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H - 120 : Fuel for the Pharos of Alexandria

Updated: Apr 1

Love the way science changes the way how we understand the world. The James Webb telescope shows us that the universe is probably older than the Big Bang theory implies. Recent drillings in Alexandria’s harbor indicate that the port already existed by 1000 BC. Alexander the Great wanted us to believe that he founded the city in 332 BC, and so we did for centuries. Of course he did it for his own glory. But he also needed a deep-water port to link wealthy Egypt to the rest of the Mediterranean. What was the  point of conquering the richest country in the world if he could not use its wealth?

Alexandre the Great, Mosaic in the House of the Faun, Pompeii, 80 BC

For this, Alexandre needed a port. There was only one rocky location  on the Nile delta which he could use. It was known as Rhakotis or Rǎ-Kedet by the Egyptians, Minoans and Greek. There is reason to believe that even Homer mentioned it in the Odyssey. The Nile delta is a featureless shore – flat for hundreds of miles and lined up with identical palm trees. Finding it was a navigational challenge.

The Nile Delta is a featureless Shore for almost 150 Nautical Miles

20 years ago, a research team from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History extracted sediments from 20 feet below water. They found ceramic shards, building stones from far away countries and sewage suggesting a large settlement well before Alexander’s time. Given Alexandria’s age and how often the place has been overbuilt, no concrete evidence of Rhakotis has been found yet.

Plan of Alexandria during the time of Pharaoh Cleopatra - the Main Port is to the left

Building the first lighthouse in human history was – next to the harbor mole - the most important part of the harbor project. Alexandria needed a landmark to be visible from far away. Not only during the day but also at night when the mariners used the prevailing westerlies to reach Egypt. Ptolemy I, the general who became Egypt’s ruler upon Alexander’s death, had allocated 800 talents of silver (26 tons) to the tower. But the lighthouse was only completed by Ptolemy II, his son, who appointed his trusted military engineer Sostratus as architect. Sostratus had helped him conquering Memphis by diverting the Nile. We are not able to visit Alexandria this summer but we will stop in Knidos, Sostratus’ home town.

Knidos where the Ionian and Aegean Sea meet, was Sostratus' Home town

The Pharos, named after the island where it was erected, was built with solid blocks of granite and limestone. It had a square base of 340 x 340 meters which acted as a break water. The tower was 110 meters high and rivalled the Pyramids in Gizeh. The light house had four stories. The first story accommodated staff and animals necessary to run it. It was also the storage site for the light house fuel. Windows allowed the sea breeze to keep it cool. The second story was octagonal with spiral staircases for the animals to haul up the fuel. The third story was round with hydraulic cranes for the fuel. The fourth housed the giant bronze mirror which reflected the flames which could be seen as far as 30 nautical miles away (54 kilometre). The tower was so important, it was completed in 12 years’ time.

The Pharos with its unique Four Story-Structure

Always wondered what fuel they burnt to get the brilliant flames necessary for reaching far. The effect cannot be achieved with big logs. Their surface is too limited which prevents easy access of oxygen. You need something smaller - like twigs. Olive twig bundles I use to light a fire in my house in the South of France are perfect. One match lights them – within seconds a bright flame illuminates the room. But Egypt had no trees with twigs. Wonder whether they bundled papyrus stems. Papyrus burns well, has a large surface and can easily be bundled. It also burns very quickly. A permanent fire must have consumed enormous quantities of papyrus. But then, Egypt had to manpower to make it. Some sources suggest that naphtha (crude oil) as found in Mesopotamia was used. Maybe. But have never come across any source that refers to shipping of naphtha in antiquity.

The Pharos over time - It stood for almost 1'700 Years


The Pharos of Alexandria became the blue print for ancient and modern light houses alike. It was so sturdily built that it survived major earth quakes in 796, 1100 and 1326 AD. But they took their toll. By the 15th century, the light house was beyond rescue. Modern navigational tools such as compass and maps made a light house less necessary. Also, the Mamluks were not keen on spending a huge amount of money on repairs – they preferred to invest it in cavalry and slaves. Sultan Al-Ashraf Qa’it Bay converted the remains of the tower into a fortress which survived to 1882 when it was razed by the English.



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