The Seven Wonders
of the Ancient World

By Harold Frost, 2008

The Great Pyramid of Giza (center) in Egypt is the only one of the seven ancient wonders still in existence. The airplane in this photo is a U.S. B-1 bomber on a training flight. Below, a similar photo, shot during the First World War era; the plane is German.

The origin of this list of wonders can be found in the writings of Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century BCE who described a number of historic sites in the Mediterranean region including the pyramids and ancient Babylon. He was the first writer to report on such places with an eye to their historical resonance.

Various writers tweaked the grouping over the centuries, including Callimachus, Philo, and Antipater. Gradually the list was set in stone. Some early versions may have included a structure in Babylon called the Ishtar Gate, a formidable construction made of tile. The number seven was probably used because of its millennial-old, cross-cultural association with power and magic – for example, it appears many times in the Bible, most prominently in the creation story in Genesis and in the Book of the Revelation. The deepest roots of humanity’s interest in the number seven can be found in the seven classical planets.

A list made today of ancient wonders might not be so Mediterranean-centric; perhaps it would include Stonehenge in England and Olmec works in Mexico. However, the Great Wall of China wouldn’t qualify – it took its present form during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). Nor would the temple complex Angkor Wat make the cut. The structure, in Cambodia, was built around 1150 CE.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have inspired many knock-offs. For example, a list of Seven Wonders of the Natural World was compiled recently:

Mount Everest
Victoria Falls
The Grand Canyon
The Great Barrier Reef
The Northern Lights
Paricutin (an active volcano in Mexico)
The Rio de Janeiro Harbor

In 1991 the Times of London conducted a reader’s poll and listed the 10 leading vote-getters for “wonders of the modern world”:

Sydney Opera House
U.S. Space Program
Concorde Airliner
Aswan Dam
Empire State Building
Golden Gate Bridge
Channel Tunnel (the Chunnel)
Panama Canal
Mount Rushmore

The Economist magazine on December 25, 1993, chose seven modern technological wonders:

Birth Control Pill
Jumbo Jet
Gullfaks C North Sea Oil Platform
Hydrogen Bomb
Man on the Moon

One might well ask, is the Gullfaks C North Sea Oil Platform as wonder-inducing as humans landing on the Moon? Perhaps its inclusion is an effort by the editors of The Economist to maintain their reputation for contrariness and/or puckishness.

Newsweek magazine, in April, 2006, picked Seven Wonders of the Modern World:

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge (Japan)
Lakewood Church (Texas)
International Space Station (Skyward)
Sydney Opera House (Australia)
Taipei 101 (Taiwan; the world’s tallest building in 2006)
Palace of the Parliament (Romania)
South China Mall (China)

The New7Wonders Foundation conducted Internet polling in the 2000s for the “new seven wonders of the world.” The selectees:

Chichen Itza (ancient Mayan city)
Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro
The Colosseum in Rome
The Great Wall of China
Machu Picchu in Peru (Inca ruins)
Petra, Jordan (ancient city)
Taj Mahal
Giza Pyramid Complex (an honorary addition)

For more information on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World see “The Seven Wonders of the World: A History of the Modern Imagination” by John and Elizabeth Romer (1995; see also their DVD produced by The Learning Channel). Also see “Wonders of Antiquity” by Leonard Cottrell (1959).


The Great Pyramid of Giza

Oldest and most formidable of the seven wonders, the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Cheops), near Cairo, Egypt, is the only wonder still standing.

It was the tallest man-made structure in the world for 38 centuries, from its construction circa 2560 BCE to the erection of the Lincoln Cathedral spire in England in about 1300 CE. Built as the final resting place of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), it’s about 45 stories tall and covers 13 acres at the base. Scholars debate its construction techniques – ancient Egyptians didn’t know about such tools as the pulley or the block and tackle. One theory proposes the use of long ramps; another possibility is a stone-moving lever with a short angled foot at one end. Slave labor probably was not used, according to the latest research – work on the structure was viewed as an honor and high calling.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

This wonder may only be a legend.

The luxury and refinement of Babylon were axiomatic in the ancient world. Babylon’s royal gardens, supposedly built in the sixth century BCE, were said to include a forest of “hanging” plants – trees and flowers cultivated on stone terraces, above ground level, that hung down over walkways.

No reference to such gardens has been found in ancient Babylonian texts. Herodotus doesn’t mention them, and archaeological evidence for them is not convincing. Still, it’s somewhat possible that something akin to hanging gardens existed, given the relentless building activities of King Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned circa 605-562 BCE.

In the 1990s, visitors to Iraq were shown the supposed “site” of the gardens, a bunch of generic ruins.

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

In about 435 BCE, the sculptor Phidias erected a statue of a seated Zeus, king of the Greek gods, at a shrine at Olympia in southern Greece. (The home of Zeus was Mount Olympus, 175 miles north of the shrine.) Authors John and Elizabeth Romer regard this as “perhaps the greatest single wonder of the classical age.” (The Great Pyramid in Egypt pre-dates the classical age.)

The statue of Zeus, three stories tall, made liberal use of ivory and gold, and glittered exotically in its shadowy Doric-columned temple. In the course of time, the work was stolen and borne to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) where it was destroyed in a fire in 462 CE.

The sculptor Phidias (c.500-c.432 BCE) was one of the greatest artists of ancient times. His Zeus ranks with his Athena Parthenos among his finest creations. It’s pleasant to imagine a group of Greeks sitting around in a casual symposium in 432 BCE, drinking wine of a summer’s eve, debating, as Greeks were wont to do, which work of Phidias was best. (Symposium: syn –, “together” + posis, “a drinking.”)

Today no sculpture from ancient Greece can be attributed with certainty to Phidias. The writer Edith Hamilton notes of ancient Greek work, “Little is left of all this wealth of great art: the sculptures, defaced and broken into bits, have crumbled away; the buildings are fallen; the paintings gone forever; of the writings, all lost but a very few.”

Scattered pieces on the Acropolis, traditionally thought to be made by Phidias, were likely made by his staff and students. In the 1950s, archaeologists excavating at Olympia made a wonderful discovery – a portion of an ancient drinking cup with the careful inscription “I belong to Phidias.” This is probably all that remains in his hand.

An approximation of the Zeus shrine can be seen in Episode Nine of “I, Claudius.”

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Perhaps this building can be ranked with Chartres Cathedral in France on the short list of history’s most beautiful structures erected to venerate heaven.

Artemis, daughter of Zeus in Greek myth, was worshiped by the citizens of Ephesus, a rich and powerful Grecian port in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). In the sixth century BCE, King Croesus of Lydia – the man who gave his name to wealth beyond the dreams of avarice – paid for a monument to Artemis. Fire destroyed this first temple in the fourth century BC; it was rebuilt. The Romans re-named the building for their goddess Diana. The identity of the architect is not known.

The temple was large and rectangular, with graceful 60-foot Ionic columns and a courtyard open to the sky. The structure gleamed brightly when beheld from afar and seemed calming as one drew close and entered. Scholar Bluma L. Trell writes that it was “an expression of Greek Ionic soul” mixed with “Near Eastern oriental spirit.” The building attracted the philosopher Heraclitus (c.535-c.475 BCE) who retreated there to meditate upon humanity and the nature of change.

Goths destroyed the temple in 262 CE. The ruins were excavated in the 1800s but there’s not much to see.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

When the Persian ruler Mausolus died in the fourth century BCE in Asia Minor he was buried in a magnificent tomb in the city of Halicarnassus. The burial site of Mausolus became known as the Mausoleum.

The tomb was probably about 14 stories tall, made of white marble and decorated with sculpture. It endured for more than 1800 years, until the late 1400s, when the Knights of St. John recognized its value as a quarry and began hauling off the marble. The bones of Mausolus disappeared.

Mausolus lends his name to any large tomb structure. The world’s most beautiful mausoleum is the Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, built by Muslims in the 17th century – perhaps the loveliest building of the last 500 years. Other notable mausoleums are those of Napoleon, in Paris; Ulysses S. Grant, in New York City; Lenin, in Moscow; Ho Chi Minh, in Hanoi; and the Great Mausoleum of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California, the site of final repose for many Hollywood celebrities.

The Colossus at Rhodes

The Colossus was a statue of Helios, Greek god of the sun, located on the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.

Helios was a patron god in Rhodes, petitioned by the citizenry during their stand against the invader Demetrius I of Macedon in 305 BCE. The Rhodians won the war and erected the Colossus as a token of thanks for their deliverance, and perhaps as a celebration of their prowess. The sculptor, Chares of Lindos, used bronze, stone, and iron for the work. The statue, located near the harbor, kept a protective eye on ships of commerce, which carried grain, timber, pitch, resin, silver, bronze and other goods.

The Colossus was said to resemble Alexander the Great. It was the largest statue of its time, measuring about 110 feet tall. (The Statue of Liberty is 152 feet tall not counting the base.) According to legend, the Colossus straddled the Rhodian harbor, with ships passing between its legs, but that’s impossible – the span of such legs would have been a quarter-mile.

An earthquake in about 226 BCE caused the Colossus to break at the knees, and an oracle forbade the Rhodians from erecting a replacement. Rhodes was plundered by Islamic invaders in 654 CE and the remnants of the statue disappeared.

Today “colossus” can be applied to any very large statue, including the Statue of Liberty, upon which is inscribed a poem titled “The New Colossus” written by Emma Lazarus in 1883. The poet misunderstands the size and role of the Colossus at Rhodes – she notes unfavorably its “conquering limbs astride from land to land” and calls it “brazen.” The Statue of Liberty has a different mission, Lazarus writes: “From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome.”

The Pharos at Alexandria

The city of Alexandria, Egypt, was founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE to handle the grain trade. The port needed a lighthouse, so, in about 280 BCE, Alexandrians built a marvelous 40-story structure of limestone and granite, naming it “Pharos” after the small island upon which it stood. The man who paid for it may have been Sostratus of Cnidus, a wealthy merchant interested in safe passage for his vessels. The name of the architect is not known.

The Pharos had a beacon; the source for this light was a fire at the base of the structure, or possibly the rays of the sun, or both, intensified and reflected by large mirrors at the structure’s top. These bronze mirrors are ancestors of the glass mirrors in today’s telescopes. The Egyptian workers who created the Pharos mirrors were surely among the most respected craftsmen in town; one can imagine them burnishing the massive smooth discs by the hour.

Earthquakes damaged the Pharos over the centuries and by 1400 CE the structure was rubble. In 1995 an archaeological team discovered a few remains (see “Treasures of the Sunken City” produced by Nova and PBS). The word “pharos” lives on as a synonym (albeit rarely used) for a lighthouse or guiding light. ●