The Oldest Lighthouses

By Natasha Lawrence

Through discovery and excavation, it appears that three of the world’s oldest lighthouses are in Spain, Egypt and Turkey. Both are more than 2,000 years old. One is about 1.5 miles outside the city of La Coruña in Galicia, Spain, and is known as the Tower of Hercules. Another lighthouse built about 60 years earlier than the one in Spain is in Antalya on Patara Beach, Turkey, and is no longer in use.


The great lighthouse in Alexandria on the small island of Pharos just outside the harbor was linked to the mainland by a man-made jetty. Because the land around the harbor was flat, the Alexandrian lighthouse was built as a marker to the harbor entrance shortly after the death of Alexander the Great. It had a square shape on a stone foundation, and its bright light, which was visible for 35 miles out to sea, was created with reflective mirrors and burning wood. Earthquakes in 956, 1303 and 1323 damaged the lighthouse. The Sultan of Egypt built a fort over the ruins of the lighthouse in 1480.


The oldest existing lighthouse in the world is La Torre de Hercules (the Tower of Hercules), constructed of masonry and located near Galicia on the northwest corner of Spain. Completed by the second century A.D., it is one of Spain’s national monuments, built during the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan. It is similar in design to the Alexandria Lighthouse in Pharos, Egypt. Its name comes from the Greek mythological story of Hercules slaying the giant Geryon, the grandson of Medusa, and burying his head and weapons where a city was ordered to be built.


The lighthouse at Patara, Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast, was discovered in 2003. It was built around 64 A.D. during Roman occupation at the time of Nero. Once five stories high with a square design overlooking the sea, it is now in ruins. Constructed in a circular design with large rock blocks, it had an interior spiral staircase that allowed oxen to bring wood for the lighthouse tower. There is a Greek inscription to the architect on the outside perimeter, and the surrounding blocks have holes made intentionally, but their purpose is unknown. The Alexandrian lighthouse was about 500 feet tall, and from ancient accounts it was one of the Wonders of the World at the time.


Natural disasters, proximity to ocean storms and earthquakes may have caused the total destruction of two of the lighthouses, but no definitive proof exists. It is speculated that a tsunami destroyed the lighthouse in Turkey, partly because a skeleton was uncovered in the doorway. The Alexandrian lighthouse fell to terrible earthquakes and many of its stone blocks have been found on the ocean floor outside the harbor. Some of its ruins were incorporated into a Medieval fort in the 15th century known as Fort Quaitbey.


The 2,000-year-old Tower of Hercules in Turkey was restored in 1791 and is still functioning as the oldest Roman lighthouse, a remarkable feat, even though it has been renovated several times to keep it in working order. Visitors to the city can take a walking tour and climb the steps of the lighthouse to the top. Visitors to these cities in Turkey, Spain and Egypt may have the privilege of getting up close to these historic monuments, to appreciate and bring awareness to their remarkable legends.