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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, offered 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).

It was ruled by Proteus, the prophetic, polymorphic "Old Man of the Sea" who resided there in caves along the shore, bedded down with his flock of seals (IV.430ff). Only by grappling with the seer and holding him tight was Menelaus able to learn why he had been marooned by the gods and how to appease them. Herodotus recounts a variant of Homer's epic, one "which was not so suitable to the composition of his poem as the other which he followed" (Histories, II.112-120; also Euripides, Helen). In this version, the Helen of Troy actually was a phantom. The real Helen remained in Egypt, where the ship in which she had been abducted by Paris was blown off course and made landfall. There, she was protected by King Proteus and remained faithful to Menelaus until she could be reunited with her husband. Callimachus, too, makes this association between Greece and Egypt when he refers to Pharos as "Helen's island" (Aetia III, Fr.54, "Victory of Berenice").

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 from the Odyssey. 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, which had served to guard against the importation of foreign goods and Greek raiders (Strabo, Geography, XVII.1.6). Having marked out a general plan (Arrian, Anabasis, III.2), including orders "to build a palace notable for its size and massiveness" (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, XVII.52.4), Alexander left his architect Dinocrates to supervise construction (Vitruvius, On Architecture, II.Preface.1ff; Geography, XIV.1.23; Arrian, Anabasis, III.1). Alexander then returned to Tyre in Phoenicia, which itself had been founded on an offshore island, besieging the town by building a mole up to its walls.

Pharos, too, was later connected to the mainland by a long causeway. Said by Caesar to have been built "by former kings" (Civil War, CXII), the Heptastadion (so named for its length, which was seven Greek stades or about three-quarters of a mile) 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 (Letter of Aristeas, CCCI; Epiphanius, Weights and Measures, XI.53c).

They also built the famed lighthouse on the island, Ptolemy II likely completing the project begun by his father. According to the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, the Pharos was constructed by Ptolemy I in 297 BC, the year that Pyrrhus, who had been sent to Alexandria as a hostage, returned to Epirus and, with Ptolemy's help, reclaimed his kingdom (Phi114; Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, VII). 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), when Ptolemy II assumed the throne in his own name. Writing a decade later, Ammianus Marcellinus thought that Cleopatra had built the Pharos, thereby furnishing "the means of showing lights to ships by night" (Res Gestae, XXII.16.9).

Certainly, the Pharos elicited wonder in those who saw it. Caesar marveled that it was "of great height, a work of wonderful construction, which took its name from the island" (Civil Wars, III.112) and displayed a model, complete with a semblance of its flame, as part of his triumph in Rome (Florus, Epitome of Roman History, II.13.88; Appian, Civil Wars, II.101). And Strabo commented only that it was "admirably constructed of white marble with many stories" (Geography, XVII.1.6). More than a century and a half later, when Scipio Africanus and other delegates visited Alexandria, 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" (Library of History, XXXIII.28B.2).

When the Pharos was inaugurated, Posidippus, who resided at court, wrote an epigram commemorating the occasion, calling upon Proteus, the deity of the island.

"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, he'll find Zeus the Saviour, sailing, Proteus, by this beam" (CXV).

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 24 BC, provides an early description of the lighthouse. On entering the eastern harbor, opposite the promontory of Lochias, was the island, 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).

That the name of Sostratus and not Ptolemy should be on the Pharos could not fail to elicit comment. And it is Lucian, writing in AD 166, who provides the most intriguing story.

"He [Sostratus] 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 to be inscribed on the Pharos, the story likely is apocryphal, embellished by Lucian only to make his point about how history should be written with a view to the future and not simply the present. Lucian speaks again of the Pharos in his satire Icaromenippus ("The Sky Man"), where the cynic philosopher Menippus, ascending to the heavens, peers down upon the earth like a second Icarus. From his vantage point on the Moon, he recounts that he would not have recognized it had he not discerned the Pharos, so high and prominent, and the ocean glinting in the sun (XII).

Too, the dedication of Sostratus to the "Divine Saviours" is obscure, perhaps deliberately so, and reference has been made to Ptolemy I Soter ("Savior") and his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus or his wife Berenice—or even to the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) who, Strabo relates, "were called 'guardians of the sea' and 'saviours of sailors'" (Geography, I.3.2).

As to Sostratus himself, he probably was not the architect, even though Lucian and Pliny suggest that he was. They do so in trying to explain how his name came to be on the Pharos, whether by Ptolemy's magnanimity or his own deceptive trickery. Rather, Sostratus seems to have been "a friend of the kings," as described by Strabo, a wealthy courtier and envoy of Ptolemy. His dedication of the Pharos to the "Divine Saviours," argues Bing, refers to all the deities who protect seafarers, Zeus pre-eminent among them. To be sure, the references in Posidippus are to "Zeus the Saviour" and "the Greeks' saviour god" (Zeus Soter), and it is the statue of Zeus that crowned the lighthouse.

Writing in the first century AD, Pliny records that "the towering structure" was said to have cost eight hundred talents (more than twenty-three tons of silver), 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" (Natural History, XXXVI.83; Statius compares its light to the moon, Silvae, III.5.101). This is an enormous sum, a tenth of the treasury when Ptolemy I assumed the throne (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, XVIII.14.1), and reason to assume that Sostratus dedicated only the state of Zeus and not the lighthouse itself. (The Parthenon is estimated to have cost at least 469 talents of silver.)

Josephus records that the flame, supported by "a very great tower," was visible for three-hundred stadia or about thirty-four 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. 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). (These references to a beacon have suggested to some that it was added by the Romans in the first century AD, sometime after Egypt had become a province. But the "great flame blazing from its top" had been a feature of the Pharos from its dedication, as the epigram of Posidippus attests.)

Given the scarcity of wood in Egypt, one can only conjecture as to how the beacon fire was fueled. Possibly there were bundles of papyrus roots, which Theophrastus says were used as firewood, the roots being "abundant and good" (Inquiry into Plants, IV.8.3; also Pliny, Natural History, XIII.72). Or a naphtha-fueled fire is possible. Dried animal dung, although used in cooking, presumably would not have burned brightly enough. Whatever the source of the fire, its intensity was increased by a burnished bronze mirror, which also would reflect sunlight in the daytime. Given the hesitancy to sail at night, this beacon (and the towering white structure itself) would have been even more useful to the mariner, the smoke from the fire offering further direction.

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 (cubits) or approximately four hundred-fifty feet. It was approached by three hundred steps, each of which had an opening to the sea, which would have provided light and lessened the wind load. (The actual height probably was about three hundred-sixty feet or slightly higher). 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 also of limestone. Al-Idrisi, a geographer who visited Alexandria in 1115, relates that a fire burned day and night to guide ships.

The fullest description of the Pharos is provided by al-Balawi, who visited Alexandria in 1166. A part of an abecedary or primer composed for his son, his account was not published until 1870, the importance of which was not recognized for another sixty years. In it, he mentions an ancient inscription that he could not read on the seaward wall in letters about twenty-one inches high, the hard black stone (presumably metal) standing in relief from the wall, which had been worn away by the sea and air. The doorway to the tower was approached by a long vaulted ramp supported by sixteen arches. Inside, another ramp wide spiraled around a central core. Such a ramp would have allowed pack animals to take fuel up to the second level, from where it could be winched or carried up stairs to the top.

On a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1183, Ibn Jubayr traveled through Alexandria, where he marveled at the Pharos. His journey from Granada is recounted in the English translation by Broadhurst, which is one of the few from the original Arabic that is not a paraphrase from a secondary source. Ibn Jubary relates that the lighthouse was

"a guide to voyagers, for without it they could not find the true course to Alexandria. It can be seen for more than seventy miles, and is of great antiquity. It is most strongly built in all directions and competes with the skies in height. Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle. We measured one of its four sides and found it to be more than fifty arms' lengths. It is said that in height it is more than one hundred and fifty qamah [the height of a man]. Its interior is an awe-inspiring sight in its amplitude, with stairways and entrances and numerous apartments, so that he who penetrates and wanders through its passages may be lost. In short, words fail to give a conception of it."

Al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), one of the last authors to write of the Pharos, reiterates much of what already had been said. Citing al-Masudi (d. AD 956), he relates that there was an inscription in Greek on the northern side of the tower. 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. (Al-Masudi had said that the inscription was on the eastern side, where it could be read as one entered the harbor).


Ancient coins and engraved gems provide pictorial detail. Here, on a tetradrachm of Commodus struck at Alexandria, one can see the elevated doorway (as protection against a rising tide) and Tritons serving as antefixes on the corners of the first tier.

In AD 394, Synesius of Cyrene, who famously corresponded with the martyred Hypatia, wrote of a lighthouse. "We perceived the beacon fire lit upon a tower to warn ships running too close. We accordingly disembarked more quickly than it takes to relate, on the island of Paros, a poor island where there are neither trees nor fruit, but only salt marshes" (Epistles, LI). But here he is referring to the Aegean home of the lyric poet Archilochus.

"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. There was another series in the fourteenth century, including an especially destructive tremor in 1303 that finally destroyed the Pharos. Others occurred in 1323 and 1326, when Ibn Battuta described the first tier as being partly in ruins. He visited the city again in 1349 and found the Pharos then in so ruinous a condition that it could not even be entered. Another earthquake in 1375 seems finally to have reduced whatever might still have been standing. By 1479, only the foundation remained, the rubble quarried for stone to complete the fort of Qait Bey that still stands on the site. Now it is the name and shape of the minaret that recalls the Pharos.

Since 1994, Empereur has been surveying thousands of architectural pieces that litter the sea floor of the harbor, a dozen of which appear to belong to the Pharos itself, including huge stone blocks (some of the largest ever used in ancient construction), sections of red granite that framed a monumental doorway, and a marble fragment with inlaid Greek letters in bronze measuring approximately eighteen inches in height, just as al-Masudi had described.

One of the earliest catalogs of the world's wonders is by Antipater of Sidon, writing in the second century BC (Greek Anthology, IX.58). It does not include the Pharos, even if Antipater himself had been a citizen of Alexandria. Pliny speaks of septem miracula in his Natural History (XXXVI.30) but makes his own selection (including the Pharos) from traditional accounts, depending upon the material (usually marble) in which they were executed. The Pharos would not be added as one of the seven wonders of the world until the fourth or fifth century AD, when (in a work mistakenly attributed to Philo of Byzantium) it replaced the hanging gardens of Babylon.

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. (One does wonder whether the roaring fire threatened the stonework and statue that roofed over it.) The computer image (which depicts Poseidon rather than Zeus who, at least, was the original figure) has been constructed by the UCLA Experimental Technologies Center, which also produced the Digital Roman Forum. Their intention is to build a virtual model of the lighthouse to test its stability under wind loads and ground shake, and how it would collapse under such stress. One can see from the reconstruction the intricacy of the interior, which justifies the wonderment of Ibn Jubayr in 1183 that "there were gigantic stairs and passages, also so many chambers that one could become lost in them." The spiral staircase would have allowed fuel to be brought to the uppermost tier.

Any measurement of the Pharos must be approximate and different heights and lengths are given, depending upon the value attached to the ancient ell, cubit, palm, or span—even the height of a man, which is why there has been no attempt to reconcile the various figures. Traditionally, both the ell and cubit were defined as the length of a man's arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. But that length could vary. Thiersch, for example, calculates an ell to be 0.54 meters or approximately 21.26 inches. More commonly, it is defined as 0.457 meters or 18 inches.

Because of vagaries in transliteration, the spelling of Arab names can vary. Al-Balawi (1132-1207) from Malaga in Andalusia, whose description of the Pharos in 1166 is so important to understanding its dimensions, is variously identified as Abu-l-Hajjy Yussuf Ibn Muhammad al-Balawi al-Andalusi, Abu'l Hajjaj Yusuf Ibn Muhammad al-Andalusi, Abu Hajjaj Yusuf ibn Muhammad al-Balawi al-Andalusi, and Abou Haggag Youssef Ibn Mohammed el-Balawi el-Andaloussi. To confound matters, he also was known as Yusuf Ibn al-Shaykh, Ibn al-Shaikh, and Yusuf Ibn al-Shaykh al-Balawi.

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 Travels of Ibn Jubayr (1952) translated by R. J. C. Broadhurst.

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 such an important article was much 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; The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (1988) by Peter A. Clayton and Martin J. Price.

Several authors attribute to Lucian the assertion that the light of the Pharos could be seen for three hundred miles, when it is Josephus who relates that it was visible for three hundred stadia.

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