Egypt. This magnificent edifice came after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. The primary purpose of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was to aid sailors to steer to safety as they approached the somewhat treacherous coastline of the City of Alexandria.

As one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria went on to dazzle sailors of the ancient world for well over 1600 years. After a series of earthquakes and slight neglect, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was cast into complete ruin around the 14th century CE.

A Brief look at the City of Alexandria

In 332 BCE, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great strolled right into ancient Egypt with virtually no resistance from the Egyptians. And just like that, Alexander made Egypt part of his vast expanding empire. The Egyptians were by then fed up with their Persian rulers.

With the Persians out of Egypt, Alexander set forth to build Egypt in his own image. He established the port city of Alexandria in the area of Rakotis – a few miles off the Nile.

Alexander then traveled to the Island of Pharos and consulted with the priests of Ammon (Amun). The priests foretold of further great feats of achievements to come Alexander’s way. Thereafter, Alexander left Egypt and marched east to conquer even more lands in Persia and India. However, before the young king left, he installed trusted administrators to run the city in his stead.

After the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 BCE, his top generals and advisors divided his vast territories amongst themselves.

In the case of Egypt, the territory was ruled by a general called Ptolemy of Legos. This Macedonian general  established himself as the first king of the Ptolemy dynasty (305 BCE to 30 BCE). He took the title Ptolemy I Soter. The word “soter” meant savior.

Who conceived the idea to build the Lighthouse of Alexandria?

Ptolemy I was a breath of fresh air for the city of Alexandria. He embarked on massive infrastructural projects across the  Egypt in general.

Historians believe that Ptolemy I conceived several ideas to make the city of Alexandria a thriving and commercial port of the ancient world. In order to establish himself as Alexander the Great’s successor, Ptolemy I entombed the body of Alexander in the City of Alexandria.

One of such monumental feats of construction that he embarked upon was the Lighthouse of Alexandria. As a result of this lighthouse, the city of Alexandria, as well as its port, became the greatest commercial hub in the ancient world.

Why was the Lighthouse of Alexandria Built?

Ptolemy I realized that in order to implement his grand vision for the city of Alexandria, there had to be a lighthouse. The structure was meant to serve as a beacon to the city. Besides, the coastline of city was littered with several massive rocks that could pose a danger to sailors and mariners heading towards the city. Prior to this, there was no other lighthouse known in the ancient world.

Where was it built?

The exact spot where the Lighthouse was built was at the eastern part of the Island of Pharos. The island was a small patch of land that had no outright owner. And whenever someone inquired about who owned the land, the response was that it was owned by the pharaoh. Hence, the name “Pharos” was given to the island.

Another account of the story states that the island’s name was born after Alexander the Great visited the place to consult with the priests of Ammon (Amun).

In any case, the island of Pharos was chosen as the spot to house the Lighthouse of Alexandria due to its strategic location. Back then, the land was further outwards, making it an ideal spot to site this monument.

Who designed the Lighthouse?

To help him draw plans for the construction of this jewel, Ptolemy contracted the services of Sostratus of Cnidos. Not much is known about the contractual agreement between Ptolemy and Sostratus. However, what historians do know is that Sostratus was a very wealthy architect from Muğla, Turkey. It is even believed that he personally financed the construction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

How was it designed?

History of the Lighthouse of Alexandria

How the Lighthouse of Alexandria might have looked like | Image: learning-history.com

According to ancient records and text, Sostratus planned for the lighthouse to also contain offices and ins that would house guests or tourists, as well as other port officials.

According to archaeologist Hermann Thiersch, the lower part of the Lighthouse was shaped in a square-like form. And as it went up, the middle part was shaped cylindrically. Baring in mind Ptolemy’s Greek roots and religion, Sostratus placed the statue of the Greek god Poseidon atop the lighthouse.

What was used as fuel for the Lighthouse of Alexandria?

With regard to what the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332 BCE – 30 BCE) used as fuel for the Lighthouse, the verdict is still not conclusive. You might be thinking: wood. However, that would have proved very difficult to obtain. The area was not particularly blessed with acres of greenery.  Therefore, wood as a source of fuel was probably unlikely.

Some historians have stated that according to a 13 CE Chinese historical record, the city installed giant bronze mirrors to help magnify the little wood that was burnt atop the Lighthouse.

Considering the fact that the Lighthouse had to be on throughout the night for over  1600 years, the ancients must have had a really phenomenal (perhaps simple for all we may know) approach to fuel the Lighthouse.

This, and many more reasons, is why and how the Lighthouse of Alexandria got unto the list of wonders of the ancient world.

How long did it take to construct?

Construction of the Lighthouse of Alexander began during the reign of the first Ptolemaic king of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter. This was around 303 BCE. A couple of decades later, in c. 280 BCE, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was completed by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, son of Soter.

What did the Lighthouse look like and how tall was it?

History of the Lighthouse of Alexandria

Lighthouse of Alexandria

Upon completion, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was regarded as the most famous building in the known world at the time. It stood at around 400 feet, slightly lower than the Great Pyramid of Giza’s 455 feet. What this meant was that it was the second tallest man-made structure in the world at the time, behind the Pyramid of Giza.

In modern terms, the lighthouse would be the equivalent height of a 40-story building. The light from the Lighthouse was said to have shone bright, and that sailors miles away could see it.

How did the Lighthouse of Alexandria come to ruins?

As stated above, the Lighthouse of Alexandria lasted for over 1600 years (from the 3 BCE to 14 CE). However, for centuries, it was put to through the test of time, enduring several earthquakes. And as Egypt changed hands from Greco-Roman rule to Arab rulers, it is also likely that very little effort was made to maintain the structure.

In what year did it collapse?

The ruins of the Lighthouse of Alexandria

The ruins of the Lighthouse under the Mediterranean sea

Historians believe that the Lighthouse of Alexandria ceased to exist in the 14th century CE. After its demise, a mosque was built in its place by then Arab rulers of Egypt.

Facts about the Lighthouse of Alexandria

The following are some important facts that shed light on the Lighthouse of Alexandria:

  1. It is worth mentioning that this magnificent structure was also called by the name of the island that hosted it – the island of Pharos. Therefore, another name of the Lighthouse of Alexandria is the Pharos of Alexandria.
  2. Lighthouses in our modern era have been designed to resemble the first lighthouse, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. As a matter of fact, the word ‘pharos’ means ‘lighthouse’ in so many languages today – Swedish (fyr), French (phare), Italian and Spanish (faro), Portuguese (farol) and even Bulgarian (far).
  3. At a staggering age of over 1,600 years, the Lighthouse surpassed the reigns of both the Greek and Roman empires.
  4. Shortly after, or a few years before, its demise, the Lighthouse came under the control of the Arabs.
  5. In 1375 CE, a high-magnitude earthquake shook Alexandria and its surrounding areas. Historians state that this earthquake, perhaps a series of earthquakes, was sort of the last nails in the coffin of the Lighthouse. By the 15th century CE, the Lighthouse had vanished off the face of the earth. Remnants of the ruins still remain buried deep in the nearby sea.
  6. It is believed that the pillars and large blocks from the Lighthouse were used as raw materials in the construction of several large palaces in the Arab world.
  7. Jean Yves Empereur, a famous French archaeologist, discovered several pieces of blocks on the ocean floor around the island. These blocks are believed to be the remnants of the lighthouse.
  8. Aside from the Lighthouse going on to influence all other lighthouses ever built since then, experts believe that it had a huge influence on the minarets that Muslims place atop mosques. As a matter of fact, “al-Manarah” means both minaret and lighthouse in Arabic.
  9. The Greek word “Pharos” was derived from the word “pharaoh”.
  10. After the capital of Egypt moved from Alexandria in 641 AD, the Lighthouse fame and name started to decline.
  11. At the time that the sod was cut to build the Lighthouse, Ptolemy I Soter was rolling out several spectacular projects across the city. The Library of Alexandria is one example of such projects that came to be associated with Ptolemaic rule.
  12. Like many great rulers in the ancient world, leaving a lasting legacy was an obsession for the early Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy I, a Macedonian, believed that construction projects like the Lighthouse, the Library, and the Museum of Alexandria were bound to etch his name into annals of history. He was certainly right about that!
  13. It is not really definitive that the Lighthouse’s architect was Sostratus of Cnidus. Some historians and archaeologists say that he was just the man that bankrolled the entire project. To this day, the name of the architect remains a mystery.
  14. The harbors at Alexandria  were called the Great Harbor and the “Harbor of Fortunate Return.” In the case of the latter, some even called the harbor “Eunostos”. Perhaps the harbor’s name stemmed from the lucrative nature of the city for businessmen and traders.
  15. Aside from claims that the Lighthouse had a gargantuan statue of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, some historians equally believe that the structure was actually dedicated to Zeus, the supreme god of the Olympians. Others say that it was rather Proteus, a Greek sea deity. Among all these claims, Poseidon seems the most plausible. He was after all the god of the sea.
  16. In terms of what a lighthouse truly is, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the very first built in the ancient world. However, long before that jewel went up, the ancient Greeks had mechanisms in place that aided sailors and mariners to know where the location of a harbor was, or perhaps whenever approaching treacherous coastlines. These makeshift guidance systems and beacons were particularly common in the northern parts of the Aegean island.
  17. Over the millennia since the Lighthouse was constructed, there have been countless depictions of exactly how the Lighthouse looked like. Some of these depictions and accounts of the actual height of the Lighthouse of Alexandria have bordered on the absurd and ludicrous. There have been historical accounts that exaggerated its height by saying that it was in the region of 1800 feet. As a result of such claims, historians often go in for the conservative numbers and features when describing the Lighthouse.
  18. Perhaps, the original intent of the Lighthouse was not to use it as a lighthouse. Perhaps it was purposed as a spectacular landmark to match the magnificence of the city. Some historians believe the building later lost its original functions.
  19. To this day, archaeologists continue to discover several ship wreckage around the island of Pharos. What this means is that the Lighthouse did not entirely stop ships from going down. But imagine, how many ships would have crashed into the coast of Alexandria had the Lighthouse not been constructed?
  20. During Rome’s rule, Alexandria was the second most beloved city in the world at the time. And the Lighthouse continued to shine bright and spectacularly.
  21. After a series of earthquakes took out some sections of Lighthouse, Arab rulers built mosques atop the structure. This was around the 10th century CE.
  22. After the Lighthouse was completely ruined, due to earthquakes and lack of repairs, Sultan Al-Ash built the citadel of Quait Bey close to the site of the ruined Lighthouse. It is even believed that the Mamluk sultan used the very ruins of the Lighthouse to build the citadel in 1477.
  23. Much of the drawings and depictions, as well as what we know, about the Lighthouse of Alexandria stems from the early 20th century works of archaeologist Hermann Thiersch.

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