The lighthouse of Alexandria, built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom in ancient Egypt, was once one of the tallest structures in the world and was a symbol of social, commercial and intellectual power. Now recognised as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the towering lighthouse made of stone was constructed in the 3rd century BC and, for a time, was both an essential guide for ships approaching the busy trading port and a splendid tourist attraction.
Though the precise circumstances of its destruction are unclear, it seems that it was largely destroyed – probably by an earthquake – in the 12th century. The once-mighty structure then fell into disrepair before eventually being demolished. It is only within the last 100 years that remains of the lighthouse have been discovered in the port of Alexandria and interest in the structure has re-awakened once again.
What was the lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and why was it destroyed?
Alexander the Great founded the city where the lighthouse stood
Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria in 332 BC. Though he founded many cities by the same name, Alexandria in Egypt thrived for many centuries and still exists today.
The conqueror chose the location of the city so that it would have an effective harbour: instead of building it on the Nile delta, he chose a site some 20 miles to the west so that the silt and mud carried by the river wouldn’t block the harbour. To the south of the city was the marshy Lake Mareotis. A canal was constructed between the lake and the Nile, with the result being that the city had two harbours: one for the Nile river, and the other for the Mediterranean sea trade.
The city also thrived as a centre of science, literature, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Naturally, Alexandria’s emphasis on trade combined with its international reputation for excellence meant that it needed both a guide to encourage ships to approach its shores and a landmark by which to reflect its reputation. The perfect monument for such a purpose was a lighthouse.
It cost around $3 million in today’s money to build
The lighthouse was constructed in the 3rd century BC, possibly by Sostratus of Knidos, though some sources state that he only provided the money for the project. It was built over 12 years on the island of Pharos in the harbour of Alexandria, and soon the building itself was known by the same name. Indeed, so impactful was the lighthouse that the word ‘Pharos’ became the root of the word ‘lighthouse’ in the French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian languages.
Unlike the modern image of a lighthouse today, it was built more like a tiered skyscraper and in three stages, with each layer sloping slightly inward. The lowest structure was square, the next octagonal, and the top cylindrical, and all were surrounded by a broad spiral ramp that led to the top.
It was probably more than 110 metres (350 ft) high. For context, the only taller man-made structures in existence at the time were the pyramids of Giza. 4 centuries later, Pliny the Elder estimated that it cost 800 talents of silver to construct, which is equivalent to around $3 million today.
It was reportedly lavishly decorated, with statues showing the four likenesses of the god Triton positioned on each of the four corners of the lowest level roof, while it was possibly topped by a huge statue that depicted either Alexander the Great or Ptolemy I of Soter in the form of the sun god Helios. Recent architectural investigations of the sea bed nearby appear to support these reports.
It was lit by a fire that was always burning
There is little information about how the lighthouse was actually operated. However, we do know that a great fire was lit at the highest part of the structure which was maintained day in, day out.
It was hugely important and visibly striking. During the night, the fire alone would be enough to guide ships into Alexandria’s harbours. By day, on the other hand, the vast plumes of smoke created by the blaze were enough to guide approaching ships. In general, it was apparently visible some 50km away. The interior of the middle and upper sections of the lighthouse had a shaft that transported fuel up to the fire, which was transported to the lighthouse via oxen.
It might have had a mirror at the top
Some reports mention that the lighthouse had a large, curved mirror – perhaps made of polished bronze – that was used to project the fire’s light into a beam, which allowed ships to detect the light from even further away.
There are also stories that the mirror could be used as a weapon to concentrate the sun and set enemy ships ablaze, while others suggest that it could be used to magnify the image of Constantinople to ascertain what was happening across the sea. However, it is highly unlikely that either of the stories are true; it is perhaps the case that they were invented as propaganda.
It became a tourist attraction
Though the lighthouse was not the first in history, it was known for its imposing silhouette and immense size. The lighthouse’s reputation therefore magnified the city of Alexandria and, by extension, Egypt on the world stage. It became a tourist attraction.
Food was sold to visitors on the observation platform at the top of the lowest level, while a smaller balcony from the top of the octagonal tower provided higher and further views across the city, which was some 300 feet above sea level.
It was probably destroyed by an earthquake
The Lighthouse of Alexandria stood for over 1,500 years, even withstanding a severe tsunami in 365 AD. However, earthquake tremors likely caused the cracks that appeared in the structure by the end of the 10th century. This required a restoration that lowered the building by around 70 feet.
In 1303 AD, a massive earthquake shook the region which put the island of Pharos out of business, rendering the lighthouse much less essential. Records suggest that the lighthouse finally collapsed in 1375, though ruins remained on the site until 1480 when the stone was used to construct a fortress on Pharos which still stands today.
Another tale, though unlikely, suggests that the lighthouse was demolished because of a trick by the rival Emperor of Constantinople. He spread rumours that there was a great treasure buried beneath the lighthouse, at which point, the Caliph of Cairo, who controlled Alexandria at the time, ordered that the lighthouse be pulled apart to access the treasure. He only later realised that he had been tricked after too much damage had been done, so turned it into a mosque. This story is unlikely since visitors in 1115 AD reported that Pharos was still intact and operating as a lighthouse.
It was ‘rediscovered’ in 1968
UNESCO sponsored an archaeological expedition in 1968 that finally located the lighthouse remains in a section of the Mediterranean Sea in Alexandria. The expedition was then put on hold when it was declared a military zone.
In 1994, French archeologist Jeans-Yves Empereur documented the physical remains of the lighthouse on the seabed of Alexandria’s eastern harbour. Film and picture evidence was taken of the columns and statues found underwater. Among the findings were great blocks of granite weighing a whopping 40-60 tonnes each, 30 sphinx statues, and 5 obelisk columns with carvings that date to Ramses II’s reign from 1279-1213 BC.
To this day, divers still explore the remains underwater, and since 2016, the Ministry of State of Antiquities in Egypt has been planning to turn the submerged ruins of ancient Alexandria, including the lighthouse, into an underwater museum.