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The Tower of Hercules

Tower of Hercules

The Tower of Hercules in La Coruña. It is the only working Roman lighthouse remaining today— the oldest lighthouse in the world still working today.

Since the dawn of humanity our fear of the dark has been present in all known cultures. Our devotion to the sun which gives us warmth and light and the moon which illuminates the night as well as that magical element, fire, is well known to all. Darkness produces fear in us, raises suspicions and is disorienting especially to sailors and pilots. When people began to navigate, first by sailing along the coast and later going out into the tempestuous seas, there has always been present in one strategic spot or another along the coast, lights that warn sailors of nearby rocks. Lighthouses have formed a part of our history and have shed light, literally and metaphorically, on our heritage.

We only need to remember the Colossus of Rhodes, that fabulous lighthouse shaped like the god Helios flanking the entrance to the Greek port of Rhodes in the 3rd century BCE. We shouldn't forget the lighthouse of Alexandria that was built around the same time as the Colossus. This lighthouse guided sailors into the port of this Egyptian city. Unfortunately, both have disappeared and today we only have their memory.

But in Galicia, in the city of La Coruña, located on a hill above the water and surrounded by a park (which is also home to an outdoor sculpture garden) we find a lighthouse that is the pride and joy of the people of La Coruña (Coruñeses) and whose name evokes mythical origins: The Tower of Hercules.

A Roman Lighthouse Still Working Today

This is the only working Roman lighthouse remaining today—quite a feat to be the oldest lighthouse in the world and still working as such to this day. Built between the first and second centuries CE, this monument was built on what was then known as finis terrae (the end of the Earth). The tower is located on a rocky hilltop, Punto Eiras, 200 feet (60 m) above the water. When you consider that the tower is 165 ft (50 m) high and combining that with height of the cliff, with a total height reaching 365 ft above the water, the light emitted would have been visible from a long distance away.

The original lighthouse is now covered in a neoclassical style façade that was built in the 18th century in an attempt to modernize the structure and its navigational apparati. This important event was used to inspect and understand exactly how the tower was functioning for so many years—and continue to do so in the future.

The construction that you see today is in the form of a square with each side almost 38 feet long (11.5 m). The original height was approximately 115 ft (35 m) and what is above that was constructed during the restoration performed in 1789. Surprisingly, even though the lighthouse was working during the Middle Ages, the building fell into disrepair. What saved the tower from ruin was the growing importance of La Coruña as a port of entry with shipping traffic coming here to load and unload goods for northern and northwestern Spain. In light of this, the Ministry of the Navy ordered its restoration.

The Romans, by choosing this location for its original lighthouse, placed it on top of a shrine for the people living here who, as commonly happens, associated these cliffs overlooking the water with deities that could be associated with the figure of Hercules.

Maybe it is due to this association that some of the legends have arisen surrounding the tower without taking into account the reality of its historic past (something legends don't need nor will ever need). One legend says that Hercules himself came to these coasts where Geryon, the mythical king of Tartessos, exercised his despotic rule. Hercules, responding to the calls of help from the people of Tartessos, killed and buried the evil Geryon. On top of his burial mound, Hercules made a giant bonfire from which the Tower of Hercules was born.

Another legend, of Celtic origin, says that Breogán (or Breoghan), who was an Irish leader, conquered the people of this area and founded the city of Brigantium (La Coruña). It is here where he built a tower of such enormous height that one could see his native island. This legend also is the reason why this lighthouse is also known as Breogán's Tower.

In 2007, the tower was recognized as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. The tower is also twinned with the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Faro de Moro in Havana, Cuba, which is the oldest lighthouse in the Americas.

This historic lighthouse occupies a place in the Spanish collective memory and even though its image may be well known, we can't avoid shuddering in awe when we find ourselves before its magical and evocative silhouette that's been lighting the way along the Galician coast for 2000 years.