The greatest city of the ancient world before Rome was Alexandria, Egypt, named after Alexander the Great, who stopped there only long enough to found it in 332 BC.
Alexandria was bigger and more impressive than Rome. It was more civilized. Its Museum, more like a university, has never been surpassed as a center of learning. It was there that the seventy Jewish scholars made their famous Septuagint translation of the Bible. They translated it, of course, into Greek. And the Alexandria Library was the biggest and the best in the world. It had over 500,000 scrolls.
Yet what impressed most travellers who came to Alexandria was the lighthouse in the harbor. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
What was so special about it—was it fancy?
It was the tallest building ever built, except for two of the Pyramid stone-piles. It rose 445 feet—the same as a modern thirty-six-storey building.
What did it look like?
No two ancient drawings of it are alike. Here it is on two old Greek coins:
It stood on an island which enclosed the perfect harbor, and it took its name from the island, the Pharos.
It was made of huge blocks of light-colored stone. The tower had three sections—it rose like a telescope from thick to thin. The massive lowest section was square, the second octogonal, the third, circular. There were statues of Tritons standing on the four corners of the square section; and at the very top of the tower was a figure of Poseidon, the god of the sea.
It was not initially a lighthouse—there was no light.
Then what was it for?
It was a landmark which could be seen from far out at sea. The Romans equipped it with mirrors and a furnace. The old writers claimed its light could be seen for thirty-five miles.
Who built it and when?
Alexander’s general Ptloemy I, the first king or ruler of the city, dreamed it up and began its construction around 300 BC.
There is a legend about its architect, Sostratus. King Ptolemy refused to let him put his name on it but Sostratus went and put it on anyway. He carved a long dedication to the Seafaring Gods with his name on it, then covered it over with plaster. On the plaster he wrote a second inscription all full of praise for Ptolemy. He knew in a few years the plaster would wear away and the world would see HIS name and inscription forever after.
Is it still standing or can one visit the ruins?
No. It is gone. Earthquakes damaged it in 956, 1303, and 1323; and it was finally torn down. Only a few pieces of its massive stones have been found in the sea.
The Turks in the 15th century built a castle on the old esplanade where it stood and that is what you see there today. They used some of the gigantic building blocks that were lying around.
The Qaitbay Castle
Here is the detailed description of the lighthouse from a manuscript discovered in 1940. It was written by a Muslim tourist who saw the lighthouse as late as 1166.
“The Pharos [the lighthouse was called the Pharos after the island it stood on] rises at the end of the island. The building is square, about 8.5m each side. The sea surrounds the Pharos except on the east and south sides. This platform measures, along its sides, from the tip up to the foot of the Pharos walls, 6.5m in height. However, on the sea side, it is larger because of the construction and is steeply inclined like the side of a mountain. As the height of the platform increases towards the walls of the Pharos its width narrows until it arrives at the measurements above. On this side it is strongly built, the stones being well shaped and laid along with a rougher finish than elsewhere on the building. This part of the building that I have just described is recent because on this side the ancient work needed to be replaced.
“On the seaward south side, there is an ancient inscription which I cannot read; it is not a proper inscription because the forms of the letters are carried out in hard black stone. The combination of the sea and the air has worn away the background stone and the letters stand out in relief because of their harshness. The A measures a little over 54cm. The top of the M stands out like a huge hole in a copper boiler. The other letters are generally of the same size. The doorway to the Pharos is high up. A ramp about 183m long used to lead up to it. This ramp rests on a series of curved arches; my companion got beneath one of the arches and stretched out his arms but he was not able to reach the sides. There are 16 of these arches, each gradually getting higher until the doorway is reached, the last one being especially high.”