Monday, July 28, 2008

The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria

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In 1962, while searching for fish in the Alexandria harbor, a young diver discovered fragments of an immense statue on the seafloor. To verify the young man's report Egyptian naval divers and experts from Alexandria's Greco-Roman Museum were called to the area. The piece that the young diver found, measuring 6 meters (20 feet) in length was confirmed to be a mere fragment of the colossal statue of Poseidon (the lord of the waves).

But the area was off limits to scientific investigation because it was a military zone. It wasn't until 1994 that a team of scuba diving archaeologists were sent in to actually explore the area. Littering the seafloor, over an area of 5.5 acres, were remains that included sphinxes, columns, capitals, colossi and fragments of inscribed obelisks. This made the site one of the largest archaeological sites in the Mediterranean.

Scientists believed that these fragments were in fact the remains of The Pharos, the great lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven vanished Wonders of the Ancient World. The Pharos was the last to be built, and the last to disappear.

The Pharos Lighthouse stood on the eastern tip of the ancient island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria. The island was linked to the mainland by a man made wall called the Heptastadion, which was made of solid granite and extended the length of seven stadiums.

Although the Pharos was depicted on coins, terracotta, Roman mosaics and small models of it were also available, none is particularly precise and as the ancient writers left few detailed descriptions, the Pharos still remains somewhat of an enigma. Even at the time the structure was so famous and the connection of the name with the function became so strong that the word "pharos" means 'lighthouse, beacon' in English, becoming the etymological origin of the word in Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Bulgarian and Swedish.

Construction of the Lighthouse was commissioned by Ptolemy Ι Soter, a general of Alexander the Great and his first successor to ruling Egypt. It was completed in the 3rd century BC, and was inaugurated during the reign of his son, Ptolemy ΙΙ Philadelphos around 285 BC. The Lighthouse's designer was a Greek, Sostratus of Cnidus. Proud of his work, he wanted his name carved onto the building, but he was forbidden to do so by Ptolemy ΙΙ, who wanted his to be the only name on the building. Sostratus managed to get around this by having the dedication:


chiseled into the foundation, which was then covered with plaster, Ptolemy's name was then carved into the plaster. Over time the plaster chipped away leaving only Sostratus' dedication.

The monumental building was constructed in three stages: The lower was a square section with a central core, a middle octagonal section, and a top cylindrical section. The entrance was up a long vaulted ramp. A large spiral staircase led up to around 50 chambers and was probably used by beasts of burden to carry firewood up to the third tier where a fire, acting as the light source, burned on the summit.

In order for the
Pharos to withstand the harsh pounding of the sea, the base tier rested on massive blocks of red granite. These granite blocks and the walls of the Lighthouse were strengthened not by using mortar to join them together but by molten lead to reinforce the structure. The edifice was probably so strong it survived for almost 2 millennia (until the mid-14th century AD), serving as a beacon to sailors approaching the coast of Egypt. The source of light was believed to be a mirror, which reflected the sunlight during the day and a fire which guided sailors at night.

Made of stone and covered in white marble, the building stood about 120m (400 ft) high, an equivalent to a 40-story modern building. This made it the first
lighthouse in the world and the tallest man-made structure on Earth for centuries. In 1183 this is how it was described by an Arab traveler Ibn Jubayr: "Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle."

Supposedly a colossal statue of Poseidon surmounted the top of the
Pharos but it disappeared over time. What was certain was that the statues found at the foot of the Lighthouse, were portraits of King Ptolemy ΙΙ. Roman coins depicting the Pharos, show a statue of a triton at each of the building's four corners. But what actually makes for a mystery, is that the amount of complete statues discovered (some 26 sphinxes of different size, age and material), and that they were found to come from earlier eras than the lighthouse. This could lead to the speculation of a number of things. The statues used in the construction of the Pharos were recycles from older buildings, mostly coming from the Nile Delta and Heliopolis (which was destroyed at the time of the Greek Ptolemies). Some scientists also believe that the Pharos was part of a great complex, and that it may have had a more significant civic and religious function; that not all the statues surmounted the building, but may have stood on a lower level.

The Pharos was not built in a purely Greek style as so often portrayed, simply because the Greeks had no experience in building with granite plus they would have had to use local labor. 20 km (12 miles) east of Alexandria, in the town of Abu Qir, to this day stands a scaled-down replica of the Pharos at just 20 meters (66 ft) high. Known as Burg el-Arab, it too was constructed during the reign of Ptolemy ΙΙ (285-246 BC), although its mid-section was hexagonal (contrary to the octagonal mid-section of the Pharos). The architectural significance of the three-stage design of the Pharos is further reflected centuries later in the design of the minarets in many early Islamic mosques.

Apparently the Lighthouse was such a spectacle at the time it became a touristic attraction. Food was sold to visitors at the observation platform at the top of the first level. And for those who wanted to make the additional climb to a balcony at the top of the octagonal tower were rewarded with an impressive view, as it was probably 90m (300 ft) above the sea. There were few places in the ancient world where a person could ascend a man-made tower to get such a perspective.

Earthquakes finally got the better of the
Pharos Lighthouse. Recorded by classic and Arab writers were twenty-two earthquakes of significant strength that shook Alexandria. Restorations undertaken by Arab rulers, the last to be ordered by the famous Sultan, Salah el-Din (Saladin) allowed the Lighthouse to survive into the 14th century. The Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta, visiting Alexandria in 1326, recorded that he was able to climb the ramp to the entrance of the Pharos, but on his return in 1349, this was impossible as the lighthouse was already in ruins.

On the 8th of August, 1303, a violent earthquake brought an end to what remained standing of the Seventh wonder of the ancient world. A century later the Mamluk Sultan Qait Bey built a fort on the site of the Pharos, which still stands there today. Some of the fallen masonry was incorporated in the building of the fort.

Aired on February 27, 2007 the Nova program chronicled the underwater discovery of the fabled
Pharos lighthouse. There are plans to make this archeological site assessable to amateur divers to experience the beauty of these antiquities underwater. And until they do, this link will take you to a series of videos on the Nova site, to watch the extensive efforts undertaken to map the underwater site and recover some of its treasures out of the water. (