Oldest lighthouses of the world are still around and can be visited. But some are memories delegated to the realm of antiquity. Let's discover more about them. First of all, which is the most ancient lighthouse of all?
Lighthouse Encyclopedia tells us that the main intent and essential structure of lighthouses "have changed little in more than 2,000 years." As well as "their very powerful emotional appeal."1 Yes, this is so true! Why we all visit them, spend our funds to do so, read about them, spend our time researching their varieties and histories.
Some historians hypothesize ancient Sumerians placed bonfires atop ziggurats along the Persian Gulf for guidance. When Europe entered its "Dark Ages" China was in the era of their historic dynasties. Buddhist monks built their traditional religious tiered towers, the pagoda, in a manner assisting mariners. They hung lanterns in the upper windows.1 These represent a form of China's oldest lighthouses. How?
In 874AD, a 5-story narrow pagoda was constructed at Shanghai Harbor. Sitting in Moa River, it's still there today as a historic monument. In the 900s, two pagodas went up on opposite hills in Wenzhou.1 Seen lined up face to face when entering their harbor, boaters view them from quite a distance! The older West pagoda from the Tang Dynasty, the East pagoda from the Song Dynasty. Those familiar with the city know when seeing these pagodas, that they're entering Wenzhou. They've become the city's hallmark.10
The first documented light tower was in Alexandria Egypt, at the Nile delta. From about 280 BC. Its dimensions are estimated to be 450 ft. high, 360 ft. wide base, with 100 ft. thick walls. A large vessel at the top held the fire, continuously stoked at night.1 Built on the Island of Pharos, now it's named for that island. It was "dedicated for the safety of mariners." Its light served for about 1000 years, with the tower still standing another 500 until an earthquake took it down.5
Another conjecture concerns the Colossus of Rhodes. Considered among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A towering statue of the sun god Helios on the Greek island. Some think fires may have been on his outstretched hand for use as a directional beacon. Maybe because when completed Rhodesian notations stated it sparked the "torch of freedom." From no records has it ever been confirmed. That includes Philo and Pliny's works who described its destruction from a 226 BC earthquake.5,6,7
The Roman Empire's traders visited Egyptian ports. They were certainly influenced by that impressive Pharos (now a translation for lighthouse)! They began building their own impressive beacons.
The Roman Empire when at its maximum extent, reached all of England and Wales, to Northwestern Mainland Europe, all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and into the Near East. It encompassed the years 27 BC up until its fall in 476 AD.2
That includes all of Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and much of what's today called the Middle East. Many oppor-tunities to extend its influence through building impressive structures throughout.
Some lasted, many didn't. Some have been found through the work of archaeology. We're interested in seeing which ancient lighthouses of the Roman Empire era can still be found. Which can actually structurally be seen? Which can be visited?
The Romans were creative in using their navy as a guidance system for avoiding dangerous seagoing areas. It seems they placed fires into cauldrons which they hoisted up onto a masthead of a galley long-ship. They'd send the boat strategically. Sailors feeding the fire continuously, for warnings to their fleet as needed.1
The peoples inhabiting the Americas, islands of the Atlantic, islands of the Pacific and the continents of Australia and Africa had unique water travel habits that didn't require need for the typical lighthouses already discussed. Their boating was localized, or within their mainlands.
For any inter-island or ocean-going travel, they used smaller sea vessels. Think of outrigger canoes, for example, which they were well experienced in maneuvering safely. Venturing out this way, no doubt they may have kept their own notes, drawing up rudimentary charts. They likely exchanged information with friendly allies about safe areas of water navigation.5
Once people in these areas began using larger watercraft and venturing farther from a mainland shore, these areas of the earth began requiring lighthouses. That need began to arise in the 1800s. While we wouldn't refer to the beacons of that time as the oldest lighthouses, they certainly are older!
1 Jones, R. (2013). The lighthouse encyclopedia. Guilford, Connecticut.: Globe Pequot Publications
2 Wasson, D.L. (2016, Jan. 5). The extent of the Roman Empire. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from ancient.eu/article/851/
3 Daily Saba With AA (2020, Feb. 25). Ancient Patara Lighthouse to shine on Antalya shores centuries later. Daily Sabah. Retrieved from dailysabah.com/life/history/ancient-patara-lighthouse-to-shine-on-antalya-shores-centuries-later#
4 Google Arts & Culture (n.d.) The Roman pharos at Dover Castle. Retrieved from artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/egIS8Lcnz98KIg
5 Holland Jr., F.R. (1972). America's lighthouses: An illustrated history. New York: Dover Publications.
6 Springer (2004). Engineering aspects of the collapse of the Colossus of Rhodes Statue. International Symposium on History of Machines and Mechanisms. pp. 69–85.
7 Bruemmer Bozeman, A. (1994). Politics and culture in international history: From the ancient Near East to the opening of the modern age. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-56000-735-4.
8 Pandit, V. (2017, Dec. 27). Mahabalipuram lighthouse. Journals. Retrieved from vikipandit.com/mahabalipuram-lighthouse/
9 Rowlett, R. (2020) Lighthouses of India: Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The Lighthouse Directory. Retrieved from ibiblio.org/lighthouse/index.htm
10 Global Times (2009, Oct. 8). Attractions: City highlights. Source:Global Times Published. Retrieved from globaltimes.cn/content/455816.shtml