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Lighthouse of Alexandria: Coin, History, and a Virtual Journey


ValiantKnight
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As some may remember, Ptolemaic coinage is one of my main collecting areas. In the future, I will hopefully expand full-time to collecting Roman Alexandrian/Egyptian provincial coins as well. But I knew that I wanted to acquire a coin depicting the famed Lighthouse (Pharos) of Alexandria as soon as I could. This example popped up in one of my email notifications, being offered in an upcoming auction. Worn, but a clear Pharos, on a problem-free coin. I made it my priority to win, but considering the popularity of this type, I was not completely confident I would win it. When the live bidding was two coins away from my coin, I realized I had been automatically logged out of my account on the auction website! Oh no! Fortunately, my phone’s auto-fill password feature came to the rescue! I then placed my bid. In those tense few moments I was expecting to be outbid and subsequently dragged into a bidding war. But no one else decided to jump into the fray, and I walked away as the guy that won a lighthouse.

Hadrian, Roman Empire
AE drachm
Obv: [AVT KAIC TΡAIAN AΔΡIANOC CEB], laureate head right, slight drapery on left shoulder
Rev: Isis Pharia sailing right, holding sistrum, the Pharos Lighthouse to right with three figures on its summit. L-I-[H] across fields
Mint: Alexandria
Date: 133-134 AD
Ref: Milne 1414; RPC 5895; Dattari 1767
(coin information from Wildwinds)

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History and description:

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The Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was constructed between the years 284-246 BC, begun during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (one of Alexander the Great’s generals) and completed under his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who ruled over the Greek kingdom of Ptolemaic Egypt. It acquired its name from the island that it was originally built on, Pharos, which was later connected to the coast by a causeway. Pharos eventually became the general term for lighthouse in Greek, Spanish (faro), and in the other Romance languages. The approximately 330-foot structure (one of the tallest man-made structures in the world before the modern era), made from granite and limestone blocks and built in three stages, took 12 years to construct, and according to Pliny the Elder, cost 800 silver talents (a talent is around 60 lbs of silver). Within the rectangular base was a ramp wide enough for two horsemen. At the highest portion was a furnace that produced a flame at night, while a mirror reflected the sun’s light during the day. Each of the four corners of the rectangular base stood a statue of Triton, and at the very top of the Pharos was a statue of either Zeus, Poseidon, or Ptolemy I imagined as the sun god Helios. According to the historian Josephus, the light from the Pharos could be seen from 34 miles away. It was not the first lighthouse ever but most likely the first built on such a grand scale, and had the added function of indicating hazardous shallow or rocky waters in Alexandria’s harbor.

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Its supposed architect was Sostratus of Cnidus, who dedicated the Pharos to the “Divine Saviors” or the “Savior Gods; the identities of these deities is not known for certain but it is possible that Sostratus was referring to those deities that protected sailors, preeminent among them being Zeus. There is also a story regarding Sostratus, likely fictional, that he “wrote his name on the masonry inside, covered it with gypsum, and having hidden it inscribed the name of the reigning king” (How to Write History, LXII), so that when the letters of Ptolemy’s name would fall away, Sostratus’s own name would be visible.

Posidippus, a poet at the court of Ptolemy, composed an epigram for the inauguration of the Pharos:

"The Greeks' saviour god—O mighty Proteus—shines from Pharos thanks to Sostratus of Cnidos, son of Dexiphanes. For Egypt has no cliffs or mountains as the islands do but a breakwater, level with the ground, welcomes her ships. And so this tower cutting through the breadth and depth of heaven beacons to the farthest distances by day, and all night long the sailors borne on the waves will see the great flame blazing from its top—nor miss his aim: though he run to the Bull's Horn, he'll find Zeus the Saviour, sailing, Proteus, by this beam" (Milan Papyrus, CXV; cf. Callamachus, "I beseech thee by Zeus, the watcher of the harbour," Greek Anthology, XIII.10).

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Eventually, the Greco-Roman period would pass for Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, when the country was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD. Arab travelers and historians throughout the medieval era give accounts and provide many of the extant descriptions of the Pharos. Al-Masudi, the “Herodotos of the Arabs” who lived in the 10th century, recounts a legend in which Byzantine trickery during the 8th century resulted in the Umayyad caliph destroying a portion of the Pharos in a vain search for secret treasure. Earthquakes over the medieval period would gradually undermine and break apart the Pharos, but repairs and additions would be made from time-to-time, including an Islamic-style dome at the top replacing the Greek statue that fell after an earthquake in 956 AD, as well as a mosque in later centuries. The Pharos may have also influenced Arab minaret design and construction (a minaret is a tower adjacent to mosques from where the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, is issued from). The 12th century geographer and traveller Ibn Jubayr reported about the Pharos after his 1183 trip to Alexandria (then under the rule of Saladin’s Ayyubid Sultanate):

“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.”

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The 12th century Andalusian traveler, Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati, provides a description of the Pharos during his time and how it was utilized offensively against invading ships:

“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”.

In the 10th century, Arab historians (incorrectly) attributed the construction of the Pharos to Cleopatra VII, or Daluka/Qulpatra in the original sources, possibly due to her reputation as a builder.

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By the 14th century, only the rectangular base and the entrance ramp remained, and the final remnant of the Pharos was razed in 1480 by the sultan Qaitbay to build a fort on the site (which still exists today), using original stones from the lighthouse in its construction. It was the third-longest lasting of the ancient Seven Wonders, after the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (also lost), and the Great Pyramid of Giza (still standing).

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Virtual tour:

I realized that, for all the hours spent playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which takes place towards the end of Ptolemaic Egypt, I didn’t have any good in-game screenshots of the Pharos (I may have had one or two in my gallery before switching PlayStation 4 consoles a few years back). So, for this thread, I decided to give myself a virtual tour of the Pharos, using the game’s Discovery Mode, an added feature to explore Egypt as represented in the game for the purpose of, well, discovery and learning, without having to worry about being attacked by soldiers, bandits, wild animals, etc. or otherwise dying if I played normally (in the game’s main playthrough, the base around the Pharos is guarded and I would have been attacked on sight). Of course, I am not an expert on the exact details of the structure itself, so I don’t know for sure how much of it the game’s designers got right. I imagine any inaccuracies are probably gameplay elements (to facilitate features such as parkour and allow cover from guards), re-use of existing game assets for convenience (like how many of the Greek temples in-game share the same exact statue of Zeus, Serapis, etc.), or to enhance the visuals/look of the Pharos. Props to all the people that worked on developing Origins and doing the historical research for it!

(click any to enlarge)
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(this Ptolemaic soldier somehow missed the wood pillar during practice. My character was not impressed!)
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(the ramp inside of the Pharos)
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Sources for information and images (excluding coin photos and game screenshots):

Wildwinds.com

Wikipedia.org

https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/pharos.html

https://muslimheritage.com/lighthouse-of-alexandria/

https://www.worldhistory.org/Lighthouse_of_Alexandria/

Please feel free to share any coins depicting lighthouses, Hadrian, or anything else relevant to the thread!
Edited by ValiantKnight
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Those in-game renderings are truly incredible. I've never had an affinity toward games (outside of Tetris) but that could convince me to use my GPU for non-software tasks!

I waited for a number of years before finally finding my Pharos last year. Alexandrian coinage is notoriously difficult to find with smooth surfaces and while this isn't 100% perfect, it's as close as I could reasonably hope to locate. I'll always welcome an opportunity to post this again:

Pharos1.thumb.jpg.48bb70e481d6a5b98d6dab0c6fa1f675.jpg

Æ-drachm, year 18 (= 133/134), Alexandria (Aegyptus); 26.48 g. Draped bust r. with laurel wreath // Isis Pharia stands r. with a billowing sail, in front of it Pharos. Dattari 1767; Goats 1124; Kampmann / Ganschow 32,589; RPC 5895. Ex. MM 13, June 17-19, 1954, lot 946

 

Edited by AncientJoe
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Fantastic write-up VK! I agree with AncientJoe, the video game graphics are magnificent!

Here is my Flavian Pharos.

RPC2677a.thumb.jpg.aa9bc59a8030bdf0fd0d00a933325d12.jpg

Domitian

Æ Hemidrachm, 12.15g
Alexandria mint, 92-93 AD
Obv: ΑΥΤ ΚΑΙϹ ΘƐΟ(Υ) ΥΙΟϹ ΔΟΜΙΤ ϹƐΒ ΓƐΡΜ; Head of Domitian, laureate, l.
Rev: LΙΒ; Pharos
RPC 2677 (0 spec.). Emmett 273f.12. Dattari-Savio 6784.
Ex CNG eAuction 484, 27 January 2021, lot 559.

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Awesome coin and write up! This type is on my wish list. I'm not much a gamer but I did play through AC Origins and am now slowly working on Odyssey, mostly to take a virtual walk through ancient Greece. Games have come a long way since Kid Icarus for Nintendo NES 🙂

I think tech is going to bring history alive in the coming years, especially in the areas of virtual and augmented reality. When I was in Pompeii a few years ago they had an app that helped navigate the site at a basic level (maps and such), but have no doubt that soon enough you'll be able to hold your cell phone up to see how each room, street, statue and forum looked in ancient times.

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  • Benefactor

If you don't mind, I'll simply repeat what I posted in the other place:

A wonderful coin and write-up, @ValiantKnight! Here's mine:

Hadrian, AE Drachm, Year 17 (AD 132/133), Alexandria, Egypt Mint. Obv. Laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right, seen from rear, ΑΥΤ ΚΑΙϹ ΤΡΑΙΑΝ - ΑΔΡΙΑΝΟϹ ϹƐΒ / Rev. Isis Pharia, holding billowing sail and sistrum above, sailing right towards the Pharos of Alexandria, which has doorway in front and is surmounted by a statue as well as two tritons blowing seashell trumpets; [L]I – Z (Year 17) across lower fields behind and in front of Isis. 33 mm., 22.64 g., 12 h. Emmett 1002.17, K&G 32.547, RPC III Online 5838 (see https://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/coins/3/5838), Milne 1373 at p. 33. Purchased Feb. 2022; ex. Classical Numismatic Group, eAuction 384, Oct. 12, 2016, Lot 482.

These are CNG's photos:

[IMG]

[IMG]

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It's a travesty that the Lighthouse was razed, but at least some of it lives on in the stones of that fortress.

Reminds me of the mausoleum of Halicarnossus, which remains in fragments in the British Museum, and other places. Although the remains of the Mauseolum lives on in Bodrum Castle, the Castle of Saint Peter. Some high-quality reliefs still remain on the walls of the fortress repurposed as spolia.

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Great coins everyone!

On 5/28/2022 at 1:48 PM, Jeremy said:

I'm not much a gamer but I did play through AC Origins and am now slowly working on Odyssey, mostly to take a virtual walk through ancient Greece.

I personally am still waiting for a proper AC Roman Republic/Empire game 😁 Seeing the Roman ruins in England in AC Valhalla only made the itch stronger!

On 5/28/2022 at 11:17 PM, hotwheelsearl said:

It's a travesty that the Lighthouse was razed, but at least some of it lives on in the stones of that fortress.

True, but at that point there was very little of it left and while I don't agree with the razing I can understand the need to use the space for something practical like a fort. Plus, conservation of ruins and old structures for their historical value/significance wasn't really so much a thing back then as it is now, AFAIK.

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