The Ancient City of Alexandria, Part 2: The Lighthouse and Library

Many of the centuries-old monuments of ancient Egypt, from pyramids to temples to the infamous Great Sphinx, still stand today. While the city of Alexandria has survived along with them, over two thousand years after its humble beginnings as a small port town chosen by Alexander the Great in one of his dreams, some of its most impressive ancient structures have unfortunately been lost. Known as an important cultural and intellectual hub in its day (332 BCE to 642 CE), the ancient city of Alexandria called out to merchants, scholars, and religious figures alike with its many attractions. Among them, two wonders stood out above the rest: the Lighthouse of Pharos and the Library of Alexandria.

The Lighthouse of Pharos

Before they even reached the city’s harbors, sailors would be welcomed to Alexandria by the Lighthouse of Pharos. According to legend, its beauty was indescribable, and its light could be seen in the harbor from 35 miles away. The lighthouse was built in the 3rd century BCE by Alexander’s general, Ptolemy Soter, on the small harbor island of Pharos, where it would serve as a useful landmark to sailors. It was the third tallest structure in the world made by humans. In addition to its impressive structure and height, its peak held a mirror that reflected sunlight during the day and firelight at night. The Pharos at Alexandria was eventually named as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Library of Alexandria

The vast and opulent city of Alexandria attracted the very best scholarly and artistic minds in the ancient world. The city represented many things to its visitors, perhaps chief among them the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of humankind’s understanding of the world. In that respect, the Library of Alexandria served as both a symbol and a valuable tool. Begun under Ptolemy I and completed by Ptolemy II, the library was said to hold an estimated 70,000 papyrus scrolls and 500,000 books. Written works were bought, contributed by rulers and scholars, and sometimes confiscated from ships entering the harbor, in the case of more coveted works. As part of the Museum of Alexandria, it flourished as a major center of scholarship where famous thinkers would come to study.

The Lighthouse of Pharos at Alexandria remained in use until a series of earthquakes left it completely destroyed. The Library of Alexandria met a similar fate during the civil war that took place in the 3rd century CE, when the library was burned along with many other parts of Alexandria. Although they were eventually lost, both of these structures made such an impression on ancient scholars and historians that their stories have been carried through the centuries.

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