Lighthouse of Alexandria in the sources from Islamic Civilisation

The Lighthouse of Alexandria is one of the wonders of the Ancient World. It was still a great tourist attraction well into the medieval period, and was visited by many travellers to the city that were impressed by its magnitude.


The Lighthouse of Alexandria is one of the classic “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” . It was still a great tourist attraction well into the medieval period, and was visited by many travellers to the city that were impressed by its magnitude.

alex-map_0Lighthouse on an old map, shows once where it stood

1. Who, Where and When

The lighthouse was constructed in the 3rd century BC.“During the reigns of Ptolemy I [Soter 367-283 BCE] and his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus [285 -246 BCE (Ptolemaic)], Alexandria developed into a great city”. The height, form and multifunction of the lighthouse never failed to impress its visitors as it was located on the small Island of Faros, off the city coast.

The lighthouse was particularly admired and often visited and described by people from Islamic civilisation. This could be due to partly of mighty size, but perhaps also because of the interest in its technology as seen in the function of its mirrors. “Whereas pre-Islamic literary descriptions of the lighthouse are scarce, Muslim authors provide, along with various legends, valuable accounts of its configuration throughout the medieval period.”

A number of 12th-century Andalusian travelers left remarkable accounts of the lighthouse such as Ibn Jubair, Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati and Yousif Ibn al-Shaikh Al-Balawi shortly before “destroyed by series of earthquakes between 956 and 1323”. According to “Alexandria: City of the Western Mind” by Theodore Vrettos “Pharos Lighthouse most likely met its fate in the earthquake of A.D. 1365. The magnificent blocks of granite and marble toppled into the harbor and interfered with shipping for almost a hundred years before a channel was cleared of the biggest pieces. As late as A.D. 1480, the stump of the tower still jutted from the Heptastadion. Shortly after that, the sultan of Egypt, Kait Bey [Qaitbay] built a fortress and castle there, using the marble base of the fallen Pharos for walls.”

A size comparison of the Ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria (PHAROS) between a 1909 study (Thiersch) and a 2006 study of the building (Shenouda) pharos-scale-comparison

2. Height and Description

There are very different opinions on the height of the lighthouse (eg. See the figure on the right).  Because of different views, its size varies dramatically, to an extent the number roughly changes between 100 and 200 meters high. Size calculations were mostly based on the witness records of travelers from the Muslim World.

For example according to 10th-century travelers al-Idrisi and Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh“the building was 300 cubits high. Because the cubit measurement varied from place to place, however, this could mean that the Pharos [Lighthouse of Alexandria] stood anywhere from 450 (140m) to 600 (183m) feet in height…”

Another example “The Arab descriptions of the lighthouse are remarkably consistent, although it was repaired several times especially after earthquake damage. The height they give varies only fifteen percent from c 103 to 118 m [338 to 387 ft], on a base c. 30 by 30 m [98 by 98 ft] square… the Arab authors indicate a tower with three tapering tiers, which they describe as square, octagonal and circular, with a substantial ramp”

Overall it seems enormous in the eyes of the travelers of those times. As Ibn Jubayr witnessed it “competes with the skies in height…”

3. Arabic Sources

There are other interpretations of its description from the Islamic World such as:

  • Al-Mas’udi (9-10 Century) mentions the founder of the Tulunid dynasty Ahmed Ibn Tulun’s additions to the light-house (9th Century).
  • Full description of the lighthouse by an Arabic writer Abou Haggag Youssef Ibn Mohammed el-Balawi el-Andaloussi in 12th Century.
  • Muhammad ibn Iyas (15th Century) mentions an earthquake damaging the lighthouse. around the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid time (9th Century).
  • There are also al-Bakri and Nasir-i Khusraw in 11th Century;  Muqaddasi in late 10th Century and many more…

It has been said that it was seriously impaired by number of natural disasters, eventually collapsed completely and last of it remains castoff in the construction of the Citadel of Qaitbay dated back to late 15th Century. It lasted for a long time as one of the ancient wonders, alongside with the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the present Great Pyramid of Giza.

(Left) We do not know the author(s) of this manuscript but the image is the Light House of Alexandria, can also be found on a page from a 14th and 15th century Arabic manuscript known as Kitab al-bulhan which means “Book of Wonders” 
(Right) From Mojmal al-tavariḵ va al-qesas, which is “an anonymous chronicle from the 12th century in the Persian tradition of literary historiography” 

For Ibn Jubayr, the traveller and geographer from Muslim civilisation, Alexandria in Egypt was one of the first places he visited in the spring of 1183 This trip left strong impressions on him, especially Alexandria’s famed giant lighthouse, of which he had this to say:

lighthouse-alexandria-book-of-wonders_0-662x1024alexandria-al-qesas-01-696x1024 One of the greatest wonders that we saw in this city was the lighthouse which Great and Glorious God had erected by the hands of those who were forced to such labour as ‘a sign to those who take warning from examining the fate of others’ [Quran: 15:75] and as a guide to voyagers, for without it they could not find the true course to Alexandria. It can be seen for more than seventy miles, and is of great antiquity. It is most strongly built in all directions and competes with the skies in height. Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle.”
Original (Arabic) Version of above account:

Lighthouse of Alexandria in the sources from Islamic Civilisation

There is also the famous drawing of the ancient Light House of Alexandria by Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati, who left an accurate drawing based on personal observation of the lighthouse.

…drawing of the ancient Light House of Alexandria by Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati 

4.  Arabic Connection

Below are relevant extracts from “Egyptology: The Missing Millennium : Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings” by Okasha El Daly, Psychology Press, 2005:


A good example of an apparently accurate drawing based on personal observation is the sketch of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria by the Andalusian traveller, Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati . He visited Alexandria first in 1110 and again in 1117. He described the lighthouse as having three tiers:

“The first tier is a square built on a platform. The second is octagonal and the third is round. All are built of hewn stone. On the top was a mirror of Chinese iron of seven cubits wide (364 cm) used to watch the movement of ships on the other side of the Mediterranean. If the ships were those of enemies, then watchmen in the Lighthouse waited until they came close to Alexandria, and when the sun started to set, they moved the mirror to face the sun and directed it onto the enemy ships to burn them in the sea. In the lower part of the Lighthouse is a gate about 20 cubits above the ground level; one climbs to it through an archway ramp of hewn stone”.


Here Al-Gharnati refers the reader to a sketch he made [Figure above and left] (Al-Gharnati Tuhfat: 99-100; cf Hamarneh 1971: 86, 87. For other detailed medieval Arabic accounts of the Lighthouse with various measurements and other monuments of Alexandria see Toussoun 1936; Hamarneh 1971). This drawing of Al-Gharnati can be shown to be reliable in the light of recent research (compare this with a modern reconstruction in Empereur 1998: 83).

The Lighthouse was particularly admired and was often visited and described by Arab writers, much more so than by their Greek/Roman predecessors, partly because of its mighty size but perhaps also because of their interest in its technology as seen in the function of its mirrors (see Science, page 117 and 118 below). The reference to a mirror of Chinese iron is not a fantasy but reflects the fact that medieval Arab authors were familiar with Chinese sciences and the popularity of Chinese products, in particular the so-called ‘kharsini’ in Arabic which means ‘Chinese iron’, or perhaps ‘steel’ from which mirrors were made (Needham 198th 429-30). As for the military use of these mirrors to burn attacking enemies, stories about this are also known from pre-Islamic literature (Temple 2000: 218ff) and may have played a part in the Arab perceptions of the function of the Lighthouse mirror.

– [Toussoun] Page 7

Toussoun (1922-23; 1936) used a number of Arabic sources in his study of the branches of the Nile and of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

– [before the Flood] Page 45

AI-Mas’udi, Al-Suyuti and Al-Maqrizi are examples of writers presenting comprehensive coverage of Egypt from ‘before the Flood’ to their own time. The writings show a broad interest in all the buildings and artefacts that they saw around them dating from ancient Egypt. Their descriptions of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, of which few are known to current archaeologists, are in fact closely matched by recent reconstructions. There is a large volume of works on temples, some of which give us a clear contemporary picture of buildings now totally or partially destroyed. Medieval Arab interest in history and archaeology was not limited to Egypt but also covered other ancient cultures, where much evidence can be verified.

– [From Chapter 8, Science] Page 117

  • The Burning Mirror on the top of the Alexandria Lighthouse which, in addition to guiding ships into harbour, had two other functions: the first being an early-warning system enabling watchers to see ships long before arrival at the Egyptian coast; the second being in cases where ships turned out to be hostile – by directing the mirror at a certain angle to reflect and intensify the sun’s rays and focusing it on incoming enemy ships, the ships would be set alight at sea (Akhbar Al- Zaman: 154; Al-Harawi Al-Isharat: 48; Yaqut Mu’jam 1: 188; Al-Qalqashandi Subh 3: 356). Ibn Hawqal (Surat: 142) disagreed that those were the functions of the mirror, believing the whole structure to be an observatory to study astronomy (on the Burning Minors see Toomer 1976).
  • A city lighthouse with a dome on top, painted with a special chemical which, when the sun set, illuminated most of the city. Neither wind nor rain affected this light, which faded only when the sun shone (ibid: 145).

– [From Chapter 8, Science] – Page 118

  • A lighthouse that flooded the city with a different coloured light each day of the week. The lighthouse was in the middle of a pond with coloured fish. The city was protected by talismans with human bodies and baboon heads. Nearby, a special new city had in its centre a dome, above which a permanent cloud always rained lightly. At this city’s gates were statues of priests holding scrolls of scientific works, and whoever wanted to learn a science went to its particular statue, stroked it with his hand and then stroked his own breast, thus transferring knowledge of the science to himself. These two cities were named after Hermes (ibid: 175-76). This is clearly a description of what was left of Ashmunein, the centre of Thoth/Hermes, and an attempt to explain the remaining monuments based on the ancient fame of this centre.

– [Cleopatra Connection] – Page 133

The first known reference to Cleopatra by an Arab historian is found in Ibn ‘Abd Al-Hakam (Futuh: 40-41), who wrote his history of the Moslem annexation of Egypt in the early 9th century CE. There he refers to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, saying that:

“It was built by Daluka … It is also said that the builder of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was Qulpatra, the queen who dug the canal/gulf into Alexandria and paved its bottom.”

In these words we encounter an early possible confusion between two queens: Daluka (also called Zulaikha) and Cleopatra. We do not know the historicity of Queen Daluka, but her name is almost always used synonymously with that of Cleopatra. Both are said to have built the Alexandrian Lighthouse and a massive wall around all of Egypt to protect it against invasion, and Daluka was said to have built a Nilometer at Memphis. Though Cleopatra did not build the Lighthouse, her fame as a builder of great monuments gave rise to such claims in the medieval Arabic sources.

One of the modern interpretations of the Lighthouse of Alexandria
Video: Egypt to Rebuild Lighthouse of Alexandria 

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