The Lighthouse of Alexandria

This monument to engineering and ancient culture stood as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Built around 280 BC, the 134m tall tower was set within the newly created city Alexandria. The lighthouse was built be Macedonia king Alexander the Great. The lighthouse served both a practical and political purpose. The size and complexity of the Lighthouse demonstrates a unique look into the innovative thinking of the time. By understanding who built this structure, why it was built, what made it innovative, and what was its downfall, humanity can better understand its potential to inspire.

Who Built It?

To better understand such a marvel of technology and architecture, one must look at the political powers behind the structure. The lighthouse of Alexandria was given its name from the ancient Macedonian king Alexander the Great. Known for his political power and devastating military prowess, the twenty-two year old king quickly established his dominance of the battlefield. Alexander and his fearsome Companion cavalry waged a massive campaign of global domination. The companion cavalry were the king's personal guard and his most elite units. Alexander would lead the charge amongst the companion cavalry and smash any opposition. Historians believe that this was the first use of shock cavalry and their efficiency was well felt. Alexander the Great sought to conquer the world and slowly conquered all those who opposed him. After suppressing a revolt in Greece, Alexander sought to expand his power. At twenty-two, Alexander launched his campaign. Asia and Persia quickly fell to the new king. The Macedonian king entered Egypt in 331 BCE. He was hailed as a liberator to the Egyptian people who had suffered under Persian rule. Thus, Alexander sought to solidify his victory by creating a city in his name. The newly set Alexandria would be the first of many cities created by Alexander but it served as a hub for economic and political power in the region. Set in the mouth of the Nile River, Alexandria was poised to dominate the landscape. Alexander would not live to see his city flourish and the lighthouse finished. For the task of erecting the great lighthouse, Alexander left the general Ptolemy Soter in charge. This general would later be given the title Pharaoh Ptolemy the I by the Egyptian people. The lighthouse was finished under the reign of his son, Pharaoh Ptolemy the II who reigned between 283 BCE and 246 BCE. The monument was designed by Sostratus, the son of Dexiphanes. Sostratus was a wealthy Alexandrian courtier and a diplomat who relished the chance to create something of this magnitude. The lighthouse was considered the newest wonder of the world.

Why it was built?

Though fueled by bloodshed and conquest, the lighthouse of Alexandra was created for a noble purpose. The lighthouse was created to be a guide for sea faring travelers and safely guide them back home. The Mediterranean Sea was known for hostile weather and water hazards. With no navigation tools other than stars or eyesight, the sea offered a host of challenges for sea faring people. In addition, Sailors faced hardship due to Egypt's flat featureless land which offered no navigational clues. Considering the prominence Alexandria played in trade, the lighthouse beacon would have been a welcome feature. In addition, the lighthouse glorified Hellenistic art and culture. The monument demonstrated the prowess of a collective culture. The structure was considered such a modern marvel that it was depicted in roman coins at the time. The lighthouse of Alexandria was also known as the Pharos Lighthouse due to the landmass it was built on. The structure stood as a literal and spiritual beacon of hope for the people. The lighthouse operated by providing a steady light source at night or day which could be used for navigational purposes by others.

What made it innovative?

The lighthouse stood as a technological and architectural masterpiece. The main draw for the lighthouse was the massive scale and the light source. The lighthouse stood four hundred and forty feet, or over thirty stories high, and was constructed out of white marble. Interestingly the structure serves as a predecessor to current lighthouse designs. The ancient lighthouse held more structural similarities to a skyscraper than a light house. There were three stages, each stacked on top of the next. The lowest level was estimated to be more than two hundred in height and was shaped like a massive square. The lighthouse was accessible via a large spiral ramp similar to pyramid construction techniques. The next section was an eight sided tower. This section provided the needed height for the lighthouse.

Taking the structure a step further, there was a cylinder shaped section which housed the fire for the lighthouse. This area was open and allowed the fire light to illuminate the lighthouse at night. On top of the flame house, there was believed to be a massive statue of Poseidon. Unfortunately, historical records do not clearly specify if this was the actual depicted deity at the top of the lighthouse. As an added comfort, archeologists believe that a fuel dumbwaiter was present to keep transporting fire fuel and there were staircases created throughout the structure. One report even outlines a large curved mirror that projected the generated light into a beam. The report later specifies that this could boost the light's visibility up to one-hundred miles away.

What was its downfall?

Sadly, like many of the ancient wonders of the world, this marvel fell in time. In the fourteenth century, a series of earthquakes rocked Alexandria. It is believed that the first struck in 956 AD but only caused superficial damage to the structure. Two additional earthquakes struck in 1303 and 1323 AD which caused immense damage to the structure. These structural wounds would linger despite the restoration work done by the people of Alexandria. The structure simply could not continue to function in the face of such destruction.

References

"Alexander the Great (Alexander of Macedon) Biography." History of Macedonia and the Macedonian Nation. 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 2 Apr. 2011. <http://www.historyofmacedonia.org/AncientMacedonia/AlexandertheGreat.html>.

Clemet, Colin. "The Pharos of Alexandria." Hellenic Electronic Center. 1 Jan. 1998. Web. 1 Apr. 2011. <http://www.greece.org/hec01/www/arts-culture/alexandria/pharos/>.

"Lighthouse of Alexandria." Ancient Egypt. Web. 1 Apr. 2011. <http://www.king-tut.org.uk/ancient-egypt/lighthouse-of-alexandria.htm>.

"Seven Wonders of the World - Light House of Alexandria." Seven Wonder of the World - Ancient Times. Web. 1 Apr. 2011. <http://www.sevenwondersworld.com/wonders_of_world_lighthouse_alexandria.html>.

"The Seven Wonders: The Lighthouse of Alexandria." Egypt WWW Index. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <http://www.authenticwonders.com/Wonders/pharos.html>.