August 19, 2017

Spiritual Sight: The Light of the World

Patricia Mondore

The magnificent edifice towered far above every other structure in the city nearby as it proudly overlooked the harbor. Standing around 400 feet tall, the lighthouse was an extraordinary feat of engineering by anyone’s estimation. Even beyond its staggering height, it was also a scientific wonder with its light system that could be seen from up to 35 miles out at sea. Its builders had, no doubt, believed they had arrived at the pinnacle of architectural achievement and had made a triumphant statement of man’s limitless capabilities.

The lighthouse was without question the preeminent work of its day or of any before it. This project was not, however, a product of modern times. The Pharos Lighthouse was completed in 280 B.C. on a small Egyptian island just offshore in the Mediterranean Sea. The construction of such a massive structure would be an impressive accomplishment even today, so it is not surprising that this lighthouse went down in history as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Although the Pharos Lighthouse is no longer standing, its influence remains in several respects. From an architectural standpoint, it has been used as a model for many prototypes along the Mediterranean, as far away as Spain. In addition, linguistically, it gave its name to lighthouses all over the world. The French word for lighthouse is phare, while in Italian and Spanish it is faro.

The Pharos, which was considered history’s first great lighthouse, was located on an island in the bustling harbor of Alexandria. Historians have estimated the Pharos to have reached anywhere from 384 to 450 feet (equivalent to a modern 40-story building), and it was built to that height for good reason. Alexandria stood on the flat Nile Delta, and without the Pharos light there were no natural features to help guide navigators into the city. Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, only the Pharos had a practical use in addition to its architectural elegance. For sailors, it ensured a safe return to the Great Harbor. For architects, it was the tallest building on earth at the time it was built. For scientists, it was the mysterious mirror that fascinated them most. The mirror reflected the sunlight during the day; a fire blazed on its roof at night. The internal core of the tower was used as a shaft to lift the fuel needed for the fire.

Alexandria, the city in which Pharos was located, was founded in 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia. Alexander planned this namesake city to become one of the finest ports of the ancient world. Shortly after Alexander’s death, his commander Ptolemy Soter assumed power and established his capital there. Ptolemy noted the small island, Pharos (its name is believed to be a variation of “Pharaoh’s Island”), off the city’s coast. He had a breakwater (made of large stones or masonry) of nearly one mile in length called the Heptastadium (meaning “seven furlongs”) built to the island. This gave the city a spacious double harbor where the lighthouse was eventually built. The project was initiated by Ptolemy Soter around 290 B.C., but it was completed after his death in 280 B.C. For centuries to follow, day and night, mariners could depend on the Pharos Lighthouse to guide them to safe harbor.

Alexander had became a busy and thriving seaport. It was also a center of Greek culture as evidenced by the numerous statues of mythological gods found throughout the city. The 12 chief gods of Greek mythology, usually called the Olympians, were Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hestia, Hermes, Demeter, and Poseidon, who was the god of the sea. Hence, it made perfect sense that a statue of Poseidon adorned the summit of the Pharos Lighthouse. Sostratus did not, however, decide to dedicate the completed monument to this volatile god of the sea. Instead, the dedicatory inscription Sostratus placed on the lighthouse was “to all of the savior gods on behalf of those who sail the seas.”

While the majority of the citizens of Alexandria, along with Sostratus, worshiped the multiple gods of Greek mythology, the northeastern quarter of the city at that time was occupied predominantly by Jews who continued to believe in the one true God of the Bible. In fact, it was there that the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, was made some time around 100 B.C. It was also there in Alexandria, during that same period, where a certain Jewish baby boy was born who would one day carry the message of one particular Savior God to the world. Despite his Greek name, it is likely young Apollos was not raised to believe in the mythological gods of Alexandria but in the Hebrew God of the Bible. We know that at some point Apollos chose to follow God the Son by placing his faith in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures record by saying,

a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue . . . shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ (Acts 18:24–28).

The Scriptures also teach that Apollos was a peer and contemporary of the apostle Paul and that he eventually joined Paul in preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul wrote, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:5, 6). Paul and Apollos were working toward the same goal of sharing their Savior God with the world. Being from Alexandria, Apollos had grown up under the shadow of the mighty Pharos lighthouse and was, no doubt, well aware of its dedication to the gods. But Apollos now knew the One who declared, “I am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt, and thou shalt know no god but me: for there is no saviour beside me” (Hos. 13:4). Like Paul, he too was “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Apollos knew the one and only Savior of the world was Jesus.

Apollos might have referred to the savior gods of the Pharos to point the people to the true Light of the world. He was no doubt familiar with the words of the Psalmist who wrote, “O God of our salvation; who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of them that are afar off upon the sea: Which by his strength . . . stilleth the noise of the seas, the noise of their waves, and the tumult of the people” (Ps. 65:5–7). What an opportunity it would have been for Apollos to assure the people of Alexandria that the God who stilled the raging waters could surely be depended on by “those who sail the seas.” In fact, this very Savior, just a short time earlier, had come to earth. While Apollos was growing up in Alexandria and Pharos was shining its light across the harbor, the One the Scriptures refer to as “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9) walked along the shores of this same sea.

For centuries to follow, the light of the Pharos guided sailors safely to shore. This bright beacon of light was a symbol of hope to weary travelers as it shined the way to their destination, to safe harbor, to home. Yet, despite the fact that it was the most impressive lighthouse in the world, the Pharos was not indestructible. In 1303 and again in 1323 earthquakes took their toll on the structure, and in 1480 the Egyptian Mamelouk Sultan Qaitbay built a medieval fort on the same spot where the lighthouse once stood, using the fallen stone and marble. The magnificent Pharos was gone.

The light of the ancient world no longer shines the way to safe harbor. But the true Light of the World still does. Though Jesus walked upon this earth for only a short time, the light He brought to the world shines eternal. He declared, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). He came to shine His guiding light to all those who are lost in the darkness, tossed and turned on the rough seas of life. The savior gods to whom Pharos was dedicated could no more protect those lost at sea than they could the lighthouse itself from its ultimate fate. God, the Savior, however, not only hears the cries of every lost soul but has reached out and shined the light of His saving love, the Light of Jesus. All who follow the Light will find themselves in safe harbor for eternity.

Sources

1. Alexandria, Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, 1998 Edition.

2. Greek Mythology, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 1999 Edition.

3. The Lighthouse of Alexandria. http://pharos.bu.edu/Egypt/Wonders/pharos.html (Link no longer active, search on term).


At the time of original publication, Patricia Mondore was a freelance writer living in Jamesville, New York.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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