The Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos of Alexandria was a lofty tower built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom between 280 and 247 BC and between 393 and 450 ft (120 and 140 m) tall, it was one of the tallest man-made structures on Earth for many centuries, and was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Badly damaged by three earthquakes between 956 and 1323, it then became an abandoned ruin. It was the third longest surviving ancient wonder (after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the still extant Great Pyramid of Giza) until in 1480 the last of its remnant stones were used to build the Citadel of Qaitbay on the site. In 1994, French archaeologists discovered some remains of the lighthouse on the floor of Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour.
Pharos was a small island just off the coast of the Nile Delta’s western edge. In 332 BC when Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria on an isthmus opposite to Pharos, he caused the island to be united to the coast by a mole nearly a mile long (1260 m) called the Heptastadion (“seven stadia”—a stadium was a Greek unit of length measuring approximately 180 m). The east side of the mole became the Great Harbour, now an open bay; on the west side lay the port of Eunostos, with its inner basin Kibotos, now vastly enlarged to form the modern harbour. Today’s city development lying between the present Grand Square and the modern Ras al-Tiin quarter is built on the silt which gradually widened and obliterated this mole, and Ras al-Tiin represents all that is left of the island of Pharos, the site of the lighthouse at its eastern point having been weathered away by the sea.
The lighthouse was constructed in the 3rd century BC. After Alexander the Great died of a fever at age 32, the first Ptolemy announced himself king in 305 BC, and commissioned its construction shortly thereafter. The building was finished during the reign of his son, the second Ptolemy. It took 12 years to complete, at a total cost of 800 talents, and served as a prototype for all later lighthouses in the world. The light was produced by a furnace at the top and the tower was said to have been built mostly with solid blocks of limestone.
Judith McKenzie writes that “The Arab descriptions of the lighthouse are remarkably consistent, although it was repaired a number of times especially after earthquake damage. The height they give varies only fifteen per cent from c 103 to 118m, on a base c. 30 by 30m square… the Arab authors indicate a tower with three tapering tiers, which they describe as square, octagonal and circular, with a substantial ramp”.
The fullest description of the lighthouse comes “from the Arab traveler Abou Haggag Youssef Ibn Mohammed el-Balawi el-Andaloussi, who visited the Pharos as a tourist in AH 561 (AD 1166 AD).”
Constructed from large blocks of light-coloured stone, the tower was made up of three stages: a lower square section with a central core, a middle octagonal section, and, at the top, a circular section. At its apex was positioned a mirror which reflected sunlight during the day; a fire was lit at night. Extant Roman coins struck by the Alexandrian mint show that a statue of a Triton was positioned on each of the building’s four corners. A statue of Poseidon or [Zeus] stood atop the lighthouse. The Pharos’ masonry blocks were interlocked, sealed together using molten lead, to withstand the pounding of the waves.
In 796, the lighthouse may have lost its upper tier, which apparently went without repair for about a century. There are reports that Sultan Ahmad ibn Tulun (868-884) then built a mosque with a dome in place of the upper tier, but this seems to conflict with travelling geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi’s report that the structure still operated as a lighthouse on his visit in 1115 AD.
The lighthouse was badly damaged in the earthquake of 956, and then again in 1303 and 1323. The two earthquakes in 1303 and 1323 damaged the lighthouse to the extent that the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta reported no longer being able to enter the ruin. Finally the stubby remnant disappeared in 1480, when the then-Sultan of Egypt, Qaitbay, built a medieval fort on the larger platform of the lighthouse site using some of the fallen stone.