The “Seven Wonders” were grand structures that existed around 250BC. These creations were marvels of building and architecture and are known worldwide as incredible feats of ancient craftsmanship, and archeologists today still find new things to learn at the sites they once stood.
The seven wonders were written about by historians, philosophers, and even the earliest tourist guides. Diodorus Siculus mentions them in his description of Babylon, while Philo of Byzantium wrote an entire book dedicated to the sites. While early records of the list contained different locations, such as the Walls of Babylon, the most commonly referred to “wonders” were:
- The Great Pyramid of Giza
- The Colossus of Rhodes
- The Lighthouse of Alexandria
- The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
- The Temple of Artemis
- The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Of these, five were created by the Greek empire, two were destroyed before the birth of Christ, and only one remains standing today.
Some of these destinations were places of religious worship, the resting place of historical figures, or statues celebrating deities. While we know much about the Great Pyramid, the exact location or details of The Hanging Gardens are unknown.
Despite the seven wonders being used as a popular conceit in fiction, there is no evidence that these structures were in any way connected other than in lists of “things to see.” In fact, despite the first being built before 2500BC, there were only sixty years in which all seven structures stood intact.
1. The Great Pyramid of Giza
Also known as the Great Pyramid of Khufu, after the 4th dynasty Pharoah that was buried there, this giant tomb is the only wonder that still stands today. The Great Pyramid was made from over two million large stones quarried 900km away and was the tallest building in the world for over 3600 years. It continues to be a significant tourist attraction, with 13 million visitors a year.
The Egyptians built the Great Pyramid around 2600 BCE, and Greek historians would study it much like we study the Pantheon or Colosseum today. Initially, the granite structure was encased in white limestone, making the structure shine in the sun, but erosion and destruction from tourists have removed the entirety of this outer layer. Inside the pyramid are three large chambers for the King, Queen, and Royal Vizier, as well as priests’ tunnels. Even now, some spaces have yet to be fully explored.
The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, already knew the pyramid was a tomb for Khufu but believed the Pharoah also built it. Diodorus Siculus, in 56 BCE, wrote about the bright white casing and thought the pyramids would have taken over 360 thousand workers to make. In later years, mythology about the pyramid as a store for grain grew out of Christian stories, while later leaders like Napolean were more interested in looting the treasures inside.
The Great Pyramid is just one of the dozens of pyramids and tombs within a large complex in Giza. The west bank of the Nile River was known as the land of the dead and was protected by the god Anubis. Outside the complex was a city built for workers, who were not slaves but trained builders. Inside the pyramid, these men graffitied the tunnel walls, leaving marks indicating what “work gang” they belonged to.
2. The Colossus of Rhodes
In 280 BC, on the Greek island of Rhodes, the sculptor Chares of Lindos created a 72-foot-high bronze statue of the sun-god Helios. This giant statue was to celebrate the island’s successful defense against the forces of the Macedonians. It was built using the proceeds from selling the equipment and weapons left behind by invaders.
The Colossus was made of brass plates tied to an iron skeleton, with the god standing on a marble pedestal 49 feet high. A dedication was written and quoted in many ancient histories and poems. It read,
“To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land.”
The Colossus only stood for 54 years before a major earthquake knocked it down. Despite its destruction, the statue’s remains were a popular tourist destination. Pliny the Elder wrote that tourists would attempt to wrap their arms around the thumb and that “its fingers are larger than most statues.”
In 653 CE, the forces of the Arab general Muawiyah I conquered Rhodes. They melted down the brass from the statue and sold it to merchants. It was said it took 900 camels to remove the metal from the site.
Medieval writers introduced the myth that the Colossus “straddled” the entrance to the harbor, with ships sailing under their legs. Still, modern archeologists have found no evidence of such a posture. The exact site of the statue has been lost, but some historians believe the base may have formed the foundation of the Fortress of St Nicholas. In recent years, many groups have explored rebuilding the Colossus, estimated at nearly 300 million dollars.
3. The Lighthouse of Alexandria
After the death of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy declared himself king of Egypt. One of his first acts was to create the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Also known as the “Pharos of Alexandria,” the 330-foot tall structure was built on an Island overlooking the Alexandrian bay. A giant furnace produced the light, and the ornate decorations around the limestone and granite building included statues of Triton and Poseidon that surrounded the light. The earliest depictions of the lighthouse with figures can be found on Roman coins.
The great Greek architect Sostratus of Cnidus was the designer of the lighthouse, which contained dozens of rooms that could be accessed by ramps that would circle the inside of the building.
The lighthouse was a functional building, protecting the ships coming into the treacherous harbor, which was previously known to cause many wrecks. However, the building was just as much a symbol of Ptolemy’s new-found power and was, for many centuries, the tallest non-pyramidal building in the world.
The lighthouse was partly destroyed by earthquakes in the 8th and 10th centuries, with the top 20 ft collapsing. Despite recovery efforts that included the creation of a dome, a 1303 earthquake collapsed the rest of the structure. Today you can take diving tours to see what remains of the lighthouse that collapsed into the sea.
4. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
This funeral building for the governor of what is now Turkey was built between 353 and 350 BCE. The massive structure inspired the term “mausoleum,” to mean “above-ground tomb,” as it was initially known as the “Tomb of Mausolus.”
Mausolus designed his tomb, which his wife, Artemisia, later completed. While extravagant, it would have barely stood out in Halicarnassus at its peak. Mausolus had spent no small amount of money attempting to turn the city into the capital of ancient Europe.
The Mausoleum consisted of a large room nearly 150 feet in height. Its walls were covered in detailed reliefs, and a patio surrounded it with 36 carved marble columns. It said on the highest hill overlooking the city.
No one knows when the structure began to fall into disrepair, but no single event destroyed it. History records that its beauty was untouched when attacked by pirates in 65 BCE, but earthquakes in the early 4th century may have caused damage. In 1402 the Knights of St John recorded it as ruins, and the local Turks had no contemporary history. The knights took many statues and decorations from the Mausoleum and used them to decorate Bodrum Castle.
5. The Temple of Artemis
The Artimesion, or Temple of Artemis, was a wonder with a long history. Built on a sacred site in Ephesus, where had sat two great temples before, the final form was created in 323 BCE and survived for close to six hundred years. Today, a single column sits at the site in remembrance of its history, while fragments of its remains now make up the Ephesus Room at the British Museum.
According to Callimachus, the Amazons built the first temple to Artemis, which was destroyed by a flood in the 7th century BCE. The second temple, constructed around 150 years later, was an impressive site. Possibly the first Greek temple made from marble, its 36 columns surrounded a building over 350 feet long and 150 feet wide. It contained altars as well as statues made of marble and ebony. This temple was popular among tourists, merchants, and even visiting kings, and priestesses kept a vast library of writings by famous philosophers of the time.
In 356 BCE, the temple caught fire. According to tradition, the day it caught alight was the day of birth for Alexander the Great, with Plutarch noting, “it was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burned down since the goddess was busy bringing Alexander into the world.” According to Strabo, Alexander later offered to rebuild the temple, but the Ephesians declined, stating that “it was inappropriate for a god to dedicate offerings to gods.” After his death, the Ephesians rebuilt the temple, creating the fifth wonder of the ancient world.
This third temple was almost three times the size of the second, with over 127 columns and dozens of giant marble statues. It stood proud until 268 CE when invading goths set fire to it. In a dilapidated state, it remained open until the 4th century, when it was closed by Christian leaders of the city.
The exact details of its location were lost for over a millennia before it was rediscovered in the mid-1800s. Excavations discovered artifacts from all three temples and sent them to the British Museum. Today, these artifacts are among many pieces that are the focus of legal debates on ownership and colonial “grave robbing.”
6. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
On the top of Mount Olympus, the traditional home of the gods, the Eleuns created a temple for use during the original Olympic games. In 435 BC, the city leaders of Olympia employed the sculptor Phidias to build a grand statue dedicated to Zeus that would be larger than any until the Colossus at Rhodes.
According to legend, Phidias modeled his Zeus from the greats of Greek literature, especially Book One of The Iliad. The mighty god with the “ambrosial locks” sat on a throne that took half the temple’s width, and the statues were over forty feet tall. Made of gold and ivory, the god sat on an ebony throne encrusted with gems. While no images or replicas remain of this wonder, the historian and traveler Pausanias recorded a description in great detail:
The god sits on a throne, and he is made of gold and ivory. On his head lies a garland which is a copy of olive shoots. In his right hand, he carries a Victory, which, like the statue, is of ivory and gold; she wears a ribbon and—on her head—a garland. In the left hand of the god is a scepter, ornamented with every kind of metal, and the bird sitting on the scepter is the eagle. The sandals also of the god are of gold, as is likewise his robe. On the robe are embroidered figures of animals and the flowers of the lily.
The throne is adorned with gold and jewels, to say nothing of ebony and ivory. Upon it are painted figures and wrought images. There are four Victories, represented as dancing women, one at each foot of the throne, and two others at the base of each foot. On each of the two front feet are set Theban children ravished by sphinxes, while under the sphinxes, Apollo and Artemis are shooting down the children of Niobe.
Pausanias goes on to describe the story of how Zeus himself approved of the statue by striking a lightning bolt in front of it, of how the floor was guttered to catch the olive oil they would pour onto the head of the statue, and the large variety of reliefs and sculptures surrounding the wonder, each telling one of the important stories from Greek mythology.
Roman Christians destroyed the statue of Zeus at Olympus sometime in the 4th century CE. While no part of the statue was ever recovered, german archeologists in the 1950s discovered the workshop used by Phidias during its creation, gleaning much more about how the great wonder was made.
7. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens are the most unique of the seven wonders for several reasons. The only wonder to be situated so far from the Mediterranean, has no discernible connection to religion, and no evidence pointing to its location has been found. Babylonian texts and artifacts never refer to a hanging garden, leading some historians to question if the wonder described by so many Greek and Roman writers was, in fact, a myth.
Josephus described a “pensile paradise” that he said was created by Nebuchadnezzar II for his homesick wife. Filled with various flora, “he rendered the prospect an exact resemblance of a mountainous country.” Diodorus Siculus goes into far more detail, describing a square garden 200 feet long, and created in steps from which vines and other plants would hang. “The appearance of the whole resembled that of a theatre,” he wrote while adding that the gardens also contained “machines for supplying the garden with water,”
A popular modern theory as to the gardens suggests that the confusion arises from them not being Babylonian but Assyrian. King Sennacherib constructed a series of world-famous gardens in 680 BCE in the city of Ninevah, which contained ingenious aqueducts and orchards that included a wide variety of fruit. These gardens, while not hanging, were raised on levels. Sennacherib wrote that these gardens were a “wonder for all peoples,” and it would be possible that many of the men with Alexander the Great would have passed by the gardens during his conquest of the world. While the gardens have never been found, some of the waterworks that likely led from the Euphrates at the time have been uncovered.
The “Seven Wonders of the World” made an exciting bucket list for the wealthy travelers of antiquity. More importantly, they recorded the grandest exploits of history, from pyramids built over two thousand years earlier to the recently constructed Colossus. While some of these wonders were recorded in detail by historians and geographers like Pausanius and Diodorus Siculus, others we know far too little about.
The only thing that links these seven structures may be their magnitude and cost to build, but they have left a marked legacy on human history. Today’s tourists still make pilgrimages to see the Great Pyramid, while it is said that modern wonders, like the Lincoln Memorial and Grant’s tomb, were models of those of the past.
Several sites have attempted to claim the position as the world’s eighth wonder throughout the last two millennia. These include the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, and Machu Picchu. Of course, none of these are close to as old as the original seven or as comparatively as opulent. In the end, despite being unable to see six of them, the seven wonders will always stand tall as works of supreme brilliance.
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