Monday, January 25, 2010

The Great Lighthouse at Alexandria

In the fall of 1994 a team of archaeological scuba divers entered the waters off of Alexandria, Egypt. Working beneath the surface they searched the bottom of the sea for artifacts. Large underwater blocks of stone were marked with floating masts so that an Electronic Distance Measurement station on shore could obtain their exact positions. Global positioning satellites were used to further fix the locations. The information was then fed into computers to create a detailed database of the sea floor.

Ironically, these scientists were using some of the most high-tech devices available at the end of the 20th century to try and discover the ruins of one of the most advanced technological achievements of the 3rd century, B.C.: The Pharos. It was the great lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Alexander the Great

The story of the Pharos starts with the founding of the city of Alexandria by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.. Alexander started at least 17 cities named Alexandria at different locations in his vast domain. Most of them disappeared, but Alexandria in Egypt thrived for centuries and continues even today.

Alexander the Great choose the location of his new city carefully. Instead of building it on the Nile delta, he selected a site some twenty miles to the west, so that the silt and mud carried by the river would not block the city harbor. South of the city was the marshy Lake Mareotis. After a canal was constructed between the lake and the Nile, the city had two harbors: one for Nile River traffic, and the other for Mediterranean Sea trade. Both harbors would remain deep and clear.

Alexander died soon after in 323 B.C. and the city was completed by Ptolemy Soter the new ruler of Egypt. Under Ptolemy the city became rich and prosperous. However, it needed both a symbol and a mechanism to guide the many trade ships into the busy harbor. Ptolemy authorized the building of the Pharos in 290 B.C., and when it was completed some twenty years later, it was the first lighthouse in the world and the tallest building in existence, with the exception of the Great Pyramid.

Construction of the Lighthouse

The lighthouse's designer was Sostrates of Knidos. Proud of his work, Sostrates, desired to have his name carved into the foundation. Ptolemy II, the son who ruled Egypt after his father, refused this request wanting his own name to be the only one on the building. A clever man, Sostrates had the inscription:

chiseled into the foundation, then covered it with plaster. Into the plaster was chiseled Ptolemy's name. As the years went by the plaster aged and chipped away revealing Sostrates' declaration.

The lighthouse was built on the island of Pharos and soon the building itself acquired the name. The connection of the name with the function became so strong that the word "Pharos" became the root of the word "lighthouse" in the French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian languages.

There are two detailed descriptions made of the lighthouse in the 10th century A.D. by Moorish travelers Idrisi and Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh. According to their accounts, the building was 300 cubits high. Because the cubit measurement varied from place to place, this could mean that the Pharos stood anywhere from 450 to 600 feet in height, although the lower figure is more likely.

The design was unlike the slim single column of most modern lighthouses (left), but more like the structure of an early twentieth century skyscraper. There were three stages, each built on top of the lower. The building was constructed of marble blocks with lead mortar. The lowest level was probably more that 200 feet in height and 100 feet square, shaped like a massive box. Inside this section was a large spiral ramp that allowed materials to be pulled to the top in horse-drawn carts.

On top of this section was an eight-sided tower. On top of the tower was a cylinder that extended up to an open cupola where the fire that provided the light burned. On the roof of the cupola was a large statue of Poseidon. The lower portion of the building contained hundreds of storage rooms.

The interior of the upper two sections had a shaft with a dumbwaiter that was used to transport fuel up to the fire. Staircases allowed visitors and the keepers to climb to the beacon chamber. There, according to reports, a large curved mirror, perhaps made of polished metal, was used to project the fire's light into a beam. It was said ships could detect the light from the tower at night or the smoke from the fire during the day up to one-hundred miles away.

There are stories that this mirror could be used as a weapon to concentrate the sun and set enemy ships ablaze as they approached. Another tale says that it was possible to use the mirror to magnify the image of the city of Constantinople from far across the sea to observe what was going on there. Both of these stories seem implausible, though.

The lighthouse was apparently a tourist attraction. Food was sold to visitors at the observation platform at the top of the first level. A smaller balcony provided a view from the top of the eight-sided tower for those that wanted to make the additional climb. The view from there must have been impressive as it was probably 300 feet above the sea. There were few places in the ancient world where a person could ascend a man-made tower to get such a perspective.


How then did the world's first lighthouse wind up on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea? Most accounts indicate that it, like many other ancient buildings, was the victim of earthquakes. It stood for 1,500 years but was damaged by tremors in 365 and 1303 A.D. Reports indicate the final collapse came in 1326.

There is also an unlikely tale that part of the lighthouse was demolished through trickery. In 850 A.D. the Emperor of Constantinople, a rival port, devised a clever plot to get rid of the Pharos. He spread rumors that buried under the lighthouse was a fabulous treasure. When the Caliph at Cairo who controlled Alexandria heard these rumors, he ordered that the tower be pulled down to get at the treasure. It was only after the great mirror had been destroyed and the top two portions of the tower removed that the Caliph realized he'd been deceived. He tried to rebuild the tower, but couldn't, so he turned it into a mosque instead.

As colorful as this story is there does not seem to be much truth in it. Visitors in 1115 A.D. reported the Pharos intact and still operating as a lighthouse.

Did the divers actually find the remains of Pharos in the bottom of the harbor? Some of the larger blocks of stone found certainly seem to have come from a large building. Statues were located that may have stood at the base of the Pharos. Interestingly enough, much of the material found seems to be from earlier eras than the lighthouse. Scientists speculate that they may have been recycled in the construction of the Pharos from even older buildings.

There are plans to turn this site into an archaeological park with a lighthouse museum. In a few years visitors maybe able to rent snorkle gear and wet suits and dive in the bay among the remains of the great Pharos lighthouse.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

5. Konya, Turkey 2600 B.C.

Central Anatolia

Situation and Importance

This famous oasis bordering the mountains and a former capital of the Seljuk Empire lies at the heart of the Anatolian steppes. Major irrigation projects have created fertile land around the city and produce includes fruit, vegetables and sugar beet. Wheat is the main crop and rearing livestock also plays an important part in the local economy, in particular Anatolian fat-rump sheep. As early as the 13th century Konya was making carpets. It was the first carpet-making center in the Islamic world and even Marco Polo enthused over the quality of the product. Konyan carpets with their pastel shades and floral patterns are today regarded as the finest in Turkey.

The busy market town which stands at a major crossroads and also on the Baghdad railroad line has become one of the most important industrial centers of central Anatolia. The town has been a national place of pilgrimage (Mevlana) for many hundreds of years and despite economic progress, the population remains steeped in the old traditions. With its strong oriental links, the lively bazaar and important buildings, Konya is well worth a visit.


The citadel in the town center would appear to have been settled since the Anatolian Copper Age (3500-3000 B.C.) and the Phrygians are thought to have established the first settlement. Konya's old name was Ikoneum (Iconium), which according to a legend of Perseus and Medusa dates from this period. Under Roman rule Iconium belonged to a number of different provinces. It was one of the first towns to adopt Christianity and Barnabas and Paul both stayed in the town (Acts 14:1). The latter met Thekla (later St Thekla) the merchant's daughter here. The Seljuks were responsible for advancing the city's fortunes. In the course of the ninth century this Turkish tribe advanced from the Aral Sea to make Ikoneum the capital of their empire which was soon to embrace a large part of Asia Minor. Despite some fierce struggles Konya sought greater cultural independence from Byzantium. The Crusades also impinged on Konya. On May 26th 1190 during the Third Crusade Frederick "Barbarossa" captured the town and his son Frederick took control of the whole city apart from the castle. Konya enjoyed a period of great prosperity under the well-known sultan Alaeddin Kaykobad (1219- 1237) who had learnt something of western culture in Constantinople. In 1221 Konya's fortifications were rebuilt using ancient building materials. 108 towers endowed by the empire's wealthy benefactors reinforced the wall only a few fragments of which remain today. A series of magnificent mosques, medrese and caravanserais were constructed in the town. Alaeddin's court became a center for scientists, poets (preferably Persian) and artists who were responsible for the Byzantine and Persian buildings and enamel tiles. But the decline began under the sultan's son who had his father murdered and in 1307 the last Seljuk ruler was killed by the Mongols.

In 1320 the now powerful emir from the neighboring principality (see Karaman) made Konya his capital and the tradition of glittering architectural showpieces received new impetus. The Ottoman interregnum (Bayazit I from 1397) ended the rule of the Mongol Timur in favor of the Karamans, before Konya finally succumbed to the Ottomans in 1466. After a long peaceful phase the city was occupied for at time by the rebellious Egyptian viceroy Mehmet Ali. Konya is the seventh largest city in Turkey.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

4. Zurich, Switzerland 3000 B.C.

Situated on the shores of Lake Zurich, overlooked by the snowy peaks of the Alps, the city of Zurich is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Europe. Despite being the largest city in Switzerland, visitors will find Zurich has managed to maintain much of its old-world charm, while its compact size and convenient layout make it ideal for exploration on foot. As home to one of the world’s most extensive and efficient transport systems, less energetic visitors will also find the city equally easy to navigate.

The city’s long list of world-class museums and galleries provide a cultural experience to satisfy even the most ardent of art lovers, with the Kunsthaus Zurich and the Landesmuseum just two of the city’s exceptional offerings. Visiting families won’t be disappointed either, as the city provides plenty of activities to keep children entertained; the world renowned Dolder Zoo and the Lindt and Sprungli Chocolate Factory are two attractions children won’t want to miss.

Shopping and dining opportunities are superb, with the Bahnhofstrasse area of the old town seemingly bursting with high quality shops and boutiques. As well as being a shopper’s dream, Zurich also provides a culinary experience that rivals many of its European neighbours, particularly in the summer months, when the streets come alive with pavement cafés and restaurants.


Most cities have modest origins, and Zurich is no exception. The Roman garrison of Turicum stationed in the area in 15 BCE near the present-day Lindenhof, and in 370 CE, just 30 years after the Romans had left, a small fort sprang up on the same site. In the following centuries Alemannic and Frankish tribes settled in the area, marking the place where this great city would later flourish.

The foundation of the Fraumünster cathedral was laid down in 853 by Ludwig the German, a grandson of Charlemagne, and the first recorded mention of the city dates back to 929. In the following years, Otto the Great reunited Italy with Germany, thus reinforcing Zurich's important strategic position as a bridgehead between the two states. German emperors frequently came to the Lindenhof to discuss their policies in Italy. In 1098 the imperial province of Zurich came under the rule of the Zähringer dynasty. After that line died out in 1218, Zurich became a free city, albeit still part of the kingdom. Two years later the first city council came into being. After the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1281 Zurich allied itself with the other cantons against the Habsburgs, who defeated them and lay siege to the city. In 1336 the knights and wealthy merchants lost their preeminent position in the city council as political rights were extended to poorer craftsmen and artisans, who organized themselves into powerful guilds. Zurich formally joined the Swiss Confederation in 1351, where it remained despite various conflicts and upheavals.

In 1519 Huldrych Zwingli, a central figure in the European Reformation, became a minister at the cathedral. Battles over iconoclasm raged and by 1525 the Reformation was complete. In 1648 Zurich was expelled from the German Empire. The old confederate system came to an abrupt end in 1798 with the onset of the Napoleonic wars and the advance of the French armies. The following year, Zurich became the fulcrum of the war and was variously besieged by French, Austrian and Russian forces. After the restoration of peace, Zurich blossomed and enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom. The University, to this day Switzerland's largest and most prestigious, was founded in 1833. Fourteen years later, the first railway line going through Zurich was constructed. With the conglomeration of 11 hitherto self-contained districts, the city's population swelled to 120,000. During both World War I and II Zurich was a haven for refugees fleeing authoritarian regimes. German author Thomas Mann lived here for a while, as did Albert Einstein and Lenin.

After the upheavals of 1968, Zurich saw further student protests, which reached a climax in the early 1980s. The city also earned notoriety for its harm-reduction approach to drug policy, its liberal party atmosphere, especially the Street Parade, and for its position as the center of offshore banking. Zurich, with its 360,000 inhabitants, undoubtedly sets the standard in banking and finance, service industries and culture. It is considered a "world city" and earned recognition in 2006 for having the best standard of living in the world.


Switzerland is generally portrayed as a cold and snow-swept country that receives little sun; however, this is far from the truth. In reality, Switzerland enjoys a mild climate due to the warm winds that blow in from the Atlantic Ocean.

Zurich’s mild climate means it is popular with visitors throughout the year, with the summer months of June to September being the busiest, as temperatures during these months average around 25°C, with little rain. The winter season begins around November and continues through to April, when the snows melt, although throughout the winter temperatures rarely drop far below 0°C in Zurich. Visitors to the Swiss mountains are continually surprised by the winter weather, with long days of warm sunshine and blue skies being far from unusual.

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