Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 11 June 2009
Issue No. 950
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A beacon's rebirth

Can Alexandria's ancient lighthouse, considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, be rebuilt to shine as it did before? Nevine El-Aref poses the question

Click to view caption
Graphic reconstruction of the lighthouse

Since its construction between 285 and 246 BC on the island of Pharos off the Eastern Cape (which was connected to the mainland by means of a man-made dyke seven stadions long and hence known as the Heptastadion -- thus giving Alexandria city a double harbour) the lighthouse built by the Greek architect Sastrotus of Cnidus during the reign of Ptolemy II has been famous one way or another. After it had ceased to be a beacon of light indicating the harbour to homecoming sailors, it remained in universal memory as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Now there is talk of recreating this epitome of a landmark.

The ancient Alexandria lighthouse played an important role in guiding sailors and navigators across the Mediterranean. In its day it also captured the imagination of the known world, and soon became the symbol of Alexandria. Soon after it was built, the building itself acquired the name of the island. The relationship between the name and the function became so ingrained that the word "pharos" is the root of the word "lighthouse" in several languages.

For nearly 15 centuries the Pharos continued to guide seafarers approaching the coast of Egypt into the city harbour. It was the prototype of many such buildings, and was classified by Antipater of Sidon on his list of ancient wonders. It was a propaganda tool demonstrating the power and strength of the Greeks who ruled Egypt.

The fullest description of it was provided by the famous Arab traveller Abu Haggag Youssef Ibn Mohamed Al-Andalousi during his visit in 1166 AD. He described it as a three-storey building; the first was a square platform 5.5m high; the intermediate floor was octagonal with an 18.30m side length and 27.45m high; while the third floor was circular with a ceiling 7.3m high supported by eight columns. The tower was surmounted by a cupola and a bronze statue. The total height including the foundation basement was about 117m, that is to say it was one of the tallest man-made structures of the time.

Several other authors proposed different values between 100 and 137m. The building contained about 300 rooms, which were used as living rooms for the lighthouse-keepers and staff or as storerooms. On the top floor, mirrors reflected sunlight during the day while fire was used at night.

The graphic reconstruction elaborated by Herman Thierch, a German who wrote a large work entitled Pharos that has served as a standard reference since it was published in 1909, remains up to now the popular view of the Alexandria lighthouse. Thierch studied images from coins, terracotta and Roman mosaics in Libya and Jordan. He also had recourse to a wall mosaic in Saint Mark's in Venice which carries a scene of the lighthouse, and he even undertook a study of various minarets in Egypt which are thought to have been copied from the tower.

With the exception of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the lighthouse survived the longest of the seven wonders -- it stood for about 1,500 years before being damaged by a series of earthquakes between the fourth and 14th centuries. The tower remained intact until the eighth century when its whole upper part was demolished by an earthquake. During the Islamic period the lighthouse was reconstructed by the Tulunids in 868-905 AD, but in 950 AD part of the surface cracked and the tower was reduced in height by 22m. In 1261 the lighthouse was again hit by an earthquake and another section collapsed. In 1272 Al-Nasser Salaheddin El-Ayoubi restored it again, which allowed it to survive until the 14th century when a severe earthquake hit the city and it collapsed completely.

The Muslim traveller Ibn Jubayr visited the city in 1183 and described the lighthouse as "the eyes fail to comprehend it and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle." The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta reported in the early 14th century that the lighthouse could no longer be entered and it lay in ruins, with even the stubby remnants having disappeared. A century later Sultan Qaitbay built his mediaeval fortress on top of the ruins, using the fallen stones.

Archaeologist Jean Yves Empereur, director of the French Centre for Alexandrian studies, wrote in his book published in 2002 that the ancient authors supplied only a few pieces of information about the Pharos, and in particular about its building materials. The Greek geographer Strabo, during his visit to Alexandria in about 25 BC, mentioned that the Pharos was build of white stone. None of the many early Arab travellers who saw the tower gave any idea about the type of stone used for building and decoration. Thierch indicates the presence of marble, limestone and bronze for the decorative statues.

Diverse theories about the building material of the lighthouse have followed one another. Some suggest it was built either of local limestone, nummulitic limestone, granite, alabaster or white marble. Contradictory information about the building materials overwhelmed the whole scientific and archaeological sphere in 1994, when Empereur commenced his submarine excavations in the area of the Qaitbay fortress. A great collection of ancient colossi, massive stone blocks and sphinxes have been found, among them 50 different-sized blocks that were part of the lighthouse.

Scientific examination of these blocks revealed that the lighthouse was constructed essentially of granites and sandstones, as well as some greywacke, marble and limestone. Archaeologists have put forward three reasons for the lack of limestone and marble blocks; first, these softer stones were difficult to identify underwater after having been eroded over the centuries by marine flora and fauna; second, the need for chalk to manufacture cement for the city of Alexandria; and third that these stones are much more easily worked and therefore were taken to be reemployed in later constructions such as the fortress itself and the adjacent Ottoman tower.

Since that time every archaeologist has dreamed of the resurrection of such a great monument. But can Alexandria's Pharos really be reconstructed in its original, glorious form?

This question has perplexed archaeologists and scientists. They do not really know the materials used in construction, nor the exact shape and height.

Three years ago, however, answers to these questions were made possible when Egypt participated in a three-year-long European Union project called the MIDSTONE. This project aimed at preserving ancient Mediterranean sites in terms of their ornamental and building stone through determining stone provenance to proposing conservation and restoration techniques. The MIDSTONE project proposes to contribute to the knowledge and conservation of three of the most important ancient sites in North Africa: Voluble in Morocco, Djemila in Algeria and the Alexandria lighthouse in Egypt. An atlas of the stones of every site will be also provided within the project.

This year the Atlas of the Stones of Alexandria Lighthouse is being presented in a three-day conference at Cairo University and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Amr El-Tibi, the project coordinator, says the scientific objective of the project is to identify the stones of the lighthouse and determine their provenance in terms of the geographical area. The data and results obtained are being presented in an accessible form including photographs and maps, i.e. the Atlas.

El-Tibi explained that a detailed study of the blocks was performed to categorise megascopically the main types of stones related to the Pharos, and a first series of 32 samples was collected. As most of the stones related to the lighthouse were still under water, a second series of 35 samples was collected by divers from submerged architectonic blocks. The whole of the 67 archaeological samples were described megascopically and categorised in the laboratory in terms of their petrographic type of stone and physical chemical properties. Studies revealed that the Pharos was indeed composed of granite, greywacke limestone, fine to coarse-grained sandstones, marble and sandstones with dolomitic cement to sandy dolostone found at the basement of Qaitbay fort.

The stones derived from two quarries not far from Alexandria at Mexx and Abusir, as well as from quarries in Moqattam near Cairo; Samalut; Minya; and Drunka in Assiut; Serai and Tarawan.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities )SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that he was very happy to introduce the results of this important project on the study of the stones of the Alexandria lighthouse. "This outstanding cooperative effort between the SCA and the European Union brought together teams from Egypt, France, Italy, Greece and Germany to identify and study remains of the lighthouse that are still at the site today," Hawass said.

He added that with the help of Empereur, who drew the attention to the location of the pieces lying submerged in the harbour of Alexandria, the team was able to classify the stone blocks that made up the remains of the lighthouse. One of the most interesting results, he said, was the identification of stones that they were able to match with the quarries from which they came. The provenance of the coarse-grained pink and grey granite blocks was from the quarries of Aswan, while pieces of greywacke were confirmed to have come from Wadi Hammamat. They also, Hawass said, succeeded in identifying the quarry in Greece from where the marble used in the lighthouse was obtained.

"The studies of these different types of stone will obviously make it possible to use correct methods for their conservation," Hawass said. "I believe that this excellent work to document the stones used in building the Alexandria lighthouse could eventually be used as a guide to reconstructing this amazing structure."

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