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The Pharos Lighthouse

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When Philo of Byzantium came to compile his list of the Seven Wonders of the World in 225 BC, he made a controversial choice. Until then, such lists had usually included the Ishtar Gate in the Walls of Babylon. However, Philo chose instead to include the great tower on the island of Pharos, variously known as the Lighthouse of Pharos or simply as 'the Pharos'.

It was the last of the Wonders to be built, with Eusebius dating it to 283 BC. There were three main sections to the Lighthouse - the lowest was a 30m square, with statues of Triton at the corners. On top of that was an octagonal section, again with statues, and on top of that the third and highest part was a cylinder, probably topped by a single statue. So famous was it that several modern languages including French take their word for 'lighthouse' directly from the name of the island on which it was built. Despite - or perhaps because of - its prominence in Western culture, many myths now surround the Lighthouse, and it sometimes seems that there is hardly a fact about it that is not disputed in some way.

The Site

Pharos was an island just off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, forming a natural harbour. The Lighthouse was built on a peninsula of that island, Anfouchy1. A causeway called the Heptastadion2 was built to link the island to the mainland, and over the years this has been enlarged enough to hold a sizeable residential area, making Pharos firmly part of the mainland.


[The Pharos] is a rock, which is washed all round by the sea and has upon it a tower that is admirably constructed of white marble with many storeys and bears the same name as the island. This was an offering made by Sostratus of Cnidus, a friend of the king's, for the safety of mariners, as the inscription says: for since the coast was harbourless and low on either side, and also had reefs and shallows, those who were sailing from the open sea thither needed some lofty and conspicuous sign to enable them to direct their course aright to the entrance of the harbour. And the western mouth is also not easy to enter, although it does not require so much caution as the other.
- Strabo, c 26 - 20 BC

Despite the modern name, most sources claim that the Lighthouse did not originally have any light source. The featureless coast of northern Egypt meant that ports needed a landmark to make them visible to sailors from a great distance, and the great tower at Pharos originally served this purpose during the day; it is claimed that it was only during the 1st Century AD that a light source was added to allow it to serve as a beacon at night as well.

However, the claim of a Lighthouse built without a light needs to be balanced against a poetic text written within a generation of the Lighthouse's original construction:

As a saviour of the Greeks, this watchman of Pharos, O Lord Proteus, was erected by Sostratus, son of Dexiphanes, from Cnidus. For in Egypt there are no lookout posts on a mountain, as in the islands, but low lies the breakwater where ships take harbour. Therefore this tower, in a straight and upright line, appears to cleave the sky from countless stadia away, during the day, but throughout the night quickly a sailor on the waves will see a great fire blazing from its summit. And he may even run to the Bull's horn, and not miss Zeus the Saviour, O Proteus, whosoever sails this way.
- Posidippus, writing during the reign of Ptolemy II (285 - 246 BC)

The Structure

The Pharos rises at the end of the island. The building is square, about 8.5m each side. The sea surrounds the Pharos except on the east and south sides. This platform measures, along its sides, from the tip up to the foot of the Pharos walls, 6.5m in height. However, on the sea side, it is larger because of the construction and is steeply inclined like the side of a mountain. As the height of the platform increases towards the walls of the Pharos its width narrows until it arrives at the measurements above. On this side it is strongly built, the stones being well shaped and laid along with a rougher finish than elsewhere on the building. This part of the building that I have just described is recent because on this side the ancient work needed to be replaced. On the seaward south side, there is an ancient inscription which I cannot read; it is not a proper inscription because the forms of the letters are carried out in hard black stone. The combination of the sea and the air has worn away the background stone and the letters stand out in relief because of their harshness. The A measures a little over 54cm. The top of the M stands out like a huge hole in a copper boiler. The other letters are generally of the same size. The doorway to the Pharos is high up. A ramp about 183m 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.
- Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh, 1166

Our best accounts of the Lighthouse come from a pair of 10th Century Arabic travellers, El Idrisi3 and Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh4, and these are consistent with its depiction on coins and glass gems. It was constructed of large (11m wide, 75 tonne) blocks of white marble - 'excellent stones of the type called caddzan5' according to al-Idrisi. The doorways and lintels were probably formed of red granite. More recently, these ancient accounts have been questioned, as it has been suggested that the structure was made of pale granite rather than marble. The structure contained many windows, which were necessary to prevent the wind from toppling it.

The approach was a straight vaulted ramp, leading to a spiral ramp inside the first tier. This was used to allow pack animals to take fuel (probably naphtha6) up to the base of the second tier, from where a winch arrangement transported the fuel to whatever light source was used.

It seems that the viewing platform at the top of the first level was open to the public, with refreshments available. A smaller platform at the top of the second tier was also accessible to the determined (and fit!).


One thing that all ancient accounts remark on is the sheer size of the structure. We know that the building was 300 cubits high - but since the definition of a cubit varied from place to place, we cannot be certain what that means. Most likely the Pharos was around 110m tall, though figures as high as 150m have been proposed. One proposed set of measurements gives the three tiers as 60, 18 and 7m tall respectively (counting from the bottom upwards) on a base 32m high, for a total height of 117m - around 40 storeys in modern terms, mostly filled with storerooms. This would make it slightly shorter than the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre at Giza, but taller than any other building at the time.

The Third Tier

Reports of the structure of the uppermost tier vary. In part, this may be because it was by far the most precarious, and was repaired several times due to earthquake damage, with alterations each time. One key difference is the identity (or even presence) of the statue or statues said to have topped it.

It is most commonly said to have been a statue of Zeus the Saviour, though alternative identifications include Poseidon, both Zeus and Poseidon together, Zeus' two sons the Dioscuri, Alexander the Great or Ptolemy I. Or alternatively, the Lighthouse may have been open-topped, with the statues restricted to the lower levels.

The Inscription

Sostratos of Cnidus, son of Dexiphanes, to the saviour gods, for sailors.
- Inscription on Pharos Lighthouse

One interesting piece of trivia about the Lighthouse is that it was originally coated in plaster, bearing the name of Ptolemy II Philadelphos, who reigned during the final stages of its construction. As the plaster aged and wore away, however, it revealed carved into the more durable stone underneath the name of the architect, Sostratus7. Forbidden by the Pharaoh to glorify himself, Sostratus had used trickery to ensure that his name would be the one etched forever on his masterpiece, whereas Ptolemy's would last for barely his own lifetime. Pliny8 disagrees with this tale, simply saying that Ptolemy allowed Sostratus to inscribe his name on the Pharos. Others say that the inscription refers to the statue of Zeus, rather than the tower as a whole, or that Sostratus sponsored the project rather than being the architect.

Molten lead was said to have been used as mortar, to strengthen the walls against the pounding sea. The reader will probably not be surprised to hear that this too has been disputed, and it may be that lead bands were used to reinforce the stones. The light source was said to have been amplified by a mirror or lens, making it visible from 300 stadia (about 56km) away, or even further. Some stories claim that this lens could be used to see as far as Constantinople, or to set fire to ships at sea. Although the latter claims are obviously spurious, it can be hard to tell exactly where fact becomes fiction in accounts of the Lighthouse.

The Demise

The Lighthouse may have been seriously damaged in the Alexandrian War of 48/47 BC and repaired by Cleopatra. There is also a story - probably unfounded - that the Emperor of Constantinople planted rumours of treasure buried under the tower, tricking the Caliph of Cairo into dismantling it in 850 AD. Realising his mistake too late, the Caliph was only able to replace the upper stories with a mosque. However, this story conflicts with later reports of the Lighthouse as being fully functioning until at least 1183 AD.

The primary danger to the Pharos was always from the ground it stood on. It was a large structure in an area prone to earthquakes, and it struggled against tectonic inevitability for most of its life. It was seriously damaged in 365, 7969, 950 and 95610 AD. Saladin attempted repairs in 1272 before the Lighthouse was finally destroyed by an earthquake in 1303.

What was left of the remains were further damaged in 1326. In 1329, Ibn Battuta visited the site and could progress no further than the entrance to the first tier, at the top of the approach ramp. By his return in 1346, even that was impossible. Much of the rubble was re-used in the building of the Citadel of Qaitbay on the same site in 1480, so to that extent this is the most visible of the Wonders aside from the Great Pyramid.

The Remains

It was, therefore, with surprise that we, in turn, discovered the extent of the site: over an area of 2.5 hectares, 2,500 pieces of stonework of archaeological interest were scattered about: columns of all sizes, in their hundreds, column bases and capitals, sphinxes, statues, and some immense blocks of granite which, given where they lie, certainly came from the famous lighthouse.
- Jean-Yves Empereur, Centre d'√Čtudes Alexandrines, Alexandria

In 1994, underwater achaeologists discovered remains on the seabed, including large blocks of granite and marble, and parts of a statue. These were identified as remains of the Lighthouse, although this identification is not undisputed. Contrary to traditional depictions of the Lighthouse, these are in a mixture of Greek and Egyptian styles, not purely a Greek one as depicted by Hermann Thiersch at the start of the 20th Century. Many of these predate the construction of the Lighthouse, and so either indicate that older materials were recycled in its construction (a common practice throughout Egyptian history) or that this is the remains of a later attempt to block the harbour.

1Or Anfushi.2The name denotes the length of the causeway, 7 stadia or about 1,400 yards.3Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani al-Sabti.4also known as Abou Haggag Youssef Ibn Mohammed el-Andaloussi.5Hard limestone or marble.6A flammable liquid similar to paraffin/kerosene.7The -us ending of his name is the Latin form while the -os ending is the Greek form.8A famed Roman historian.9Losing its upper tier.10Again losing around 22m in height.

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