I just got back from a trip to Alexandria, adding yet another notch to my Egyptian Tourism belt. This post is by no means a detailed account of the trip (which may be consigned to the backblog category) but just one piece of it – the lighthouses.

I’ve always had a fascination for lighthouses, and still harbor the lurking dream of my childhood to live in one by a choppy coast (in Cornwall, Maine, British Columbia??). Which might be the reason that along with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria are the three of the seven wonders of the ancient (classical) world that I never forget in my enumeration. But what I knew about the lighthouse, or rather what I thought I knew, turned out to be just a small detail of a far more fascinating story than I had imagined! Although, why I should be surprised at this turn of events, after a year and half under the aegis of John Swanson, I cannot fathom. I should be used to such revelations by now…

Anyway, the basic details of the Alexandrian Lighthouse or the Pharos – not to be confused with Pharaohs, another subject of Egyptian legends, but whose phonetic similarity to the towers of lights is likely pure coincidence – is the stuff of legend embellished upon the facts which are pretty amazing on their own. im002755Built by the Ptolemies in the 3rd century B.C., the Pharos stood at the tip of a peninsula in Alex and served (as all lighthouses are supposed to) as a marker to guide the ships to safe harbor. It was a huge edifice, rivaled only by the much older, great Pyramids in height, measuring over 100 meters in height. Drawings and descriptions tell us that it has a three-part structure – a broad octagonal base, whose dimensions correspond closely to the outer walls of the 15th century fort Qait Bey that now occupies the site; a very tall cylindrical part that gave the tower its height and housed the staircase leading up to the top; and a cupola like structure which gave the lighthouse its light, in the form of a large fire, which was magnified with mirrors.

Garbled stories about it and the library (subject for a separate post) had created this vague impression in my head that it has been set fire to and demolished in antiquity, but in fact the lighthouse survived into the middle ages, and was a fully functional structure until the 14th century or so when a particularly violent earthquake caused it to topple into the sea, where pieces of it still reside, while other pieces [ massive boulder-sized pieces] have been dredged up and can be seen in an open air museum at the Kom-el-dikka site.

What turned out to be the most amazing thing to me, was that this great Pharos, was not the only lighthouse in antiquity, though it was certainly the tallest and most important by far, as well as the only one to have actually stood by the sea. im002785It seems to have belonged to an entire chain or system of lighthouses built by the Ptolemies along the north coast of Egypt east of Alexandria, which was its main port, to help guide ships being blown in westward by the winds from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey etc. The sole surviving structure from this chain is a lighthouse at ta place now known as Burg al-Arab some 20 km east of Alex. It stands overlooking another monument from the period, the ruins of a temple dedicated to Osiris, one corner of which is according to popular myth a possible burial place of Cleopatra.These lighthouses were basically similar to the great Pharos in structure, but stood only about a third of its height (about 30-35 meters cupola inclusive) atop a limestone ridge that runs a few kilometers, if that from the coast. Imagine the solace this series of fires must have offered to the sailors, a sign that land was near, and a preparation for the stunning sight of the great tower ahead!

im002791What survives today is the octagonal base and a stump of the cylindrical tower of the lighthouse. Its possible to climb to the top of the octagonal base via a frighteningly rickety wooden staircase – which I’m sure is a modern day contraption to replace the disintegrated original, which was probably brick or stone –  covered with sand that zigzags its way up the shaft of the tower. The photographic proof of the courage of our party, and though the faces are too small to pick up with my zoom, I assure you that the little ones August and William are up there, along with their truly courageous Mom, who had both them and their nearly-born baby brother in tow. They had already decended, before I even started on my way up – just as well, for you do not want to share this confined spaces here. If you brave those stairs [ Missed photo opportunity] then certainly do not miss going up the stone stairs  in the cylindrical part to reach the current top. I did it and let me assure you it was a lot less scary than the wooden stairwell! More Alexandrian trivia on the next post…