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Strata: Alexandria’s Lighthouse Found, But Will Its Library Disappear? Gabrielle Deford, BAR 23:03, May-Jun 1997.

lighthouse-of-alexandreaAncient Wonder of the World Rediscovered

In Alexandria, Egypt, history is no longer a thing of the past. Its ancient library, which held over a million volumes of the world’s knowledge in one place, is being rebuilt. And the remains of some of its other structures—the Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and royal palaces that once were home to Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony—have been discovered in the waters of its two harbors.

Some scholars even speculate that new excavations will uncover the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, who founded the city in 331 B.C. and was purportedly buried there after his death in 323 B.C.

But the excavations face formidable challenges. The ruins of the lighthouse and the palaces cover more than 5.5 acres—an archaeological gold mine, but a tremendous amount of territory to excavate, especially under water. Just mapping it—as Jean-Yves Empereur, director ofthe French Center of Alexandrian Studies, did preliminary to excavation in 1993—cost about $500,000.

Many of the finds, the thousands of statues and pieces of buildings, are colossal (like the obelisk at lower right). Marble blocks fallen from the lighthouse weigh 50 to 75 tons each. Some of the statues once stood 30 feet tall. The smallest fragment, a red granite torso of a woman that was floated to the surface by special balloons and hoisted to shore by a giant crane, weighed 1.5 tons.

How such vast ruins came to rest about 20 feet below the harbor’s surface is uncertain. Some archaeologists speculate that a section of the ancient city sank below sea level or that the city was flooded by a tidal wave following the devastating earthquake of 335 A.D. A series of earthquakes is blamed for toppling most of the lighthouse, though later Alexandrian authorities probably dumped some of its remains into the sea.

Archaeological work in the rough and polluted waters of Alexandria’s harbors has barely begun. For the past three years, a joint French-Egyptian team of 30 divers led by Empereur has excavated the lighthouse’s remains around the island of Pharos (which means lighthouse in Greek), where the structure once stood. Among the finds are a 14-foot-high fragment of a statue of Ptolemy I (367–283 B.C.), a 6-foot-high statue crown and an 8-foot-high pedestal. The stone crown once formed the headdress of a 30-foot-high statue o the fertility goddess Isis, which was recovered in 1961; the pedestal served as the statue’s base.

A second team of 16 divers, led by Franck Goddio of the European Institute of Marine Archaeology in Paris, captured the media’s attention in 1996 by claiming that “the exact topography of the vanished royal city can be identified for the first time.” Goddio’s team had been using global positioning satellites to map, square foot by square foot, every major object in the submerged royal quarters of the Ptolemies—the Greek kings who ruled Egypt from Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C. until the suicide of the last Ptolemy, Cleopatra, in 30 B.C. Cleopatra’s palaces were on the lost island of Antirrhodos, where Mark Antony may also have committed suicide in 30 B.C.

As for the Pharos lighthouse, it is unlikely that this magnificent edifice will be restored to its former splendor—even though descriptions in ancient sources and drawings from as early as 200 B.C. tell us a lot about how it looked. (One artist’s reconstruction is shown at left.) Completed in about 279 B.C. by the second Ptolemy, the lighthouse soared to a height of 300 to 500 feet, the equivalent of a modern 40-story building; it was the tallest structure ever made until the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889. Built of white marble, the lighthouse was designed in three tiers and supported by a 184-foot-high platform containing over 300 rooms. Fuel for the nightly bonfires was apparently hoisted to the lighthouse’s summit by the world’s first hydraulic machine. A great mirror focused the firelight into a beam that could be seen 35 miles out to sea. Some ancient sources even say that the mirror could focus sunlight and set fire to invading ships.

Another kind of dilemma has hindered construction of a new Alexandria Library. Should ancient remains be destroyed to reclaim the glory of those same remains? Alexandria’s ancient library, an illustrious center of learning for over 2,000 years, was begun in 306 B.C.; it later grew into a huge university-like complex with such famous resident scholars as Archimedes and Euclid and a vast collection of books from Greece, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt.a In the mid-1980s, construction began on the new library—a large learning center on or near the site where the old library stood. This project was stalled for 10 years, however, when archaeologists protested that the building of the new library was destroying the remains of the ancient one. Now construction of the library has begun again.

a. See J. Harold Ellens, “The Ancient Library of Alexandria,” BR 13-01.

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