The Lighthouse of Alexandria: Why and how was it Built? - World History Edu (2022)

The Lighthouse of Alexandria: Why and how was it Built? - World History Edu (1)

The Lighthouse of Alexandria | Image by archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1909).

Completed by Ptolemy II of Philadelphus in the third century BCE, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was a breathtaking architectural and engineering marvel of the highest order. Estimated at around 400 feet, the Lighthouse was erected off the coast of the City of Alexandria, Egypt. This magnificent edifice came after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. The primary purpose of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was to aid sailors to steer to safety as they approached the somewhat treacherous coastline of the City of Alexandria.

As one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria went on to dazzle sailors of the ancient world for well over 1600 years. After a series of earthquakes and slight neglect, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was cast into complete ruin around the 14th century CE.

A Brief look at the City of Alexandria

In 332 BCE, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great strolled right into ancient Egypt with virtually no resistance from the Egyptians. And just like that, Alexander made Egypt part of his vast expanding empire. The Egyptians were by then fed up with their Persian rulers.

With the Persians out of Egypt, Alexander set forth to build Egypt in his own image. He established the port city of Alexandria in the area of Rakotis – a few miles off the Nile.

(Video) The Lighthouse of Alexandria: One of the Ancient World's Most Impressive Buildings

Alexander then traveled to the Island of Pharos and consulted with the priests of Ammon (Amun). The priests foretold of further great feats of achievements to come Alexander’s way. Thereafter, Alexander left Egypt and marched east to conquer even more lands in Persia and India. However, before the young king left, he installed trusted administrators to run the city in his stead.

After the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 BCE, his top generals and advisors divided his vast territories amongst themselves.

In the case of Egypt, the territory was ruled by a general called Ptolemy of Legos. This Macedonian general established himself as the first king of the Ptolemy dynasty (305 BCE to 30 BCE). He took the title Ptolemy I Soter. The word “soter” meant savior.

Who conceived the idea to build the Lighthouse of Alexandria?

Ptolemy I was a breath of fresh air for the city of Alexandria. He embarked on massive infrastructural projects across the Egypt in general.

Historians believe that Ptolemy I conceived several ideas to make the city of Alexandria a thriving and commercial port of the ancient world. In order to establish himself as Alexander the Great’s successor, Ptolemy I entombed the body of Alexander in the City of Alexandria.

One of such monumental feats of construction that he embarked upon was the Lighthouse of Alexandria. As a result of this lighthouse, the city of Alexandria, as well as its port, became the greatest commercial hub in the ancient world.

Why was the Lighthouse of Alexandria Built?

Ptolemy I realized that in order to implement his grand vision for the city of Alexandria, there had to be a lighthouse. The structure was meant to serve as a beacon to the city. Besides, the coastline of city was littered with several massive rocks that could pose a danger to sailors and mariners heading towards the city. Prior to this, there was no other lighthouse known in the ancient world.

Where was it built?

The exact spot where the Lighthouse was built was at the eastern part of the Island of Pharos. The island was a small patch of land that had no outright owner. And whenever someone inquired about who owned the land, the response was that it was owned by the pharaoh. Hence, the name “Pharos” was given to the island.

(Video) The Lighthouse of Alexandria - The Seven Wonders of Ancient World - See U in History

Another account of the story states that the island’s name was born after Alexander the Great visited the place to consult with the priests of Ammon (Amun).

In any case, the island of Pharos was chosen as the spot to house the Lighthouse of Alexandria due to its strategic location. Back then, the land was further outwards, making it an ideal spot to site this monument.

Who designed the Lighthouse?

To help him draw plans for the construction of this jewel, Ptolemy contracted the services of Sostratus of Cnidos. Not much is known about the contractual agreement between Ptolemy and Sostratus. However, what historians do know is that Sostratus was a very wealthy architect from Muğla, Turkey. It is even believed that he personally financed the construction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

How was it designed?

The Lighthouse of Alexandria: Why and how was it Built? - World History Edu (2)

How the Lighthouse of Alexandria might have looked like | Image: learning-history.com

According to ancient records and text, Sostratus planned for the lighthouse to also contain offices and ins that would house guests or tourists, as well as other port officials.

According to archaeologist Hermann Thiersch, the lower part of the Lighthouse was shaped in a square-like form. And as it went up, the middle part was shaped cylindrically. Baring in mind Ptolemy’s Greek roots and religion, Sostratus placed the statue of the Greek god Poseidon atop the lighthouse.

(Video) How the Lighthouse of Alexandria Still (Sorta) Exists

What was used as fuel for the Lighthouse of Alexandria?

With regard to what the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332 BCE – 30 BCE) used as fuel for the Lighthouse, the verdict is still not conclusive. You might be thinking: wood. However, that would have proved very difficult to obtain. The area was not particularly blessed with acres of greenery. Therefore, wood as a source of fuel was probably unlikely.

Some historians have stated that according to a 13 CE Chinese historical record, the city installed giant bronze mirrors to help magnify the little wood that was burnt atop the Lighthouse.

Considering the fact that the Lighthouse had to be on throughout the night for over 1600 years, the ancients must have had a really phenomenal (perhaps simple for all we may know) approach to fuel the Lighthouse.

This, and many more reasons, is why and how the Lighthouse of Alexandria got unto the list of wonders of the ancient world.

How long did it take to construct?

Construction of the Lighthouse of Alexander began during the reign of the first Ptolemaic king of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter. This was around 303 BCE. A couple of decades later, in c. 280 BCE, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was completed by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, son of Soter.

What did the Lighthouse look like and how tall was it?

The Lighthouse of Alexandria: Why and how was it Built? - World History Edu (3)

Lighthouse of Alexandria

(Video) Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt in Hindi | History, Construction & Facts | World's First Lighthouse

Upon completion, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was regarded as the most famous building in the known world at the time. It stood at around 400 feet, slightly lower than the Great Pyramid of Giza’s 455 feet. What this meant was that it was the second tallest man-made structure in the world at the time, behind the Pyramid of Giza.

In modern terms, the lighthouse would be the equivalent height of a 40-story building.The light from the Lighthouse was said to have shone bright, and that sailors miles away could see it.

How did the Lighthouse of Alexandria come to ruins?

As stated above, the Lighthouse of Alexandria lasted for over 1600 years (from the 3 BCE to 14 CE). However, for centuries, it was put to through the test of time, enduring several earthquakes. And as Egypt changed hands from Greco-Roman rule to Arab rulers, it is also likely that very little effort was made to maintain the structure.

In what year did it collapse?

The Lighthouse of Alexandria: Why and how was it Built? - World History Edu (4)

The ruins of the Lighthouse under the Mediterranean sea

Historians believe that the Lighthouse of Alexandria ceased to exist in the 14th century CE. After its demise, a mosque was built in its place by then Arab rulers of Egypt.

Facts about the Lighthouse of Alexandria

The following are some important facts that shed light on the Lighthouse of Alexandria:

(Video) History: we learn lighthouse of Alexandria

  1. It is worth mentioning that this magnificent structure was also called by the name of the island that hosted it – the island of Pharos. Therefore, another name of the Lighthouse of Alexandria is the Pharos of Alexandria.
  2. Lighthouses in our modern era have been designed to resemble the first lighthouse, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. As a matter of fact, the word ‘pharos’ means ‘lighthouse’ in so many languages today – Swedish (fyr), French (phare), Italian and Spanish (faro), Portuguese(farol) and even Bulgarian (far).
  3. At a staggering age of over 1,600 years, the Lighthouse surpassed the reigns of both the Greek and Roman empires.
  4. Shortly after, or a few years before, its demise, the Lighthouse came under the control of the Arabs.
  5. In 1375 CE, a high-magnitude earthquake shook Alexandria and its surrounding areas. Historians state that this earthquake, perhaps a series of earthquakes, was sort of the last nails in the coffin of the Lighthouse. By the 15th century CE, the Lighthouse had vanished off the face of the earth. Remnants of the ruins still remain buried deep in the nearby sea.
  6. It is believed that the pillars and large blocks from the Lighthouse were used as raw materials in the construction of several large palaces in the Arab world.
  7. Jean Yves Empereur, a famous French archaeologist, discovered several pieces of blocks on the ocean floor around the island. These blocks are believed to be the remnants of the lighthouse.
  8. Aside from the Lighthouse going on to influence all other lighthouses ever built since then, experts believe that it had a huge influence on the minarets that Muslims place atop mosques. As a matter of fact, “al-Manarah” means both minaret and lighthouse in Arabic.
  9. The Greek word “Pharos” was derived from the word “pharaoh”.
  10. After the capital of Egypt moved from Alexandria in 641 AD, the Lighthouse fame and name started to decline.
  11. At the time that the sod was cut to build the Lighthouse, Ptolemy I Soter was rolling out several spectacular projects across the city. The Library of Alexandria is one example of such projects that came to be associated with Ptolemaic rule.
  12. Like many great rulers in the ancient world, leaving a lasting legacy was an obsession for the early Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy I, a Macedonian, believed that construction projects like the Lighthouse, the Library, and the Museum of Alexandria were bound to etch his name into annals of history. He was certainly right about that!
  13. It is not really definitive that the Lighthouse’s architect was Sostratus of Cnidus. Some historians and archaeologists say that he was just the man that bankrolled the entire project. To this day, the name of the architect remains a mystery.
  14. The harbors at Alexandria were called the Great Harbor and the “Harbor of Fortunate Return.” In the case of the latter, some even called the harbor “Eunostos”. Perhaps the harbor’s name stemmed from the lucrative nature of the city for businessmen and traders.
  15. Aside from claims that the Lighthouse had a gargantuan statue of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, some historians equally believe that the structure was actually dedicated to Zeus, the supreme god of the Olympians. Others say that it was rather Proteus, a Greek sea deity. Among all these claims, Poseidon seems the most plausible. He was after all the god of the sea.
  16. In terms of what a lighthouse truly is, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the very first built in the ancient world. However, long before that jewel went up, the ancient Greeks had mechanisms in place that aided sailors and mariners to know where the location of a harbor was, or perhaps whenever approaching treacherous coastlines. These makeshift guidance systems and beacons were particularly common in the northern parts of the Aegean island.
  17. Over the millennia since the Lighthouse was constructed, there have been countless depictions of exactly how the Lighthouse looked like. Some of these depictions and accounts of the actual height of the Lighthouse of Alexandria have bordered on the absurd and ludicrous. There have been historical accounts that exaggerated its height by saying that it was in the region of 1800 feet. As a result of such claims, historians often go in for the conservative numbers and features when describing the Lighthouse.
  18. Perhaps, the original intent of the Lighthouse was not to use it as a lighthouse. Perhaps it was purposed as a spectacular landmark to match the magnificence of the city. Some historians believe the building later lost its original functions.
  19. To this day, archaeologists continue to discover several ship wreckage around the island of Pharos. What this means is that the Lighthouse did not entirely stop ships from going down. But imagine, how many ships would have crashed into the coast of Alexandria had the Lighthouse not been constructed?
  20. During Rome’s rule, Alexandria was the second most beloved city in the world at the time. And the Lighthouse continued to shine bright and spectacularly.
  21. After a series of earthquakes took out some sections of Lighthouse, Arab rulers built mosques atop the structure. This was around the 10th century CE.
  22. After the Lighthouse was completely ruined, due to earthquakes and lack of repairs, Sultan Al-Ash built the citadel of Quait Bey close to the site of the ruined Lighthouse. It is even believed that the Mamluk sultan used the very ruins of the Lighthouse to build the citadel in 1477.
  23. Much of the drawings and depictions, as well as what we know, about the Lighthouse of Alexandria stems from the early 20th century works of archaeologist Hermann Thiersch.

FAQs

Why was the the Lighthouse of Alexandria built? ›

Why was the lighthouse of Alexandria built? The lighthouse was used to guide thousands of ships safely into the harbor. During the day, a reflective mirror on the top level of the lighthouse would reflect the sunlight to guide the ships. At night, a fire was used instead.

How was the Alexandria lighthouse built? ›

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. 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 and granite.

What was the reason that caused the Lighthouse of Alexandria one of the 7 Wonders of the world to collapse and disappear? ›

The Lighthouse of Alexandria (ὁ Φάρος τῆς Ἀλεξανδρείας) was built in 280 BC and was destroyed by earthquake in 1323 AD.

How was the Lighthouse of Alexandria? ›

According to the ancient sources consulted by Thiersch, the lighthouse was built in three stages, all sloping slightly inward; the lowest was square, the next octagonal, and the top cylindrical. A broad spiral ramp led to the top, where a fire burned at night.

Why did Alexander build Alexandria? ›

Alexander the Great founded the city in 332 bce after the start of his Persian campaign; it was to be the capital of his new Egyptian dominion and a naval base that would control the Mediterranean.

Who built the Lighthouse of Alexandria and when? ›

The first lighthouse in recorded history was Egypt's Pharos of Alexandria. Built around 280 BC, the source of light was a huge open fire at its summit. As well as being the world's first, it was also the tallest one ever built, standing a colossal 450 feet high.

How was Alexandria built? ›

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in April 331 BC as Ἀλεξάνδρεια (Alexandreia). After he captured the Egyptian Satrapy from the Persians, Alexander wanted to build a large Greek city on Egypt's coast that would bear his name.

Where was Alexandria lighthouse built? ›

The Lighthouse of Alexandria on the tiny island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt, is the archetype of all subsequent lighthouses and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

When was the Lighthouse of Alexandria made? ›

What was the purpose of the Museum of Alexandria? ›

It used to house the United States consulate. The building dates back to 1926, located around a large garden, in addition to housing a basement. The three-storey palace was a meeting place for the Egyptian upper-class society of Alexandria.

What was significant about the library built in Alexandria? ›

The Library was built in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) as part of the Mouseion. Its main purpose was to show off the wealth of Egypt, with research as a lesser goal, but its contents were used to aid the ruler of Egypt.

What wonder of the Ancient World was in Alexandria? ›

Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria

This ancient lighthouse, considered a technical masterpiece that served as the model for all lighthouses that followed, was constructed on Pharos, an island in the harbor of Alexandria in Egypt, known as Kemet by its ancient citizens. It was completed between 285 and 247 B.C.E.

Who was the Lighthouse of Alexandria built by? ›

Around 300 BCE Ptolemy I Soter (r. 323 - 282 BCE) commissioned the building of a massive lighthouse to guide ships into Alexandria and provide a permanent reminder of his power and greatness. The project was completed some 20 years later by his son and successor Ptolemy II (r. 285-246 BCE).

Who destroyed the Lighthouse of Alexandria? ›

Constructed by Sostratus of Cnidus, the lighthouse was said to be one of the tallest buildings at the time, and stood 200-600 feet high. It stood for almost 1,500 years but, despite attempts to repair it from earthquake damage in the 900s and 1200s, it was finally destroyed by earthquakes by the beginning of the 1400s.

How did Alexandria get destroyed? ›

Greatly outnumbered and in enemy territory, Caesar ordered the ships in the harbor to be set on fire. The fire spread and destroyed the Egyptian fleet. Unfortunately, it also burned down part of the city - the area where the great Library stood.

Why was Alexandria important to Rome? ›

Alexandria was a highly sophisticated and cultivated city. It continued to prosper under Roman rule, due to its important location for trade. It became the port from which huge cargo vessels laden with grain would set out from Egypt to feed the population of Rome.

Where was Alexandria built? ›

Alexandria is a port city located on the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great.

Why lighthouses are built? ›

They serve to warn mariners of dangerous shallows and perilous rocky coasts, and they help guide vessels safely into and out of harbors. The messages of these long-trusted aids to navigation are simple: either STAY AWAY, DANGER, BEWARE! or COME THIS WAY!

How was the first lighthouse built answer? ›

They used wood to light fires and candles in a glass enclosure. How was the first lighthouse built? Answer: The people collected a few huge logs and lots of dry branches and set fire to them and continued to keep the fire burning.

Why was the first lighthouse built? ›

These buildings helped lightkeepers carry out their duties. The earliest from of lighthouses was probably bonfires on the beach. The earliest known lighthouse was built in Egypt over 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found the remains of more than 30 lighthouses built by ancient Romans.

When was Alexandria built? ›

What happened to the Lighthouse of Alexandria? ›

It was probably destroyed by an earthquake

The Lighthouse of Alexandria stood for over 1,500 years, even withstanding a severe tsunami in 365 AD. However, earthquake tremors likely caused the cracks that appeared in the structure by the end of the 10th century.

Did the Greeks build the Lighthouse of Alexandria? ›

The Alexandria Lighthouse in Egypt is said to have been designed and built by Sostratus of Cnidus, who was a Greek engineer and architect trusted by many kings in that time, but some historians dispute whether he was truly the architect.

What materials did they use to build the Lighthouse of Alexandria? ›

Was the Lighthouse of Alexandria the tallest building in the world? ›

The Lighthouse of Alexandria (also called the Pharos of Alexandria), considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was for more than a millennium (from 280 BC to 1240 AD) the tallest man-made structure in the world.

Who burned the Library of Alexandria and why? ›

On his pursuit of Pompey into Egypt in 48 BCE, Caesar was cut off by a large fleet of Egyptian boats in the harbor of Alexandria. He ordered the boats to be burned. The fleet was destroyed, but the flames spread to the city and the library. It's not known how much of the library was destroyed.

How significant was the burning of the library of Alexandria? ›

For Gibbon, the Library of Alexandria was one of the great achievements of the classical world and its destruction—which he concludes was due to a long and gradual process of neglect and growing ignorance—was a symbol of the barbarity that overwhelmed the Roman Empire, allowing civilization to leach away the ancient ...

Why did they destroy the Library of Alexandria? ›

In 391 CE, as part of his attempt to wipe out paganism, Emperor Theodosius I officially sanctioned the destruction of the Serapeum, or Temple of Serapis at Alexandria. The destruction of the Temple was carried out under Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, and afterwards a Christian church was built on the site.

Which is the No 1 wonder in world? ›

1. The Great Pyramid of Giza. Of all the ancient seven wonders of the world, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the one and only wonder that has survived to stand tall through thick and thin.

Are there still 7 Wonders of the World? ›

Of the original Seven Wonders of the World, only one — the Great Pyramids of Giza — still exists. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Temple of Artemis, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus have all faded to dust and memory.

How many times was Alexandria burned? ›

8) The ancient library of Alexandria was destroyed on two different occasions. The original library branch was located at the royal palace at Alexandria, near the harbor.

Did slaves build the Lighthouse of Alexandria? ›

300 Slaves worked on the Pharos that was build in 17 years. Ancient accounts such as those by Strabo and Pliny the Elder give us a brief description of the "tower" and the magnificent white marble cover.

Did Alexandria fall into the sea? ›

Slowly, but steadily, the buildings of Alexandria's Royal Quarter were overtaken by the sea following the tsunami. It was not until 1995 that archaeologists discovered the ruins of the old city off the coast of present-day Alexandria.

How did Alexandria end? ›

The city fell to the Arabs in AD 641, and a new capital of Egypt, Fustat, was founded on the Nile. After Alexandria's status as the country's capital ended, it fell into a long decline, which by the late Ottoman period, had seen it reduced to little more than a small fishing village.

Did anything survive the burning of the library of Alexandria? ›

15.18). But the Great Library of Alexandria did pass away and now nothing remains. Some remnant of the Great Library did survive, however. By the time of Caracalla's depredations in AD 215, the "daughter" library in the Temple of Serapis had been completed (Caracalla residing there while in Alexandria).

What is the purpose of the Lighthouse of Alexandria to the sailors? ›

The lighthouse was intended to guide & protect sailors, & to that end was dedicated to Zeus Soter (Deliverer). Around 300 BCE Ptolemy I Soter (r. 323 - 282 BCE) commissioned the building of a massive lighthouse to guide ships into Alexandria and provide a permanent reminder of his power and greatness.

Why was Alexandria so important? ›

The second largest Egyptian city, after Cairo, and one of the largest ports on the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria was a major centre of civilization in the ancient world, controlling commerce between Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and has continued throughout its long history to act as a vital crossing point for ...

Why is the Lighthouse of Alexandria Egypt a wonder? ›

The Lighthouse of Alexandria is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World because of both the size and speed at which it was built. The tower stood at over 330 feet tall, which at the time of construction was the second tallest manmade structure in existence, apart from the pyramids of Giza.

Why was Alexandria destroyed? ›

The original library branch was located at the royal palace at Alexandria, near the harbor. When Julius Caesar intervened in the civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, Caesar set fire to the ships in the harbor. It is believed that this fire spread to the library and completely destroyed it.

Which two famous structures is Alexandria famous for? ›

This city is currently the second largest in Egypt and is known for its excellent architecture and spectacular locations. A major economic centre now, this city is home to Alexandria's Great Library and Pharos Lighthouse, one of the ancient world's seven wonders.

Which ancient wonder was found in Alexandria? ›

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was located on a small island called Pharos near the city of Alexandria. Designed by the Greek architect Sostratos and completed around 270 B.C. during the reign of Ptolemy II, the lighthouse helped to guide Nile River ships in and out of the city's busy harbor.

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