What is the Lighthouse of Alexandria?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The lighthouse of Alexandria is an ancient structure, now collapsed, that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The lighthouse, with a height between 115 and 150 m (380 and 490 ft), was located on the island of Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt, the country's largest port in antiquity. The lighthouse of Alexandria was constructed between 285 and 247 BC by Ptolemy I Soter, a general and possible half-brother of Alexander the Great. When Alexander died prematurely, Ptolemy was one of his generals that grabbed a part of his former territory -- in his case, Egypt. The lighthouse of Alexandria was constructed shortly after Ptolemy declared himself king of Egypt.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

According to legend, Sostratus of Cnidus, the architect of the lighthouse, was forbidden by Ptolemy to put his name anywhere on it, as Ptolemy, being a newly minted king, wanted all the glory to himself. After the construction of the building, it seemed that Sostratus had obeyed Ptolemy, but centuries later, it was revealed that Sostratus did indeed sign the building, only he covered up his inscription with plaster. Only after centuries of age did the plaster fall off.

Not just a tower, the lighthouse of Alexandria was a thick building that tapered into a tower near the top. It was built in three sections, a tall rectangular main section with a circular tower section above it, topped by a columned apex with a continuously burning flame. The Egyptian coast, being very flat and devoid of features, needed a landmark to help with navigation, and that is the purpose that the lighthouse served for over a thousand years, until it finally collapsed in the 14th century after a series of earthquakes. Due to its height, many scholars believe the lighthouse of Alexandria was the third tallest building in the world (after the Great Pyramid of Giza) for its entire lifetime.

The lighthouse was tall and bright enough that it could be seen for 35 miles (56 km) in every direction. Its light was so intense that there were legends that said it could be focused to ignite enemy ships, though this was probably just to scare off attackers. The building had a width of 8.5 m (28 ft), and its masonry was held together by molten lead. This building method is pointed to by many as the reason for why the lighthouse of Alexandria was the second longest-lasting of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Of all the Seven Wonders, only the Pyramid of Giza remains intact today.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


I don't see why we can't do both. Appreciate our modern wonders as well as the ancient ones. Even now, the Lighthouse is still providing wonder to people, since you can go and see its remains under the harbor near where it used to stand. I mean, you have to dive in order to see them, but it's supposed to be worth the trip, particularly if you have a sense of the history of the thing you are looking at.

And it has been recreated a few times, although I don't think to scale. I know they have a park with small versions of the seven ancient wonders in China.

I agree we should try to protect the cultural treasures we already have, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep our respect for those that went before.


@KoiwiGal - Instead of mourning ancient wonders we should be trying to protect the ones we still have around. What makes me tear up is the idea of the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan which were destroyed in a fit of intolerance.

The Light house of Alexandria eventually collapsed because its time had come. I believe that there were several earthquakes over the years which caused it to collapse.

Not everything can last forever. But, there are some things that should be kept safe for as long as possible.

Anyway, my point is that we should be focusing on what we already have, rather than trying to recreate what the ancients had.


It makes me quite sad that there are almost no more Ancient Wonders of the World still standing. I mean, I know the way they were picked was kind of biased anyway, but still, I would have loved to have been able to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. I wish that someone would decide, instead of trying to build yet another sky scraper and beat the tallest building record, to recreate something like that. That would take skill and would end up being something worth seeing, something that would attract tourists and all.

Unfortunately, I don't think that all the Wonders were as well described as the Lighthouse, simply because they didn't last as long.

We are lucky to know as much about the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria as we do.

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