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"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. The only harbor 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" (Odyssey, 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 the general layout (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 likely 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 to Philocrates, CCCI; Epiphanius, Weights and Measures, XI.53c).
Strabo visited Alexandria in about 25 BC and described the city. On entering the harbor, opposite the promontory, one passed the famed lighthouse,
"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 should be on the Pharos, rather than the Ptolemies themselves, 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).
But it is Lucian, writing in AD 166, who provides the more intriguing story. Having finished the Pharos, Sostratus was said to have written his own name on the stonework of the building and then "plastered it over with gypsum, and having thus concealed it wrote over it the name of the reigning king," knowing that in time the inscription would, in time, fall away and reveal "'Sostratus of Cnidos, son of Dexiphanes, to the saviour gods, on behalf of those who sail'" (How to Write History, LXII). If the dedicatory inscription was obliged to be in the name of Ptolemy, at least posterity would know the name of the true architect. The story may be apocryphal, but Lucian does relate that history, too, should be written with truthfulness and a view to the future and not for the adulation of the present.
As to the divine saviors, they could be Ptolemy I Soter ("Savior") and either his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus or his wife Berenice. Possibly, too, they could refer to the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), who "were called 'guardians of the sea' and 'saviours of sailors'" (Geography, I.3.2).
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