Eye witness accounts of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the Ancient World


Pharos Alexandria - Fischer von Erlach (Source)

The Lighthouse of Alexandria is one of the wonders of the Ancient World. It was still a great tourist attraction well into the medieval period, and was visited by many travellers to the city that were impressed by its magnitude.

 
Lighthouse on an old map (Source

The lighthouse was constructed in the 3rd century BCE during the reigns of Ptolemy I (Soter) and his son Ptolemy II (Philadelphus).

It has been said that it was seriously impaired by number of natural disasters between 10th and 14th Century, eventually collapsed completely and last of it remains castoff in the construction of the Citadel of Qaitbay (Kait Bey) dated back to late 15th Century. 

It lasted for a long time as one of the ancient wonders, alongside with the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the present Great Pyramid of Giza.

There are very different opinions on the height of the lighthouse (as seen on the figure below). Because of different views, its size varies dramatically; to an extent the number roughly changes between 100 and 200 meters high.


Studies of Thiersch 1909 and Shenouda 2006 (Source)

Size calculations were mostly based on the witness records of travellers from Muslim World.

For example, according to Judith McKenzie, "The Arab descriptions of the lighthouse are remarkably consistent, although it was repaired several times especially after earthquake damage. The height they give varies only fifteen per cent from c 103 to 118 m [338 to 387 ft], on a base c. 30 by 30 m [98 by 98 ft] square... the Arab authors indicate a tower with three tapering tiers, which they describe as square, octagonal and circular, with a substantial ramp"

Overall it seems enormous in the eyes of the travellers of those times. As one of the eye witnesses wrote in awe “competes with the skies in height…”

The lighthouse was particularly admired and often visited and described by people from Islamic civilisation. This could be due to partly of its mighty size, but perhaps also because of the interest in its technology as seen in the function of its mirrors.

Although pre-Islamic sources are rare, writers from Muslim World provided more records of its detailed description and configuration along with tales and legends.

For Ibn Jubayr, the traveller and geographer from Muslim civilisation, Alexandria in Egypt was one of the first places he visited back in 12th Century. This trip left strong impressions on him, especially Alexandria's famed giant lighthouse, of which he had this to say:

One of the greatest wonders that we saw in this city was the lighthouse which Great and Glorious God had erected by the hands of those who were forced to such labour as 'a sign to those who take warning from examining the fate of others' [Quran: 15:75] and as a guide to voyagers, for without it they could not find the true course to Alexandria. It can be seen for more than seventy miles, and is of great antiquity. It is most strongly built in all directions and competes with the skies in height. Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle."
 

There are also drawings of the ancient the lighthouse based on travellers’ personal observations such as Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati’s manuscript:


..drawing of the ancient Light House of Alexandria by Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati (Source)

There are other interpretations of its description from the Islamic World such as al-idrisi, al-Balawi, al-Mas'udi , Muhammad ibn Iyas, al-Bakri, Nasir-i Khusraw, Muqaddasi and many more…

For more information and references about how high it was, who built it, its function, where, when, who and how questions and details, please read more in the Muslim Heritage article:

Lighthouse of Alexandria in the sources from Islamic Civilisation

More Images

We do not know the authour(s) of the manuscript but the image is the Light House of Alexandria, can also be found on a page from a 14th and 15th century Arabic manuscript known as Kitab al-bulhan which means "Book of Wonders":


Light House of Alexandria image in "Book of Wonders" (Source)


From Mojmal al-tavariḵ va al-qesas, which is "an anonymous chronicle from the 12th century in the Persian tradition of literary historiography" (Source

 


"The Islamic History of the Lighthouse of Alexandria" by Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Muqarnas (Source)

 


One of the modern interpretations of the Lighthouse of Alexandria
Video: Egypt to Rebuild Lighthouse of Alexandria 


A size comparison of the Ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria (PHAROS) between a 1909 study (Thiersch) and a 2006 study of the building (Shenouda) (Source)

 

...drawing of the ancient Light House of Alexandria by Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati (Source)