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Volume 31, Number 3May/June 1980

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The Seven Wonders

Written by Paul Lunde
Illustrated by Michael Turner

The ancient Greeks and Romans, like us, loved to make lists. Organizing things in a series made them easier to remember, and the very fact of having organized them was as psychologically satisfying to them as it is to us. One of the most enduring lists ever drawn up is that of the "Seven Wonders of the World" - a phrase that has entered most Western languages and is known even to those who would be hard put to name them.

The difficulty in naming the seven wonders of the world is understandable: few people know exactly which "world" is meant and the classical authors, although agreed that there were seven, were not so unanimous about their identity. One, for example, insisted that Rome's Colosseum be included, another pushed for Noah's Ark and the Temple of King Solomon, and in later years other "wonders" were added that reflected the list-makers' location, religion or national prejudices.

The passage of time, however, has tended to reduce the earlier disagreements and today there is a consensus that would perhaps have surprised the authors of the classical world. Both ancient and modern lists do agree that five of the seven wonders were located in what is now the Middle East, seat of the cultures from which ancient and modern civilizations were in part derived.

The first known list of the seven wonders occurs in a poem by Antipater of Sidon, a Greek-speaking epigrammatist who lived around 100 B.C. The poem is primarily in praise of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus - for him the seventh, and ultimate, wonder (See Aramco World, January-February 1971) -but he also lists the other six: the Walls of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, in Greece, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Pyramids and, finally, the magnificent Tomb of King Mausolus at Halikarnassosin today's Turkey - which has given us our word "mausoleum."

Later lists - such as Martial's poem in praise of the Colosseum - agree generally but show variations. Martial, for instance, accepts the Pyramids, Babylon - he counts the city's walls and its gardens as two wonders - the Temple of Diana and the Tomb of Mausolus, but he substitutes, for the Statue of Zeus, the Colosseum, which he says will replace all the other wonders of the world. For the Colossus of Rhodes, he makes another substitution: an altar at Delos made of interlaced animal horns - which sounds curious rather than wonderful.

The most famous classical list of the seven wonders was the work of an obscure writer and engineer named Philo of Byzantium, in a short account called "The Seven Sights of the World." As there is some doubt that this was really the work of Philo - who lived in the second century B.C. and was a contemporary of the poet Antipater of Sidon - scholars have dubbed the author the "pseudo-Philo." But whoever it was did write a list that agreed with Antipater's - or very nearly. As the manuscript of the little book is incomplete, it only lists six wonders, giving a short description of each.

With the coming of Christianity, there were sporadic efforts to replace some of the obviously pagan wonders with more suitable ones. Gregory of Tours, writing in the sixth century, presents us with the following list: Noah's Ark, Babylon, Solomon's Temple, the Grave of the Persian King (possibly the tomb of Mausolus), the Colossus of Rhodes, the theater of Herakleia - carved from a single piece of stone – and finally, the great lighthouse of Alexandria at Pharos. The addition of the lighthouse to the list is important, for it came to replace the walls of Babylon - included in the lists of Antipater and Philo - and thenceforth was considered as the seventh wonder of the world.

Another Christian list-maker, the pseudo-Bede - a fit successor to the pseudo-Philo - also includes the lighthouse, but added what does indeed sound like a wonder: the iron statue of Bellerophon upon his horse, suspended in mid-air by the attractive power of lode-stones. He also included a bath kept alight forever with a single inextinguishable flame. With the exception of the lighthouse at Pharos, however, the departures of Gregory and the pseudo-Bede from Philo's list did not catch on, and today the "official" list of the seven wonders of the classical world is (1) the Pyramids (2) the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (3) the Statue of Zeus at Olympia (4) the Temple of Diana at Ephesus (5) the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos (6) the Colossus of Rhodes and (7) the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Of these, only the Statue of Zeus at Olympia (site of the ancient Olympic games) and the Colossus of Rhodes, in Greece, lay outside what is now the Middle East.

Because the seven wonders were man-made, modern man might be inclined to ask how they compare with today's achievements. How, for example, would the Colossus of Rhodes measure up to the Statue of Liberty? The answer, cruelly, is that, with the exception of the Lighthouse at Pharos and the Pyramids, they don't come off too well. The 100-foot Colossus, for example, was only two thirds the size of the 151-foot Statue of Liberty - without the pedestal.

In another sense, however, the seven wonders were far more wondrous than today's Superdomes and Pentagons. Given the technology of the times in which they were built - and the previous achievements by which they were judged - they were remarkable structures, one reason they went into the record books and onto the lists of Antipater, Martial, the pseudo-Philo, the pseudo-Bede and Gregory of Tours.

There are other reasons too. While some of the wonders won fame because of their sheer size and magnificence, others did so because they were particularly beautiful or had endured a long time. Already legendary when Antipater wrote, the Statue of Zeus - the work of Phidias, greatest of the classical sculptors - was only a bit more than 30 feet high, but the entire surface was made of ivory and gold, and it stood for almost 900 years.

The Statue of Zeus was first erected about 430 B.C. The temple in which it stood was destroyed in A.D. 426, and the famous statue was moved to Constantinople, where it was destroyed by fire in A.D. 462. No copies of the statue survived, except a representation on a coin issued by the Emperor Hadrian, but Pausanias, in his Guide to Greece, written in the second century of our era, left a long and detailed description of the statue and the temple which housed it.

Another statue on the list is the Colossus of Rhodes - one of the more famous wonders, and the inspiration, centuries later, for the Statue of Liberty. A huge statue of the Greek sun god, it took 12 years for the sculptor Chares to complete; work began in the year 292 B.C. and was finished in 280. The statue was erected by the grateful people of Rhodes because the sun god was thought to have been instrumental in lifting a siege of the city. Over 100 feet high, the Colossus stood with one hand shielding its eyes, looking over the harbor of Rhodes; Pliny says that few men could encircle one of the thumbs of the Colossus with their arms, that the fingers were bigger than most statues, and that the hollow insides of its limbs yawned like vast caverns.

In the Renaissance, long after the statue had perished, it was traditionally pictured as standing with its legs astride the harbor entrance, and prints commonly show tiny boats sailing dramatically between its legs.

Unfortunately, the Colossus stood with its legs together; even more regrettably, it only stood for 55 years. In 225 B.C. an earthquake broke it off at the knees.

The Byzantine historian Cedrenus, and other Byzantine writers, claimed later that when the Muslim navy occupied Rhodes - probably in A.D. 672 - the remains of the Colossus were gathered up and sold for scrap. They add the fascinating detail that the bronze came to 900 camel loads. This story is almost certainly apocryphal; it is not mentioned by Muslim historians, who would have had no reason to conceal such a striking event, and it is also very unlikely that such a useful metal as bronze would have been left lying around for almost 900 years. But it suggests the fame of the great statue.

The Colossus caught and held the imagination of the world like no other wonder except the Pyramids. Although it fell not long after being erected, stories about it have persisted almost until the present day. Muslim writers of the Middle Ages, for example, record vague legends of gigantic statues keeping guard over abandoned cities in the furthest west, or warning mariners not to proceed beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the "Sea of Darkness" - the Atlantic.

Almost directly opposite Rhodes, on the mainland of Turkey, stood another of the seven wonders - in the ancient city of Halikarnassos, modern Bodrum. This is where the Canan ruler Mausolus was buried in the tomb which bore his name and which Pausanias says was "of such great size and so wonderfully constructed that it has amazed even the Romans, who use the word 'mausoleum' for their own largest tombs."

Built by Mausolus' wife Artemisia in 353 B.C., it was decorated with sculptured friezes depicting, among other things, a battle between the Greeks and the Amazons, the work of the leading artists of the time. Above the rectangular tomb 36 columns supported a pyramid, which in turn supported a chariot containing statues of Mausolus and his wife. The statue of Mausolus may be the one now in the British Museum; the tomb was excavated in 1857, and many fragments of it survive, both in the British Museum and in Turkey. The Mausoleum stood for more than 1,000 years, partially falling sometime in the Middle Ages as the result of an earthquake. By 1522, nothing of it remained.

Not far from Halikarnassos was the site of still another of the wonders of the ancient world: the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in Turkey. This is the temple which the craftsmen of Ephesus feared would be destroyed by the Christians led by the apostle Paul, the temple containing the image of Diana "whom all Asia and the world worshippeth," as their spokesman said. Pausanias, writing not long after Paul's visit to the city, says that...

every city recognizes Ephesian Artemis [Diana], and people individually honor her above all the gods. I think the reason is the glory of the Amazons who have the reputation of having established the statue, and also the fact that the sanctuary was built so very long ago. Three other things have contributed to make it famous: the size of the temple, which overtops every other human construction, the flourishing strength of the city of Ephesus, and the glittering position of the goddess of the city.

The temple was indeed huge. It measured 300 by 150 feet and its columns were 60 feet high. It was also old: it was begun about 555 B.C. by Croesus, king of Lydia. This original temple was burned down by a vandal in 356 B.C., but was rebuilt by Alexander the Great; it was not completed until 290 B.C. and in A.D. 262 was destroyed by the Goths. Portions of the decorated column bases were found by an English archeologist in the 19th century and are now in the British Museum.

Zeus, the Colossus and Diana, of course, are associated more with Greece than the Middle East, and so, to an extent, is Mausolus. But the other, more famous, wonders were indisputably in what is now the Arab world: Babylon, the Pyramids and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Babylon, according to Antipater and the pseudo-Philo, possessed two wonders: its walls and its gardens. But its walls were dropped from later lists in favor of the Hanging Gardens. Nevertheless, the walls which so struck the Greek traveler Herodotus were magnificent. He says the top of the wall was so broad that two four-horse chariots could pass each other in opposite directions along it.

Although the walls were the work of Nebuchadnezzar, who built them about 600 B.C., legend has attributed them to Queen Semiramis. Diodorus Siculus gives a full account of their construction by this mysterious queen, who at the end of her life was said to have changed into a dove and flown away:

This northern lady Semiramis, haughtily minded, desirous to excel her husband in temporal glories, made to be ensearched all the country through for curious workmen and cunning artificers, carpenters, and masons: and so when she had them altogether... she set upon... the city of Babylon to edifice and to build. The number of workmen that out from all nations thither repaired to the accomplishment of this famous work was accounted to 300,000 people. This city was built. . . whose walls in circuit were 360 furlongs about with many towers of wonderful bigness . . . and the walls were of such bredth that six carts might go abreast each one by the other upon them; and... it is incredible to many that heareth of the altitude of them. After the opinion of Clitharcus and of them that went with Alexander on his journey into Asia, these walls be 365 foot of height. They also report in their writing of record how every day in the year a furlong of the wall was finished and made up, so that there be as many furlongs in circuit as there be days in the year. The walls were made of brick and of alabaster that some men call plaster of Paris...

Subsequent generations, of course, dismissed such descriptions as gross exaggerations -but they weren't entirely. In 1899 the German archeologist Robert Koldeway vindicated the classical writers by unearthing two walls: a first wall, more than 22 feet thick, separated from another wall 25 feet thick by a space almost 40 feet wide. This space was apparently filled with packed earth and patrolled by watchmen - possibly in chariots. This main wall had 360 watchtowers, one every 160 feet - much as Diodorus Siculus had reported.

Koldeway also found evidence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the most famous of the seven wonders of the world. The gardens, however, did not really "hang"; they were on a terrace - or series of terraces - supported by arches, and rose some 400 feet above the level of the plain. They were built by Nebuchadnezzar to console his queen, who missed the mountains, trees, and flowers of her native Media. Diodorus Siculus again has the most complete description of them:

There was of old time a king of the Syrians which for his sovereign lady's sake prepared this garden as ye shall after hear. This mistress whom so tenderly he loved, was a Persian born, and as the nature of that country is, she was passing desirous to stand upon high hills and oversee the country about. Wherefore . . . she entreated her sovereign lord to make a ground or arbor of pleasure artificially devised by curious workmanship for her disport and pleasure, so that this ground were planted with trees of passing singular fruit, and so embeautied with meadows fresh and green that it should represent by delectable appearance as it were a country commodious to behold. Every panel of this garden extended itself unto the quantity of four plough lands. The coming unto it was as it had been in an hill, building upon building of wondrous height, that a man out of it far and wide might see and behold. There were vaults under the ground that bore up all the weight of this garden. Then one vault was set upon another, and ever the higher that the building proceeded, the bigger was the work; for the uppermost vaults, whereupon the walls of this garden were founded and set was one fathom of height, and they were 12 foot in bredth. The walls which were sumptuously builded nece 22 foot of thickness. The foundation stood in this wise: there were laid beams of stone, 16 foot of length and 6 foot of bredth. Upon them were strewn reeds of the pavement which was compact and together engrossed with this plaster aforesaid. Above that were couched two layers of brick stone, and thirdly they were covered with lead for that no moisture of rain should annoy the vault. Then were there made cisterns for receipt of waters in the same pavement. In this garden were all manner of passing goodly trees, joyous and delectable to behold, so that it was a royal pleasure for a prince or any great estate in this lusty ground themself to recomfort with solacious disport. Moreover, there was a conduit that by craft covertly water conveyed for the irrigious moisture of the soil.

By the fifth century B.C., unfortunately, the walls and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon had been destroyed. During the Middle Ages the site of one of the mightiest cities of all times was no more than a heap of rubble, which the local inhabitants habitually used as a source of building materials: baked bricks, some bearing the seals of the Babylonian kings.

The oldest and most famous of all the wonders of the world are, of course, the three great Pyramids at Giza. They are the only ones still standing on their original site in their original form - or very nearly: the limestone sheathings are no longer in place. They date from the Old Kingdom (2700-2300 B.C.), and since the time of Herodotus have been considered the paramount wonder of the world, evoking such tributes as this by Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, written in the 13th century:

The shape and solidity of the pyramids are both wonderful. Their form has the advantage of resisting the passage of time. If you reflect upon the structure of the pyramids, you will find they illustrate man's intelligence, and the pure genius that has been expended on their construction, and that the sciences, geometry and engineering have been brought to the highest pitch in them. These structures speak to us of the people who built them, they teach us their history and tell us of their science and intelligence. Rightly interpreted, they teach us of the lives and history of those who made them.

There was the rub; not everyone was able to rightly interpret the meaning of the great structures. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was popularly believed that they were the granaries in which the Bible's —and the Koran's—Joseph stated wheat for the pharaoh against "the seven lean years."

Some scholars, of course, knew better, and some were even aware that the Pyramids had served as the burial places of the pharaohs. As early as the 10th century, for example, the Arab historian al-Mas'udi recorded an interview that took place in the year 873 between the ruler of Egypt and an aged Copt, who unequivocally declared that the Pyramids were the tombs of ancient kings:

When one of their kings came to die, his body was placed in a sarcophagus of stone, and the top was sealed; then they began to build the pyramid to the height which you see. The sarcophagus was placed in the center of the edifice... the door was placed under the pyramid itself, and one entered it by an underground corridor surmounted by a vault, which could be as much as 100 cubits long; each pyramid had such a door and such a corridor.

"But," he was asked, "how were the sides of the Pyramids made so smooth? How were the workmen able to climb up and work? What sort of machines transported these enormous stones, so big that a single one could not now be lifted without unheard of efforts, and even then it might not be possible?"

The Copt explained that the Pyramids were built in stages, like a staircase, and then polished from the top down.

In al-Mas'udi's account, there is also a story of how another ruler of Egypt, the son of Saladin, once attempted to remove some stones from the smallest of the three Pyramids, in an attempt to discover how the ancients moved the massive stones. He assembled a large work force of stonecutters and masons who "pitched their camp beside the pyramid, and collected a great number of laborers from every quarter..." Here they stayed for eight months, entirely occupied in the task they had been assigned. Every day they removed, with great difficulty and complete exhaustion of strength, one or two stones. Some used wedges and levers to force the stones forward, while others pulled with ropes from below. When one of the stones fell, it made a fantastic noise, heard at a great distance, shaking the earth and causing the very mountains to tremble. When it fell, it buried itself in the sand, and required great effort to dig it out... After spending a long time and a great deal of money, their strength was exhausted and they were forced to abandon the task. Instead of success, all they accomplished was to spoil the pyramid and prove their incompetence and failure.

The seventh and last wonder of the ancient world is the Lighthouse of Alexandria. It was built in 279 B.C. by Sostratus of Cnidus for Ptolemy II on the small island of Pharos - which gave its name to the lighthouse -just off Alexandria.

One of the greatest esthetic and technical achievements of the ancient world, it became the symbol both of a city and a civilization. Even today, the word for "lighthouse" in French (phare) and in Italian (faro) preserve the name of this masterpiece of ancient engineering. In Arabic it was sometimes called faris (as were other lighthouses), but more often manara, "place of light," the same word which gave us our "minaret," and it has been suggested that the architectural form of the earliest minarets was derived from the Pharos. It was over 400 feet high -perhaps as much as 440, which makes it taller than any lighthouse in the world today -and built in three stories, each of a different geometrical form. The bottom story, which stood in a courtyard surrounded by colonnades, was square, the second story octagonal - with a spiral ramp to the top story - and the third story cylindrical. It was surmounted by a huge lantern -and perhaps a reflecting mirror -and atop the lantern there was a statue of Poseidon, god of the sea. The square, bottom story contained 300 rooms, which housed the workmen and technicians who attended the light.

No one knows exactly what the lighting arrangements of the Pharos were, or of what material the mysterious "mirror" was made. Was it glass? Polished metal? Polished stone? In any case, it was said that it reflected ships at sea invisible to the naked eye.

Legends went much farther. One had it that the mirror was used to focus the sun's rays and thereby destroy enemy ships, and in The Romance of Alexander the Great, probably written in the second century, the last pharaoh, Nectanabos, uses the magic mirror both to see the arrival of an enemy fleet and, by focusing the sun's rays, to destroy it.

The great lighthouse appears in Islamic history too. Al-Mas'udi, for example,-says that there were several statues - not just one - on top of the Pharos. One of them, he says, indicated the position of the sun with its right hand; another pointed out enemy ships when they were still a day's sail away, while yet a third told the hours of the night and day with a chime, which varied with each hour. Given the technical accomplishments of the engineers of ancient Alexandria, none of these - with the exception of the statue which pointed out enemy ships - is inherently improbable.

Unlike some of the ancient wonders, parts of the Lighthouse of Alexandria survived into modern times. It disappeared in stages. Muslim historians say that the mirror and part of the structure were destroyed by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid - who was tricked into doing so by a Byzantine spy so that the Pharos could not be used against the Byzantine fleet -but the rest survived much longer. Because of its value as an aid to navigation, the Muslim rulers of Egypt attempted on several occasions to restore the Pharos, but about the year 1100 the second story fell to the ground. It was, nevertheless, still an imposing structure. Some 90 years later, for example, the Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubair saw it and wrote:

One of the greatest wonders that we saw in this city was the lighthouse which great and glorious God created by the hands of those who were forced to such labor ... a^ a guide to voyagers, for without it they could not find the true course to Alexandria. It can be seen for more than 70 miles, and is of great antiquity. It is most strongly built in all directions and competes with the skies in height. Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle. We measured one of the four sides and found it to be more than 50 arm's lengths. It is said that in height it is more than 150 heights of a man. Its interior is an awe-inspiring sight in its amplitude, with stairways and entrances and numerous apartments, so that he who penetrates and wanders through its passages may be lost. In short, words fail to give a conception of it.

In the next century and a half, however, the lighthouse, although "most strongly built," had began to crumble. Ibn Battuta, that indefatigable traveler (See Aramco World, January-February 1978), visited the Pharos in 1349 and found it so ruinous that he was unable to enter it. Finally, in 1480, the Mamluk ruler Qa'it Bay constructed an elegant little fort on the exact site of the Pharos, and used bits of it in the walls. The seventh wonder of the world was no more.

The seven wonders of the world were more than just a list of sights; they were a reminder of the achievements of the ancients. Long after most of them had crumbled to dust, their memory persisted. Al-Baghdadi, speaking of the antiquities of Egypt, could also be speaking of all of the remains of the ancient world and, perhaps, predicting the future of today's monuments: "The sight of them confirms the truth of tradition. These monuments also point to the future, for they call attention to the fate reserved for the things of this world. "

Paul Lunde is a staff writer for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 14-27 of the May/June 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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