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Pharos: The Lighthouse at Alexandria


"The voyage along the coast of this sea [the Mediterranean] is exceedingly long, and any landing is especially difficult; for from Paraetonium in Libya as far as Iopê in Coele-Syria, a voyage along the coast of some five thousand stades, there is not to be found a safe harbour except Pharos. And, apart from these considerations, a sandbank extends along practically the whole length of Egypt, not discernible to any who approach without previous experience of these waters. Consequently those who think that they have escaped the peril of the sea, and in their ignorance turn with gladness towards the shore, suffer unexpected shipwreck when their vessels suddenly run aground; and now and then mariners who cannot see land in time because the country lies so low are cast ashore before they realize it, some of them on marshy and swampy places and others on a desert region."

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (I.31.2-5)

The low and featureless coastline of Egypt, with its broad delta and endless desert, had no prominent landmarks by which a mariner could plot a course. For Homer, the only harbor in the "long and painful way" to Egypt (Odyssey, IV.542) was at Pharos, where Menelaus was said to have been stranded on his return from Troy. "Now, there's an island out in the ocean's heavy surge, well off the Egyptian coast—they call it Pharos....There's a snug harbor there, good landing beach where crews pull in, draw water from the dark wells then push their vessels off for passage out" (IV.395ff).

Plutarch relates that when Alexander, who wished "to found a large and populous Greek city which should bear his name," was about to lay it out, he had a dream in which Homer himself appeared, quoting these lines. Alexander went at once to Pharos and, seeing the natural advantages of the site, admitted that the poet was "not only admirable in other ways, but also was a very wise architect" (Life of Alexander, XXVI.4-7). Alexandria, in fact, was to have been built on Pharos, but it was not large enough (Curtius, History of Alexander, IV.8.1-2). Instead, the city was located at Rhacotis, a small fishing village sheltered by the island. Having dictated its general plan (Arrian, Anabasis, III.2), Alexander left his architect Dinocrates to supervise construction (Vitruvius, On Architecture, II.Preface.1ff; Strabo, Geography, XIV.1.23).

Pharos later was connected to the mainland by a long causeway. Caesar says it was built "by former kings" (Civil War, CXII) and the Heptastadion (so named for its length, which was seven Greek stades) was constructed by Ptolemy I Sotor or his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus, in whose reign the translators of the Septuagint were said to have crossed to begin their work on the island (Letter of Aristeas, CCCI; Epiphanius, Weights and Measures, XI.53c).

The lighthouse itself is thought to have been completed about 280 BC, not long after Ptolemy II acceded to the throne, although Jerome in his translation of Eusebius' Chronicle puts the date in the first year of the 124th Olympiad (284 BC—or 283 BC in the Armenian translation, where the Olympiads differ by a year). The Suda (P114) also provides an earlier date: when Pyrrhus (with the aid of Ptolemy I) again became king of Epirus in 297 BC. Likely, Ptolemy Philadelphus completed the project begun by his father. (Ammianus thought that Cleopatra had built the Pharos, thereby furnishing "the means of showing lights to ships by night," Res Gestae, XXII.16.9).

Posidippus, who resided at court, wrote an epigram commemorating the occasion, dedicating it to Proteus, the prophetic "Old Man of the Sea" who was said to reside in caves on the island, bedded down there with his flock of seals (Odyssey, IV.430ff).

"The Greeks' saviour god—O mighty Proteus—shines from Pharos thanks to Sostratus of Cnidos, son of Dexiphanes. For Egypt has no cliffs or mountains as the islands do but a breakwater, level with the ground, welcomes her ships. And so this tower cutting through the breadth and depth of heaven beacons to the farthest distances by day, and all night long the sailors borne on the waves will see the great flame blazing from its top—nor miss his aim: though he run to the Bull's Horn [the harbor at Alexandria, enclosed by its two promontories], he'll find Zeus the Saviour, sailing, Proteus, by this beam" (CXV).

That the name of Sostratus should be on the Pharos could not fail to elicit comment. Pliny mentions "the generous spirit shown by King Ptolemy, whereby he allowed the name of the architect, Sostratus of Cnidos, to be inscribed on the very fabric of the building" (Natural History, XXXVI.83). Strabo, who visited Alexandria in about 25 BC, provides the next description of the lighthouse. On entering the eastern harbor, opposite the promontory of Lochias, was Pharos, at the end of which

"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 stories and bears the same name as the island. This was an offering made by Sostratus of Cnidus, a friend of the kings, 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" (Geography, XVII.1.6).

But it is Lucian, writing in AD 166, who provides the most intriguing story about Sostratus.

"He built the tower on Pharos, the mightiest and most beautiful work of all, that a beacon-light might shine from it for sailors far over the sea and that they might not be driven on to Paraetonia, said to be a very-difficult coast with no escape if you hit the reefs. After he had built the work he wrote his name on the masonry inside, covered it with gypsum, and having hidden it inscribed the name of the reigning king. He knew, as actually happened, that in a very short time the letters would fall away with the plaster and there would be revealed: 'Sostratus of Cnidos, the son of Dexiphanes, to the Divine Saviours, for the sake of them that sail at sea.' Thus, not even he had regard for the immediate moment or his own brief life-time: he looked to our day and eternity, as long as the tower shall stand and his skill abide. History then should be written in that spirit, with truthfulness and an eye to future expectations rather than with adulation and a view to the pleasure of present praise" (How to Write History, LXII).

Given that Ptolemy had allowed the name of the architect to be inscribed on the Pharos, the story may be apocryphal, embellished by Lucian only to make his point about how history should be written.

The reference to the divine saviors may have been deliberately obscure and could refer to Ptolemy I Soter ("Savior") and either his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus or his wife Berenice. Possibly, too, they could be the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), who "were called 'guardians of the sea' and 'saviours of sailors'" (Geography, I.3.2). Posidippus, who provides the earliest account, refers to Zeus the Savior ("The Greeks' saviour god"), whose statue was on top of the Pharos. Rather than the architect of the Pharos, Bing contends that Sostratus, a friend and envoy of Ptolemy, dedicated only the statue atop it (which is not to say that he could not also have been the architect).

Certainly, the Pharos was admired. Caesar commented on its great height, marveling that it was "a work of wonderful construction" (Civil Wars, III.112) and Strabo that it was "admirably constructed of white marble with many stories" (Geography, XVII.1.6). When Scipio Africanus and other delegates visited Alexandria more than a century and a half later, they scorned the pomp of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (whose offer of marriage had been spurned by Africanus' daughter) and were interested only in "those things which were really worth their viewing; such as the situation of the city, and its prosperity, and particularly the features of the Pharos" (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, XXXIII.28B).

One of those features was its beacon. Writing in the first century AD, Pliny records that "the towering structure" was said to have cost eight hundred talents (a tenth of the treasury when Ptolemy I assumed the throne, Library of History, XVIII.14.1), its shining light, which was "to give warning of shoals and indicate the entrance to the harbour," in danger of being mistaken for a star on the horizon, "the appearance of the fire from a distance being similar" (XXXVI.83; Statius compares its light to the moon, Silvae, III.5.101). (The Parthenon is estimated to have cost at least 469 talents of silver, more than thirteen tons of the metalor even a thousand talents, if critics of Pericles are to be believed, Plutarch, Life of Pericles, XII.2.)

Josephus records that the flame, supported by "a very great tower," was visible for three-hundred stadia or about thirty miles, a day's sail away (Jewish War, IV.10.5), which would have been limited only by the curvature of the earth. Given the difficulty of sailing any nearer at night, especially through the dangerously narrow harbor entrance, the light allowed ships to cast anchor off shore. And yet, once safely moored, the harbor at Alexandria was a haven "into which is brought what the country wants in order to its happiness, as also what abundance the country affords more than it wants itself is hence distributed into all the habitable earth."

Early in the second century AD, Achilles Tatius, who lived in Alexandria, described the Pharos as "the most remarkable and extraordinary structure upon which it rested; it was like a mountain, almost reaching the clouds, in the middle of the sea. Below the building flowed the waters; it seemed to be as it were suspended above their surface, while at the top of this mountain rose a second sun to be a guide for ships" (The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon, V.6)

In AD 641, Byzantine Alexandria fell to the Muslims, and it is Arab travelers who subsequently provide a description of the Pharos (manāra). In AD 903, Ibn-Rusta estimated the height of the tower (then surmounted by a minaret) to be three hundred ells (about 450 feet) and approached by three hundred steps, each of which had an opening to the sea (providing light and lessening the wind load). Writing early in the twelfth century, al-Garnati describes the Pharos as having three tiers: one which was square and built of limestone, a second octagonal section constructed of brick, and a third round story of limestone. Al-Idrisi relates that a fire burned day and night to guide ships (in the daytime, the smoke from the fire also would have offered direction. Al-Maqrizi (1364-1442) is one of the last authors to write of the Pharos. In his topography and history of Egypt, he adds that there was an inscription in Greek (presumably that of Sostranus) on the northern side of the tower (McKenzie puts it on the eastern side, where it could be read as one entered the harbor). Made from lead, the letters were one ell in height (eighteen inches) and one span in width (nine inches). The hewn stones also were clamped together with lead.

Ancient coins and engraved gems provide pictorial detail and show Tritons on the corners of the lower storeys.

"I am the tower that helps straying mariners, lighting up the blaze of Poseidon's comforting torch. Ammonius, who is the father of our emperor, re-erected me by his labour when, borne down by the loud-roaring gales, I was about to fall. To him the sailors, escaped from the wild waves, lift up their hands as to the glorious Earth-shaker."

Greek Anthology (674)

There was an earthquake in AD 796, and in about AD 875 a wooden cupola was built on top of the Pharos, suggested that it no longer was being used as a lighthouse but as a watch-tower. Again, there were earthquakes in AD 951 and 955, when about thirty cubits were thrown down. Another series in the fourteenth century (including especially destructive tremors in 1303 and 1375) caused further damage. (When Ibn Battuta visited the city in 1349, he found the Pharos in so ruinous a condition that it could not even be entered.) By 1479, only the foundation remained, which was quarried for stone to complete a fort that still stands on the site. Since 1994, Empereur has been surveying thousands of other architectural pieces that litter the sea floor of the harbor, a dozen of which belonged to the Pharos itself, including some of red granite that framed a monumental doorway and one marble fragment with the foundation holes for five Greek letters measuring approximately twelve inches in height.

The illustration is from the classic study Pharos: Antike Islam und Occident (1909) by Hermann Thiersch, who based it on ancient descriptions and numismatic evidence. The computer image (which depicts Poseidon rather than Zeus) has been constructed by the UCLA Experimental Technologies Center, which also produced the Digital Roman Forum. The intention is to build a virtual model of the lighthouse to test its stability under wind loads and ground shake and how it might collapse under such stress.

ReferencesHomer: The Odyssey (1996) translated by Robert Fagles; The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book (2005) edited by Kathryn Gutzwiller; Caesar: Civil Wars (1914) translated by A. G. Peskett (Loeb Classical Library); Strabo: Geography (1917-) translated by H. L. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); Lucian (1959) translated by K. Kilburn (Loeb Classical Library); Pliny: Natural History (1962) translated by D. E. Eichholz (Loeb Classical Library); Diodorus Siculus: Library of History (1933) translated by C. H. Oldfather (Loeb Classical Library); Achilles Tatius [The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon] (1917) translated by S. Gaselee (Loeb Classical Library); The Greek Anthology (Vol. III) (1925) translated by W. R. Paton.

The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt: 300 BC to AD 700 (2007) by Judith McKenzie; Ptolemaic Alexandria (1972) by P. M. Fraser; The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn (1996) by Lucio Russo; "The Ancient Monuments of Alexandria According to Accounts by Medieval Arab Authors (IX-XV Century)" (1971) by S. K. Hamarneh, Folia Orientalia, 13, 77-110 (one wishes that this article was more complete); The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion (1902) by Alfred J. Butler; "The Cost of the Parthenon" (1953) by R. S. Stanier, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 73, 68-76; "Between Literature and the Monuments" (1998) by Peter Bing, in Genre in Hellenistic Poetry, edited by M. A. Harder, R. F. Regtuit, and G. C. Wakker.

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