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Pharology - Lighthouses of Antiquity - Broader Influences

A07: Broader Influences

In 1900, Renard [17] wrote, “The oldest known towers are those built by the Lybiens (Libyans) and by the Cushites who lived in the provinces of Lower Egypt. They served as lookout points by day and as lighthouses by night.” They were also temples and sacrifices were made in them. They were held in high regard by seamen. The inner walls were supposed to be engraved with charts and the lightkeepers were priests who also taught seamanship, pilotage, astronomy and hydrography. The lights were provided by wood fires that burned in iron braziers in the form of interlaced dolphins suspended from the towers with long poles. Renard’s source of evidence for this conclusion is not known.

Renard also stated that the Greeks attributed the first lighthouse to Hercules. According to tradition, he inaugurated a lighthouse at the modern site in northwestern Spain known as La Coruna. Even today, the lighthouse is known as the Tour d’Hercules, as well as the Iron Tower – it is made of stone - or Tour de Fer, the latter possibly due to confusion of fer (French for iron) with faro (Spanish for lighthouse) or with Ferrol, the nearby town. Hercules 'composed a lamp burning continually day and night without putting of anything thereto, which burned afterwards the space of 300 years. Moreover, upon the pinnacle or top of the tower he made an image of copper looking into the sea, and gave him in his hand a looking-glass having such virtue' that hostile warships could be detected as they approached. But, according to the story, an enemy, knowing this, camouflaged his galleys with green boughs so that only trees appeared in the glass: thus he seized the tower without warning and destroyed the lamp and mirror. This popular idea whereby enemy vessels could be detected at distances several hundred miles was also ascribed to the Pharos as Stevenson [24] relates:

“The magic power which produced such an extraordinary effect was supposed to lie within a mirror on the top of the tower and it is certainly not impossible that a kind of camera obscura could be constructed with mirrors which would show ships at a distance of 25 miles. According to another story, the tower contained mirrors which made its fire visible to ships at a distance of 100 miles. But though mirrors could increase the candlepower of oil lamps, if such were used, and extend their effective range to a degree that would appear astounding to the ancients, they could not extend the direct visibility of either a wood fire or an oil lamp beyond the geographical range limited by the height of the tower. Perhaps the reflection in the sky of the lighthouse fire during some uncommon atmospheric condition accounted for the phenomenon. No writer who mentions the mirrors appears to have seen them: it was said that they had been destroyed by 'the intriguing arts of the Christians' or had been seized and removed while the captain of the port was attending a feast on board a vessel pretending to be friendly.”

Such stories illustrate another concept important to lighthouses much later in history, for ancient peoples understood many properties of mirrors, and might have used them to intensify the lights in lighthouses. A Roman historian declared that about 212 BC, during the siege of Syracuse, Archimedes destroyed an enemy fleet by using mirrors at the distance of an arrow's flight to direct and concentrate the sun's heat rays on the ships' timbers, thus setting them on fire.

It is possible that the legend of Hercules has some basis in fact, although its assignment to La Coruna is considered inaccurate. There is no indication that the Phoenicians used this location for anything other than temporary shelter. It is fairly certain that the Romans initiated a lightstructure here, the site called Julio Briga, but this would have been at least a thousand years after any event associated with Hercules. If a human called Hercules ever did build a lightstructure, it seems likely to have occurred in southwestern Spain.

According to Renard [17], the Lybiens (sic) called their towers ‘tor’ or ‘tar’, which meant both ‘high’ and ‘tower’. Fire was referred to as ‘is’ and joining these two words we get ‘tor-is’, or ‘fire tower’. This word crossed into Greek and thence into Roman as ‘turris’ where it was used generally to mean ‘tower’. Thus, it is regarded from this account that the first lightstructures could be described as ‘fire-towers’ and, indeed, many ancient lights are referred to with this term. Of course, it should be remembered that fire towers were often associated with defensive military structures at the entrances to ports, and would not have been lit during periods of hostility in case it aided the enemy.

In the two millennia spanning the birth of Christ, lighthouses were indeed better described as 'fire towers'. Of the lightstructure built in 1480 on the top of Fort Qait Bey, itself situated on the foundations of the Pharos, Hague [23] writes: “It is possible that this building was the architectural inspiration for all the minarets which rose in the wake of the Muslim conquests in Europe.” He suggested it could even be the root of the Arabic word minaret, which means a 'place where fire burns'”. This gives us a clue that other cultures embraced the idea of a lighthouse, although these suggestions are clearly founded well after the birth of Christ. The Muslim faith commenced with the prophet Mohammed in 600 AD and apart from the suggestion of Renaud, there is no other evidence of Arab peoples building lightstructures.