Imagine you are a poor farmer, living in Egypt on the Giza Plateau around 2570 BC. There are rumors floating that the pharaoh is going to build a monument that will equal his magnificence. You can’t imagine what that might be, though you know it will eventually cost you, but you just keep plowing. Before long, you see laborers wandering onto the site, throwing together little haphazard huts for sleeping, sharpening their tools, drinking coffee and eating donuts. Soon (as one theory has it), they are straining to hoist unbelievably huge blocks of stone (or, according to a tangential theory, an amalgamation of limestone and vegetable matter, much like cement) into a pattern that will eventually become the Great Pyramid. You watch the progression and the taller the building gets, the more amazed you are. This pharaoh is more magnificent than you would have guessed. The building grows over the space of ten to twenty years until it reaches the sky. You are now plowing in its shadow. It is a wonder.
Of all the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramid of Giza (or the Pyramid of Khufu, if you are Egyptian, or Cheops, if you are Greek) is the only one still standing. And it is usually the only one of the seven that people remember. The other six wonders have been described to us by folks like Herodotus, but they have been brought down by earthquakes, fire, or by man, so we can’t look around us and be reminded of them. They were some of the greatest feats of architecture, engineering, and artistry our world has ever seen and built long, long before there were cranes or steel beams or jack hammers (as far as we know). Care to take a look?
Our first stop will be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Thought to have been built around 600 BC, they were maintained for more than 500 years, until earthquakes destroyed them in the 1st century BC. There is no evidence anywhere that the Gardens ever actually existed, of course, no tell-tale crumbling vegetation or the remains of a really big hoe. But they have been described by many ancient writers. The Gardens were said to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II in the hope of mollifying his homesick wife. I guess, scaled down, this would be two dozen red roses. It was a large gesture, but things were done large in those days. Economy was not a word in their lexicon.
Next, we’re off to the Temple of Artemis (the Greek version of Diana, the Huntress). Located in present-day Turkey, the Temple was built in Ephesus, a really, really ancient sacred site. The temple was destroyed three times, by flood, earthquake, and the Goths, but those indefatigable Greeks kept rebuilding it. It eventually fell in 401 AD and was left lying. I guess Artemis was out of favor by that time. Parts of the structure were used in other buildings, like the columns that brace the Hagia Sophia.
Next up is Greece and a visit to Olympia (not to be confused with Mount Olympus, the home of the gods). There we would have found an impressive temple dedicated to Zeus, which housed an even more impressive statue of Zeus himself. Created by the sculptor Phidias around 432 BC, the seated image of Zeus was “39 feet tall and occupied half of the width of the aisle of the temple built to house it.” He was made of ivory and gold-plated bronze. A very detailed description of the statue and its base was recorded by the traveler Pausanias, in the 2nd century AD. Caligula, the Roman Emperor known for his lack of wit, decided all statues of gods should have their heads removed and his likeness substituted. When the decree was made, they say the statue of Jupiter, also at Olympia, suddenly uttered such a peal of laughter that the scaffolding collapsed and all the workers fled. That particular method of clearing a temple hadn’t been tried before, but was so successful it has been used many times since.
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (built 351 BC, destroyed by earthquake 1494 AD) gave mausoleums their name. It is the Tomb of Mausolus and was built by his wife/sister (they did that in those days) Artemisia II. Unfortunately, before the building was completed, Artemisia died also and the urns with both her ashes and her husband’s ashes were placed inside the unfinished building. The workers, good men that they were, completed the building anyway and capped it with a quadriga: four massive horses pulling a chariot in which rode images of Mausolus and Artemisia.
Probably everyone will remember our next wonder. It has inspired debate for centuries. The Colossus of Rhodes was BIG! What can I say? We still use the term colossal to describe larger-than-life stuff. It was a statue of the Greek Titan Helios (the sun-god, as in Brave Helios, wake up your steeds, bring the warmth the countryside needs) erected between 292 and 280 BC on the Greek island of Rhodes to commemorate Rhodes’ victory over Cyprus. It took more than twelve years to erect. The thing about the statue which has sparked such debate is that many descriptions have it straddling the port entrance. Modern engineers think he just stood beside it, but the arguments persist. He stood over 107 feet high. He was large! This poem is believed to be the dedication poem :
“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.”
In 226 BC, an earthquake took him out.
Last on our Wonder Agenda is the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The lighthouse, built around 280 BC, stood on the island of Pharos off the shores of Alexandria, Egypt and is sometimes called the Pharos Lighthouse. It was a huge tower, standing somewhere between 393 and 450 feet high. (It was bigger than the Colossus!) The foundation was made of stone and the building of masonry. It is said “the lighthouse was built not to guide ships into the harbor of Alexandria, but to foil the plundering of wrecked ships at the hands of the island’s inhabitants.” The area was known for its rough seas and there were lots of shipwrecks. The remains of the lighthouse were discovered in 1994 on the floor of Alexandria’s Eastern Harbor.
There are so many wonders in our world, some natural, some man-made, some old, some new. If you would like to read more about them, you can find these books, and others like them, at one of our libraries :
Ash, Russell. Great Wonders of the World.
Curlee, Lynn. Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Franzen, Lenore. The Statues of Easter Island.
Gates, Henry Louis. Wonders of the African World.
James, Peter. Ancient Mysteries.
Peterson, Sheryl. Machu Picchu.
Reader’s Digest Natural Wonders of the World.
Richardson, Adele. The Great Wall of China.
Sands, Emily. The Egyptology Handbook.
Scarre, Christopher. The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World.
Shofner, Shawndra. Taj Mahal.
Turner, Dorothy. The Man-Made Wonders of the World.
Woods, Mary B. Seven Wonders of Ancient North America.