The Lighthouse of Alexandria

One of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World

The Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Lighthouse of Alexandria, also called Pharos. (Photo by DEA Picture Gallery / Getty Images)

The famed Lighthouse of Alexandria, called Pharos, was built around 250 B.C.E. to help mariners navigate the harbor of Alexandria in Egypt. It was truly a marvel of engineering, standing at least 400 feet tall, making it one of the tallest structures in the ancient world. The Lighthouse of Alexandria was also solidly built, standing tall for over 1,500 years, until it was finally toppled by earthquakes around 1375 C.E.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was exceptional and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Purpose

The city of Alexandria was founded in 332 B.C.E. by Alexander the Great. Located in Egypt, just 20 miles west of the Nile River, Alexandria was perfectly situated to become a major Mediterranean port, helping the city to flourish. Soon, Alexandria became one of the most important cities of the ancient world, known far and wide for its famous library.

The only stumbling block was that mariners found it difficult to avoid the rocks and shoals when approaching Alexandria’s harbor. To help with that, as well as to make a very grand statement, Ptolemy Soter (Alexander the Great’s successor) ordered a lighthouse to be built. This was to be the first building ever built solely to be a lighthouse.

It was to take approximately 40 years for the Lighthouse at Alexandria to be built, finally being finished around 250 B.C.E.

Architecture

There’s a lot we don’t know about the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but we do know what it looked like. Since the Lighthouse was an icon of Alexandria, its image appeared in many places, including on ancient coins.

Designed by Sostrates of Knidos, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was a strikingly tall structure.

Located on the eastern end of the island of Pharos near the entrance of Alexandria’s harbor, the Lighthouse was soon itself called “Pharos.”

The Lighthouse was at least 450 feet high and made of three sections. The bottommost section was square and held government offices and stables. The middle section was an octagon and held a balcony where tourists could sit, enjoy the view, and be served refreshments. The top section was cylindrical and held the fire that was continually lit to keep mariners safe. At the very top was a large statue of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.

Amazingly, inside this giant lighthouse was a spiraling ramp that led up to the top of the bottommost section. This allowed horses and wagons to carry supplies to the top sections.

It is unknown what exactly was used to make the fire at the top of the Lighthouse. Wood was unlikely because it was scarce in the region. Whatever was used, the light was effective – mariners could easily see the light from miles away and could thus find their way safely to port.

Destruction

The Lighthouse of Alexandria stood for 1,500 years—an astounding number considering it was a hollowed out structure the height of a 40-story building.

Interestingly, most lighthouses today resemble the shape and structure of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Ultimately, the Lighthouse outlived the Greek and Roman empires. It was then absorbed into the Arab empire, but its importance waned when Egypt’s capital was moved from Alexandria to Cairo.

Having kept mariners safe for centuries, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was finally destroyed by an earthquake sometime around 1375 C.E.

Some of its blocks were taken and used to build a castle for the sultan of Egypt; others fell into the ocean. In 1994, French archeologist Jean Yves Empereur of the French National Research Center investigated the harbor of Alexandria and found at least a few of these blocks still in the water.

Sources

  • Curlee, Lynn. Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. New York: Atheneum Books, 2002.
  • Silverberg, Robert. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. New York: Macmillan Company, 1970.
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Rosenberg, Jen. "The Lighthouse of Alexandria." ThoughtCo, Aug. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-lighthouse-of-alexandria-1434534. Rosenberg, Jen. (2017, August 30). The Lighthouse of Alexandria. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-lighthouse-of-alexandria-1434534 Rosenberg, Jen. "The Lighthouse of Alexandria." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-lighthouse-of-alexandria-1434534 (accessed November 24, 2017).