The Great Pharos
In the fall of 1994 a team of
archaeological scuba divers entered the waters off of Alexandria, Egypt.
Working beneath the surface they searched the bottom of the sea for artifacts.
Large underwater blocks of stone were marked with floating masts so that an
Electronic Distance Measurement station on shore could obtain their exact
positions. Global positioning satellites were used to further fix the
The information was then fed into
computers to create a detailed database of the sea floor. Ironically, these
scientists were using some of the most high-tech devices available at the end
of the 20th century to try and discover the ruins of one of the most advanced
technological achievements of the 3rd century, B.C.:
It was the great lighthouse of Alexandria,
one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The story of the Pharos starts
with the founding of the city of Alexandria by the Macedonian conqueror
Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.. Alexander started at least 17 cities
named Alexandria at different locations in his vast domain. Most of them
disappeared, but Alexandria in Egypt thrived for centuries and continues even
Alexander the Great choose the
location of his new city carefully. Instead of building it on the Nile delta,
he selected a site some twenty miles to the west, so that the silt and mud
carried by the river would not block the city harbour. South of the city was
the marshy Lake Mareotis. After a canal was constructed between the lake and
the Nile, the city had two harbours: one for Nile River traffic, and the other
for Mediterranean Sea trade. Both harbours would remain deep and clear
Alexander died soon after in 323
B.C. and the city was completed by Ptolemy Soter the new ruler of Egypt.
Under Ptolemy the city became rich and prosperous. However, it needed
both a symbol and a mechanism to guide the many trade ships into the busy
harbour. 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's designer was
Sostrates of Knidos. 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. A clever man, Sostrates had the
SOSTRATES SON OF DEXIPHANES OF KNIDOS ON
BEHALF OF ALL MARINERS TO THE SAVIOR GODS
chiselled into the foundation, then
covered it with plaster. Into the plaster was chiselled Ptolemy's name.
As the years went by the plaster aged and chipped away revealing
Sostrates' declaration. The lighthouse was built on the island of
Pharos and soon the building itself acquired the name. The connection of
the name with the function became so strong that the word "Pharos"
became the root of the word "lighthouse" in the French, Italian, Spanish and
The lighthouse was apparently a tourist
attraction. Food was sold to visitors at the observation platform at the top of
the first level. A smaller balcony provided a view from the top of the
eight-sided tower for those that wanted to make the additional climb. The view
from there must have been impressive as it was probably 300 feet above the sea.
There were few places in the ancient
world where a person could ascend a man-made tower to get such a perspective.
How then did the world's first lighthouse wind up on the floor of the
Mediterranean Sea? Most accounts indicate that it, like many other ancient
buildings, was the victim of earthquakes. It stood for 1,500 years but was
damaged by tremors in 365 and 1303 A.D. Reports indicate the final collapse
came in 1326.
Did the divers actually find the remains
of Pharos in the bottom of the harbour? Some of the larger blocks of
stone found certainly seem to have come from a large building. Statues were
located that may have stood at the base of the Pharos. Interestingly
enough, much of the material found seems to be from earlier eras than the
lighthouse. Scientists speculate that they may have been recycled in the
construction of the Pharos from even older buildings.