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The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria – An Archeological Perspective

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Ben was poring over the book, and he soon started copying the picture. “It lasted a thousand years and was forty stories tall. I bet if they sent divers down, they could still find some chunks of it. Why don’t they do that?”

“I think they’ve tried, but the bottom of the Mediterranean has been filled up with layers and layers of sand, silt, and what have you for all those years.”  (Page, 2003, p.80)

The Pharos at Alexandria was the tallest and most amazing lighthouse ever built by any nation in any age – ancient or modern. Alexander the Great founded the magnificent city of Alexandria on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the Egypt of twenty-three centuries ago. Not much of this ancient capital survives today, for its past glory lies buried deep underground. Under the waters of its harbor especially, there lie mammoth treasures of a rich and varied past. Today, a few underwater archeological sites accessible to visitors here offer recreational explorers a whole new experience of viewing ancient artifacts – in a way no museum can (Buckley 2002). Naturally, there are even proposals to build an underwater museum here.

In these murky waters are found the remnants of the Alexandria’s most spectacular monument, “a tower on an island, of prodigious height, built with amazing works,” as Julius Caesar once described it. It was declared one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and was the latest construction to be reckoned in this iconic list. For centuries this mighty marble and sandstone edifice astonished all who had the good fortune to behold it — until a catastrophic earthquake brought it crumbling down. Today, the ruins of this magnificent ancient skyscraper lie buried in shallow waters, along with a host of other sunken treasures.

Alexandria’s greatest treasures lie 6-8m beneath the waves. Out there are the awe-inspiring ruins of the Pharos of Alexandria – the lighthouse known as the Seventh Wonder of the World – Cleopatra’s palace, colossal columns and drowned stone gods. (Alexander, 2002)

In fourth and third centuries BC, during the reigns of Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II, Alexandria developed into a great city which became the jewel of the Mediterranean, taking over from Athens as the commercial and cultural capital of the Greek world. Immigrants were recruited from all over the Greek world to the new city, and soon there evolved a mixed population of Greeks, native Egyptians, Jews, and other ethnic groups. The first Ptolemies developed the layout of the city (based on a grid plan around two main intersecting thoroughfares running the length of the ancient city) and raised some of its most famous structures. An interesting ancient description of the city is found in book 17 of the geographer Strabo, who visited Alexandria in 24 BC. Mention of it is also made in Pliny’s Natural History. However, beyond such scattered literary sources extant today, our knowledge of ancient Alexandria had been limited because the ancient city has been continuously inhabited and built over, and little of its glorious heritage remains intact today. Further, Alexandria’s shoreline has sunk several meters since antiquity, submerging large areas of the original city. Most importantly, the fabled ancient library of Alexandria which could have provided us with plenty of relevant information was burnt during Muslim invasions during the medieval era.

The harbors of the Hellenistic age were usually of vast size and integrated plan. The premier harbor of the period was the one at Alexandria. The plan of this harbor is crowned by the famous Pharos, the light of which could allegedly be seen from about 50 km away. There were two basins at Alexandria, the Great Harbor, which faced east, and the Eunostos, which faced west. The Great Harbor or the Eastern Harbor was formed by two stone moels (one of which was 900 meters long), the tips of which were 600 m apart, though underwater obstacles reduced this opening to two entrances, 100 and 200 m wide, respectively.

Located on the flat Nile Delta, the bustling port of Alexandria had no bluffs or other elevated natural features to serve as seamark for mariners, and that was the reason a Pharos was needed in the first place. The construction of it in the Eastern Harbor was started by Ptolemy I in 290 BC. After his death, the project was completed by Ptolemy II in 280 B.C. It was built at a staggering cost and used a considerable amount of slave labor. It was the invention of the crane that allowed the construction of both the Colossos of Rhodes and the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria (Kearney, 2004, 38). The lighthouse was truly colossal in scale, a marvel of ancient engineering and one of the most legendary buildings in all of antiquity, standing anywhere between 360-ft to 450-ft high. It was probably constructed on the site of an earlier smaller beacon on the Pharos Island. In antiquity, the small offshore island of Pharos was connected to the mainland by a causeway. For over thousand years, the Pharos light guided ships in and out of Alexandria’s Potrus Magnus, the Eastern Harbor.

This immense structure, rising just above the height of the Statue of Liberty, acted as a beacon to sailors still some dozens of miles out to sea, and guided their course among the treacherous reefs that lay just beyond the city’s harbors. This was accomplished by means of a fire which blazed at the summit during the night and a mirror which reflected the sun’s rays by day. The mirror was also used to amplify the light of the fire, and was mostly likely made from a curved sheet of polished metal. Achilles Tatius likened the structure to “a mountain, almost reaching the clouds, in the middle of the sea.”

Soldiers or slaves – the lighthouse keepers – tended Pharos’s huge fire in a great cauldron on the tower’s top level, filling the skies with bright flames and luminous smoke. Although the range of Pharos beacon was said to have reached up to 50 km, in all probability it could have reached only half that distance, and that too in fair weather conditions. However it had been sometimes claimed that it was even visible a hundred or hundred and fifty kilometers out in the sea, like a brilliant star guiding the course of mariners.

Certainly, this imposing structure must have had a profound effect on the consciousness of Alexandria’s inhabitants, in the similar manner as Acropolis had on the citizens of Classical Athens, and the Eiffel Tower had on Parisians around the turn of the century.  Pharos was more than a lighthouse. Every day it was crowded by visitors, Alexandrians as well as travelers from every corner of the world. It was approached first through the Heptastadion at the entrance to Alexandria’s excellent harbor, a wall of solid granite that extended the length of seven stadia (1250m) and connected the city with Pharos Island (Humphrey et al, 1998, 472). The lighthouse consisted of three sections. The base was of square construction, the middle portion octagonal, and the top cylindrical. The structure was topped by the statue of Poseidon, the Greek God of Sea. This towering structure was to be the prototype of all lighthouses in the Roman empire and eventually the entire world. For centuries, it majestically withstood the storms of tide and time.

The Pharos was described by many ancient authors and was depicted on coins of the Roman period. Writers and travelers from the medieval periods described the Pharos and the damage it received in successive earthquakes. Artists painted their fanciful conceptions of it.

The Frankish pilgrim, Arculf, gives us this matter-of-fact account of the lighthouse (ca. 680):

At the right-hand side of the port is a small island, on which there is a great tower which both Greeks and Latins called Farus because of its function. [‘Pharos’ later became an etymological root for the word ‘lighthouse’ in many Romance languages, for example, in French it is ‘phare’]. Voyagers can see it at a distance, so that before they approach the port, particularly at night-time, the burning flame lets them know that the mainland adjoins them, lest they be deceived by the darkness and hit upon the rocks, or lest they should be unable to recognize the limits of the entrance.

When Ibn al-Shaikh visited Pharos in 1165, it was no longer used as a lighthouse, though it was still in good shape to a large extent, and a mosque stood at its very top (Sarton, 1993, 28). In the descriptions of later Arab geographers the destruction wrought upon the great lighthouse by earthquakes featured prominently. From their writings we can also gather that the Pharos had become a watchtower from which the threatening ships of the men of Byzantium might be seen. (Due to a religious schism, Egypt was divided from the the Byzantine Roman Empire, and later on, it was occupied by the Arabs.)

An inscription found on one of its walls attests the involvement of Sostratus of Cnidus, who is most probably its architect. Forbidden by the Pharaoh to associate his name with the tower, as was the tradition during those times, Sostratus carved his name on a tower wall, and then plastered over the inscription so as to carve the name of his employer Ptolemy on it. The builder rightly assumed that the plaster would eventually crumble away revealing the name of Pharos’s true architect.

Sostratus’ creation was completely destroyed by the earthquakes of A.D. 1303 and 1323 (Woods, 2000, 65). The giant blocks of granite and marble toppled into the harbor and interfered with shipping for almost a hundred years before a channel was cleared of the biggest pieces. As late as A.D. 1480, the stump of the tower still protruded from the Heptastadion. Around this time, the Mamaluk sultan of Egypt built a fortress and castle there, using the marble base of the fallen Pharos for walls. The 15th-century fort of the Sultan Qait Bey today still stands on the site.

For many years in Alexandria, tales were told of fabulous statues and engraved blocks scattered across the sea floor just outside the Eastern Harbor. However, for a long time the area was a military zone and considered off-limits to scientific investigation. Only in the 1990’s underwater excavations were carried out near the fort, revealing major remains of the mighty Pharos.

In 1960, Kemal Abul-Saadat, a young diver searching for fish at a depth of 24 feet, spotted fragments of an immense statue, one alone measuring more than 20 feet long. Egyptian naval divers, together with experts from Alexandria’s Greco-Roman Museum, were summoned to the area and after careful examination verified the young man’s report, concluding that the huge section of the sculpture was a fragment of the colossal statue of Poseidon that rested for centuries on the top of Pharos lighthouse. Returning to the site once again, the Egyptian divers and scholars discovered a smaller statue, several columns, and a sizeable sphinx. However, the rough seas prevented them from recovering more of the fallen antiquities, and because of the mud and silt at the sea’s bottom, they were unable to take any photographs.

In 1968, the Egyptian government, via UNESCO, invited Honor Frost to examine the site believed to be the remains of the Pharos lighthouse. Frost enlisted the help of Abul-Saadat; the latter by now knew of hundreds of submerged archeological remains in Alexandria’s waters, drew maps of the Eastern Harbor, defining the site of Antirhodos Island and the archeological remains around Cape Lochias outside the harbor. Together, they examined the site and gave a list of 17 different items located there. Frost noted that such evidence would be multiplied a hundred-fold through a large-scale complete survey. But this would not materialize until 1994.

In 1986, however, the French navy, in cooperation with La SOciété FRançaise d’Archéologie Sous-marine (SOFRAS) with funding from Electricité de France (EDF), salvaged the shipwrecks of Napoleon’s fleet in Abu-Qir Bay. Objects such as cannon, military costumes, utensils for daily use, and coins were salvaged from the site. However, except for the isolated SOFRAS expedition and one or two other major events, the development of Egyptian nautical archeology largely remained inactive until April 1994, when the Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines (CEA), directed by Jean-Yves Empereur, decided to complete the Pharos surveys begun by Abul-Saadat and Frost. At the same time, the Institute of Nautical Archeology (INA) established a permanent branch in Alexandria, under the direction of its research associates Cheryl Ward and Douglas Haldane.  INA also established Egyptian Institute of Underwater Archeology in Alexandria.

Fortunately, just the previous year, in 1993, the Egyptian archeological and conservation organization SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), formerly the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) stopped a project adopted by the Egyptian Coasts Protection Agency to protect Fort Qaitbay from waves and marine factors. The project proposed throwing 2-ton concrete blocks of the fort to weaken wave action and protect the fort’s walls, which would have spelled disaster for hundreds of submerged archeological remains near the fort.

In the fall 1994, a team of CEA archeologists, in cooperation with the SCA, began an extensive survey to determine the extent of the Pharos site, and the number, size, and importance of the pieces. As with any archeological site, plotting a detailed, accurate map was a necessity. The mapmaking for Pharos has been an especially challenging task. The field of ruins is one of the largest underwater archeological sites in the Mediterranean, extending over 2.25 hectares at a depth 6-18 m. Further, pieces often lie on top of one another in the sea water. To map the site effectively, the team meticulously created a detailed database, using novel methodologies. Thanks to the computerized, methodical mapping of this part of the harbor, Empereur and his team have identified more than 2,500 artifact of archeological interest scattered over a wide area, found along with hulls of Greek and Roman ships, as of 2002. Ruins of six massive colossi, representing three couples of Ptolemy and his queen, which could have stood at the base of the Pharos, are also found here.

But it took arduous work to bring these archeological treasures to light. In addition to using the traditional method of triangulation for measuring the site, CEA team’s work depended on establishing a fixed Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) using an electronic theodolite on shore to spot the underwater blocks, which were indicated by a reflector mounted on a floating mast. The mast was connected to a lead line placed against the four corners of the submerged block and held in position by a diver. Another diver on the surface ensured that correct tension was maintained and that the floating mast did not move too much. Depending on the sea conditions, this technique was accurate to between 1-30 cm. It was the sole option until anew acoustic system was developed in 2001 (Martin, Shalaan, 2004). Today’s explorers are equipped with the latest technology, such as sidescan sonar, magnetometers, sub-bottom profiling and GPS, to help them penetrate the silt-laden mysteries of the past.

The hi-tech era in fact commenced in 1992 when Franck Goddio and his Paris-based European Institute for Underwater Archaeology originally began to electronically map the Eastern Harbour. This work was the backbone of later CEA survey missions. In 1994, during Empereur’s extensive surveys, at the end of each day of underwater exploration, information stored in the EDM’s memory was imported into computer and combines with triangulation and Global Positioning System (GPS) data to plot the overall site map. Partial charts were given to divers the following day to orient them underwater and help them add complementary features of the blocks. This pioneering method has contributed enormously to the progress of the excavation and could be applied to other underwater sites around the world.  However, this system is limited by the effects of the swell, and could only be employed close to the shore when the sea was calm.

During the first 14-months of diving, hundreds of artifacts were documented, from pharaonic, papyriform columns, obelisks, sphinxes, and lintels to an enormous collection of Greco-Roman columns, capitals, bases, and statues in granite, quartize, diorite, basalt, and marble. Weights ranged from 100 kg to 75 tons. Forty pieces were salvaged and conserved and are now exhibited in the Roman Theater in Alexandria. This work was not only arduous, but was also dangerous in many ways — as documented by the PBS television program of 1997 on this topic:

As the divers begin to peel back the top layer of blocks, they’re on the look-out for stones that can be linked to the lighthouse. According to ancient accounts, the facade of the tower bore a dedication carved in large Greek letters. But in their search for the inscription, the underwater detectives uncover some very different evidence. At first, it appears to be a headless lion. But Egyptologists recognize the creature’s true identity: it’s an ancient sphinx that once had the head of a man. The divers immediately start work to free the sphinx with the air-filled balloons. By now, the procedure should be routine, but something goes wrong. The four ton statue breaks loose and falls to the ocean floor, barely missing the divers.

Empereur concluded that the site contained blocks (90 percent of which are granite) that once belonged to the lighthouse, and remains of some other buildings that existed on the island of Pharos, such as the temple of Isis Pharia. Most pieces were recycled from pre-existing structure in the Nile Delta and Heliopolis, a city near Cairo. There are clear signs of the application of Greco-Macedonian technology to thoroughly Egyptian architectural materials, throwing light upon both architectural styles and construction methods of the Pharos. Though the Greeks commissioned the Pharos, it is likely that it was not built in purely Greek style but also depended on Egyptian technical expertise. Significant amounts of statue materials discovered and evidence of other complete structures underwater have led to the conclusion that Pharos was part of a larger complex. Empereur and his team are still in the process of piecing together the scattered remains of what is almost certainly the Pharos lighthouse.

These underwater excavations are far from over. Every year two campaigns of two months’ duration each are carried out. The classifying of the thousands of architectural blocks on the Pharos site is progressing. A few years ago, the architect Isabelle Hairy has been able to reconstitute the frame of a monumental doorway made of Aswan granite that stood 11.45 meters beneath the lintel. The jambs weighing more than 70 tons, the lintel, the slabs with hinge sockets for the double panelled door all belonged to a gigantic monument; this was, it is conjectured, the doorway to the Pharos itself.  The CEA project’s main and continuous objectives are to advance a clear hypothesis about the arrangement of the site and to produce a computer-generated architectural reconstruction of the buildings in the Pharos complex. In this process, it is hoped that more clues as to the origin and destruction of the illustrious beacon of the ancient world would emerge.


Alexander, Doug. 2002. Ancient Secrets in Dirty Water. Diver Magazine Online. Accessed on  07 Dec 2006. http://www.divernet.com/cgi-bin/articles.pl?id=3840&section=1039&action=display&show

Buckley, Michael. 2002. Diving into History. The Globe and Mail. 19 Oct 2002. Accessed on 07 Dec 2006. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20021019.DIVE/TPStory/Travel

Humphrey, John William; Oleson, John Peter; Sherwood, Andrew Neil. 1998. Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook. New York : Routledge

Kearney, Milo. 2004. The Indian Ocean in World History. New York : Routledge

Martin, Nelly; Shaalan, Cécile. 2004. The underwater site off Qaitbay Fort. Accessed on  07 Dec 2006.  http://www.cealex.org/sitecealex/navigation/FENETR_NAV_E.HTM

Page, Katherine Hall. 2003. The Body in the Lighthouse: A Faith Fairchild Mystery.

New York : Avon Books

PBS.ORG. 1997. Treasures of the Sunken City. Accessed on  07 Dec 2006http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2417treasures.html 

Sarton, George. 1993. Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries B.C.

Mineola, NY : Dover Publications

Woods, Mary B. 2000. Ancient Construction: From Tents to Towers. Minneapolis, MN : Runestone Press

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