The Buried Secrets of the World’s Very First Lighthouse
For 1600 years, the Pharos stood on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea guiding ships into the port of Alexandria, before an earthquake consigned it to the bottom of the ocean.
Well before the calendar reset to year one, Alexandria was a bustling hub of technological innovation and commerce that attracted some of the greatest minds in the world.
You can imagine the relief Caesar, Mark Antony, and many leaders of the day felt as they traveled to the city—some to be inspired, others with mischievous political ambitions—and finally caught sight of the Pharos, a beacon of hope and light after their long journey on the Mediterranean Sea.
For millennia, lighthouses have been guiding the way for sailors looking for a sign of home or those fighting to survive while on the vast ocean.
They have been a source of fascination for many and played a pivotal role in the lives of others, and all because of the insight of the men who invented the very first lighthouse—over 2,000 years ago.
For 1600 years, it stood on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, guiding ships into the port of Alexandria, first for the Greeks, then the Romans, and finally for the Arabs before an earthquake consigned the revolutionary structure—considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—to the bottom of the sea.
But before it went down, it would become the model for every lighthouse that was to come after.
The next day, Alexander visited the island and decided that it was the perfect spot on which he would build his great city.
“Probably Alexander’s idea in developing Pharos Island was to supplant permanently the Syrian ports he had destroyed,” Clair Price wrote in The New York Times in 1923. “For this purpose he connected the island with the mainland by building two long moles which have long since been widened into solid ground.”
While Alexander created the great metropolis, it is his successor, Ptolemy I, who is believed to have set in motion the plans for a tall structure on the point of Pharos that would signal approaching ships.
As with all buildings in the ancient world, it was to be a memorial to gods and kings, but it was also created to serve a practical purpose. The Egyptian coastline was low and flat—a danger to incoming ships with low visibility. They needed a beacon that would help guide these vessels safely to port.
The structure was designed by the Greek architect Sostratus of Cnidus, and it was completed two years after Ptolemy’s son, Ptolemy II, began his reign.
To create this giant beacon in the sky, Sostratus designed a building composed of three tiers: the first and largest was a square, the second an octagon, and the third a cylinder that gave way to a spiral ramp that led to the top where the signal fires would burn day and night.
From accounts that have been passed down through the ages, the architecture of the first ever lighthouse was gorgeous. The walls of each tier sloped slightly in to guide the eye to the point at the top, where a giant statue stood in triumph (some say it was of the water god Poseidon, others of the sun god Helios). But it was the technology that truly made Pharos so influential.
At the very top of the 350-feet tall structure (only the pyramids of Gaza were taller at the time) was a room where a fire burned around the clock to light the way for miles and miles around (legend says it could be seen up to 33 miles away, although historians in the early 20th century suggested a more modest 27).
At night, the light from the fire would guide ships safely into harbor, while during the day, the smoke emitted from the blaze would serve as the signal.
This structure was so influential that its name, Pharos after the island on which it was built, would be adopted by several Romance languages as the official word for “lighthouse,” and the study of lighthouses and their signal lights would come to be known as “pharology.”
The first signal fires were lit on a momentous day sometime around 280 B.C.
Over the next few centuries, commerce continued to bustle and ships continued to find safe harbor in the port, guided by the fires that burned bright at the top of the Pharos.
The leading minds of the day studied at the Library of Alexandria and invented ideas and technologies that continue to influence our world, while merchants traded wares from all over the expanding globe.
But, as inevitably happens, the government was not so stable. First the Romans took over the city, and then the Arabs, who ruled starting in 640 A.D.
Despite the political turmoil, the light of the Pharos burned bright and steady. Each new class of rulers realized the valuable creation they had on their hands and they used it to keep their ships—and their economics—safe and sound.
However, the Greeks hated to watch one of their precious inventions being used to enrich the usurpers. As legend has it, one particular Greek courtier had had enough. He concocted a plan to turn himself into the Arabian Caliph who was running Alexandria, and claim that he wanted to relocate to the city and convert to Islam.
Slowly he gained the new government’s trust (surely his cause wasn’t hurt by the offerings of gold and riches he brought), and when they were firmly convinced he was on their side, he revealed a big secret. He told them that there was buried treasure underneath the Pharos.
“Not even an Arabian Caliph could resist the treasure lure and he ordered the tower torn down. Not until it was half demolished did he discover that he had been tricked,” explained a 1923 piece in The New York Times. “It was never rebuilt to its original glory. And from that time on an evil fate seemed to hang over it.”
The Arabian rulers tried to refurbish their actual treasure, but the result was never quite the same.
While the Pharos continued its purpose as a lighthouse, a domed mosque was eventually built at the top of the structure where the faithful could pray “where the sight of the open sea would inspire a deep humility.”
But a series of earthquakes continued to weaken the already fragile structure, and in the 14th century, one big earthquake finally did it in. The tower came crumbling down into the sea, where it remained.
Over the millennia since the golden age of ancient Alexandria, the waters around the city continue to be a treasure trove of riches—art, architectural, and other remains of the once glorious city lay buried on the bed of the sea.
“Fishermen and frogmen have brought in reports of other discoveries—marble cases, sarcophagi, Roman coins and granite columns—buried under seaweed and shells in the vicinity,” Jay Walz reported in The New York Times in 1962.
But it was archeological finds discovered in the vicinity of where the Pharos once towered over the harbor that continue to excite historians.
In 1923, a French engineer discovered 30 giant slabs that he believes might have been columns from the Pharos. In 1962, a skindiver was out spear fishing in the area when he discovered a statue, a sphinx, and a column buried on the seafloor.
The biggest finds came in 1994, when French archeologist Jean-Yves Empereur discovered several giant masonry blocks and statuary that are believed to have belonged to the Pharos.
Remains of the Pharos are by no means the only treasures in the area. In fact, the area is so rich in archeological finds, that the government of Egypt has proposed the creation of a underwater museum that would allow visitors to take in these treasures buried on the seafloor while also helping to preserve them from pollution.
While the plan has been in talks for decades, the Egyptian government again recommitted to it in 2016.
“This area was one of the most important areas in the world for around 1,000 years,” Mohamed Abd El-Maguid, the head of the department of underwater activities at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Smithsonian Magazine. “In five meters of water, we have these remains of palaces and temples, but nothing people can see with their own eyes. Having a museum like this will attract more tourists that will help the economy move again.”