Oldest Lighthouses

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.


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Alexandria Pharo Lighthouse Drawing from 
1860 by Antonio Tempesta shows the Nile with sailors in boats & a fire on top of the tower.Pharos Lighthouse Drawing from 1860 of Alexandria, ancient Egypt by Antonio Tempesta

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



Roman Empire's Oldest Lighthouses

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.

  • In the late 30s AD, the delusional Emperor Caligula ordered a tower named Tour d'Ordre as a tribute to his imagined defeat of the sea god Neptune. Octagon-shaped, made of stone and brick. It was atop a cliff at Boulogne-sur-Mer, rising to 125 feet. Standing as a mad tribute. Until the cliff caved in, taking the tower with it in 1644.1
  • By 50 AD, the port at Ostia Italy had a tiered 4-level tower of stone commissioned by Emperor Claudius. Approximately 100 ft. tall - impressive! Lasting a few hundred years, evidence comes from Roman coins and art.5
  • Historians believe that along coastal areas of the Roman Empire, Emperors summoned construction of other beacons at key ports.1 These oldest lighthouses haven't stood through time, for the most part. A few exceptions do exist.1



Old Lighthouse Examples of the Roman Empire to Visit

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?

  • Tower of Hercules - Sometime within 101 AD to 200 AD an amazing lighthouse was built on the northern coast of Spain, in Galicia. Visit it in La Coruña, they call it the Torre de Hércules. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Likely influenced by the Egyptian ancient Pharos tower, it's quite impressive. Although not up to modern standards, it still works as a navigational beacon. The oldest lighthouse still in use, on earth.
  • Patara Lighthouse - Ruins in southern Antalya are of an ancient lighthouse in Turkey. Patara Harbor is now a marsh. Original stone blocks excavated show it had a base and a tower. An inscription states: "I am Emperor Nero. I built this lighthouse to greet sailors." Suspicions are it was destroyed by an ancient tsunami. It's being prepared so people can eventually have a good visiting experience.3
Patara ancient 
 lighthouse excavation going on. An ancient port, trees in background.Patara - Perhaps the Oldest Lighthouse - Photo Credit: Angela Stefanoni
  • Dover Castle Lighthouse Ruins - 43AD Roman invasion of England initiated their fleet's North Sea and Channel patrols. This ancient beacon provided vigilance for harbor entry at the Dour Estuary. Within historic Dover Castle grounds, on the highest part of Castle Hill. Thus reuse over time, including the castle and adjacent Anglo-Saxon Church of St. Mary, helped its survival.
  1. This 8-sided Dubris Pharos originally had the typical 5 Roman levels. Incorporating 4 different stonework sources. The base is 12.2 meters (40ft. 3/10in.) wide, ruins extended up 12.5 meters (41ft. 1/10in.) tall. With restoration, it's 15.8 meters (51ft., 10in.) high. Structured with a platform on top to hold fires.4
  • Leptis Magna - About 2-1/2 mi. Southeast of Al Khoms, in the Murqub District of Libya. Built approximately 200AD, only used perhaps 250 years. Just ruins remain, but originally had only 3 levels, probably 115 ft. tall. What is there is well-preserved. 
  • Phare de Cordouan - Cordouan Light still operates today on the West Coast of France. Probably commissioned by Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious during the Holy Roman Empire, in first half of the 800s. Rebuilt assorted times, mostly during the 14th & 16th centuries, but changed little. It watches over entry to Gironde Estuary on Cordouan Island.1
  1. In favorable conditions, visits/tours are allowed. It's about the only offshore lighthouse in the world the public can regularly tour! (Others may open only on occasional special days.) You must prepare, know the expectations, have your reservation/ticket. Sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if you're up for it! In other words, do your Advance Planning>


Ancient Lighthouse of Asia

  • Mahabalipuram’s Old Lighthouse - This barrier island on India's Bay of Bengal's East Coast has Asia's oldest lighthouse. Also considered a holy place: Olakkanesvara Temple. Built on a tall rock hill about 640AD. King Rajasimha reigned when Pallava was a busy seaport. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple's name means “flame eye” as fires were built on its roof even into the 1900s. A stairway leads to it. You can walk around it on a narrow pathway.8
  1. A new lighthouse was built in 1900, just adjacent. The light began functioning in 1904 to guide mariners. A stairway also goes up, where visitors can climb to the gallery. There's a museum on site, too.9,8 


Ancient Lightships

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



Other Oldest Lighthouses

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!



References

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