The Lighthouse at Alexandria

After its construction by Alexander the Great, the city of Alexandria quickly became the center of Greek learning. Under the rule of Ptolemy I the city became both a well of knowledge and and extremely prosperous harbor. However, the city needed both a symbol and a mechanism to guide the many trade ships into the busy harbor. Thus Ptolemy authorized the building of the Pharos in 290 B.C., and when it was completed some twenty years later, it was the first lighthouse in the world and the tallest building in existence, with the exception of the Great Pyramid.



The lighthouse was built on an island off the coast of Alexandria called Pharos. Its name, legend says, is a variation of Pharaoh's Island. The island was connected to the mainland by means of a dike - the Heptastadion - which gave the city a double harbor. The lighthouse was constructed of marble blocks with lead mortar and was composed of three stages: The lowest square, 55.9 m (183.4 ft) high with a cylindrical core; the middle octagonal with a side length of 18.30 m (60.0 ft) and a height of 27.45 m (90.1 ft); and the third circular 7.30 m (24.0 ft) high. The total height of the building including the foundation base was about 117 m (384 ft), the same as a 40-story modern building. On top of the tower was a cylinder that extended up to an open cupola where where the fire that provided the light burned. On the roof of the cupola was a large statue of Poseidon, while the lower portion of the building contained hundreds of storage rooms. The interior of the upper two sections had a shaft with a dumbwaiter that was used to transport fuel up to the fire. Staircases allowed visitors and the keepers to climb to the beacon chamber. There, according to reports, a large curved mirror, perhaps made of polished metal, was used to project the fire's light into a beam. It was said ships could detect the light from the tower at night or the smoke from the fire during the day up to one-hundred miles away. The lighthouse's designer was a famous architect, Sostrates of Knidos. Legend states that being proud of his work, Sostrates, desired to have his name carved into the foundation. Ptolemy II, the son who ruled Egypt after his father, refused this request wanting his own name to be the only one on the building. Sostrates had the inscription: SOSTRATES SON OF DEXIPHANES OF KNIDOS ON BEHALF OF ALL MARINERS TO THE SAVIOR GODS chiseled into the foundation, then covered it with plaster. Into the plaster was chiseled Ptolemy's name. As the years went by the plaster aged and chipped away revealing Sostrates' declaration.

The Destruction of the Lighthouse

There are numerous rumors as to how the lighthouse fell. One story states that the lighthouse was demolished through trickery. In 850 A.D. the Emperor of Constantinople, a rival port, devised a clever plot to get rid of the Pharos. He spread rumors that buried under the lighthouse was a fabulous treasure. When the Caliph at Cairo who controlled Alexandria heard these rumors, he ordered that the tower be pulled down to get at the treasure. It was only after the great mirror had been destroyed and the top two portions of the tower removed that the Caliph realized he'd been deceived. He tried to rebuild the tower, but couldn't, so he turned it into a mosque instead. This story, however, is hard to believe since there are texts stating that the lighthouse was still up and running in 1115 A.D. thus it couldn't have been destroyed in 850. The most likely cause of the collapse was that in AD 956, an earthquake shook Alexandria, but caused little damage to the Lighthouse. It was later in 1303 and in 1323 that two stronger earthquakes causes the structure to collapse, sinking into the ocean. Finally in 1480 A.D. when the Egyptian Mamelouk Sultan, Qaitbay, decided to fortify Alexandria's defense, he built a medieval fort on the same spot where the Lighthouse once stood, using the fallen stone and marble.

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