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Graphic reconstruction of the lighthouse according to a comprehensive study of 2006

The Lighthouse of Alexandria (or The Pharos of Alexandria, Greek: ) was a tower built in the 3rd century BC (between 285 and 247 BC) on the island of Pharos in Alexandriamarker, Egyptmarker to serve as that port's landmark, and later, its lighthouse.

With a height variously estimated at between it was identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Antipater of Sidon. It may have been the world's third tallest building after the two Great Pyramids (of Khufu and Khafra) for its entire life.


Pharos was a small island just off the coast of Alexandria. It was linked to the mainland by a man-made connection named the Heptastadion, which thus formed one side of the city's harbor. As the Egyptian coast is very flat and lacking in the kind of landmark used at the time for navigation, a marker of some sort at the mouth of the harbour was deemed necessary — a function the Pharos was initially designed to serve. Use of the building as a lighthouse, with a fire and reflective mirrors at the top, is thought to date to around the 1st century AD, during the Roman period. Prior to that time the Pharos served solely as a landmark or day beacon.

Construction and destruction

The lighthouse was completed in the 3rd century BC, after having been initiated by Satrap (governor) Ptolemy I Soter, Egypt's first Macedonian ruler and a general of Alexander the Great. After Alexander died unexpectedly at age 32, Ptolemy Soter (Saviour, named so by the inhabitants of Rhodes) made himself king in 305 BC and ordered the construction of the Pharos shortly thereafter. The building was finished during the reign of his son, Ptolemy Philadelphos.

According to legend, Sostratus was forbidden by Ptolemy from putting his name on his work. But the architect left the following inscription on the base's walls nonetheless:
"Sostratus, the son of Dexiphanes, the Cnidian, dedicated (or erected) this to the Saviour gods, on behalf of those who sail the seas"; the original Greek inscription "ΣΟΣΤΡΑΤΟΣ ΔΕΞΙΦΑΝΟΥ ΚΝΙΔΙΟΣ ΘΕΟΙΣ ΣΩΤΕΡΣΙΝ ΥΠΕΡ ΤΩΝ ΠΛΩΙΖΟΜΕΝΩΝ" literally means: "Sostratos of Dexiphanes [meaning: son of Dexiphanes] the Cnidian to Saviour Gods for the seafarers (or seafaring [ones])"
These words were hidden under a layer of plaster, on top of which was chiseled another inscription honoring Ptolemy the king as builder of the Pharos. After centuries the plaster wore away, revealing the name of Sostratus.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria
The lighthouse was badly damaged in the earthquake of 956, then again in 1303 and 1323. The fullest description of it comes from the Arab traveller Abou Haggag Youssef Ibn Mohammed el-Andaloussi, who visited the structure as a tourist in 1166. His description runs:

The el-Andaloussi description of the dimensions does not appear to match the Thiersch drawing, the classic painting, or the graphic reconstruction, all of which show buildings with a footprint that would have been a square at least on a side, based on the scale of surrounding objects.

There are ancient claims the light from the lighthouse could be seen from up to away. Unconfirmed legends claim the light from Pharos could burn enemy ships before they reached shore.

Constructed from large blocks of light-coloured stone, the tower was made up of three stages: a lower square section with a central core, a middle octagonal section, and, at the top, a circular section. At its apex was positioned a mirror which reflected sunlight during the day; a fire was lit at night. Extant Roman coins struck by the Alexandrian mint show that a statue of a triton was positioned on each of the building's four corners. A statue of Poseidon stood atop the tower during the Roman period.

The Pharos' walls were strengthened in order to withstand the pounding of the waves through the use of molten lead to hold its masonry together , and possibly as a result the building survived the longest of the Seven Wonders — with the sole exception of the Great Pyramid of Gizamarker. It was still standing when the Muslim traveller Ibn Jubayr visited the city in 1183. He said of it that: "Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle." It appears that in his time, a church was located on the top.

The two earthquakes in 1303 and 1323 damaged the lighthouse to the extent that the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta reported no longer being able to enter the ruin. Even the stubby remnant disappeared in 1480, when the then-Sultan of Egypt, Qaitbay, built a medieval fort on the former location of the building using some of the fallen stone. The remnants of the Pharos that were incorporated into the walls of Fort Qaitbay are clearly visible owing to their excessive size in comparison with surrounding masonry.

The fate of the Lighthouse of Alexandria from the Arab conquest until its collapse in the 14th century has been investigated by Doris Behrens-Abouseif in her article "The Islamic History of the Lighthouse of Alexandria".

Recent archaeological research

Some remains of the lighthouse were found on the floor of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour by divers in the autumn of 1994. More of the remains have subsequently been revealed by satellite imaging.

A Nova program chronicled the underwater discovery of the fabled Pharos lighthouse. It is possible to go diving and see the ruins.


Pharos became the etymological origin of the word 'lighthouse' in Greek (φάρος), Bulgarian (фар) and many Romance languages, such as French (phare),Italian (faro), Portuguese (farol), Spanish (faro), Romanian, and Catalan (far).

The design of minarets in many early Egyptian Islamic mosques followed a similar three-stage design to that of the Pharos, attesting to the building's broader architectural influence.

Pharos in culture

The Pharos of Abusir, an ancient funerary monument thought to be modeled after the Pharos at Alexandria, with which it is approximately contemporaneous

In architecture

  • A well-preserved ancient tomb in the town of Abusirmarker, southwest of Alexandria, is thought to be a scaled-down model of the Alexandria Pharos. Known colloquially under various names — the Pharos of Abusir, the Abusir funerary monument and Burg al-Arabmarker (Arab's Tower) — it consists of a 3-story tower, approximately in height, with a square base, a hexagonal midsection and cylindrical upper section, like the building upon which it was apparently modeled. It dates to the reign of Ptolemy II (285-246 BC), and is therefore likely to have been built at about the same time as the Alexandria Pharos.
  • The Tower of Herculesmarker, near A Coruñamarker in Spainmarker, a 2nd century AD Roman lighthouse, is closely modelled on the Alexandrian Pharos.
  • A replica of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was constructed in the Window of the Worldmarker Cultural Park in Shenzhenmarker, Chinamarker.
  • The design of the George Washington Masonic National Memorialmarker in Alexandria, Virginiamarker was partially inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

In books

The lighthouse became a renowned structure throughout the world and is mentioned in many different pieces of literature. It was even described at length in the Zhufan Zhi (諸蕃志, "Records of Foreign Peoples") by Zhao Rugua (1170-1228), a Chinese customs inspector for the port city of Quanzhoumarker during the Song Dynasty.

Matthew Reilly uses this ancient wonder as the location of a piece of the golden capstone in his novel that states in the cultural section from Book 2 of the Cambridge Latin Course, the Pharos of Alexandria is mentioned, along with the history of Alexandria, as one of the greatest international ports of the ancient world.Also mentioned in Enid Blyton's "Five Go To Demon's Rocks", in a conversation between "Julian" and "Anne" about an earthquake destroying a lighthouse. (Published in 1961.)


  1. in: Muqarnas XXIII [2006], pp. 1-14)
  2. NOVA online - Treasures of the Sunken City
  3. Petersen A.: Dictionary of Islamic Architecture, page 188. Routledge, 1996.
  4. Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 3: Civil Engineering and Nautics. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd. Page 662.

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