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Pharos Lighthouse

The History Of Pharos Lighthouse

One of the most celebrated monuments of ancient Alexandria was the Pharos lighthouse, an architectural masterpiece commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter I around 297 BC and inaugurated by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus fifteen years later.

Probably the earliest known lighthouse, the Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stood on a small island 1.5 km off the coast in the eastern harbour and was connected to the land by a narrow causeway, the ‘Heptastadion’. The lighthouse is thought to have towered around 130m above the harbour, rising in three levels with a square base, an octagonal second tier and a round tower holding the lantern.

The beacon was lit by a fire burning in the tower and shone onto a huge polished bronze mirror which reflected the light far out to sea. Strabo, writing in the first century AD, described how the light could be seen by sailors 50km offshore.

It was mentioned by numerous classical, Arab and European travellers and continued to shine over the treacherous rocks of Alexandria harbour for more than fifteen centuries. The monument was somewhat neglected after the Arab conquest and by the 10th century it had greatly deteriorated due to earthquakes and subsidence. The lighthouse finally collapsed during a fatal earthquake in the 14th century after which it was no longer able to function.

In the breakwater immediately north of Fort Qait Bey, Jean-Yves Empereur and his team have discovered what is believed to be many gigantic fallen blocks from the Pharos tower. Qait Bey, named after the Arab sultan who built the massive fort in the 1470s, marks the original position of the lighthouse and incorporated many of the original blocks in its construction.

Qait Bey Fort can still be seen today after many enlargements and reconstructions and is the home of the Naval Museum. Nothing now remains in situ of the Pharos lighthouse but nearby at Abu Sir a 17m tall structure built as a funerary monument by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, apparently replicates the Alexandrian three-storied tower.