Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, also known as the Pharos Lighthouse, was one of seven wonders of the ancient world. It stood along the northeastern shore of Pharos Island, near the Egyptian city founded by (and named for) Alexander the Great.


The lighthouse was designed by Sostratus (a Greek from the Asia Minor city of Cnidus) and built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom (a successor of Alexander the Great) between 280 and 247 BC. The well-built structure lasted for thousands of years (despite earthquake damage).

Because of its height—it stood between 394–449 feet (120–137 meters)—sailors on the Mediterranean could see it from many miles away. Why are scholars uncertain about its exact height? Because historical records indicate the lighthouse's measurements in "cubits" (and cubits had differing measurements in different places).

Sosatratus dedicated the lighthouse with these words (which he carved into the structure):

Sostratos of Cnidus, son of Dexiphanes, to the savior gods, for sailors

Historical records tell us that people could climb-up to an observation deck around 300 feet above sea level. One can only imagine the view at a time when access to such heights was non-existent for most individuals. Historians, however, are uncertain about the light source for this massive structure.

Jimmy Dunn—writing an article, called "Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria," for “Tour Egypt”—tells us how it might be that the lighthouse survived for nearly two millennia (despite vicious storms which sometimes sweep through the Mediterranean):

A Moorish geographer from Spain, Idrisi, who visited the tower in 1115 AD, was so impressed with the structure that he numbered all of its stairs and measured the height of its balconies, bazaars and tower. Fifty years later, another Moorish scholar, undertook an examination of the tower and tells us that the base tier rested on massive blocks of red granite and that the blocks were joined not by mortar but by molten lead so as to reinforce the structure against the heavy pounding of the sea.

Destroyed by an earthquake, which shook the eastern Mediterranean on 8 August 1303, the lighthouse was in ruins for a number of years. Dunn tells us about the Pharos ruins in the aftermath of the destructive quake:

A traveler named Ibn Battuta visited Alexandria twice, once in 1329 and again in 1346. In the first visit, he was still able to climb the ramp and reach the door of the tower, but on the second visit, the lighthouse was in such ruins that he could no longer get near it. These ruins remained for just over a century, until the Mamluk sultan Qait Bey finally had them cleared away in order to construct his fort which still stands there today. Supposedly, it uses some of the stone blocks form the Lighthouse in its walls.

Ibn Battuta also reported that the harbor at Alexandria was divided in two (due to a causeway, called the Heptastadion, which linked the island of Pharos to the mainland). The western harbor was called Eunostus; the eastern harbor was known as Portus Mangus. During the times of Ibn Battuta's visits, each harbor had separate users:

Of the dozens of international ports Ibn Battuta visited in the course of his travels, Alexandria impressed him as among the five most magnificent. There was not one harbor but two, the eastern reserved for Christian ships, the western for Muslim. They were divided by Pharos Island and the colossal lighthouse which loomed over the port and could be seen several miles out to sea. (See The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century, by Ross E. Dunn, at page 41.)

Of the ancient world's seven wonders, the Lighthouse at Pharos was the last to be built and the longest to survive. Parts of it are still being found, underwater, thanks to the disoveries of a young diver who, in 1962, was looking for fish at a depth of about 24 feet.

Something besides fish caught this diver's eye, however, when he saw what appeared to be large fragments of a broken statue. One piece was more than twenty feet long. When professional divers, from Egypt's navy, investigated this story, they verified what the fisherman had found. The fragments were likely from a huge and ancient statue of Poseidon.

In 1994, scuba divers—who were also archaeologists—returned to explore the underwater site. Jean-Yves Empereur and his team found large stone blocks which once may have been part of the wondrous lighthouse.

The seventh wonder of the ancient world has been depicted many times, over the years, by numerous artists. This engraving, which imagines the Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria, was created circa 1721. It is from a book on historic architecture (Entwurf einer historischen Architektur) by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach.

Click on the image for a better view.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5189stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jun 10, 2017

Updated Last Revision: Mar 21, 2019

Media Credits

Illustration of the Pharos Lighthouse, at Alexandria, by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. Published in his 1721 book of historical architecture, entitled (in German) "Entwurf einer historischen Architektur." Online via Wikimedia Commons.


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"Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria" AwesomeStories.com. Jun 10, 2017. Dec 07, 2019.
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