The Lost Architecture of Ancient Alexandria


On 15 April 2019, the world watched sadly as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, burnt for hours; the cause is yet to be known. Luckily, the main structure was saved and the iconic Cathedral could be restored to its former glory one day. The event stirred emotions across the globe; like millions of people worldwide, I felt saddened for the loss—albeit not a complete loss—of such a significant piece of history that has stood the test of time for centuries. I was fortunate to have visited Notre Dame and to have marveled at its unique features—especially its gargoyles—hopefully, I will be able to revisit it again when it has recovered.

This incident, however, made me think of the so many other iconic works of architecture that have held such historic and emotional meaning, and which have been lost, or almost lost. Having one of, if not the longest and most complicated, histories in the history of humanity, Egypt has lost so much architectural heritage across the millennia. Starting here at my hometown Alexandria, we have lost tremendous treasures; most famously, both the Ancient Library of Alexandria and the Lighthouse of Alexandria—one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World.

We do not really have a clear idea about the architecture of the Ancient Library of Alexandria; yet, its value as a landmark building far exceeds its architecture. To write about it, I could not find a better source than an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica by the late Dr. Mostafa el-Abbadi; the eminent scholar who called for the revival of the Library, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina—opened to the public in 2002, and where I have been working since 2004. What follows are excerpts from Dr. el-Abbadi’s treasure trove of knowledge.

The most famous library of classical antiquity, the Ancient Library of Alexandria formed part of the research institute known as the Alexandrian Museum, also known as the Mouseion, meaning “Shrine of the Muses”. What made this  Library unique was its universality; its association with the Mouseion, whose scholars required a reliable resource, helped the Library develop into a main research center. Its location close to the Harbor and within the Royal Palace’s grounds placed it under the direct supervision of the kings; those circumstances aided the rapid growth of the Library’s collection.

Within half-a-century of its foundation circa 295 bce, the collections of the Library exceeded its space, leading Ptolemy III (246–221 bce) to incorporate the branch Library into the newly built Serapeum situated at a distance from the Royal Quarter. Estimates of the total number of books in the Library vary; the earliest surviving figure from the 3rd century bce is reported as “more than 200,000 books”, whereas the Medieval text of John Tzetzes mentions “42,000 books in the outer library; in the inner (Royal) Library 400,000 mixed books, plus 90,000 unmixed books”. A still higher estimate of 700,000 was reported between 2nd and 4th centuries ce.

The Royal Library was an unfortunate casualty of war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII, where Julius Caesar sided with Cleopatra, soon getting besieged by the Ptolemaic forces by land and sea in the great harbor. Caesar set fire to the enemy fleet, and it was by that drastic measure that he managed to gain the upper hand. The daughter library, protected by the Serapeum, subsisted up to the 4th century as long as paganism survived. However, when Christianity became the one and only religion acknowledged throughout the Empire, Emperor Theodosius I, in his zeal to wipe out all vestiges of paganism, issued a decree in 391 sanctioning the demolition of temples in Alexandria. Empowered by the imperial decree, Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, led an attack on the Serapeum.

I invite you to read the whole account by Dr. Mostafa el-Abbadi at For an interesting view of the Ancient Library’s history, check out this video.

As for Alexandria’s lustrous lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, it was a technological triumph at the time of its construction about 280 bce; it came to be the archetype of all lighthouses since. Built by Sostratus of Cnidus, perhaps for Ptolemy I Soter, it was completed during the reign of Soter’s son Ptolemy II. The Lighthouse stood on the Island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria and is said to have been more than 110 m high; the only higher manmade structures at the time would have been the Pyramids of Giza.

There is a lot we do not know about the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but we do know what it looked like. As it was an icon of Alexandria, its image appeared in many places, including on ancient coins. According to ancient sources, the Lighthouse was built in three stages, all sloping slightly inward: the lowest was square and held government offices and stables; the next was an octagon and held a balcony where tourists could sit, enjoy the view, and be served refreshments; the top was cylindrical and held the fire that was continually lit to keep mariners safe. At the very top was a large statue of Poseidon, the Greek god of the Sea.

It is unknown what exactly was used to make the fire at the top of the Lighthouse; wood was unlikely because it was scarce in the region. Whatever was used, the light was effective; mariners could easily see the light from distances away and could thus find their way safely to port. The Lighthouse of Alexandria stood for 1500 years, outliving the Greek and Roman Empires to be absorbed into the Arab Empire. Its importance eventually waned when Egypt’s capital was moved from Alexandria to Cairo. Having kept mariners safe for centuries, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was finally destroyed by an earthquake circa 1375 CE.


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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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