Pharos Sculpture Recovered
Volume 49 Number 1, January/February 1996
by Andrew L. Slayman
Illustrations: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University;
Inset Reuters/Archive Photos
A stone torso of a woman from the third-century B.C. Pharos of Alexandria, a lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, has been salvaged from the Mediterranean Sea. A number of sculptures in the sea around a fifteenth-century fortress built by the Mameluke sultan Qait Bey had been reported in a 1974 article in Nautical Archaeology, which suggested that the Pharos might have stood on the site. In 1993, when the Egyptian government began building a concrete breakwater around the base of the fortress to protect it from storm damage, there was an outcry from archaeologists who feared the operation might destroy any surviving remains of the Pharos and other nearby ancient buildings. The project was temporarily halted, and scholars from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the French Centre d'Études Alexandrines, led by Jean-Yves Empereur, began searching the waters around the fortress. According to Chris Scarre of Cambridge University, "Their finds confirm that one side of the Pharos collapsed into the sea, and that much material from this amazing structure still lies scattered on the seabed. Only now can we begin to appreciate the true extent and importance of the remains." In addition to the torso, Empereur's team has recovered some 30 other sculptures not from the Pharos, including sphinxes, granite columns and capitals, a fragment of an obelisk with a hieroglyphic inscription, and a headless statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II (ca. 1290-1224 B.C.). How and when the construction of the breakwater will resume has not yet been settled.
The world's first lighthouse, the Pharos was built to warn sailors of the treacherous sandbars off Alexandria, one of the busiest ports of the ancient world. It consisted of a three-stage tower, decorated with sculptures of Greek deities and mythical creatures, atop which stood a lantern with a giant bonfire whose light may have been focused by mirrors, perhaps made of polished bronze, into a beam visible 35 miles out to sea. More than 300 feet tall, it was among the tallest man-made structures until the completion of the 1,050-foot Eiffel Tower in 1889. The lighthouse was still functioning when the Arabs conquered Alexandria in A.D. 642, but the lantern was damaged by an earthquake about 50 years later. The Pharos was hit by another earthquake in 1303, and by 1349 it was in ruins; in 1480 Qait Bey's fortress was built on the site.
© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America