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Volume 45, Number 2March/April 1994

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Beacon Across the Ages

Written and photographed by T. Peter Limber

We arrived at the city of al-Iskandariyah, may God protect her! She is a well guarded frontier citadel and a friendly and hospitable region, remarkable in appearance and solid of construction, furnished with all that one could wish for in the way of embellishment and embattlement, and in remarkable edifices both secular and religious. Noble are her dwellings, graceful her qualities, and with imposing size her building unite architectural perfection... Every fresh marvel has there its unveiling, every novelty find its way thither....

So the world traveler to be Ibn Battuta was to write in his journal when he reached Alexandria, Egypt, on April 5,1326 having begun his remarkable journey from his birthplace, Tangier, the year before. One of the most impressive sight he saw in Alexandria was the Pharos light house, even though it had been damaged by earthquakes and stood partly in ruins. He saw it again in 1349 on his return from a 24 year odyssey that took him as far as China, and wrote that it was then in" So ruinous a condition that it was impossible to enter it or to climb up to the doorway. Between his two visits, another earthquake had nearly finished the lighthouse.

In Ibn Battuta's time the lighthouse was nearing the end of an existence that had begun more than 15 centuries earlier, when it was erected in 279 BC by Alexander the Great, who had arrived in Egypt in the course of his conquests and driven out the Persian occupiers. He selected this site for a new capital city, to be named after himself, realizing that a port here could control commerce between Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Al-Qahirah, or Cairo would not be built until the Arab period, nearly 13 centuries later.

There is no record of who originally conceived the idea of constructing the world's first lighthouse at this location, but the featureless, low lying coastline needed a prominent landmark to guide mariners. A good idea became awesome reality when the lighthouse was constructed on the eastern tip of Pharos Island, at the mouth Alexandria's Great Harbor. It towered to a height of 40 stores, and could be seen by ships as far as 40 kilometers (25 miles) out to sea. Even more marvelous, the lighthouse could be seen at night; A large fire burned at its tip, with a reflector mirroring the light seaward. "The sensation it caused was tremendous," wrote British author E.M. Forster. It appealed to the sense of beauty and to the taste for science an appeal typical of the age. Poets and engineers combined to praise it".

No lighthouse has ever been built as tall as the Pharos, even in Modern times. Adding to its Majesty was its gleaming white marble exterior, beautifully carved. It came to be considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (See Aramco World, May-June 1980).

In those times, cities were rarely planned. Typically, an adventurous group of people would settle in a new location and over many generations, their small settlement might develop into a town or city of some size. But Alexandria was designed from the out set to be a major city.

Earlier, Alexander and his army had arrived at the port city of Tyre on the Phoenician coast, an important Persian naval base, which chose to resist its attackers. The result was a seven-month siege, whose outcome was predictable: Tyre, at that time the only large port in the eastern Mediterranean, was destroyed.

Alexander's expedition continued to Egypt; that country's Persian occupiers surrendered to him, and the Egyptians welcomed him.

The Conqueror knew that Egypt was a major producer of grain and other goods for which there were ready markets throughout the Mediterranean region. No port existed on the Mediterranean coast or on the navigable Nile River, so Alexander quickly chose a site where these two bodies of water met that suited the commercial needs of his empire as he foresaw them. He named Dinocrates, an experienced Greek city planner from Rhodes, to head up the development of Alexandria, and gave him detailed instruction on what religious and secular facilities and monuments the city would need.

Alexander then marched on eastward, continuing his campaign of revenge against the Persians. He was never to return to the city that bore his name.

In the 12 years that followed, his army conquered a territory that stretched from the west coast of Asia Minor to the Indian subcontinent; nothing it seemed could stop its advance. But in 323 BC, wounded many times and exhausted, Alexander succumbed to fever at Babylon and died at the age of 32. His generals divided up the conquered lands among themselves, governing at first on behalf of Macedonia, but eventually declaring themselves kings of the areas they controlled.

On Alexander's death one of his generals, named Ptolemy, was given the governorship of Egypt and Libya. As he departed to take up his duties, he asserted his independence by having his troops ambush Alexander's funeral cortege, bound for Macedonia, and divert it to Egypt. There, the conqueror's body was placed in a gold sarcophagus and buried in fan ornate tomb at the center of Alexandria. Ptolemy thus established his intention to found a dynasty of Greek rulers over Egypt who could trace their line back to Alexander the Great, spiritually if not biologically.

Alexandria had been carefully planned and built, and contained many fine monuments, landmarks and contained many fine monuments, landmarks and facilities. Its commercial foundation proved to be sound, and the city grew rapidly.

Form the Greek city of Cnidus on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, Ptolemy brought Sostratus, a famous architect and builder, to direct construction of the Pharos lighthouse. The structure took 12 years to complete—finally becoming operational during the reign of Ptolemy's son, Ptolemy Philadelphus—and cost 800 talents to 742,400 ounces, or some four million dollars’ worth—a large sum at the time.

Pharos was the name of this island that protected the great Harbor; in time that word was applied to the lighthouse itself and eventually pharos came to mean (400-foot) marvel quickly became a symbol of Alexandria, just as the Eiffel Tower today symbolizes Paris.

The lighthouse consisted of three tiers with square, octagonal and circular cross-sections successively and rested upon a square foundation structure that rose six meters (20 feet) above the ground, extended more than 100 meters (350 feet) on each side and contained many rooms. This foundation building was made of limestone block covered with carved white marble.

Above this stood the first tier of the lighthouse itself, with a square cross-section, about 30 meters (100 feet) on a side, rising 60 to 70 meters (200 to 235 feet) to a terrace about 24 meters (80 feet) square. This tier contained as 300 rooms presumably housing workers and attendants and many windows pierced the white marble exterior. Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubair, who toured the lighthouse in 1183 described the first level as maze-like filled with "stairways and entrances and numerous apartment, so that he who penetrates and wanders thorough its passages may be lost. A parapet wall surrounded the terrace at the top of the tier, and marble tritons were located at each of the four corner. Inside a wide ramp spiraled upward to the terrace.

Near the top of the tier's eastern face, positioned so that it could be seen from ships sailing into and out of the great harbor, was the following inscription in large Greek letters: SOSTRATUS THE CNIDIAN, SON OF DEXIFANOS DEDICATES THIS TO THE SAVIOR GODS ON BEHALF OF THOSE WHO SAIL THE SEAS

The second tier of the Pharos, about 35 meters (115 feet) high, was octagonal in cross-section, about 17 meters (55 feet) across and slightly narrower at the top than the bottom. This tier too was faced with white marble and furnished with windows to light the interior. What had begun as a ramp on the first level was transformed into a spiral staircase on the second, ending at another walled terrace.

The third tier of the lighthouse was a cylinder about nine meters (30 feet) in diameter and also a little narrower at the top than the bottom. This tier was 18 to 24 meters (60 to 80 feet) high, and constructed of brick plastered to match the marble below. The spiral staircase continued to the top. Above the cylindrical section, and sharing the same diameter, was the "lantern", an open space surrounded by high marble columns and surmounted by a domed top. Here the great fire burned, with its reflector beaming the light of the flames out to sea. Atop the dome stood a six-meter (20 foot) bronze figure of Poseidon leaning on his trident.

The dimensions of the Pharos cited here are approximate because measurements recorded by various visitor in antiquity were expressed in units of length whose equivalents are not precisely known in modern times. However, the figures are accepted by present day historians. Some early writers strain our credulity in their eagerness to impress us with the size of the Pharos. Among the exaggerations: that the lighthouse was almost 550 meters (1800 feet) tall and that its fire could be seen 480 kilometers (300 miles) out to sea!

The core of the lighthouse tower was hollow, to permit the fuel to be winched up to the top. It was said to be resinous wood, probably acacia and tamarisk. The fire enabled mariners to pinpoint the location of Alexandria at night, while its smoke served the same purpose during the day, being visible long before the lighthouse itself came into view over the horizon.

Some ancient writers doubted that enough fuel could be raised to the top of the tower to keep a bonfire blazing day and night. Surely the task must have been formidable, whatever the means. Forster suggests some sort of hydraulic mechanism was used; otherwise, he says, "we must imagine a procession of donkeys who cease not night and day to go up and down the spirals with loads of wood on their backs." Some writers in antiquity preferred to suppose that the fire was kept burning at the bottom of the lighthouse and that the light was caught with mirrors and reflected up through the hollow interior of the tower and out to sea. It is more likely that the fire was at the top, as most believe, and that a single reflector was located behind it.

Precise details about the reflector are unknown of what material it was made, its dimensions, whether it was convex, concave, or flat, and exactly how it functioned. Forster in his celebrated guide to Alexandria (See Aramco World, January-February 1988) wrote "Visitors speak of a mysterious 'mirror' on the summit, which was more wonderful than the building itself ... Some accounts describe it as made of finely wrought glass or transparent stone, and declare that a man sitting under it could see ships at sea that were invisible to the naked eye. A telescope?" In fact, lenses were not invented for another 15 centuries, as far as anyone knows, to say nothing of telescopes.

Another British writer, Michael Ashley, argues that the lighthouse had more than one mirror, and "some maintained these mirrors could focus the sun's rays on enemy ships and was a useful rumor to be employed in the defense of a city."

Alexandria, as the Ptolemaic capital of Egypt passed from Greek to Roman administration in 30 BC with the deaths of its last Greek ruler, Cleopatra VII and her Romans continued into the city's Christian period, which lasted until the seventh century.

The Islamic conquests, spreading in all directions from the Arabian heartland, soon included Egypt in the year 641 Alexandria capitulated after a one year siege by the forces of Arab general ‘Amr ibn al-'As, Who spared the city and its predominantly Greek population. When the general was called away from Alexandria on other duties, the Greeks rose up and recaptured the city. Furious at this revolt, ‘Amr returned in 646 and retook Alexandria; again he spared the population, but he had the defensive walls of the city pulled down to prevent any future resistance. Alexandria was now on its way to becoming an Arab city, though its substantial non-Arab community continued lively and influential into modern times.

No monument in Alexandria was better known than the Pharos. Over its long life—the lighthouse functioned for nearly a thousand years—its uniqueness combined with the reputation of Alexandria scholars, gathered in the great library (See page 24) to furnish material for numerous legends. Well after the lighthouse had passed its prime, stories continued to circulate about its mythical features. Forster writes, " Though unable to preserve the Pharos the Arabs admired it, and speak, with their love of the marvelous, of a statue on it whose finger followed the diurnal course of the sun, of a second statue who gave out with varying and melodious voices the various hours of the day, and of a third who shouted an alarm as soon as a hostile flotilla set sail." He goes on, "The first two statues may have existed; the Alexandrians loved such toys."

Another legend is cited by a number of writers, all possible drawing on one dubious source. According to the story, the Byzantine emperor at Constantinople, in order to harm the Abbasid caliph's trade, or, in other versions, because the pharos "mirror" had detected or destroyed his fleet, sent words that a treasure—perhaps Alexander's—was hidden in or under the Pharos. The caliph is supposed to have ordered his men to dismantle the Pharos, and the first tow tiers were taken down before it was realized that the story was trick. Reliable reports on the condition of the pharos during its lifetime show this tale to be false.

Around the year 700, an earthquake toppled the lantern with its poseidon statue. But the Arabs continued to operate the pharos as before, with a fore burning at the top, undomed. The structure had suffered other damage as well, but few repairs were made until the reign of Ahmad ibn Tulun (868-905), Turkish founder of the Tulunid dynasty. Ibn Tulun had a taste for Public works and installed many parks and buildings in Alexandria. He also undertook the first major restoration of the damaged Pharos in 880, and in place of the former lantern and the fire at the top, erected a small mosque crowned with the Islamic crescent.

Eyewitness accounts tell us the condition of the pharos as it neared the last two centuries of its long existence. Another earthquake in 956 was followed by restorations in 980, but details are unknown. In 1115, Hispano-Arab geographer al-Idrisi wrote admiringly about the height and solidity of the pharos. Yusuf ibn al-Shaykh, an architect and builder, took measurements of the lightouse in 1165, confirming that pharos was still intact—apart from the dome and statue. Even more careful measurement were recorded in 1166 by Abu Hajjaj Yusuf ibn Muhammad al-Balawi al-Andalusi, another Spanish Muslim who visited Alexandria. These measurements seem to be the best of those times, but there are some obvious errors, perhaps due to faulty conversion.

In 1303, an earthquake is believed to have destroyed the top two sections, leaving only the first tier. For a while, a fire was kept burning at its top, to guide ships as before. Several years after ward, the fire was extinguished for the last time, and another small mosque was built atop the tier. More earthquakes followed a few years later, destroying the pharos beyond restoration, as Ibn Battuta was to report.

Finally, in 1480, the Mamluk sultan Qait Bey used blocks from the ruined Pharos to build the fort that now stands on the same spot and bears his name. Other blocks and detritus from the light house may be seen under water nearby. The pharos was no more.

But the grandeur of the original Pharos was never forgotten by the Arabs. They called it al-Manarah, the place of fire, and therefore of light. From this, we derive our word minaret. A call to prayer that comes from a tower of light is an inspired symbol.

An executive engineer turned historian, Peter Limber lived in the Middle East for several years and researched this article in Alexandria.

Reconstructing Pharos
Written by T. Peter Limber

Dr. Omar El Hadidi is an Egyptian with a mission: Since 1978, this Alexandrian has dreamed of reconstructing the Pharos. This time, the tower would be part of a hotel, yacht basin and marine-science complex, rather than serving as an aid to shipping.

"I would have liked it to be located exactly on the same site , as well," says El Hadidi, "but this I now occupied by the historic Fort Qait Bey."

The energetic El Hadidi, Finland's honorary consul general in Alexandria, first managed to get the Pharos project moving in 1980, when he convinced the Yacht Club of Alexandria to take an active interest in the enterprise. The club's location, just a short distance west of the Qait Bey Fort on Pharos island, was seen as potential building site. Today, however, the focus is on the Greek Club, not far from the yacht Club. The Greek Club, originally established by Egyptian-Greek cotton merchants, has agreed to make its property available for the project, El Hadidi says, calling this an appropriate move, given the Ptolemaic origins of the pharos.

El Hadidi now sees the project as an opportunity to replan all of the existing facilities on the eastern end of pharos Island, apart from Fort Qait Bey. The broad bade of the reconstructed Pharos would house not only a five-star hotel but also new Greek Club facilities, an aquarium, a marine-sciences institute, a university marine-research section and a marina for yachts. Atop the lighthouse itself would be a panoramic viewing area.

Back in 1981, a Finnish-Swiss consortium of technical firms and hotel operators put forth a detailed proposal for carrying out the Pharos reconstruction project. The proposal, which won out over 31 international competitors, has not moved beyond the planning stage, due to what El Hadidi calls "bureaucratic difficulties." But Egyptian tourism officials are enthusiastic about the project, he says, international support is growing, and he feels it won't be long before the plan is finally "put into action."

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the March/April 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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