Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as first recorded by Philo of Byzantium in 225 BCE in his work, `On The Seven Wonders’, were: The Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt; The Hanging Gardens of Babylon; The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece; The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus; The Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt. Of these seven, only the Great Pyramid still stands today.
The Great Pyramid was built as a tomb for the 4th Dynasty Pharaoah Khufu (known as Cheops in Greek) between 2584 and 2561 BCE. It was the tallest human-made structure for over 3,800 years. Its interior continues to mystify and amaze archaeologists and its original purpose (other than simply an elaborate tomb) is debated hotly today, as is the means by which the Egyptians built so perfect and compelling a structure.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were described by the historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century CE, as being elaborate self-watering planes of flowers and exotic vegetation ascending 75 feet (almost 23 m) into the air on terraces. The gardens were allegedly built between 605 and 562 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife Amtis of Media to remind her of her homeland but their very existence has been disputed and some claim they were a fabrication of ancient writers simply passing down legend. The controversy over the gardens arises because there is no mention of them in Babylonian history and because the famed historian Herodotus fails to mention them in his works. Philo, the historian Strabo, and Diodorus all describe the gardens extensively, however, and there seems little reason to doubt their word on this when what they wrote on other matters is accepted without question. The gardens are said to have been destroyed by an earthquake at some point after the 1st century CE.
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was created by the great Greek sculptor Phidias (known as the finest sculptor of the ancient world in the 5th century BCE, he also worked on the Parthenon and the statue of Athena there in Athens). The statue depicted the god Zeus seated on his throne, his skin of ivory and robes of hammered gold, and was 40 feet (12 m) tall, designed to inspire awe in the worshippers who came to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Not everyone was awestruck by the statue, however. Strabo reports, “Although the temple itself is very large, the sculptor is criticized for not having appreciated the correct proportions. He has shown Zeus seated, but with the head almost touching the ceiling, so that we have the impression that if Zeus moved to stand up he would unroof the temple” (Seven Wonders). The Temple at Olympia fell into ruin after the rise of Christianity and the ban on the Olympic Games as `pagan rites’. The statue was carried off to Constantinople where it was later destroyed, sometime in either the 5th or 6th centuries CE, by an earthquake.
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor, took over 120 years to build and only one night to destroy. Completed in 550 BCE, the temple was 425 feet (about 129 m) high, 225 feet (almost 69 m) wide, supported by 127 60 foot (about 18 m) high columns. Sponsored by the wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, who spared no expense in anything he did (according to Herodotus, among others) the temple was so magnificent that every account of it is written with the same tone of awe and each agrees with the other that this was among the most amazing structures ever raised by humans. On July 21, 356 BCE a man named Herostratus set fire to the temple in order, as he said, to achieve lasting fame by forever being associated with the destruction of something so beautiful. The Ephesians decreed that his name should never be recorded nor remembered but Strabo set it down as a point of interest in the history of the temple. On the same night the temple burned, Alexander the Great was born and, later, offered to rebuild the ruined temple but the Ephesians refused his generosity. It was rebuilt on a less grand scale after Alexander’s death but was destroyed by the invasion of the Goths. Rebuilt again, it was finally destroyed utterly by a Christian mob lead by Saint John Chrysostom in 401 CE.
The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was the tomb of the Persian Satrap Mauslos, built in 351 BCE. Mauslos chose Halicarnassus as his capital city, and he and his beloved wife Artemisia went to great lengths to create a city whose beauty would be unmatched in the world. Mauslos died in 353 BCE and Artemisia wished to create a final resting place worthy of such a great king. Artemisia died two years after Mauslos and her ashes were entombed with his in the mausoleum (Pliny the Elder records that the craftsmen continued work on the structure after her death, both as a tribute to their patroness and knowing the work would bring them lasting fame). The tomb was 135 feet (41 m) tall and ornately decorated with fine sculpture. It was destroyed by a series of earthquakes and lay in ruin for hundreds of years until, in 1494 CE, it was completely dismantled and used by the Knights of St. John of Malta in the building of their castle at Bodrum (where the ancient stones can still be seen today). It is from the tomb of Mauslos that the English word `mausoleum’ is derived.
The Colossus of Rhodes was a statue of the god Helios (the patron god of the island of Rhodes) constructed between 292 and 280 BCE. It stood over 110 feet (just over 33 m) high overlooking the harbor of Rhodes and, despite fanciful depictions to the contrary, stood with its legs together on a base (much like the Statue of Liberty in the harbor off New York City in the United States of America, which is modeled on the Colossus) and did not straddle the harbour. The statue was commissioned after the defeat of the invading army of Demetrius in 304 BCE. Demetrius left behind much of his siege equipment and weaponry and this was sold by the Rhodians for 300 talents (approximately 360 million U.S. dollars) which money they used to build the Colossus. The statue stood for only 56 years before it was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 BCE. It lay in impressive ruin for over 800 years, according to Strabo, and was still a tourist attraction. Pliny the Elder claims that the fingers of the Colossus were larger than most statues of his day. According to the historian Theophanes the bronze ruins were eventually sold to “a Jewish merchant of Edessa” around 654 CE who carried them away on 900 camels to be melted down.
The Lighthouse at Alexandria, built on the island of Pharos, stood close to 440 feet (134 m) in height and was commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter. Construction was completed sometime around 280 BCE. The lighthouse was the third tallest human-made structure in the world (after the pyramids) and its light (a mirror which reflected the sun’s rays by day and a fire by night) could be seen as far as 35 miles out to sea. The structure rose from a square base to a middle octagonal section up to a circular top and those who saw it in its glory reported that words were inadequate to describe its beauty. The lighthouse was badly damaged in an earthquake in 956 CE, again in 1303 CE and 1323 CE and, by the year 1480 CE, it was gone. The Egyptian fort Quaitbey now stands on the site of the Pharos, built with some of the stones from the ruins of the lighthouse.
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were, by no means, a comprehensive agreed-upon list of the most impressive structures of the day. Those masterpieces listed above are the traditionally accepted `wonders’ as first set down by Philo of Byzantium but there were many writers who followed him who disagreed on what was a `wonder’ and what was only of passing interest. Herodotus, for example, cites the Egyptian Labyrinth as being far more impressive than even the pyramids of Giza, stating, "I visited this building and found it to surpass description; for if all the great works of the Greeks could be put together in one, they would not equal this Labyrinth. The Pyramids likewise surpass description, but the Labyrinth surpasses the Pyramids." Nor did all agree on which of the `wonders’ was the most wonderful, as this passage from Antipater, praising the Temple of Artemis, attests:
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.
What all did agree on, however, was that, once upon a time, humans raised structures which were worthy of the work of the gods and, once seen, were never to be forgotten.