The great Pharos of Alexandria
As a saviour of Greeks, this watchman of Pharos, O Lord Proteus, was erected by Sostratus, son of Dexiphanes, from Cnidus. For in Egypt there are no lookout posts on a mountain, as in the islands, but low lies the breakwater where ships take harbor. Therefore this tower, in a straight and upright line, appears to cleave the sky from countless stadia away, during the day, but throughout the night quickly a sailor on the waves will see a great fire blazing from its summit. And he may even run to the Bull’s horn, and not miss Zeus the Saviour, O Proteus, whosoever sails this way.
The epigram above was written by Posidippus of Pella, who lived in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy II. This poem, found written on a piece of papyrus, but also said to have been inscribed on the lighthouse itself, mentions the famous Pharos of Alexandria.
The Pharos of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Built either late in the reign of Ptolemy I or the early part of Ptolemy II’s reign, this was the most famous lighthouse in antiquity, and is the archetype of all lighthouses since. The lighthouse was located on the eastern tip of the island of Pharos, and stood at was more than 110 m in height. Incidentally, the only taller man-made structure at that time was the Great Pyramid of Giza. As recorded in Posidippus’ epigram, the person who designed and built this architectural feat was Sostratus of Cnidus. In some descriptions, it is recorded that a huge statue, representing either Alexander the Great or Ptolemy I in the form of the Sun God, Helios, stood on the top of the lighthouse. This would have been an obvious message to anyone entering Alexandria by sea that the city was now under ‘Ptolemaic management’. In addition, this would have demonstrated the euergetism (the doing of good deeds) of the new ruling dynasty. After all, it was also Ptolemaic euergetism that resulted in the flourishing of Hellenistic culture and arts in Alexandria, as well as the building of the Great Library of Alexandria.
Besides being a propagandistic symbol of Ptolemaic legitimisation, the Pharos also served a much more practical function. As with all lighthouses, it was meant to be a guide for sailors to the harbour. As Strabo records, “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 correct their course to the entrance to the harbour. And the western mouth is also not easy to enter, although it does not require so much caution as the other.” From this description, it can be inferred that Alexandria was a very important city in Ptolemaic Egypt, as it was not only its capital, but also its gateway to the Mediterranean. Hence, the building of a lighthouse to ensure that ships, especially those of merchants, could safely arrive at Alexandria’s harbour would have brought economic benefits to the Ptolemies.
The Pharos outlived the dynasty that commissioned its construction. Descriptions of the Pharos were given by numerous Arab writers, and these are said to be remarkably consistent, despite the fact that the lighthouse was repaired a number of times. For instance, these writers mentioned that the lighthouse had three tapering tiers, described as square, octagonal, and circular, with a substantial ramp leading to it. The different shapes of the Pharos’ tiers may also be seen on ancient depictions from the 1 st century A.D., though these are not very clear, and rely on the Arab sources as a supplement.
The Lighthouse on coins minted in Alexandria in the second century (L: reverse of a coin of Antoninus Pius, R: reverse of a coin of Commodus) (Wikimedia).
Although the Pharos was still standing in the 12 th century A.D., Arab sources record that a fort was built by the Mamluk sultan, Qait Bey on its foundations in 1477. As frequent earthquakes were responsible for damaging the lighthouse over the centuries, it may be assumed that sometime during the 1300s, the Pharos was finally destroyed by this force of nature. Nevertheless, this is not the end of the story. In 1994, hundreds of huge masonry blocks were recorded off the waters of the island. Some of these rocks might have even been part of the lighthouse and fallen into the sea when the lighthouse was destroyed in the 14 th century A.D. Recent underwater exploration have also recorded 2655 architectural remains, including 5 obelisks, 32 sphinxes, and 6 colossal statues of Ptolemaic rulers represented as Egyptian pharaohs and their queens. As of today, work is being done to add the bay of Alexandria (including the remains of the lighthouse) on a World Heritage List of submerged cultural sites. Thus, we have definitely not heard the last of this wonder of the ancient world.