In 285 BC, Pharaoh Ptolemy I, having now reached the age of 82 years, stepped back from playing a daily role in the government of Egypt in favor of a hand-picked son who bore the same name as him. Still as mentally vigorous as ever, he spent his final years writing a biography of Alexander the Great, a work which has sadly been lost to us. He died in 282 BC.
This is the moment that has undone many an hereditary monarchy, the one that betrays such a system of government’s most fundamental weakness: there is no guarantee that the traits which might have made a good king of the father will be passed down to the son, and then no legal way to get rid of the son if he does indeed prove a bad king. But Ptolemy I had believed that he could solve the problem by educating his heir and instilling in him the sacred values of Philosophy. He groomed his namesake son, the product of his union with his third queen Berenice, in much the same way that Philip II of Macedonia had groomed the eventual Alexander the Great. For he believed that, by engaging actively with the process of succession in that way that the aforementioned Alexander so conspicuously had not, a philosopher king could ensure the continuing effectiveness of his government after his own death. And for a while at least, the Ptolemaic Egypt which he left behind would seem to prove him correct in that belief.
Indeed, Ptolemy II, who was 26 or 27 years old at the time of his father’s death, became if anything an even more energetic and innovative monarch than his predecessor had been. Egypt had always had an unusually powerful central government in comparison to other ancient lands, a result of the fact that the vast majority of the population lived within ten miles (16 kilometers) of the Nile, a wide, deep, and placid river that was easily navigable year-round; these factors made power projection much easier in Egypt than it was virtually anywhere else. Ptolemy II, however, took this tradition to new levels. Unlike his father, who had considered such things rather beneath the interest of a philosopher king, he burrowed deep into the nitty-gritty details of managing his realm. Before his arrival on the scene, Egypt had had a largely barter-based economy. But now, Ptolemy II introduced coinage on a national scale, along with a central national bank and local bank branches placed strategically all down the length of the Nile. Markets of all descriptions sprang up everywhere, lubricated by this sudden influx of liquid currency.
Ptolemy II made the new Egypt a major exporter of all sorts of finished goods in addition to the usual grain and papyrus paper: linen, glassware, perfume, jewelry, ships, clocks and other ingenious mechanisms. The hub of all this activity was the cosmopolitan capital of Alexandria. As the banks and other financial infrastructure fell into place, Alexandria became the ancient world’s central commodities market, the place to go to buy and sell gold, ivory, ebony, livestock, salt, fur, spices, and, less appetizingly, slaves. Egypt as a whole, and Alexandria in particular, became fabulously rich. The newfound wealth funded among other things a long, complicated series of foreign military adventures, some more successful than others; luckily, we don’t need to concern ourselves overmuch with their details here.
Amidst it all, Ptolemy II continued the culture-straddling balancing act that had marked his father’s reign. Depending on the audience, he might adopt the austere pose of a Greek king or deck himself out in the ostentatious finery of an Egyptian pharaoh. About five years after his father’s death, he crossed a Rubicon of sorts by taking one Arsinoe, one of his sisters, as his second queen. Incest of this sort had been a standard practice among the native pharaohs of Egypt for millennia, but had always been regarded by the Greeks with almost as much as distaste as we muster toward it today. For Ptolemy II, however, it was politically expedient, not only because it bound his family that much more tightly to the old ways of Egypt but because it pacified a woman whose own ambitions were becoming a problem for him; philosophers or not, the Ptolemaic dynasty now came complete with its fair share of courtly intrigue, such that the king had already felt compelled to execute two troublesome half-brothers. At any rate, it’s doubtful whether this first sibling marriage among the Ptolemies was even consummated; King Ptolemy II’s union with Queen Arsinoe II produced no children.
It was also Ptolemy II who completed the second of the wonders that give this book its title: the Lighthouse of Alexandria. In contrast to the Library of Alexandria and the museum which contained it, which were ongoing intellectual institutions whose concrete surroundings were of secondary importance, the lighthouse was first and last a physical monument in the spirit of the Egyptian pyramids of old. It stood tall and proud and beautiful, its base filling every inch of a tiny natural islet that poked out of the water just off the northeastern shore of the island of Pharos; the impression thus given was that of a tower rising directly out of the waves as if by magic. Taken together, the library and the lighthouse demonstrate the split personality of Ptolemaic Egypt better than almost anything else: the former was Greek in its cool and abstracted intellectualism, the latter thoroughly Egyptian in its immense size and sheer corporeal presence.
Just as the similarly immense pyramids were constructed to be a conduit to the heavenly afterlife for the pharaohs who were buried within them, the lighthouse as well was meant to serve a very practical purpose at bottom. Thanks to its treacherous featurelessness, the low desert coastline of Egypt had been the bane of seaborne navigators since the time of Homer. Now, many a ship seeking Alexandria with a chest full of gold and an empty hold waiting to be filled in exchange for it ran afoul of the coastline’s sandbanks and hidden shoals. Clearly this wouldn’t do if the city was to reach its full potential.
The problem was so obvious so early that it was actually Ptolemy I who commissioned the lighthouse at some point late in his reign. He entrusted the project to an architect named Sostratus, who appears to have been something of a successor to Alexandria’s founding architect Dinocrates. Sostratus saw the work through brilliantly after the first Ptolemaic king’s death. In fact, his design became the model for other lighthouses all over the ancient world, albeit always in a scaled-down form. For, although neither the first nor the last of its species, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was certainly the greatest of all of them that were built in ancient times, its beacon clearly visible from fully 100 miles (160 kilometers) out to sea.
We don’t know exactly when the construction of the lighthouse began, nor when it finished. We can surmise only that the former event occurred some time fairly late in the reign of Ptolemy I, and that the latter event occurred some time before 250 BC. The process of building the lighthouse probably consumed several decades, and understandably so. Every piece of building material, along with every tool and workman, had to be floated out to the precarious watery construction site in a boat or barge. The Lighthouse of Alexandria represented an engineering achievement in its own time on a par with the Pyramid of Khufu of two millennia earlier. We can only speculate about the techniques used to erect such a towering vertical structure in such an absurdly difficult location.
Thankfully, we are on at least modestly firmer ground when it comes to the finished lighthouse’s appearance. Although no detailed ancient descriptions of it have reached us, the structure survived, albeit in badly weathered form, until well beyond the end of classical times; its last remnants were not pulled down until the fifteenth century AD. The Arab writers who visited the lighthouse after its heyday describe a tower of limestone reinforced in places with granite (the same materials from which the pyramids were built). They claim it to have been somewhere between 400 and 600 feet (122 to 183 meters) in height, but the lowest end of that range or even somewhat less is the most likely figure by far. (By way of comparison, the Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest ancient structure which remains relatively intact today, and which is believed to be the tallest ever built prior to the late Middle Ages, is 480 feet (146.5 meters) high.) The lighthouse was built in ziggurat fashion — i.e., as three stages stacked atop one another, with each stage narrower than the one below it.
The first stage, the tallest by a considerable margin, was square. At its top was a broad terrace with richly wrought balustrades of the finest marble. It must have provided spectacular views of the ocean and of the city of Alexandria for royal guests, and perchance for tourists able to pay a stiff entrance fee. (As a commercial city, Alexandria would happily sell just about anything to anyone with the wherewithal to pay for it.) The second stage was octagonal, and was capped by another, smaller but doubtless even more exclusive terrace. The third stage, by far the shortest of the three, was round, with yet one more terrace for the most rarefied guests of all. Here stood the glass dome which housed the beacon itself.
Just as the building of the lighthouse as a whole must have required every bit of the engineering talent which the Ptolemies had assembled at the museum, the apparatus inside the dome leveraged the glassware- and jewelry-making that had become two of Alexandria’s many cottage industries. Here was an elaborate arrangement of furnaces whose smoke alone could guide sailors to the harbor during the day. Timber being a rare commodity in the desert land of Egypt, the furnaces were probably fueled by oil or even animal manure rather than wood, resulting in that much more smoke. At night, a giant mirror reflected the glow of the fires, resulting in a light that reached farther out to sea than any other in the world.
Mounted on the roof of the dome was the lighthouse’s crowning glory: an enormous statue. Some sources say it was a likeness of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods; others say Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea; some say Helios, the Greek sun god, whom the Ptolemies endeavored to fuse with the Egyptian sun god Ra; others say Proteus, the strange shape-shifter who lives on the island of Pharos in the Odyssey; some say Ptolemy I; and still others say it depicted Alexander the Great watching over his namesake city. It’s possible that the statue shifted identities over the centuries, Proteus-like, to suit the shifting winds of religious and political fashion.
Getting fuel up to the furnaces in the dome would have presented a significant logistical challenge. The Arab writers describe a ramp that was presumably used for that purpose, spiraling up the interior of the first two stages, wide enough and sloped gently enough that a horse and cart could be driven along its length. The fuel was probably lifted from the top of the second stage to the dome using a windlass.
In addition to the space allocated to the ramp, the lower two stages were positively riddled with rooms if the Arab writers are to be believed; one of them claims that there were more than 300 rooms in all. This rabbit warren must have bristled with soldiers during ancient times, for the lighthouse was not only a navigational aid, not only even a grandiose monument to the wealth of Ptolemaic Egypt: it was also a vertical fort which stood prepared to repel any invasion fleet that attempted to attack Alexandria. “Because the harbor entrance is so narrow, it is impossible for any ships to enter the port against the will of those who control [the lighthouse],” Julius Caesar would write two centuries after the tower’s erection. The lighthouse, combined with a substantial garrison of soldiers who were the principal residents of the island of Pharos, made any seaborne invasion of Alexandria a daunting prospect indeed.
There are many legends associated with the lighthouse in ancient and Arab writings alike — legends which are made no less delightful by their doubtful veracity.
One story claims that the lighthouse’s architect Sostratus was displeased by Ptolemy II’s insistence that the finished structure be inscribed with the name of the man who had ordered it to be built rather than the one who had masterminded the construction project. He duly inscribed the demanded dedication on a cement plaque and fastened it next to the main entrance: “King Ptolemy I, to the gods, the saviors, for the benefit of sailors.” But before doing so he inscribed the same message in the limestone beneath the plaque, with just one important modification: he substituted his own name for that of Ptolemy I. He did so knowing that over the decades and centuries to come, the cement of the plaque would chip and fall away, revealing the name of the lighthouse’s true builder for the benefit of posterity. And, sure enough, the inscription which lay underneath the official dedication was the one which the Arab writers of 1000 years later saw and documented.
Dedication notwithstanding, the Arabs liked to say that it was actually Alexander the Great who had first ordered the lighthouse to be built, and that he had demanded that its foundations be made of, of all materials, glass: “He threw stone, brick, granite, gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, glass, and all kinds of materials and metals into the sea to test them. When they were taken out and examined, the glass alone was found of full weight and unimpaired. So glass was chosen.”
Yet another Arab legend says that one could see absurdly long distances if one looked through the mirror at the lighthouse’s dome — in fact, all the way to the distant city of Constantinople, which was separated from Alexandria by the Mediterranean Sea and the land mass of Asia Minor. Needless to say, this claim cannot possibly be correct, although a mirror of that size truly may have had some odd optical properties, which might have been exaggerated in the course of countless retellings.
But the best Arab legend of all most certainly has no basis whatsoever in reality. It describes two smaller statues which supposedly stood atop the third stage of the lighthouse, below the single giant statue which crowned its dome. One of these, so the story goes, raised its hand to point out the sunrise every morning, then continued to follow the sun across the sky until nightfall. The other raised its hand to point only if an enemy approached. If the people ignored this warning, the statue would cry out in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout Alexandria and well beyond. Meanwhile the great mirror in the dome would turn of its own accord to reflect the rays of the sun upon the approaching enemies, burning them to a crisp.
Post-facto legends aside, the Lighthouse of Alexandria in its heyday was a fitting symbol of the power and wealth of Ptolemaic Egypt, the preeminent nation of the third century BC. By well before 250 BC, Alexandria itself had become the linchpin around which the Mediterranean’s collective economy revolved. With perhaps as many as 300,000 people living in and around the inner city, it had eclipsed Babylon to become the most populous city in the world in a span of time that would have amazed even its ambitious founder.
Like most ancient towns of any size or importance, Alexandria was protected by walls — a double ring of walls in this case, enclosing all of the inner city except for those parts that abutted on the two harbors and their wharves. Two ornate gates on the eastern and western sides of the city, known as the Gate of the Sun and the Gate of the Moon respectively, admitted travelers who arrived by land. But the majority of visitors came via the water, either on a barge that sailed down the Nile and along one of the canals that passed through the city’s walls via sluice gates or on a seagoing vessel.
Being constrained by a lake on one side and the sea on the other, the heart of Alexandria was not overly large in terms of sprawl, stretching about two miles (3.2 kilometers) in one direction, less than one mile (1.6 kilometers) in the other. The city was shaped like a somewhat irregular rectangle — or like Alexander the Great’s military cloak, as it was described by that august personage’s ancient biographer Plutarch. Yet what it lacked in size, it made up in beauty and excitement.
The eastern half of the city was dominated by the palace of the Ptolemy dynasty, about whose form we know nothing but which we can safely assume was very impressive indeed. Parks and gardens surrounded and intertwined with the palace complex, to the point of filling at least a quarter of the total available ground inside the walls. The museum and its library were nestled amidst all this royal greenery in the best tradition of Aristotle’s Lyceum; the ancient geographer Strabo describes “a public walk and a space furnished with seats, and a large hall, in which the men of learning who belong to the museum take their common meal.”
Somewhere in this area as well was the tomb of Alexander, a place at which every dignitary who came to the city was sure to pause to pay his respects. Again, we know little about the physical appearance of Alexander’s tomb, although Strabo does tell us that the storied conqueror rested in a coffin of solid gold inside it. Strabo also tells us that the tomb lay at the center of a royal cemetery, surrounded by the tombs of the Ptolemy family — yet one more savvy way of connecting the legacy of Alexander with the new ruling dynasty of Egypt.
This eastern part of the city was home to a growing Jewish population as well, immigrants from their homeland of Judea and its capital of Jerusalem, both of which Ptolemy I had incorporated into his territory early on. Despite the strangeness of their rigidly dogmatic ways in the more easygoing pagan religious milieu of Ptolemaic Egypt, the Jews had won special favor with the country’s rulers because of their strong work ethics, honesty, and high levels of education, which made them excellent scribes and civil servants.
Western Alexandria was less genteel, more crowded and vigorous than its eastern counterpart. Here were the banks and bazaars, shipping agents and boutiques, bars and theaters. At night, this was where rowdy sailors, briefly freed from the prisons of their ships, came to blow off steam with the aid of an Alexandrian underworld ready and able to service all of their desires. If Ptolemaic Egypt suffered from a case of split personality, Alexandria had its own form of the same condition: its western streets in particular could be dangerous places after dark, rather belying the city’s reputation as an intellectual haven. Sometimes the violence spilled over from one side to the other; horrific anecdotes of scholars pulled limb from limb by angry mobs are as indelible a part of Alexandria’s history as the innovations of those same scholars. In time, when the pagan worldview exemplified by the museum and its library began to come into direct conflict with a new monotheism taking hold on the streets, such violence would become ideological, but as of the third century BC it was largely just random.
One oddity about Alexandria which immediately struck visitors from elsewhere in the world was the complete absence of wood as a construction material. For, as I noted earlier, Egypt itself produced very little timber, and that which it did produce, or could import at considerable expense, was best reserved for building the ships and barges on which so much of its economy depended. This lack would prove a hidden benefit to Alexandria: in marked contrast to so many other, similarly teeming ancient cities, it would never burn.
Such, then, was the Alexandria of circa 250 BC. Like any city which survives for many centuries, it would ebb and flow in the course of time, but it would never better this, its first blush of glory. There was simply no other city to compare with it during the period between the end of Alexander the Great’s brief-lived empire and the arrival of Rome as a power to be reckoned with throughout the Mediterranean. Wherever you went inside its walls, you could never forget which city’s streets you were walking upon; all you had to do to remember was to glance up and see the lighthouse, Alexandria’s world-famous symbol and protector, gleaming there on the near horizon.
This golden age of Alexandria coincided with the golden age of Ptolemaic Egypt as a whole, when Plato’s ethos of the philosopher king really did seem a principle upon which a worthy, long-lasting society could be built. The glory days would persist through the reign of Ptolemy II and his similarly talented and dedicated son Ptolemy III, who took the throne upon his father’s death in 246 BC and ruled until his own passing in 222 BC. Only after that would the rot that is so typical of hereditary monarchy begin to set in, and Ptolemaic Egypt begin to show itself not to be so exceptional in this respect after all.
But we have much still to discuss before we get to that point. For the reigns of the first three Ptolemies were, in addition to everything else, the period of most concentrated intellectual achievement in all of Alexandria’s extraordinary history of same. In the next few chapters, then, we’ll take a step back from the tide of history to look at some of the most important of the thinkers who washed up on the city’s shores during these heady years.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)