Lighthouse of Alexandria

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos of Alexandria (/ˈfɛərɒs/; Ancient Greek: ὁ Φάρος τῆς Ἀλεξανδρείας, contemporary Koine Greek pronunciation: [ho pʰá.ros teːs a.lek.sandréːaːs]), was a lighthouse built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom, during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (280–247 BC),[2] which has been estimated to be 100 metres (330 ft) in overall height.[3] One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, for many centuries it was one of the tallest man-made structures in the world.

Lighthouse of Alexandria
Drawing by archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1909)
LocationPharos, Alexandria, Egypt
Coordinates31°12′50″N 29°53′08″E
Year first constructedbetween 284 and 246 BC
Tower shapeSquare (below), octagonal (middle) and cylindrical (top)
Tower height103 to 118 m (338 to 387 ft)[1]
Range47 km (29 mi)

The lighthouse was severely damaged by three earthquakes between AD 956 and 1323 and became an abandoned ruin. It was the third longest surviving ancient wonder (after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the extant Great Pyramid of Giza), surviving in part until 1480, when 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.[4] In 2016 the Ministry of State of Antiquities in Egypt had plans to turn submerged ruins of ancient Alexandria, including those of the Pharos, into an underwater museum.[5]


Pharos was a small island located on the western edge of the Nile Delta. In 332 BC Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria on an isthmus opposite Pharos. Alexandria and Pharos were later connected by a mole[6] spanning more than 1,200 metres (0.75 miles), which was 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 el-Tin quarter is built on the silt which gradually widened and obliterated this mole, and the Ras el-Tin promontory represents all that is left of the island of Pharos,[7] 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, the first Ptolemy (Ptolemy I Soter) announced himself king in 305 BC, and commissioned its construction shortly thereafter. The building was finished during the reign of his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and took twelve years to complete at a total cost of 800 talents of silver.[8] 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. Although, since the lighthouse was over 300 feet tall the use of limestone as the main material is doubtful due to the possibility of collapsing under its own weight. Rather, pink granite found nearby is more probable as it is much stronger and can withstand more weight.

Strabo reported that Sostratus had a dedication to the "Saviour Gods" inscribed in metal letters on the lighthouse. Later Pliny the Elder wrote that Sostratus was the architect, which is disputed.[9] In the second century AD Lucian wrote that Sostratus hid his name under plaster bearing the name of Ptolemy so that when the plaster fell off, Sostratus's name would be visible in the stone.[10][11] Blocks of sandstone and limestone used in construction are analyzed to be from the Wadi Hammamat quarries in the desert east of the city.[12]

Height and description

Arab descriptions of the lighthouse are consistent despite it undergoing several repairs after earthquake damage. Given heights vary only fifteen percent from c. 103 to 118 m (338 to 387 ft), on a 30 by 30 m (98 by 98 ft) square base.[1]

The fullest description of the lighthouse comes from Arab traveler Abou Haggag Youssef Ibn Mohammed el-Balawi el-Andaloussi, who visited Alexandria in A.D. 1166.[13] Balawi provided description and measurement of the interior of the lighthouse's rectangular shaft. The inner ramp was described as roofed with masonry an 7 shibr (189 cm, 6.2 ft) noted as to allow two horsemen to pass at once. In clockwise rotation the ramp held four stories with respectively having eighteen, fourteen and seventeen rooms on the second, third and fourth floors. Balawai account the base of the lighthouse to be 45 ba (30 m, 100 ft) long on each side with connecting ramp 600 dhira (300 m, 984 ft) long by 20 dhira (10 m, 32 ft) wide. Continuing the octangle section is accounted at 24 ba (16.4 m, 54 ft) in width with the diameter of the cylindrical section 12.73 ba (8.7 m, 28.5 ft). The apex of the lighthouses oratory was measured with diameter 6.4 ba (4.3 m 20.9 ft).[14]

The Arab authors indicate that the lighthouse was constructed from large blocks of light-coloured stone, the tower was made up of three tapering tiers: a lower square section with a central core, a middle octagonal section, and, at the top, a circular section.

Ancient accounts from geographer Al-Idrisi accounts admiration from his viewing of the lighthouse in 1154. Al-Idrisi accounts the construction, openings in the walls throughout the rectangular shaft with lead used as a filling agent in between the masonry blocks at the base. Al-Idrisi accounted the total height of the lighthouse to be 300 dhira rashashl (162 m equivalence).[14]

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 Triton was positioned on each of the building's four corners and a statue of Poseidon or Zeus stood atop.[15]

Al-Masudi wrote in the 10th century that the seaward-facing side featured an inscription dedicated to Zeus.[16]

Late accounts of the lighthouse after the destruction of the 1303 Crete earthquake include Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar and explorer, who passed through Alexandria in 1326 and 1349. Battuta notes the wrecked condition of the lighthouse being only noticeable now by the rectangle tower and entrance ramp. Battuta's account measured each side of the tower to be 140 shibr (30.8 m, 101 ft) on either side. Battuta detailed plans of Sultan An-Nasir Muhammad to build a new lighthouse near the currently collapsed one but the plans were never fulfilled after the sultan's death in 1341.[14]


The lighthouse was partially cracked and damaged by earthquakes in 796 and 951, followed by structural collapse in the earthquake of 956, and then again in 1303 and 1323. Damaging earthquakes propagate from two well known tectonic boundaries, the African-Arabian and Red-Sea rift zones, respectively 350 and 520 km from the lighthouses location. Documentation shows the 956 earthquake to be the first to cause structural collapse of the top 20+ metres of the construction. Documented repairs after the 956 earthquake include the installment of an Islamic style dome after the collapse of the statue that previously topped the monument. The most destructive earthquake in 1303 was an estimated intensity of VIII+ originating from the Greek island of Crete (280–350 km from Alexandria).[17] 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.

The 10th-century writer al-Mas'udi reports a legendary tale on the lighthouse's destruction, according to which at the time of Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r. 705–715) the Byzantines sent a eunuch agent, who adopted Islam, gained the Caliph's confidence, and secured permission to search for hidden treasure at the base of the lighthouse. The search was cunningly made in such a manner that the foundations were undermined, and the Pharos collapsed. The agent managed to escape in a ship waiting for him.[18]

Archaeological research and rediscovery

In 1968, the lighthouse was rediscovered. UNESCO sponsored an expedition to send a team of marine archaeologists, led by Honor Frost, to the site. She confirmed the existence of ruins representing part of the lighthouse. Due to the lack of specialized archaeologists and the area becoming a military zone, exploration was put on hold.[19]

French archaeologists led by Jean-Yves Empereur re-discovered the physical remains of the lighthouse in late 1994 on the floor of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour. He worked with cinematographer Asma el-Bakri who used a 35 mm camera to capture the first underwater pictures of the scattered remains of collapsed columns and statues. Empereur's most significant findings consisted of blocks of granite 49–60 tonnes in mass often broken into multiple pieces, 30 sphinxes, 5 obelisks and columns with carvings dating back Ramses II (1279–1213 BC). The cataloging of over 3,300 pieces was completed by Empereur and his team at the end of 1995 using a combination of photography and mapping. Thirty-six pieces of Empereur's granite blocks and other discoveries have been restored and are currently on display in Alexandria museums.[20] Subsequent satellite imaging has revealed further remains. In the early 1990s the underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio began exploration at the opposite side of the harbor from where Empereur's team had worked. Subsequent satellite and sonar imaging has revealed the additional remains of wharves, houses and temples which had all fallen into the ocean as a result of earthquakes and other natural disasters.[21] It is possible to go diving and see the ruins. The secretariat of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage is currently working with the Government of Egypt on an initiative to add the Bay of Alexandria (including the remains of the lighthouse) to a World Heritage List of submerged cultural sites.[22]


Legend has it that the people of the island of Pharos were wreckers; hence, Ptolemy I Soter had the lighthouse built to help guide ships into port at night.[23]

Pharos became the etymological origin of the word "lighthouse" in Greek (φάρος), many Romance languages such as French (phare), Italian and Spanish (faro), Catalan, Romanian (far) and Portuguese (farol), and even some Slavic languages like Bulgarian (far). In Turkish, Serbian and Russian, a derived word means "headlight" (far; фар; фара).

Proposed reconstruction

Since 1978 a number of proposals have been made to replace the lighthouse with a modern reconstruction. In 2015, the Egyptian government and the Alexandria governorate suggested building a skyscraper on the site of the lighthouse as part of the regeneration of the eastern harbour of Alexandria Port. The plan was opposed by Alexandria-based sociologist Amro Ali.[24]

Pharos in culture

The lighthouse remains a civic symbol of the city of Alexandria and of the Alexandria Governorate with which the city is more or less coterminous. A stylised representation of the lighthouse appears on the flag and seal of the Governorate and on many public services of the city, including the seal of Alexandria University.

In architecture

  • A well-preserved ancient tomb in the town of Abusir, 48 kilometres (30 mi) southwest of Alexandria, is thought to be a scaled-down model of the Alexandria Pharos. Known colloquially under various names – the Pharos of Abusir, the Abusir funerary monument and Burg al-Arab (Arab's Tower) – it consists of a 3-storey tower, approximately 20 metres (66 ft) in height, with a square base, an octagonal midsection and cylindrical upper section, like the building upon which it was apparently modelled. It dates to the reign of Ptolemy II (285–246 BC), and is therefore likely to have been built at about the same time as the Alexandria Pharos.
  • The design of minarets in many early Egyptian Islamic mosques followed a three-stage design similar to that of the Pharos, attesting to the building's broader architectural influence.[25]
  • The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, located in Alexandria, Virginia, is fashioned after the ancient Lighthouse.[26]

In literature

  • Julius Caesar, in his Civil Wars (Part III, 111–112), describes the Pharos and its strategic importance. Gaining control of the lighthouse helped him subdue Ptolemy XIII's armies (48 BC):

    Now because of the narrowness of the strait there can be no access by ship to the harbour without the consent of those who hold the Pharos. In view of this, Caesar took the precaution of landing his troops while the enemy was preoccupied with fighting, seized the Pharos and posted a garrison there. The result was that safe access was secured for his corn supplies and reinforcements.[27]

    Caesar, b.civ. 3.112 ??; or Anon., b.Alex.??
  • The Romano-Jewish historian Josephus (37 – c.100 AD) describes it in his book The Jewish War (4.10.5) when he gives a geographical overview of Egypt.
  • It was described in the Zhu fan zhi ("Records of Foreign Peoples") by Zhao Rugua (1170–1228), a Chinese customs inspector for the southern port city of Quanzhou during the Song dynasty.[28]
  • Ibn Battuta visited the lighthouse in 1326, finding "one of its faces in ruins," yet he could enter and noted a place for the guardian of the lighthouse to sit and many other chambers. When he returned in 1349, he "found that it had fallen into so ruinous a condition that it was impossible to enter it or to climb up to the doorway."[29]
  • In Robert Silverberg's science fiction novella Sailing to Byzantium (1985), a culture of the far future recreates ancient cities, full with every detail, among them Alexandria; several episodes of Silverberg's story take place on the rebuilt Pharos.

In video games

See also



  1. McKenzie, Judith (2011). The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt: 300 BC – AD 700. Yale University Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0300170948.
  2. Clayton, Peter A. (2013). "Chapter 7: The Pharos at Alexandria". In Peter A. Clayton; Martin J. Price (eds.). The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. London: Routledge. p. 11. ISBN 9781135629281.
  3. Clayton, Peter A. (2013). "Chapter 7: The Pharos at Alexandria". In Peter A. Clayton; Martin J. Price (eds.). The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. London: Routledge. p. 147. ISBN 9781135629281.
  4. "Treasures of the Sunken City". Nova. Season 24. Episode 17. November 18, 1997. PBS. Transcript. Retrieved March 5, 2012.
  5. "Sunken Ruins of Alexandria Will Be World's First Underwater Museum". Earthables. Archived from the original on March 10, 2016. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  6. Smith, Sir William (1952). Everyman's Smaller Classical Dictionary. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. p. 222.
  7. Haag, Michael (2008). Vintage Alexandria: Photographs of the City, 1860–1960. American University in Cairo Press. p. 113. ISBN 9789774161926.
  8. Over twenty-three tons of silver. "This was an enormous sum, a tenth of the treasury when Ptolemy I assumed the throne. (In comparison, the Parthenon is estimated to have cost at least 469 talents of silver.)"
  9. Tomlinson, Richard Allan (1992). From Mycenae to Constantinople: the evolution of the ancient city. Routledge. pp. 104–105. ISBN 978-0-415-05998-5.
  10. Mckenzie, Judith (2007). Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt 300 B.C. A.D 700. Yale University Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-300-11555-0.
  11. Lucian How to Write History, LXII
    After he [Sostratus] had built the work he wrote his name on the masonry inside, covered it with gypsum, and having hidden it inscribed the name of the reigning king. He knew, as actually happened, that in a very short time the letters would fall away with the plaster and there would be revealed: 'Sostratus of Cnidos, the son of Dexiphanes, to the Divine Saviours, for the sake of them that sail at sea.' Thus, not even he had regard for the immediate moment or his own brief life-time: he looked to our day and eternity, as long as the tower shall stand and his skill abide. History then should be written in that spirit, with truthfulness and an eye to future expectations rather than with adulation and a view to the pleasure of present praise."
  12. Akarish, Adel I.M.; Dessandier, David (December 1, 2011). "Characterization and Source of Sedimentary Rocks of the Alexandria Lighthouse Archaeological Objects, Egypt". Journal of Applied Sciences. 11 (14): 2513–2524. Bibcode:2011JApSc..11.2513A. doi:10.3923/jas.2011.2513.2524.
  13. Clayton & Price 1988, p. 153.
  14. Behrens-Abouseif, Doris (January 1, 2006). "The Islamic History of the Lighthouse of Alexandria". Muqarnas Online. 23 (1): 1–14. doi:10.1163/22118993-90000093. ISSN 0732-2992.
  15. Haas 1997, p. 144.
  16. Paul Jordan (2014). Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Routledge. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-317-86885-9.
  17. Abdelnaby, Adel E.; Elnashai, Amr S. (October 2013). "Integrity assessment of the Pharos of Alexandria during the AD 1303 earthquake". Engineering Failure Analysis. 33: 119–138. doi:10.1016/j.engfailanal.2013.04.013.
  18. Eickhoff 1966, p. 40.
  19. Frost, H. (2000). From Byblos to Pharos: some archaeological considerations. In N. Grimal, M. H. Mostafa, & D. Nakashima (Authors), Underwater archaeology and coastal management: Focus on Alexandria (pp. 64–68). Paris: UNESCO.
  20. Lawler, Andrew. "Raising Alexandria". Smithsonian. Retrieved April 29, 2019.
  21. Boukhari, Sophie (February 1997). "Swimming With Sphinxes". UNESCO. 87.
  22. "Museums and Tourism – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization". Archived from the original on November 10, 2012.
  23. Clayton, Price, & Price, Martin. (1988). The seven wonders of the ancient world. London ; New York: Routledge.
  24. Amro Ali (July 7, 2015). "A frightening vision: on plans to rebuild the Alexandria Lighthouse". openDemocracy.
  25. Petersen, Andrew (1996). Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. Routledge. p. 188. ISBN 9781134613663.
  26. "*Ferris, Gary W. Presidential Places: A Guide to the Historic Sites of U.S. Presidents. Winston-Salem, N.C.: J.F. Blair, 1999. p.21"
  27. It was common for Caesar in his writings to refer to himself in the third person.
  28. Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 3: Civil Engineering and Nautics. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd. Page 662.
  29. Battutah, Ibn (2002). The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador. pp. 6–7. ISBN 9780330418799.
  30. "Pharaoh Expansion: Cleopatra – Queen of the Nile PC". Game Pressure. GRY-OnLine S.A. July 28, 2000. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  31. "Pharaoh: Cleopatra". IGN. Ziff Davis, LLC. July 26, 2005. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  32. "Pharaoh + Cleopatra". SteamPowered. Valve. October 31, 1999. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  33. Nobles, Thomas M. (February 15, 2009). "Alexandria (City Pack)". Tom's Subject Directory & City Building Fan Site. Retrieved August 2, 2013.
  34. "Children of the Nile: Alexandria Expansion Now on Impulse". IGN. Ziff Davis, LLC. September 11, 2008. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  35. "Alexandria". Honga. 2008–2015. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  36. Honores (March 11, 2015). "Pharos of Alexandria". Steam Community. Valve. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  37. Nielsen, H. (October 5, 2017). Assassin's Creed Origins: how Ubisoft painstakingly recreated ancient Egypt. Retrieved November 25, 2017.
  38. "Landmarks list - SC3000.COM". Retrieved May 21, 2019.


  • Al-Bakri; Dozy, Rheinhart P.A.; Goeje, Michael J. de (1866). Description de l'Afrique et de l'Espagne, (Description of Africa and Spain). Leyde, E.J. Brill.
  • Clarie, Thomas C. (2009). Pharos – A Lighthouse For Alexandria. Back Channel. ISBN 978-1-934-58212-1.
  • Clayton, Peter; Price, Martin (1988). The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Dorset. ISBN 0-880-29393-4.
  • Eickhoff, Ekkehard (1966). Seekrieg und Seepolitik zwischen Islam und Abendland: das Mittelmeer unter byzantinischer und arabischer Hegemonie (650-1040) (in German). De Gruyter.
  • Haas, Christopher (1997). Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict. Johns Hopkins. ISBN 0-8018-8541-8.
  • Levi-Provençal, Évariste (1935). Une Description Arabe Inédite du Phare d'Alexandrie,(An Unpublished Description of the Lighthouse of Alexandria), extract from Mémoires de l'Institut Francais. unpublished.
  • Trethewey, Ken (2018). Ancient Lighthouses. UK. ISBN 978-0-9926573-6-9.

Further reading

  • Harris, William V., and Giovanni Ruffini. 2004. Ancient Alexandria Between Egypt and Greece. Leiden: Brill.
  • Jordan, Paul. 2002. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Harlow: Longman.
  • Polyzōidēs, Apostolos. 2014. Alexandria: City of Gifts and Sorrows: From Hellenistic Civilization to Multiethnic Metropolis. Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 2014.
  • Thompson, Alice. 2002. Pharos. London: Virago.
  • Tkaczow, Barbara, and Iwona Zych. 1993. The Topography of Ancient Alexandria: An Archaeological Map. Warszawa: Zaklad Archeologii Śródziemnomorskiej, Polskiej Akadmii Nauk.
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