The Lighthouse of Alexandria

A historically inaccurate yet captivating depiction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

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A historically inaccurate yet captivating depiction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Lord Toussaint, Editor in Chief

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were monumental human accomplishments which have withstood the test of time and were symbols of the ingenuity of ancient man. One of the most noteworthy and impressive of these wonders was the Light House of Alexandria, which was the second tallest structure of the ancient world, after the Great Pyramid of Giza, and stood as a testament to the grandeur of what was once the most important city in the world, for over a millennia.

The ruins of the light house of Alexandria can be found in the waters surrounding the old site of the lighthouse. The lighthouse was built on the island of Pharos off the coast of Alexandria, on the Nile river delta, in Egypt. The light house fell after standing for over 1,600 years, in the 1320’s A.D., after a series of earthquakes that struck the region in the beginning of the 14th century. In the place of the lighthouse today, is the Citadel of Qaitbay, which was built from the blocks of the collapsed lighthouse of Alexandria in the sixteenth century at the command of the Egyptian Sultan, Qaitbay .

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, also known as the Pharos of Alexandria, after the island on which it stood, was the most iconic and revered lighthouse in history. It is debated weather the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the first “lighthouse” in the world. However, it was most certainly the first structure which was built solely to guide ships into port and it eventually became the most recognizable lighthouse of the ancient world. At an estimated height of 450 feet, about forty stories in height, the light house was unmistakable. So much so, that Pharos, or at least a modified version of the word, means lighthouse in many modern romance languages such as Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Italian, just to name a few. There are multiple stories as to how the island of Pharos got its name, but one of the most common theories, was that since the island had no immediate owner, when people asked, “who does that coastal island belong to?” Others would respond, “the pharaoh” and so, the island was eventually christened “the Pharos”. Another theory points to Alexander the Great’s visit to the island after his conquest of Egypt. During that visit, the priests of Amun foresaw that he would make even greater achievements, which was true as he would conquer the remainder of the Persian Empire. As a result of his visit to the island, it is said that the name “Pharos”, for ruler of Egypt, was born.

Ptolemy I of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt ordered the building of the light house of Alexandria in 300 B.C., as a testament to his power and greatness, to guide ships into port at the great harbors of Alexandria, and to make others aware of the shallow sea bed of the area. The project was finished some twenty years later under the reign of Ptolemy I’s son, Ptolemy the second, in 280 B.C.

The project cost an estimated 800 talents, the currency at the time, which would have been about 3 million US dollars today. The architect of the project was Sostratus of Cindus of Knidos, a wealthy architect from the city of Knidos, hence his name, which can now be found in modern day Turkey. He was so wealthy, that it is believed by some that that he was in fact the project’s financer. The lighthouse had three main portions, a square section, which was believed to hold government offices an octagonal center section, with a balcony, and a cylindrical top section, where the actual beacon of the lighthouse lied. It is said that the lighthouse even had a ramp that led to the beacon of the lighthouse, so that supplies could be transported to the beacon by horse. The lighthouse is believed to have had a statue of either Ptolemy I in the form of the Sun God Helios or a statue of the Greek God of the sea, Poseidon. Due to the age of the Pharos, it is unknown how it was constructed, it is however known to have been made of light-colored stone and molten lead.

It is said that the light of the Pharos was originally produced by the reflection of the sun during the day using polished bronze mirrors. Based on ancient texts, it is believed that the Pharos only functioned as a light house or landmark for sailors by day. As ancient texts around the beginning of the lighthouse’s creation made no mention of a fire or light by night. The lighthouse was tall, and white, so this made sense. Eventually this would change, a fire would be lit during the nights, which served as a beacon. It is debated to this day what was used to generate and keep that fire of the Lighthouse of Alexandria ablaze for such a long time, but historians are almost certain that it was not wood. Wood was an uncommon and scarce commodity in Alexandria, as the city was blessed in terms of its location, but not in terms of its access to vegetation. So, it is believed that the blaze of the light house was generated by burning oil. To further enhance the brightness of this light, it is speculated that the same bronze mirrors used to reflect the light of the sun by day were used to reflect the light of the fire at night. This technique apparently worked quite well, as according to legends of the time, the light of the Pharos could be seen on the other side of the Mediterranean. Obviously, this was impossible due to the curvature of the Earth, but it is widely believed by historians that the light of the Pharos in the very least could be seen for miles out at sea by sailors. The light of the Pharos was shrouded in so much legend, that it was even said that the mirrors were at times used to reflect the light of the Pharos and sun to burn enemy ships.

The Pharos served as the watchful eye of Alexandria throughout the brightest parts of its history. Alexandria was once the most important and preposterous city on the face of the globe, due to its important location on the Mediterranean and proximity to the rest of the word outside of Europe and North Africa. The Pharos was one of the many joules of Alexandria. Alexandria was a global capital of the arts, philosophy, and learning.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria witnessed the fall of empires and their rule over the great metropolis. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. It blossomed into the great city it is known for being today as the capital of the culturally Greek dominated Ptolemaic Egypt. During this time of blossoming and fame, the Pharos was there. At the end of the Hellenistic period, and the dawn of Roman domain, the Pharos was there. Till the end of Rome and the rise of the Byzantine Empire, the Pharos was there. To the rise of the caliphates, the Pharos was there, and eventually as the city declined under the rule of the Caliphs, the Lighthouse fell along with it in the early 14th century, and a new era began. The once great old Greek Ptolemaic Alexandria was gone, and so began the subsequent decline of the city. 200 years later, the Ottomans would take control, then briefly, the French, followed after an Ottoman reconquering, by the British. Eventually, in 1922 Egypt would be free of foreign rule and in the current day, has transformed into a great power in the Arabic world and the great city of Alexandria has grown along with it.

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