The 3rd Longest Surviving Wonder of the Ancient World
The Lighthouse of Alexandria, known in Greek as Pharos of Alexandria, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Right behind the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the third longest surviving ancient Wonder and the most famous lighthouse of antiquity.
Pharos of Alexandria was a massive tower that stood on the island of Pharos, off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. The lighthouse served as a navigational aid for sailors, guiding them into the busy port of Alexandria, which was one of the most important commercial centres of the ancient world. It was a technological triumph and is the archetype of all lighthouses since.
It was built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom in the 3rd century BCE and was considered one of the tallest man-made structures in the world at the time, reaching a height of over 100 meters.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria was built on a small island located on the western edge of the Nile Delta. The island was named Pharos after the lighthouse and became a major landmark in the ancient world. Alexandria and Pharos were later connected by a mole spanning more than 1.2 kilometres.
It was commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter, who is also credited with the commission of the Library of Alexandria (thought probably built during the reign of his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus). Ptolemy I Soter was one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who became the ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE.
The lighthouse was built using white marble and was decorated with bronze plates that reflected the sunlight during the day and reflected the light of a fire at night. The lighthouse was operated by a large mirror that reflected the light from the fire and directed it out to sea.
Construction began around 280 BCE during the reign of his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus and took approximately twenty years to complete at an expense estimated to be 800 talents of silver, almost twice that of the Parthenon.
The lighthouse was in operation for over a thousand years, from its construction in the 3rd century BCE until it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century CE. During this time, the lighthouse became an iconic symbol of Alexandria and was considered one of the greatest achievements of the ancient world.
The construction of the lighthouse was a massive undertaking that required skilled workers and advanced engineering techniques. The lighthouse was powered by a fire that was kept burning at the top of the tower, and the light from the fire was reflected by a large mirror that was mounted at the top of the tower.
This Ancient Wonder stood on the island Pharos in the harbour of Alexandria and is said to have been more than 110 metres (350 feet) high. During the period it was constructed, it would have been one of the tallest man-made structures in the world, second only to the pyramids of Giza.
According to Arab authors, the lighthouse was built using large light-coloured stone blocks and featured a furnace at the pinnacle for producing light. The tower was predominantly constructed with solid limestone and granite blocks.
The tower was built on a foundation of limestone and was made up of three sections: the lower square section, the middle octagonal section, and the upper circular section.
The lower square section of the lighthouse was 55 meters wide and was made up of solid masonry blocks. The blocks were stacked on top of each other using a technique called herringbone, which involved placing each block at a slight angle to the ones below it. This technique provided stability to the structure and allowed it to withstand the strong winds and earthquakes that were common in the region.
The middle octagonal section of the lighthouse was 30 meters wide and was decorated with carved reliefs that depicted the god Poseidon and other sea creatures. The section was also adorned with bronze plates that reflected the sunlight during the day and the light from the fire at night.
The upper circular section of the lighthouse was 7 meters wide and was crowned with a statue of Poseidon, the god of the sea. The statue was made of bronze and stood over 4 meters tall.
The lighthouse was powered by a fire that kept burning at the top of the tower. The fire was fuelled by wood and other combustible materials, which were brought to the top of the tower by a series of ramps and pulleys.
The light from the fire was reflected by a large mirror that was mounted at the top of the tower. The mirror was made of polished bronze and was able to reflect the light for up to 50 kilometres out to sea.
The top of the tower featured a mirror that reflected sunlight during the day, while a fire was used for illumination at night. Roman coins minted in Alexandria displayed images of Triton statues on each corner of the building, with a statue of Poseidon or Zeus positioned at the highest point.
Various ancient accounts of the tower’s design refer to a statue situated at its peak. Although some scholars maintain that this was originally a representation of Zeus, it is possible that the depiction represented either Alexander the Great or Ptolemy I Soter in the form of the sun god Helios, or that it changed to portray different rulers or deities over time.
In 796 and 951, earthquakes caused partial cracking and damage to the lighthouse, followed by structural collapse during the earthquake of 956. Additional earthquakes in 1303 and 1323 further contributed to the damage. These seismic events were traced to two established tectonic boundaries, namely the African-Arabian and Red Sea Rift zones, located around 350 and 520 kilometres from the lighthouse, respectively.
Records indicate that the earthquake of 956 was the first to result in the structural collapse of the top 20 meters or more of the construction.
The lighthouse was eventually destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century CE, and its ruins were used as a quarry for building materials. Today, only a few stones and a small section of the foundation remain, but the legacy of the Lighthouse of Alexandria lives on as a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the ancient world.
The First Expedition: Gaston Jondet in 1916
The first expedition aimed at the rediscovery of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was led by the French architect Gaston Jondet in 1916. Jondet’s primary objective was to find the foundations of the lighthouse, as the remains of the structure were believed to be buried beneath the water.
Jondet used a technique called ‘dredging’ to remove the layers of silt and debris that had accumulated on the sea bed over the centuries. The expedition revealed several columns, inscriptions, and a significant amount of stone debris that were identified as belonging to the lighthouse. However, the expedition was cut short due to World War I.
Further Expeditions: 1940 and 1968
In 1940, a team of French archaeologists led by Jean-Yves Empereur embarked on a second expedition to Alexandria. This time, the team employed a new technique known as ‘core drilling,’ which enabled them to extract samples from the sea bed for analysis. The expedition was able to identify the remains of the lighthouse’s foundation, including a large number of building materials that were used in its construction, such as marble, granite, and limestone.
In 1968, UNESCO sponsored an expedition to Alexandria to excavate and study the remains of the lighthouse. The team, which included a group of French and Egyptian archaeologists, used the latest technology and techniques to locate and analyze the remains of the lighthouse. They were able to locate the lower part of the tower, which included the foundation and the first two levels of the structure.
In 1994, the Centre for Alexandrian Studies (Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines) founder and archaeologist, Jean-Yves Empereur, made a remarkable discovery in the waters off Pharos Island. The Egyptian government had enlisted his services to survey the area for any archaeological finds before constructing a concrete breakwater over the site.
Empereur’s survey identified numerous gigantic masonry blocks, some of which were believed to have fallen into the sea when an earthquake destroyed the lighthouse in the 1300s.
Additionally, an abundance of statuary was found, including a colossal statue of a king dating back to the 3rd century BCE, believed to depict Ptolemy II. Nearby, a statue of a queen portraying Isis had been discovered in the 1960s. These statues, representing the deified Ptolemy and his wife Arsinoe, were thought to have been situated just below the lighthouse, facing the entrance to the harbour.
Following these discoveries, the Egyptian government abandoned its breakwater plan and instead proposed an underwater park where divers could explore the many statues, stone sphinxes, and remnants of the lighthouse.
The Significance of the Rediscovery
The rediscovery of the Lighthouse of Alexandria is significant in many ways. Firstly, it provides valuable insights into the engineering and architectural techniques of the ancient world. The construction of the lighthouse was a massive undertaking that required skilled workers and advanced engineering techniques, and the remains provide evidence of the level of expertise and skill that existed in the ancient world.
Secondly, the rediscovery of the lighthouse has helped historians and archaeologists gain a better understanding of the history and culture of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The lighthouse was an essential landmark that played a vital role in the commercial and cultural exchange between different civilizations, and the remains of the structure provide valuable insights into the life and times of the ancient world.
Current Status of the Remains
Today, the remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria are located at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. However, many of the artifacts and pieces that were recovered during the expeditions are on display in museums around the world. Some of the most significant pieces are located in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern library that was built near the site of the ancient library of Alexandria.
The pieces that were recovered include various inscriptions, columns, and sculptures that were used in the construction of the lighthouse. Some of the inscriptions provide valuable information about the construction of the lighthouse and its history. For example, one inscription found during the 1968 expedition contained the name of the architect who designed the lighthouse, Sostratus of Cnidus. This inscription helped archaeologists understand the design and construction of the lighthouse in greater detail.
Other pieces that were recovered include fragments of the statue that stood atop the lighthouse, depicting either the god Poseidon or the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I. Some of these fragments are on display in museums such as the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London.
The age of the remains of the lighthouse has been a subject of debate among historians and archaeologists. While the lighthouse was constructed during the third century BCE, the remains that have been recovered are from the lower levels of the structure, which were constructed during the first century BCE. This has led some experts to question whether the remains are from the original structure or from a later reconstruction.
Despite the debate surrounding the age of the remains, the rediscovery of the Lighthouse of Alexandria remains a significant achievement in the field of archaeology. The expeditions that were conducted in the 20th century helped to shed light on the history and culture of the ancient world, and the artifacts and pieces that were recovered continue to fascinate and inspire people around the world.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria was not only a navigational aid for sailors but also served as a symbol of the power and wealth of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The lighthouse was located at the entrance of one of the most important commercial ports in the ancient world, which made it a vital centre of trade and commerce. The lighthouse allowed ships to safely navigate into the port, which in turn facilitated the exchange of goods and ideas between different cultures and civilizations.
The lighthouse was also a centre of scientific research and innovation. The mirror system used to reflect the light from the fire was an early example of optical technology, and it was studied by the Greek mathematician Euclid and other scholars of the time.
The lighthouse also housed a library and was home to the famous mathematician and astronomer Hipparchus, who used the lighthouse to make astronomical observations and measurements.
The Pharos of Alexandria was an important landmark in the ancient world, and it was visited by many famous historical figures, including Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. The lighthouse was also the subject of many legends and myths, including the story of how the Greek mathematician Archimedes used mirrors to set fire to Roman ships during the Siege of Syracuse.
The expeditions, led by Gaston Jondet, Jean-Yves Empereur, and UNESCO, have helped to shed light on the history and culture of the ancient world, and the artifacts and pieces that were recovered have provided valuable insights into the engineering and architectural techniques of the ancient world.
While the remains of the lighthouse continue to be a subject of debate among historians and archaeologists, their rediscovery remains a significant achievement in the field of archaeology and serves as a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the ancient world.
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