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Pharology - Lighthouses of Antiquity - Pharos of Alexandria

A06: History of the Pharos of Alexandria

Pliny, who died in 79 A.D. while attempting to view closely the eruption of Vesuvius that overwhelmed Pompeii, wrote of the Pharos (according to a translation of 1601):

“Over and above the Pyramides abovesaid, a great name there is of a tower built by one of the kings of Aegypt within the Island Pharos, and it keepeth and commaundeth the haven of Alexandria, which tower (they say) cost eight hundred talents the building.”

He continued:

“The use of this watch tower is to shew light as a lanthorne and give direction in the night season to ships for to enter the haven and where they shall avoid barrs and shelves; like to which there be many beacons burning to the same purpose, and namely at Puteoli and Ravenna”.

Pliny recorded that some mariners found the lighthouse misleading:

“This is the daunger onely, lest when many lights in this lanterne meet together, they should be taken for a star in the Skie, for that afar off such lights appears unto sailors in manner of a star.”

The basic structure of the Pharos lasted for around 1600 years, but suffered many severe events during that time. In the eighth century, soon after the subjugation of Alexandria by the Arabs, the lantern of the lighthouse collapsed, possibly through neglect or the result of an earthquake. After an earthquake further damaged it in 956, it appears to have been re-established to incorporate a mosque as well as an open brazier, to show a light by night and smoke by day. In the twelfth century the Arabian geographer Edrisi gave an enthusiastic account of the building and its light. As would be expected of such a massive structure, it was overthrown incrementally by a number of later earthquakes, the ruins being visible until the middle of the fourteenth century. In 1477-8 a Turkish Sultan used the great base as the foundation for the construction of a fort known as Qait Bey. The fort stands there today, and no doubt many stone blocks of the Pharos became incorporated into the fabric of the fort. Today, the sensitive visitor to the cool interior of the fort cannot fail to be excited by the echoes of thousands of years of civilisation where the mighty Pharos once stood.

We must conclude that such a grand and massive undertaking would not have been the first of its kind. The Emperor Ptolemy of Egypt initiated the project with enthusiasm and it is hard to imagine him committing so many resources to a project whose concept was so new. The idea of a lighthouse was surely formulated well before this and it is certain that there were already some, possibly many, lighthouses already in existence by 300 BC. The concept of a source of light that would guide ships safely into harbour was surely proven and hence highly desirable.

An outstanding feature of the Pharos of Alexandria was its great height. For ships that were dependent for their navigation on the identification of natural landmarks (see Phoenician Navigation, below), it was surely a good idea to make it visible to ships at sea over a far greater distance than the surrounding low land would allow. Ships would find the port of Alexandria easily by day and night and it was good for business to have as many ships as possible visit the port.

No certain proof has yet been produced that any lighthouse actually did exist before the building of the Pharos. There are certainly reports about the existence of a number of structures that could have been lighthouses. Hague, for example, states that an ancient tower led into the western arm of the Nile [23]. Without firm evidence to the contrary, the consensus amongst pharologists, including the author, is that, accepting that there may have been forerunners, lighthouse history formally begins with the Pharos. This does not prevent us from considering the likelihood of other earlier lightstructures.

Romer [5] identified a smaller version of the Pharos that still exists today about 30 miles east of Alexandria. This is a particularly important find because it corresponds exactly with the currently accepted shape of the Pharos, i.e. a square lower tower section, an octagonal middle section and a cylindrical upper section. In a way, it acts to confirm the shape of the original. The whole tower is but 15 m tall, but it contains a stone staircase within its walls and was almost certainly used as a fire tower at some point in its long history. It could possibly be considered as a lighthouse, rather than just a lightstructure. Amongst others, Romer argues that the concept of a lighthouse was also linked with the idea of it acting as a conduit to the heavens, in particular to enable the spirits of the dead to make their way heavenward. Thus, the structure is built over a tomb, whilst also serving as a fire tower for navigation, and it is obvious that the role of the lighthouse was far greater than being a mere aid to navigation, but took on spiritual connotations too.