Al Bakri's Rare Description of
the Ancient Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria
"At the harbor of Alexandria stands the tower called Pharos, the first wonder," wrote Epiphanius the Monk. "It is held together by glass and lead and is 600 yards high."
Such a height for the Lighthouse of Alexandria is highly unlikely, and "the first wonder" was the Pyramids, built long before the Pharos Lighthouse that was probably the Seventh Wonder of the Ancient World instead. Yet, the Lighthouse at Alexandria must have been an equal spectacle to see. However, Al Bakri, a medieval Arab traveler, who carefully observed it, when it was still standing tall during his visit to Alexandria, was probably more accurate than Epiphanius in the determination of its height. He reported:
"The Pharos today is composed of four stages. The first, of a rectangular design, is remarkably built in rectangular cut stones, of which the joints are so well concealed that the whole seems to be formed of a single block of stone, remaining insensible to the ravages of time. Its height is 320 cubits.
"At the top of the first stage, one is left with by each face of the building a space corresponding to the thickness of the wall, being eight spans, plus around ten extra cubits on the surface, which encloses the platform. One goes up to the second stage of the construction, which affects an octagonal plan, and a height of 80 cubits. On the periphery of the second platform, one is left with the space corresponding to the width of the wall of the second stage—plus eight cubits. And, from this enclosed surface, one ascends to a closing element of the construction, a rectangular design, with a height of around 50 cubits. At the top one finds a prayer chapel attributed to Solomon.
"On the northern face of the edifice is found an inscription in copper. No one has been able to decipher it, nor knows to what it corresponds. The door of the Pharos is of iron, and nobody knows when it was made. One goes up towards the door on departing from the foundation of the lighthouse by an inclined road, without noticing the incline. Likewise, one reaches the top of the first stage by an incline wide enough to permit the passage of two horsemen riding side by side, on ground appearing so flat that those who go up would not be able to say they are climbing or simply walking. At each of the bends of this incline is found a door to quarters, in the interior of which are found rooms ten to twenty cubits square, exposing garret-windows and vents designed to air out the smallest gust of wind against the lighthouse, which, without them, would run the risk of it collapsing. There are in the interior of the lighthouse 364 rooms. With regard to the bends of the ramp, they make up from bottom to top a total of 72, and each allows 12 steps [of progression]. All these rooms are covered with an arch of stones matched and cemented. The whole structure constituting the lighthouse has its components of masonry tied together by beams of teakwood."
So, in the eleventh century, the four-stage pharos stood 320 plus 80 plus 50 plus ? (eighteen-inch) cubits high—for a height of more than 675 feet. The first stage was square, the second was octagonal, the third was square, and the shape and height of the prayer chapel at the top is not given. However, its third stage would change to a round form at some time in the next century.
In 1375, Al-Maqrizi reported that the top of the Pharos cracked, following an earthquake. About 1480, with some of its rubble, the Mameluke sultan Kait Bey decided to construct a fort on its foundation. Thereafter, the whole Lighthouse eventually collapsed, much of it into the sea.
(A late eighteenth-century engraving of
the massive remains of the foundation of the Pharos)
In 1995, the classical scholar and archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur and his team of archaeologists and divers discovered some of its remains, blocks of stone weighing up to 75 tons, lying under the water in a northwesterly line marking its final fall into Alexandria’s bay. In an interview with Nova, with reference to these blocks of stone, Empereur was asked: "Have you found any Greek lettering on any of the blocks?" He answered: "We have found only one marble piece, which bears alpha, rho, tau, sigma and omega—five letters in Greek. In fact, it was a very huge inscription because the letters are more than 30 centimeters high and were in bronze. We found only the traces of these letters with holes in the marble. With five letters, it’s difficult to complete the inscription and to have an idea of the general text. But there is an American scholar who wrote an article about this inscription. And he made a restoration of the wall text, saying that, in fact, we discovered the inscription of the lighthouse itself."
A BBC report in 2000 informed us that "One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Alexandria’s lighthouse, is coming back to life. A French company says it has been given the go-ahead to build a modern version of the famous lighthouse . . . It is intended to reflect sunshine during the day and beam light 60 kms (37 miles) at night."
This is a splendid plan since it was the world’s first skyscraper, built almost 2,300 years ago—long before the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, or any of the other famous roofed edifices of recent times managed to surpass its great height. Nevertheless, the ancient Pharos at Alexandria remains the tallest and most amazing lighthouse ever built by any nation in any age—ancient or modern.
This page was last modified on Thursday, February 07, 2013