Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Fanciful images of (top) the Great Pyramid, Hanging Gardens, Temple of Artemis,
Statue of Zeus, and (bottom) the Mausoleum, Colossus, and Lighthouse,
by 16th-century Dutch artist Maerten van Heemskerck

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 3 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article!

[Note: BCE means "Before the Common Era," what we used to call "BC." Likewise, CE means "Common Era," what we used to call "AD."]

People love random lists: "The 10 Best Linguini Recipes" or "Five Ways to Use Old Toilet Paper Rolls." We also love to hear about the X-number of things to do "before you die" or the Y-number "must-see" events.

Or maybe you just love a list of "the things EVERYBODY ought to know": The Jim Bucket List!

Anyway, one of the earliest such lists was made by a Greek poet who lived in the latter half of the 2nd century BCE. Antipater of Sidon lived at Rome, and wrote a list of what we call "Seven Wonders" (he called them "seven sights"). It was just a sort of ancient "bucket list," except that according to this quote, Antipater had already seen them:

I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus, I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.

So Antipater's list was:

  1. The Walls of Babylon
  2. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
  3. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  4. The Colossus of Rhodes
  5. The Great Pyramid of Giza
  6. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and
  7. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Changes occurred as the list evolved, and one of them is important to us: Antipater cited the Walls of Babylon, but today we put the Lighthouse of Alexandria in its place. We now call this list "The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World," to distinguish it from the many, many other lists of "Seven Wonders" around, like "The Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia." (Really!)

Anyway, the "ancient" grouping only covers the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, and only existed simultaneously for less than 60 years. (To see some of the "Wonders" of today, drawn largely from UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, check out my project, The Wonders of the World, a daily post about the remarkable sights found in our amazing world.

Let's visit (in our imagination) these places one by one, from the oldest to the "newest." And certainly, "imagination" will be necessary in six out of seven cases, because the Great Pyramid is the only one of the seven that survives today.


Here's the list we'll use:

  1. The Great Pyramid of Giza
  2. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  3. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  4. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
  5. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
  6. The Colossus of Rhodes, and
  7. The Lighthouse at Alexandria

The Great Pyramid of Giza

  • Built: 2584-2561 BCE
  • By: The Egyptians
  • Destroyed: NEVER! It's still there (though the facing pieces have suffered some damage)
  • Location: The Giza Necropolis, Egypt

It's not surprising that we have more information about the Great Pyramid than about any other Wonder, as it's still being studied today. Let's stick (more or less) with what the ancients knew (or could have known).

The oldest of the Wonders was built as a tomb for Khufu (also called Cheops) over a 27-year period in the 26th century BCE. Once 481 feet (146.5 meters) high, it remained the tallest man-made structure in the world until the building of England's Lincoln Cathedral in 1311 CE. Because its limestone casing was removed over the millennia, it now stands at a "mere" 454.4 feet (138.5 meters), making it "only" the 15th-tallest structure in the world today. (Structures taller than the Great Pyramid include three skyscrapers; three towers, one of them the Eiffel; seven churches/cathedrals; and the Washington Monument.)

Its base is about 755.6 feet (230.3 meters) on a side, giving it an area of 13 acres (5.3 hectares)--nearly the size of 10 American football fields, end-zones included. Its volume is roughly 92 million cubic feet (2.6 million cubic meters), or about the same as 1,040 Olympic swimming pools. And it's made up of approximately 2.3 million large blocks.

This man-made mountain still stands as a silent witness to the Wonders of the ancient world.


The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

  • Built: c. 600 BCE
  • By: The Babylonians or Assyrians
  • Destroyed: After the 1st century CE
  • By: Unknown
  • Location: Hillah or Nineveh, Iraq
  • Note: All of this is iffy; it is uncertain whether the Hanging Gardens ever existed at all.

At the other end of stability are the so-called "Hanging Gardens of Babylon."

Not actually described as "hanging" at all, they were built as a series of terraces planted with trees, shrubs, and vines--a sort of lush ziggurat. "Hanging" may be a misleading translation of a Greek word that can mean "overhanging," as trees would from a terrace if you were standing one level below.

Legend says the gardens were built by King Nebuchadnezzar the Great (ruled 605-562 BCE). It was he who destroyed Jerusalem and took the Jews into the "Babylonian Captivity" (more-or-less 580-520 BCE). He built it, they say, for his queen, who missed the green hills of home. Others attribute construction to the much earlier 9th century legendary queen Semiramis.

No Babylonian texts of the time mention the gardens, and no archaeological evidence of them has ever been found around Babylon. This leaves us with three options: (1) they never existed, but were invented by Greek writers; (2) their destruction was so complete that they left no trace on the ground or in the local press; or (3) they may have been mistaken for other gardens known to have existed, like that of Assyrian King Sennacherib in Nineveh.


The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

  • Built: c. 550 BCE; rebuilt 323 BCE
  • By: the Greeks and the Lydians
  • Destroyed: 356 BCE (arson or lightning); 262 CE (plundering)
  • By: first, arson (or perhaps just lightning); later, plundering
  • Location: Near Selçuk, Turkey

We now move to firmer ground, historically and archaeologically. Unlike the pyramid in Egypt and the gardens in Babylon, this one (like all of the rest) was built by Greeks (sometimes with assistance from others), so Greek sources are more reliable.

The Temple of Artemis--a Greek Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt, called Diana by the Romans--was near the Greek city of Ephesus in what is now modern Turkey. The first, fairly simple Bronze Age structure on the site was destroyed by a flood in the 7th century BCE. A new, improved temple was built in the middle of the sixth century, with at least partial sponsorship by the proverbially rich Lydian King Croesus.

In 356 BCE--the year Alexander the Great was born--this edifice was destroyed by fire, reportedly arson at the hands of one Herostratus, who set the roof-beams on fire (they say) as a way to get his name in the papers. He was sentenced to death, and his name was never to be spoken, let alone written down--but one author did so. Seeking an explanation as to why Artemis didn't protect her home, Plutarch (four centuries later, it should be noted) remarked that she was too busy overseeing Alexander's delivery. (Aristotle, Alexander's tutor, pooh-poohs the whole story, saying the fire was started by a lightning strike.)

The reconstruction started in 323 BCE (after Alexander's death in Mesopotamia) and stood for nearly 600 years, even through the time of the Apostles. In fact, an apocryphal 2nd-century text tells of the apostle John praying publicly in the Temple and causing the altar to "split in many pieces... and half the temple fell down," which caused the Ephesians to convert. There is no external support for this assertion.

In 268 CE the Goths, out on an excursion of plunder and pillage, sacked the temple and partially destroyed or damaged it. It was still in partial use, however, until closed in a Christian persecution of pagan worshippers in the late Roman Empire, perhaps in the mid-5th century. It may have stood empty for some years, until its stones were removed for use in other building projects.


The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

  • Built: 466-456 BCE (the temple), 435 BCE (the statue)
  • By: Greeks (Phidias)
  • Destroyed: 5th-6th centuries CE
  • By: It may have been disassembled at the original site and reassembled at Constantinople; there it was later destroyed by fire
  • Location: Olympia, Greece

Around the middle of the fifth century BCE, the Greeks built at Olympia--site of the ancient Olympic Games, held every four years for 12 centuries--a model temple dedicated to the Supreme God Zeus. A couple of decades later they commissioned from Phidias, greatest sculptor of his age, a statue of said god. (In addition to this commission, Phidias also sculpted the statue of Athena that once stood in the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, among others. Phidias, you might say, was a hot ticket. Perhaps not coincidentally, he was also bestie with Pericles, the greatest politician of the age, for whom the period is sometimes called the "Periclean Age.")

Anyway, the Statue of Zeus depicted him seated, but was still 41 feet (12.4 meters) tall. The geographer Strabo (whose work Geography gives us one of the finalized lists of Wonders) said in the 1st century BCE that if the statue were to stand up, it appeared that it would "unroof the temple."

The Statue was made of plates or panels of ivory and gold placed over a wooden framework. Its throne was made of painted cedarwood, and was decorated with ebony, ivory, gold, and precious stones. A 2nd-century description, by a traveler named Pausanias, tells us it wore a sculpted olive wreath and a gilded glass robe carved with animals and lilies. In his right hand was a smaller sculpture of Nike, goddess of victory, and its left held a scepter supporting an eagle.

Phidias claims to have taken inspiration for the figure from a description of Zeus in the first chapter of Homer's Iliad. According to a legend recorded by Pausanias, when it was finished Phidias prayed to Zeus for a sign of approval. Immediately a bolt of lightning struck the temple's floor, on a spot that Pausanias claims was covered by a bronze jar when he visited.

Sadly, except for a few imperfect likenesses on coins, there is no accurate visual representation of the Statue today. It seems to have met its end "not with a bang, but a whimper." In 391 CE, Theodosius I, the Christian Roman emperor, banned pagan worship and closed the temples. The temple fell into disuse, and history records nothing reliable about the Statue. Although there are other rumors to the contrary, roughly seven centuries later a Byzantine historian writes that it was taken to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in a fire in 475 CE.


The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

  • Built: 351 BCE
  • By: The Greeks, the Persians, and the Carians (Satyros and Pythius of Priene)
  • Destroyed: 12th-15th century CE
  • By: Earthquakes
  • Location: Bodrum, Turkey

The "person in the street" might never have heard of King Mausolus, successor to Cyrus the Great (founder of the First Persian Empire in Western Asia) if it weren't for one posthumous act. Oh, he was something of a regional conqueror in his day (he ruled a place called Caria, a Greek region in what is now Turkey, from 377-353 BCE). But wasn't everybody a conqueror?

No, the only reason we talk about him today is for the monstrous tomb he had built for himself. Having conquered the Greek city of Halicarnassus, he set about building a new capital there, meant to be both secure and magnificent. He and his sister (also his wife!) Artemisia spent gobs of tax money and, after his death, Artemisia and other of his siblings sent to Greece for the finest artists to carry out his plan for the grandest tomb ever.

So grand was it, in fact, that to this day we call elaborate tombs--after the name of King Mausolus--mausoleums.

Sitting on a hill overlooking the city, it was set on a platform in an enclosed courtyard, with a staircase flanked by stone lions leading up to it. Statues of gods and goddesses decorated the sides of the platform, and stone warriors on horseback guarded each corner of the tomb. The main portion of the tomb itself was a slightly-tapering block covered with bas-reliefs including battling centaurs and Greeks fighting Amazon women.

On top of this block thirty-six slim columns (ten on a side, with the corner column counted on each) appeared to support a massive pyramidal roof (which actually rested on another, sturdier element). A statue stood between each pair of columns, and another, of four massive horses pulling a chariot in which rode images of Mausolus and Artemisia, perched atop the roof.

Artemisia lived only two years longer than Mausolus, leading some modern scholars to believe that the king himself began the construction before his death. Anyway, the ashes of both were placed in a single urn in the unfinished tomb.

It is unknown when the mausoleum fell into ruins--probably due to earthquake--but it was certainly not standing when crusading European knights arrived in 1402 and used many of its stones to fortify Bodrum Castle (Bodrum is the modern name of Halicarnassus). They also used bas-reliefs from the ruins to decorate their castle, and burned some of the marble for lime.

By the 19th century all that remained were foundation stones and broken sculptures.


The Colossus of Rhodes

  • Built: 292-280 BCE
  • By: The Greeks (Chares of Lindos)
  • Destroyed: 226 BCE
  • By: The Rhodes earthquake
  • Location: Rhodes, Greece

From 305-304 BCE, one Demetrius Poliorcetes--later King Demetrius I of Macedon, a successor to Alexander the Great--laid the year-long Siege of Rhodes on the Greek island of that name. Upon his defeat, the Rhodians sold the equipment Demetrius had left behind in his hasty retreat and used the money to build a colossal statue, called--not surprisingly--the Colossus of Rhodes.

Contemporary descriptions say the Colossus was 108 feet (33 meters) tall, about the size of the modern Statue of Liberty. It represented Helios, the Sun God and patron god of Rhodes. Like the "Lady in the Harbor," the gentleman in this harbor was composed of plates--in this case, made of brass--supported by an inner framework. Much of the metal used in its construction was reforged from weapons left behind by Demetrius.

The statue was completed and dedicated in 280 BCE. Just over a half-century later, in 226, it was snapped at the knees by an earthquake, and fell over onto the landward side of its base. Though the Greek ruler of Egypt offered to pay for its replacement, the Rhodians politely declined, as the oracle of Delphi had led them to believe that they had somehow offended Helios, so they chose not to rebuild.

The broken pieces themselves remained a tourist attraction for over eight centuries, until in 653 CE a Muslim force captured Rhodes and melted down the remains, selling them (they say) to a Jewish merchant who needed 900 camels to haul them away.

It is most likely that the Colossus stood on a single pedestal. But the statue's original dedication mentioned twice that it stood "over land and sea"--a natural description if it were standing on the shore between the two--but some medieval commentators imagined this to mean that his feet were placed on either side of the harbor's entrance, such that ships could pass beneath it. Artists began to illustrate it this way, and no less than William Shakespeare picked up the idea when he compared Julius Caesar's massive influence to the statue:

Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves

American author Emma Lazarus seems to have believed this version, too; her 1883 poem dedicated to the Statue of Liberty is called "The New Colossus," and begins:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land...

(This is the famous poem that offers, "Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." We'll visit it again sometime.)

Finally, a word about a word. Kolossos was once simply a Greek word meaning "statue," large or small. But since it was used to describe the tallest statue known to the ancient world, it came to be associated with giant statues. Thus, in the early 18th century, the word "colossal" began to be used in English as an adjective meaning "extremely large" or even "spectacular," "extraordinary," etc.

It should be noted that the name of the Colosseum in Rome also derives from this word. Though it is "colossal" in its own right, there was also once a statue--a colossal statue--of the Emperor Nero on the site, portraying him as a nude sun god in imitation of the one at Rhodes. The amphitheater may have acquired the name (or nickname) "Colosseum" in reference to this.


The Lighthouse of Alexandria

  • Built: c. 280 BCE
  • By: The Greeks and the Ptolemaic Egyptians
  • Destroyed: 1303-1480 CE
  • By: The Crete earthquake
  • Location: Alexandria, Egypt

At last, we arrive at our Seventh Wonder.

First, a little history. In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great set out on a ten-year campaign to conquer the known world, an endeavor that ended only with his death (though his successors continued his work). His efforts resulted in one of the largest empires in history, and all of the Wonders on our list--including those in Egypt and Babylonia--were located within its borders.

In fact, the last Wonder on the list (remember, it was substituted for the Walls of Babylon on Antipater's list) was a lighthouse in a city named for Alexander. (As much a builder as a conqueror, Alexander established around 40 cities, many of them named for him, though some names--like Kandahar in Afghanistan, and Iskandariya in Iraq--are hard to recognize).

Anyway, Alexander's generals fought over his empire, and after 40 years of war between "The Successors," the former empire settled into four divisions: Mesopotamia and Central Asia under the Seleucids; the Western part of Asia Minor under the Attalids; the home territory of Macedon under the Antigonids; and, most important for our purposes, Egypt under the Ptolemies (the best-known of whom to most of us was Cleopatra, the "Egyptian" queen who was ethnically Greek).

In its long history, Egypt had had many capital cities, including Memphis, Thebes, and Cairo (since 972 CE). But the capital established by the Ptolemies was perhaps one of the most glorious cities of antiquity: Alexandria (capital from 332 BCE-641 CE). It is still the third-largest city in Egypt (after Cairo and Giza), and the seventh-largest in Africa. It is also the largest city on the Mediterranean, and the fourth-largest city in the Arab world.

In the old days it was a major center of Hellenic (Greek) civilization. Some of us today still mourn the loss of its Great Library, the largest in the ancient world, which was burned once--more or less accidentally--by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, and again in the late fourth or early fifth century, at the hands of Christians.

But right up there with the Library, and the nearby catacombs (later considered one of the "Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages"), was the Lighthouse or Pharos of Alexandria.

Built by the Ptolemies at the mouth of the Nile as a navigational aid, it stood at least 330 feet (100 meters) high, making it for many centuries one of the tallest man-made structures in the world. It stood on a square base about 100 by 100 feet (30 by 30 meters). The light was powered by a mirror reflecting sunlight in the daytime, and a fire was lit at night.

The lighthouse was damaged by a succession of earthquakes that stretched over centuries, from 796 to 1323. The final stub came down in 1480, when the Sultan of Egypt used its stones to build a medieval fort on the lighthouse's platform. Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only the Mausoleum and the Great Pyramid lasted longer.


And with that, we bring to an end our tour of Antipater's "bucket list" of sights and wonders in the ancient world. There's always so much more to know about our world!


Matching: Match the "Wonder" to a fact (or supposed fact) about it. Each will be used more than once. Answers in the first comment below

  1. The Great Pyramid of Giza
  2. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  3. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  4. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
  5. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
  6. The Colossus of Rhodes
  7. The Lighthouse at Alexandria

  1. It was built by a king for his homesick wife.
  2. It was made by the same sculptor who made the statue of Athena in the Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens.
  3. Its form and style were misunderstood by later generations, who imagined its appearance much differently.
  4. It's the only wonder still standing.
  5. It was not on Antipater's original list, but was substituted in later.
  6. It may have been destroyed by a "glory seeker."
  7. Some of its stones were later built into a nearby castle.
  8. Antipater considered it the most wondrous of the wonders.
  9. Its design was inspired by a passage in Homer's Iliad.
  10. It was built for a man and his sister/wife.
  11. It was the first Wonder to be built.
  12. It was built by Cleopatra's relatives.
  13. In a way, it was sort of a "war trophy," partially built from weapons left behind by a retreating enemy.
  14. It was the only wonder that may never have existed.
  15. Its final version was built just after Alexander died.


These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Why do you think the "world wonders" lists (almost) always have seven items?
  2. If you were to make such a list naming only places you have been (as Antipater did), what would be on it?
  3. Some "Wonders" were built for the glory of a particular person or persons. Some were built for religious reasons, and others for the "public good"? (Can you tell which is which?) Which of these do you think is a good reason for spending so much money and effort?
  4. Do you think any individual could build such a magnificent "Wonder" for his or her own glory today? Why or why not?
  5. What makes a "Wonder" a wonder? Is it size? Beauty? PR? Strength? Or some other attribute?

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Matching: 1. D, K; 2. A, N; 3. F, H, O; 4. B, I; 5. G, J; 6. C, M; 7. E, L

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").