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Seven Wonders of the Ancient World


The remains of the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Photo Jona Lendering.
The remains of the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: Greek list of seven amazing works of architecture. The selection was several times adapted to cultural changes.

The ancient Greeks loved to make lists. For example, they had lists of admirable epic poets (starting with Homer and Hesiod) and tragic playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides). These lists became popular when, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, many Greeks settled overseas. Their position as an elite in countries like Egypt, Babylonia, and Bactria depended on their being-Greek, and canons of exemplary texts were important: unlike the native population, a real Greek had read these authors and knew how and when to quote them.

The list of Seven Wonders of the World belongs to this category of texts: splendid buildings, worthy of emulation. The original list, now lost, contained seven Greek buildings, but in the early third century, non-Greek monuments were included as well. It expressed the novel idea that the barbarians could also produce fine works of art, an idea that can be found in the books by several scholars and philosophers of the first generations after Alexander the Great (e.g., by Eratosthenes of Cyrene; text).

One of the first known lists was made by Antipater of Sidon, who lived in the first half of the second century. It survives in the collection of poetry known as the Anthologia Palatina (9.58):
  1. The walls of Babylon
  2. Phidias' statue of Zeus in Olympia
  3. The hanging gardens of Babylon
  4. The colossus of Rhodes
  5. The pyramids of Egypt
  6. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
  7. The temple of Artemis in Ephesus
Later, the first item was replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and this has become the canonical list. However, the ancient sources mention other wonders of the world, like an obelisk in Babylon and the palace of Cyrus in Ecbatana. Christian authors inserted Noah's Ark, the Temple of Salomo, and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Beda Venerabilis wrote a treatise on the Seven Wonders, in which he mentioned the Capitol, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the colossus of Rhodes, a figure of Bellerophon, the theater of Heraclea, a bathhouse, and the temple of Artemis.

The joke that a particular building ought to be called the "eighth wonder" was made for the first time by Cassiodorus (sixth century), who called the entire city of Rome one wonder. However, the poet Martial (40-c.102) had already called Rome's Colosseum the world's one and only truly amazing building.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Ištar gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Babylon's Ištar Gate (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin)

1. The walls of Babylon

The walls of Babylon owe their fame to the Greek author Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century). He says:

Babylon lies in a great plain, and in size it is such that each face measures 22½ km, the shape of the whole being square; thus the circumference is 90 km. Such is the size of the city of Babylon, and it has a magnificence greater than all other cities of which we have knowledge. First there runs round it a deep and broad trench, full of water; then a wall fifty meters in thickness and hundred meters in height [...]. At the top of the wall along the edges they built chambers of one story facing one another; and between the rows of chambers they left space to drive a four-horse chariot. In the circuit of the wall there are set a  hundred gates made of bronze.
[Herodotus, Histories, 1.178-179]

This would have been a very splendid wall indeed, but it is easy to see that the dimensions are vastly exaggerated. The real circumference is 8,400 meters and the hundred gates are an obvious reference to Homer's description of Egyptian Thebes; in fact, Babylon had eight gates, including the splendid Ištar Gate. Although several scholars, like Babylon's excavator Robert Koldewey, have tried to harmonize the written sources and the archaeological finds, it is now generally agreed that Herodotus never visited Babylon, and that his description is based on hearsay.


Phidias' Zeus on a coin from the Bode-Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Phidias' Zeus (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

2. Phidias' statue of Zeus in Olympia

The Athenian sculptor Phidias already had a great reputation when in 437 BCE he and his colleagues Colotes and Panaenus settled in Olympia to make the statue of the supreme god of the Greeks, Zeus, in whose honor the Olympic Games were held. The statue is now lost, but is shown on coins and gems, and described by the Greek author Pausanias; from this evidence, we known that the god was shown as a seated figure of about twelve meters high. In one hand, he carried a statue of Nike, in the other a scepter. All kinds of other figures, like lions and sphinxes, warriors fighting against Amazons, more Nikes, and mythical beasts surrounded the main body. The statue was made of gold and ivory, and was carefully repaired when necessary. In the fourth century CE, when the statue was almost eight centuries old, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great ordered it to be dismantled, and had it transported to Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman empire. The subsequent history of Phidias' Zeus is not recorded.


An artist's reconstruction of the non-existent monument.
An artist's reconstruction of the non-existent monument.

3. The hanging gardens of Babylon

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are mentioned by Alexander Polyhistor quoting Berossus, who tells us that king Nebuchadnezzar built this park for his wife, a princess from Media. By creating this artificial Zagros mountain range, he hoped that she would forget her homeland. Although Berossus knew the city very well, no scholar has been able to find traces of the hanging gardens, and it has convincingly been shown that Berossus' statement is not by Berossus at all. In fact, Berossus has quoted the cuneiform text known as the East India House Inscription -and this part is accurate- and Alexander Polyhistor has added the Gardens (more...).


Reconstruction of the Colossus of Rhodes.
Reconstruction of the Colossus of Rhodes (©!!!)

4. The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus was erected to commemorate the outcome of the blockade of the city of Rhodes by king Demetrius Poliorcetes. In 305-304, he had attempted to conquer this important port, but the siege had been unsuccessful (text), and the Rhodians ordered Chares of Lindos to build a statue of Helios, the sun god. The monument, which was nearly thirty meters high and stood on a  pedestal that added another ten meters, guarded the entrance of the harbor. It collapsed after an earthquake in 227/226 BCE, but the remains were still shown to tourists in the Roman age. During the reigns of the Roman emperors Claudius and Nero, an artist named Zenodorus made a copy in Gaul (a statue of Mercury), and he was later invited to build a similar statue in Rome, which became known as the "colossus Neronis". It was finished during the reign of Vespasian. The most famous monument inspired by the Rhodian Colossus is the Statue of Liberty in New York.


Model of the pyramids at Giza. Allard Piersonmuseum, Amsterdam (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
Model of the pyramids at Gizeh (Allard Piersonmuseum, Amsterdam)

5. The pyramids of Egypt

Between c.2630 and c.1640, the Egyptian pharaohs erected tombs for themselves that were shaped like artificial mountains. The oldest pyramids were built by the rulers of the third dynasty; king Djoser was the first to pile several square tombs (mastabas) of decreasing size on top of each other, and created the first step pyramid. The true pyramid, which is a real triangle, was developed during the reign of Snofru, a king of the fourth dynasty. The famous pyramids of Cheops, Chefren, and Mycerinus at Gizeh were erected by Snofru's successors. Later generations built smaller monuments, but the large monuments of the fourth dynasty continued to impress the people. The pyramids are the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that survives more or less intact.


The remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Bodrum (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
The remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

6. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was the tomb of Maussolus, satrap of Caria, who had come to power in 377 and had died in 353. His wife and successor Artemisia ordered the construction of a monument that was to surpass all others: it was erected out of bricks but covered with white Proconnessian marble, and was at least 41 meters high. The greatest sculptors of Greece, including Scopas, were involved in the project, and made the hundreds of statues that graced the four sides. The proud tower was ultimately destroyed by the Rhodian knights in 1522, who used the stones to build a castle (which is now the Museum for Underwater Archaeology). Today, the remains of this once grandiose monument offer a sad sight. More information can be found here.


The remains of the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Photo Jona Lendering.
The remains of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

7. The temple of Artemis of Ephesus

The temple of Artemis in Ephesus was a very ancient sanctuary for a mother goddess who protected pregnant women; it may have antedated the arrival of the Greeks in Asia Minor. According to Pliny the Elder, Natural history, 36.95, it was built in a marshy area to protect it against earthquakes. Lydian kings like Croesus contributed to the building of this temple, and later, the Persians patronized the cult; the high priest was called the Megabyxus, a Persian name that means "the one set free for the cult of the divinity". The sanctuary burned down in the summer of 356 BCE, an event that was remembered because it coincided with the birth of Alexander the Great. Many architectural pieces can now be seen in the British Museum; in Ephesus itself, of the 127 columns that once supported the roof of this wonderful building, only one remains.


The lighthouse of Alexandria on a mosaic from Theodorias, Libya. Photo Marco Prins.
The lighthouse of Alexandria on a mosaic from Theodorias.

A. The Lighthouse of Alexandria

Commissioned in 299 BCE by king Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was built by an architect named Sostratus; it was finished in 279, when Ptolemy II Philadelphus was on the throne. The monument is often called Pharos, after the island on which it was erected. It consisted of three main elements:
  1. A square base 56 meters high;
  2. An octagonal middle 28 meters high;
  3. A circular top of perhaps another 28 meters; the total was more than 100 meters.
Although it was originally just a high tower that made the port of Alexandria visible from far away, at some time in the first century BCE, it was converted into a real lighthouse, so that sailors could benefit from it by night as well. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1326. The sequence (square, octagonal, circular) has inspired more recent towers.



B. An obelisk in Babylon

In the first century BCE, Diodorus of Sicily, probably quoting Ctesias of Cnidus, tells the following legend about queen Semiramis of Assyria:

She quarried out a stone from the mountains of Armenia, which was forty meters long and seven meters wide and thick; and this she hauled by means of many multitudes of yokes of mules and oxen to the river and there loaded it on a raft, on which she brought it down the stream to Babylon; she then set it up beside the most famous street, an astonishing sight to all who passed by. And this stone is called by some an obelisk from its shape, and they number it among the seven wonders of the world.
[Diodorus, World History, 2.11.4-5;
tr. C.H.Oldfather]

This is all we know about this monument. There are no cuneiform references to it, and the whole anecdote sounds like a story from Egypt that has been transferred to Babylonia; the fact that Semiramis is not a historical figure does not contribute to the plausibility of Diodorus' story. Still, it can not be excluded that an Assyrian ruler decided to erect an obelisk like the ones the Assyrians had seen in Egypt.



C. The palace of Ecbatana

The palace of Cyrus the Great in Ecbatana is nothing but a name to us. Excavations in modern Hamadan have shown some buildings from the Parthian age and a couple of remains from the Achaemenid period, but so far, no traces of any building from the reign of Cyrus have come to light. Polybius states that the palace was looted by Greek conquerors (World History, 10.27.11), which may or may not be true.



D. Noah's Ark

Although the origin of the story of the Great Flood dates back to the Sumer of the third millennium, the legend is best known from the Biblical book of Genesis, which was composed in the second quarter of the first millennium:

God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks."
[Genesis, 6.13-16;
Revised Standard Version]

In the Epic of Gilgameš, one of the texts related to the Genesis story, the dimensions of the Babylonian Ark are 60 x 60 x 60 meter, a perfect cube. Later authors like Berossus (as well as the author of the Biblical account) invented dimensions that more closely resembled a boat.


Coin of Bar Kochba, showing the Temple with a star on the roof and the Ark of the Covenant. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
 Coin of Simon ben Kosiba, showing the Temple with the Messianic star on the roof and the Ark of the Covenant inside (British Museum)

E. The Temple of Solomon

Although the Temple of Solomon was a modest building ("The house which King Solomon built for the LORD was sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high", or 30 x 10 x 15 meters, 1 Kings 6.2), the Christians included it in the list of Wonders of the World. The Biblical description indeed suggests that the temple was a splendid building, and later reconstructions like the temple built by king Herod were certainly marvelous, but from an archaeological perspective, it is surprising that Solomon was capable of creating a work of art like the one described in the book of Kings: in the tenth century BCE, the kingdom of Judah was one of the poorest parts of the Mediterranean world. Excavation of the site, which is more or less known, is impossible, because the Dome of the Rock now occupies the site of the Jewish Temple.


The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Photo Ab Langereis.
The Hagia Sophia, the church of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

F. The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

The church of the Divine Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was built in five years by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus for the emperor Justinian; it was finished in 537 and inaugurated on the third day of Christmas of that year. A contemporary account can be found at the beginning of Procopius' Buildings (text). The 33 meters wide cupola, however, appears to have been poorly designed, because in the summer of 558, it collapsed, probably because it was damaged by an earthquake in December 557. The new Hagia Sophia, which was designed by Isidore the Younger, is still standing, and had a higher cupola that is more stable. The rededication took place on Christmas Eve 563. It was looted by Crusaders in 1204, and rededicated in 1261; after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II in May 1543, the church was converted into a mosque. Today, it is in use as a museum.


The Colosseum in Rome. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Colosseum in Rome

G. The Colosseum

The Jews who in 70 CE were conquered by Titus when he sacked Jerusalem, were transported to Rome, where they were forced to build the Temple of Peace and the world's largest Amphitheater, which was surnamed Colosseum after the Colossus of Nero that stood next to it. It was dedicated in 80, and remained in use for at least five centuries. Early in the morning, the 50,000 visitors could see hunters and animal fights; at noon, criminals were executed; and in the afternoon, gladiators performed. The monument was several times restored, but in the sixth century, the arena was converted into a cemetery, and churches were built next to it. During the Renaissance, the Colosseum was used as a quarry. The execution theater remains a popular tourist attraction.



Literature

  • K. Brodersen, Die Sieben Weltwunder. Legendäre Kunst- und Bauwerke der Antike (1996)
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 20 May 2010
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