Beacon on the Rock: The Dramatic History of Lighthouses from Ancient Greece to the Present Day

By Peter Williams | Go to book overview


Chapter 1 THE EARLIEST BEACONS

Since humanity first sought to conquer the sea. it has needed markers to help guide the way.
Today, we know these markers as lighthouses and lightships. However, seamarks
as they are more
generally known
have not always been the idealized vision of a tall, cylindrical building
with a light in the top.

THE FIRST SEAMARKS USED BY developing civilizations in ancient times were natural phenomena, landmarks, and fires used as homing beacons. Some seamarks were probably statues and other prominent shore objects rather than dedicated lighthouses. Indeed, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes, which legend suggests was at the entrance to the main harbor on the Greek island from which it takes its name, has been claimed, though without justification, to be the earliest lighthouse. It was, if we believe the legend, a statue of a watrior of immense proportions whose legs straddled the harbor entrance. One tale has it that the upraised hand held a beacon flame, while another suggests that the eyes lit up like glowing coals.

The Pharos at Alexandria—another of the Seven Wonders—is widely accepted as the first major lighthouse in the world. Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.E.) described it as being “of great height and wonderful construction;” the Greek geographer and historian Strabo (63 B.C.E. to C.E. 24) wrote in his book Geography: “… it was built of white marble.” The lighthouse was named after the island at the entrance to Alexandria, one of the main trading ports in the Greco-Roman world.

The Greek architect Sostratus of Cnidos was responsible for the design, which he undertook for the Egyptian king Ptolemy I (c. 367–283 B.C.E.). The king authorized the building in 290 B.C.E. and it was completed 20 years later at great cost. Ptolemy did not live to see the light exhibited. When Sostratus wished to carve his own name on the lighthouse, Ptolemy's son, Ptolemy II (309–246 B.C.E.), refused. He commanded that only the word “Ptolemy” be inscribed. This annoyed Sostratus, who resorted to a clever act of guile to get his own way: he had an inscription bearing his name chiseled into the stonework. This was plastered over and the word “Ptolemy” was cut into it. Sostratus knew that weathering would wear this away and expose his name forever. Sostratus's inscription read: “Sostratus son of Dexiphanes of Knidos on behalf of all manners to the savior gods.”

Research in 1904 by a German historian, Herman Thiersch, indicates that the tower was built as a stepped pyramid starting from a base 350 feet (about 107 meters)

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