Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one had a practical use in addition to its architectural elegance: The
Lighthouse of Alexandria. For sailors, it ensured a safe return to the Great Harbor. For architects, it meant even more: it was
the tallest building on Earth. And for scientists, it was the mysterious mirror that fascinated them most... The mirror's
reflection could be seen more than 50 km (35 miles) off-shore.
On the ancient island of Pharos, now a promontory within the city of Alexandria in Egypt.
Shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, his commander Ptolemy Soter assumed power in Egypt. He had witnessed the
founding of Alexandria, and established his capital there. Off of the city's coast lies a small island: Pharos. Its name, legend
says, is a variation of Pharaoh's Island. The island was connected to the mainland by means of a dike - the Heptastadion -
which gave the city a double harbor. And because of dangerous sailing conditions and flat coastline in the region, the
construction of a lighthouse was necessary.
The project was conceived and initiated by
Ptolemy Soter around 290 BC, but was completed after his death, during
reign of his son Ptolemy Philadelphus. Sostratus, a contemporary of
Euclid, was the architect, but detailed calculations for
the structure and its accessories were carried out at the Alexandria
Library/Mouseion. The monument was dedicated to the
Savior Gods: Ptolemy Soter (lit. savior) and his wife Berenice. For
centuries, the Lighthouse of Alexandria (occasionally
referred to as the Pharos Lighthouse) was used to mark the harbor,
using fire at night and reflecting sun rays during the day. It
was even shown on Roman coins, just as famous monuments are depicted on
When the Arabs conquered Egypt, they admired Alexandria and its wealth. The Lighthouse continues to be mentioned in their
writings and travelers accounts. But the new rulers moved their capital to Cairo since they had no ties to the Mediterranean.
When the mirror was brought down mistakenly, they did not restore it back into place. In AD 956, an earthquake shook
Alexandria, and caused little damage to the Lighthouse. It was later in 1303 and in 1323 that two stronger earthquakes left a
significant impression on the structure. When the famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited Alexandria in 1349, he could not
enter the ruinous monument or even climb to its doorway.
The final chapter in the history of the Lighthouse came in AD 1480 when the Egyptian Mamelouk Sultan, Qaitbay, decided to
fortify Alexandria's defense. He built a medieval fort on the same spot where the Lighthouse once stood, using the fallen
stone and marble.
Of the six vanished Wonders, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the last to disappear. Therefore we have adequately accurate
knowledge of its location and appearance. Ancient accounts such as those by Strabo and Pliny the Elder give us a brief
description of the "tower" and the magnificent white marble cover. They tell us how the mysterious mirror could reflect the
light tens of kilometers away. Legend says the mirror was also used to detect and burn enemy ships before they could reach
In 1166, an Arab traveler, Abou-Haggag
Al-Andaloussi visited the Lighthouse. He documented a wealth of
an gave accurate description of the structure which helped modern
archeologists reconstruct the monument. It was composed
of three stages: The lowest square, 55.9 m (183.4 ft) high with a
cylindrical core; the middle octagonal with a side length of
18.30 m (60.0 ft) and a height of 27.45 m (90.1 ft); and the third
circular 7.30 m (24.0 ft) high. The total height of the building
including the foundation base was about 117 m (384 ft), equivalent to a
40-story modern building. The internal core was used
as a shaft to lift the fuel needed for the fire. At the top stage, the
mirror reflected sunlight during the day while fire was used
during the night. In ancient times, a statue of Poseidon adorned the
summit of the building. Although the Lighthouse of Alexandria did not survive to the present day, it left its influence in various respects. From an
architectural standpoint, the monument has been used as a model for many prototypes along the Mediterranean, as far away as
Spain. And from a linguistic standpoint, it gave its name -- Pharos -- to all the lighthouses in the world... Just look up the
dictionary for the French, Italian, or Spanish word for lighthouse.