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Lighthouse of Alexandria

A pharos is a light-house, so called from that at Pharos, near Alexandria. Off the coast of Egypt, where the western branch of the river Nile flows into the Mediterranean, there was once a small island of an oblong shape. It was scarcely more than a calcareous rock to which a thin veneer of soil clung, and the soil was so saturated with the salt of the sea that little other than figs would thrive upon it. The surrounding sea abounded with reefs, threatening the approaching ships, and that is perhaps the reason why the island, lying as it did at the very entrance to Egypt, was never more than a haunt for the pirates who plied their trade along the coast. On the opposite mainland, less than a mile away, was the little town of Rhacotis.

In the year 332 BC, Alexander the Great made Egypt a part of his empire, and he commanded Dinocrates to build his new city. The little island of Pharos ceased to be an island, for Dinocrates connected it with the mainland by a causeway or the Heptastadium a mile long. Thus the harbor by the place where the new city should stand, was divided, and even now its western part is the best harbor on the Egyptian coast. Alexandria flourished, and soon it became the great center of trade and of culture. But Alexander the Great was destined never to see the city that bore his name. After his death his empire was divided among his generals, and Egypt fell to Ptolemy, who began the construction of a great lighthouse on the island of Pharos. He died before it was completed, but his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus, during the years 285 to 247, brought the work to an end. Some scholars date its completion in the year 279. Unfortunately the ancient writers have given us only meager descriptions of the lighthouse.

Pliny, the Roman, has given the fullest early account. He says: "There is another building, too, that is highly celebrated: the tower that was built by the king of Egypt on the island of Pharos at the entrance to the harbor of Alexandria. The cost of its erection was 800 talents, they say; and not to omit the magnanimity that was shown by King Ptolemaeus on this occasion, he gave permission to the architect, Sostratus of Cnidus, to inscribe his name upon the edifice itself. The object of it is, by the light of its fires at night, to give warning to ships, of the neighboring shoals, and to point out to them the entrance to the harbor. At the present day there are similar fires lighted up in numerous places, Ostia and Ravenna, for example. The only danger is that when these fires are kept burning without intermission, they may be mistaken for stars, the flames having very much that appearance at a distance." The description is so brief that it teaches nothing of the appearance of the tower.

Fortunately the lighthouse was still standing when the Arabs invaded Egypt in the year 616 AD. They never ceased to admire it, and to weave legends about it, and their descriptions, sifted of the legendary, present a good picture of this wonder of the world. Neither the Ancients nor the Arabs have given us the dimensions of the base of the tower. We shall probably never know them. Of its height there are conflicting accounts, varying from less than 400 to 600 feet. The Arab writer Idrissi says: "Its height is 300 cubits, taking three palms to the cubit, and so its height is one hundred statues of men." Probably he was not far from correct.

Unlike the modern lighthouse, which is usually a round tower resembling a single shaft reaching into the air, the Pharos consisted of several stages, each smaller than the one beneath it. The Arabs, who actually saw the lighthouse in a perfect condition, describe it as having four stages. The first part above the broad foundation was square. Upon its summit, 121 cubits, or about 180 feet above its base, was a broad terrace, commanding a wide view of the sea. It was decorated with columns and balustrades and ornaments of marble, and on its balustrade, as coins show us, sat Tritons blowing their conch-shells to the four winds. The second stage, of about the same height, was octagonal; upon its summit was a terrace commanding a still wider view over the sea. The third stage was circular, and it too was surmounted with a terrace. The fourth, which was open, consisted of tall bronze columns, supporting the dome at the very top, on which was perhaps a large bronze figure, possibly of Poseidon. There in the open space, beneath the dome, were the lanterns and the fireplaces, and the wonderful mirror to signal to the ships.

Of the interior of the Pharos the imaginative Arabs have told a little. A shaft reached from the foundation through the center to the very summit, up which the fuel for the fires and the other necessaries were raised by a windlass. A spiral stairway, encased with marble slabs, encircled the central shaft; above the second stage the stairway and the shaft occupied the entire structure. The third stage, therefore, which was circular, was probably not far from 20 feet in diameter. Instead of a stairway, the Arabs tell us that an inclined plain led up the first two stages, and so gentle was the slope that a loaded horse might be driven to the highest of the chambers. The vast space in the several stories of the two lower stages was occupied with chambers, yet neither their number nor their arrangement may now be known. One Arab historian says that they were more than three hundred in number, and so intricately arranged that no stranger could find his way among them without a guide.

Such was the wonderful Pharos, which in height was unequaled in the ancient world. In 640 AD, Amr, the great Arabian general, after subduing all Egypt, besieged Alexandria for fourteen months before it fell into his hands. Then the light of the Pharos no longer welcomed home the ships of the Greeks, but of the Arabs. It seems that the Arabs still maintained the fire. At length, during the reign of Caliph AlWalid, a courtier of the Greek emperor resolved to destroy the Pharos by strategy. Laden with rich gifts for the Caliph, he fled to Alexandria and professed his desire to become a Moslem. His gifts were accepted. Soon he told of wonderful treasures buried beneath the Pharos. At once Al-Walid despatched troops to the Pharos. The mirror was removed from the summit, and half of the lighthouse was torn down before the plot was discovered. The work of destruction then ceased, and when search was made for the treacherous Greek, it was found that he had fled in the darkness of night. The Arabs then restored the tower with bricks, but they were unable to build it to its former height. They sought to raise the mirror to the summit of their brick tower, but it was so heavy that they could not. Some say that in the effort the mirror fell and was broken.

In the year 875 Ahmed ibn Tulun had a wooden cupola constructed on the summit, and to it the muezzin climbed to call the people to prayer. So 'the Pharos, or the Minara, as the Arabs called it, became a minaret, and to this very day with every mosque there is a tower or minaret suggestive of the Pharos of Alexandria. Thus a new word was given to most of the languages of the world.

But the Pharos which had already stood for a thousand years, was not destined to continue forever. The wind blew its wooden cupola away to sea. Its foundation began to weaken, and on the 28th of December, 955, an earthquake threw down thirty cubits of its summit. In 969, when the city of Cairo was built, Alexandria was neglected for the new inland city. However, in 1182, while the lower part of the Pharos was yet standing to the height of about 150 cubits, a domed mosque was built upon its summit that the faithful might pray high up where the air was cooled by the breezes from the sea. In 1375, when another earthquake visited Alexandria, only the lower stage of the Pharos survived, and that, badly shattered, soon fell to a heap of ruins. In 1498, when the passage around Africa to India was discovered, and the ships began to pass that way, another blow was given to Alexandria. The city declined; the ruins of the Pharos gradually disappeared, or were used in the construction of a mole in the harbor and its site was forgotten.

Next in point of magnificence to the Pharos at Alexandria, was that which the Emperor Claudius ordereda tower or lighthouseto be erected at the entrance of the port of Ostia, for the benefit of sailors. It was built on an artificial island, and was a most classic form; the three main stories were ornamented with most beautiful marble columns of the Doricj Ionic, and Corinthian orders. In it were staircases and apartments for the use of the officers and men to whom the care of the port was intrusted. Fires were, at the approach of night, lighted in the upper gallery of the tower, which could be seen for a considerable distance. The sand and mud deposited by the Tiber have for many centuries choked the harbor of Ostia; and the ruins of old Ostia are now in the midst of a wilderness, nearly two miles from the mouth of the river. The whole features of the coast are now materially changed, and a wide marsh lies in front of the port of Claudius.

The Pharos of Cordowm is the most superb as well as the most important of modern times. Since those of Alexander and Claudius there is, nor has been, none equal to it. It is situate on a small island,a bare rock, which is dry at low water, and entirely covered at high water,at the mouths of tbe Garonne and Dordogne, in France, and serves as a sea-mark by day and a light-house by night; and but for the warnings it offers, the wrecks would be numerous. There are but two passes,the one called the Pas des Aries, between St. Saintbage and the tower, and the other between the tower and Medoc, called the Pas des Graves,both equally dangerous to vessels that may be unfortunately surprised by a heavy westerly wind. All around are rocks, covered with but about three feet of water, upon which the billows break with tremendous violence, and rise to a prodigious height, rendering access to the tower at all times very difficult. This magnificent tower was commenced in the reign of Henry III, in 1584, by Louis de Foix, who finished it under Henry IV, in 1610.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - will be rebuilt at its original location, according to Egypts Supreme Antiquities Council that announced its approval. Members of the Permanent Committee of the Egyptian Antiquities have approved an old project, submitted previously by the Alexandria governorate, aiming to revive the lighthouse, Antiquities Council Secretary General Mostafa Amin told Egyptian newspaper Youm7 07 May 2015. Research and the final construction plan have been submitted and now the final decision rests with Alexandrias regional government, Amin said.

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Page last modified: 10-05-2015 19:45:16 ZULU