The Pharos of Alexandria was a large tower, standing at around 330 feet tall, on the island of Pharos, Egypt. It was used primarily to both guide ships towards the island’s port and also to warn them of the dangerous sandbars just off the coast of Alexandria. Shortly after its construction the Pharos of Alexandria began life as a lighthouse, although exactly how the fires inside were sustained at its summit remains unconfirmed.
It was Ptolemy Soter, a general of the late King Alexander the Great (who also lead the Greek island of Rhodes through the wars of the succession) who made himself Ruler and ordered that the Pharos of Alexandria be built on this island, not far off the coast of Alexandria. Ptolemy Soter didn’t live long enough to see the full construction of the building, but his son, Ptolemy Philadelphos did.
Construction on the lighthouse began in c.305BC and finished in c.282BC, just 22 years after another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes, had been built under Ptolemy Soter’s instruction. It would appear that Ptolemy Soter had a lot of wealth to spend on these two projects being built almost at the same time, across the Mediterranean sea. However, Ptolemy gained hundreds of millions of pounds from selling the siege equipment and weaponry left at the walls of Rhodes after several failed attempts to invade it by another general of King Alexander the Great, who was known as Antigonus.
Although Ptolemy Soter forbade the architect who designed the Pharos of Alexandria from taking credit for the work, he died before its construction was complete. This gave the architect, Sostratus of Cnidus the perfect opportunity to carve his name into a wall of the tower and be recognized for the incredible feat anyway.
For its time, the Pharos of Alexandria was an engineering marvel, and perhaps even more so if reports of a statue atop the tower are to be believed. Nobody can be sure, but if there was a statue then many believe it was of two people: Castor and Pollux (the twin sons of the King of the Gods; Zeus), Zeus himself or the God of the seas, Poseidon. Many people, however, do not believe there could be a statue on top of the Pharos of Alexandria as it would have been damaged and fallen when the fires were lit.
Where it is Today:
The Pharos of Alexandria stood on the coast of the island for over 1500 years, which gives testament to the great skill and prestige of Sostratus’ architectural ability. It finally fell at some point between 1303 and 1323. The ruins of the lighthouse stayed for a while but by 1480 they had been washed away by the sea. Reports tell us that two large earthquakes on the East side of the Mediterranean basin in the early 14th century caused the tower to be damaged beyond repair.
Where the remains of the Pharos of Alexandria lie today is two-fold. Some of the remnants still lie in the Mediterranean sea, right next to Qaitbey fort. Others, however, can be easily viewed by the general public in an amphitheatre in Alexandria called ‘Kom el Dikka’. Had Sostratus’ efforts been any less well thought out or any less skilful then these remains would certainly not be here today.
We can thank the Arab explorer Ibn Battuta for visiting the island of Pharos and also Alexandria several times throughout the late 13th and early 14th centuries for the information we know today.
To this very day many people still visit the place where the Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse once stood. The tower’s strong foundations are now the proud home to the fort of Marmeluke Sultan named ‘Qaitbey’, which he ordered the construction of in the late 15th century. The fort is completely open to the public and makes a great day out for families interested in this island’s intensely rich history so this is the place to go if you want to find more details. A short trip to Alexandria to visit the theater showing the Pharos of Alexandria remains is also well worth visiting.