One of the more fascinating of the seven wonders of the ancient world was the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria, Egypt. I have lately been reading the history of the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, and have become more acquainted with some of the monument’s unique characteristics, and the legends that have surrounded it.
The structure itself was an immense, multi-storied tower that rose hundreds of feet into the air. Construction began during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter after 305 B.C., and ended during the tenure of his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Designed by Sostratus of Cnidus, it took twelve years of meticulous effort to complete. It seems that some of the Arab historians confused the construction legends associated with the lighthouse with those stories connected with Alexandria’s largest obelisks. The Arabic name for the Pharos lighthouse was, with that beautiful simplicity associated with Arabic place names, simply “Al-Minara (المنارة).” The historian Ibn al-Fakih, writing in the early 10th century, tells us that “The minara of Alexandria stands on a crab of glass in the sea…it has two pillars standing on two images, one of brass and one of glass, the brazen image in the form of a scorpion and the glass image in the form of a crab.” Ibn Rustah, at about the same time, noted that “two monuments [were] standing on two figures of scorpions, mae of copper or brass, on which are inscriptions. It is also reported that the figure of the scorpion was melted by a fire kindled beneath it, and that the monuments fell.” This legend solidified over time; so the historian Mas’udi later wrote:
The minara was built on a foundation of glass in the form of a crab, on a tongue of land projecting into the sea. On the top of the lighthouse were images of brass. One figure pointed with its right hand to the sun, wherever it might be in the heavens, and lowered its hand as the sun sank; another pointed to the sea in the direction from which an enemy was approaching, and as the enemy drew near, it cried out in a terrible voice, which could be heard two or three miles away, and so alarmed the inhabitants.
How to account for these fabulous stories? It turns out that, as often happens in history, the legends have some basis in fact. We now know that two large granite obelisks in Alexandria, which were standing in front of a church called the Caesarion at the time of the Arab movement into Egypt, were in fact resting on four huge metal “crab” sculptures. According to the historian A.J. Butler, when one of the obelisks (the so-called “Cleopatra’s Needle”) was removed and sent to New York in the modern era, evidence of the metallic crabs could plainly be seen. Archaeologists were even able to make out inscriptions in Latin and Greek on them. The second obelisk could very well have been resting on crab sculptures made of black obsidian, which has a glass-like appearance. We may reasonably conclude, as does historian A.J. Butler, that the two large obelisks standing before the Caesarion rested on bases made of metallic crabs and obsidian scorpions.
One can easily see how the Arab historians might have confused the base constructions of the obelisks with that of the lighthouse itself. Not all of them made this mistake, however. The writer Istakhri notes, “The minara, founded on a rock in the sea, contains more than 300 rooms, among which the visitor cannot find his way without a guide.” The historian Ibn Haukal says that the minara was “built of hewn stones fitted together and fastened [i.e., jointed] with lead; there is nothing like it on earth.” The chronicler Idrisi says:
[The minara] is unmatched in all the world for its architecture and strength of structure. It is built of the hardest Tiburtine stone, bedded in molten lead, and so firmly set that the joints cannot be loosened. On the north side the sea washes against it. Its height is 300 cubits, taking three palms to the cubit, and so its length is 100 statures of man. From the ground to the middle story are 70 statures, from the middle to the top 26, and the lantern on the top is 4 statures.
Even more intriguing is Istakhri’s comment on the number of rooms in the lighthouse. What purpose would these rooms have served? The historian Makrizi makes this fantastical comment about the labyrinthine nature of the monument:
It is said that whoever entered this lighthouse became distracted and lost his way, by reason of the number of chambers and stories and corridors which it contained…So it is reported that when the [Arabs] arrived at Alexandria in the caliphate of Al-Muqtadir with an army, a body of them entered the lighthouse on horseback and lost their way, till they came upon a crevice in the crab of glass upon which the structure was founded; and many of them fell through it and perished.
The mirror at the apex of the lighthouse was also a focus of amazement. Some writers say that a huge mirror of gilt metal was perched atop the structure, and had a diameter of “five spans.” But the historian Mas’udi says the mirror was actually made of some kind of transparent stone. Yet another writer claims the mirror was constructed from glass. We cannot know for certain, but it seems metal would have been the easiest and most practical choice. The purpose of the mirror was undoubtedly to signal ships at sea; it could never have served as a weapon to focus the rays of the sun, as this would have required a mirror of immense proportions. It appears that during the daylight hours the mirror was used for signaling, and during the night a fire was kept burning to serve as a beacon. As for the comment by Mas’udi about the siren atop the lighthouse, I have been unable to find any additional details. It may be that some kind of siren was installed there that could be sounded by a human-powered machine; or perhaps there was some wind-powered apparatus that was activated by air blowing through it. We do not know.
The lighthouse must have been a wonder of engineering to last as long as it did. We know that Ahmad Ibn Tulun built a wooden cupola at its apex around 875 A.D.; for him to do this, the structure must still have been substantially intact over a thousand years after being raised. When this cupola was degraded, a small mosque was built by Al-Malik al-Kamil to replace it. But all buildings eventually degrade if they are not maintained; and in 955 A.D. a major earthquake serious damage to the lighthouse’s superstructure. This lowered the building’s height; for we know that in 1182 the writer Ibn Jubair records the minara’s height as “over 150 cubits,” which is much less than its original height. The end would come soon enough. In 1375 another earthquake brought down the entire structure except for the lowest tier.
So perished one of the noblest monuments of antiquity. Yet its legacy may live on, according to historian A.J. Butler, in the design of the medieval Egyptian minarets. According to Butler, “Though the medieval minarets of Cairo vary in combination of design, in many of them one may see an exact reproduction of the design of Sostratus [of Cnidus, the designer of the Alexandrian lighthouse], which was a tower springing four-square from the ground, then changing to a smaller octagonal and from the octagonal and from the octagonal to a still smaller circular shaft, and crowned at the top with a lantern.”
I must leave this this theory for the historians of architecture to debate. For me it suffices to know that all great deeds in history, and all the magnificent monuments created by the genius of man, impress their indelible stamp on the centuries that follow them. It remains for us only to honor them.
Read more in the groundbreaking translation of On Duties: