28 November 2010

The Tower of Hercules

Just outside of Corunna, in Galicia, Spain you will find a peninsula. There, almost 1900 years ago, the Roman authorities commanded the building of a lighthouse. Even the engineers who built the 180 foot tall structure would not have had the prescience to imagine the same building would be carrying out its original function so many centuries later. Yet it is, making it the oldest lighthouse in the world to do so.

It is known as the Tower of Hercules, which although has the whiff of hyperbole about it, is difficult to argue as an inappropriate name. Although this Torre de Hércules as it is known in Spain was called the Farum Brigantium until the twentieth century you can easily imagine a thirteenth labor being ordered and Hercules, with heavy heart, constructing the giant tower with his bare hands.

In fact there is a local legend around the lighthouse. Hercules had an epic battle with the grandson of Medusa, Geryon. After beheading the giant Geryon, Hercules buried the head at the point of battle. So that people would remember this particular seventy two hour clash, Hercules set about building the lighthouse as a lasting monument to his triumph.

Yet this is simply myth albeit an interesting and exciting one. Although it is debated when exactly the tower was built, it is thought most likely that it was done under the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117AD). This has a certain romanticism to it as Trajan was himself from the province of Hispania Baetica which although did not encompass modern day Corunna, is certainly close enough for Trajan to have been personally familiar with the place.

It is certainly an astounding amount of time for any structure to be standing. Even the town of Corunna is thought to have been bestowed its name by the presence of the lighthouse, being close to the Latin word columna, meaning column. Majestically overlooking the North Atlantic coast of Spain, it looks set to weather further millennia. Even now, it remains the second tallest lighthouse in the entire country.

Whether it was Trajan or some other emperor who ordered its construction, records indicate that it was in situ by the second century AD. The design is considered to have Phoenician origins, an ancient culture unique in its significant seafaring accomplishments.

An inscription at its base tells us that the architect was one Gaius Sevius Lupus (not Hercules after all) who was from a town called Aeminium (Coimbra in Portugal). The tower was dedicated to the Roman god of war, Mars, who represented military authority as a method to secure peace, and was considered a father of the Roman people.

You may have wondered about the significance of those ascending lines on the exterior of the lighthouse. Originally there would have been a wooden ramp, wrapping around the tower, to enable oxen to carry up large amounts of wood which would have kept the light aflame at night.  These are, however, vestigial.  The original brickwork is underneath the exterior.

Of course, the tower has undergone changes throughout its history. When first constructed it was 112 feet high and its height ended at the third storey. In 1788 a fourth was added by the naval engineer Eustaquio Giannini. It was a necessity. Although the region was known by the Romans as Finisterra – the end of the earth, it was still notorious for shipwrecks in the eighteenth century.

The Tower of Hercules still receives many thousands of visitors each year – and rightly so – this is truly one of the supremely cool buildings of Europe.

(Note: the sculptures you can see in some of the pictures are from the city’s sculpture garden which features work by Francisco Leiro and Pablo Serrano.