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What was the Lighthouse of Alexandria? - Part 1 of the 'Seven Wonderful Wonders’ series.

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

There were seven wonders of the ancient world. Seven wondrous buildings that blew the socks off (Okay, probably not socks back then. Let's say sandals were getting blown off instead) anyone who saw them. In our ‘Seven Wonderful Wonders’ series, here on the Imagining History Blog, we’ll be checking out each of these marvels of human engineering and ingenuity. There’ll be a new article in the series every fortnight, so be sure to check back here regularly for your next history fun time fix.

First up, we investigate the Lighthouse of Alexandria:

3D reconstruction of the Lighthouse. Courtesy SciVi 3D studio

What was it?

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was exactly as its name suggests. It was a lighthouse. In Alexandria.

Whoa. Thanks for that.

Are you being sarcastic?

No. Absolutely not.

Hang on, you’re being sarcastic!

Who can say for certain? Could you at least give me a bit more information to go on? Like, what is Alexandria?

Alexandria was a city founded in the north of Ancient Egypt by the legendary conqueror Alexander the Great. It became a super-famous place, thanks to its Museum

and Library. There were two places where brainy people congregated and wrote about philosophy, did mathematics, and composed poems. Alexandria was also a coastal city, and as such had fleets of ships turning up to trade. There was a problem though, the dangerous rocks all along the coast. Those pesky rocky blighters meant that loads of ships would crash, long before they reached Alexandria. As such, a lighthouse was needed. A really really big one that would show the captains and their ships which was the safe route to the harbour.

A really really big one?

Yeah, like, really really big. At the time of its construction, around 300 – 280 BC, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the second biggest man-made structure ever built. It was around 100 metres in height! Only the Great Pyramid of Giza was taller.

These coins, minted in Alexandria in the second century AD, show the Lighthouse in all its awesomeness.

Did the Lighthouse work?

Absolutely! Built on the island of Pharos, the lighthouse could be seen by any and every approaching ship. It had an ingenious reflector, a massive, curved mirror basically, that would turn the light from the sun into a powerful beam of light that could be used to direct ships to the harbour.

Wait, so the Lighthouse didn’t work at night? What’s the point of that? Night-time is the exact time that you need to have a lighthouse!

Hang on, hang on. It did work at night! But rather than use the light from the sun to power its beam, an enormous bonfire was lit instead. A team of caretakers would have to ferry wood up the steep twisting Lighthouse staircase every night, all night, to keep the fire burning.

That’s impressive!

Sure is!

The underwater remains of the Lighthouse. Courtesy Roland Unger.

So, is the Lighthouse still standing? Can I go see it today?

Sadly not. The Lighthouse of Alexandria had a good inning and stood for nearly one thousand years. In fact, as you’ll see in the ‘Seven Wonderful Wonders’ series, the Lighthouse outlasted most of the other wonders. However, three earthquakes, between 956 and 1323 AD, ultimately brought the lighthouse crashing to the ground.

Is that the end of the story?

Not exactly. In 1994, some French archaeologists found some blocks of the Lighthouse submerged in the sea. 36 of these granite pieces can be seen in various museums in Alexandria. Not only that, but the remains of houses, wharves, and temples have been found in the waters surrounding Pharos Island. You can go diving and see them! Today. Right now. This moment. Go! Go! Stop reading this and go diving!!! RIGHT NOW!!!


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