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Beyond the Seven Wonders

For more than 2,000 years, people have attempted to capture the world’s beauty in lists of the most wondrous places. It’s unclear just who the first person was to tally up their favorite sites. Was it Herodotus? Or Philo? Or someone else entirely? We can’t know for sure. There are five or six generally accepted wonders of the ancient world, but search up the list, and you’ll find some minor variation of the sixth and seventh entries. The same is true for the list of Medieval Wonders. For some reason, though, the number caught on.

Today, there are lists of the seven wonders of the ancient and medieval worlds, the New7Wonders, the USA Today Seven Wonders, the Seven Natural Wonders, Seven Engineering Wonders. There are at least a dozen different lists, and they are always seven entries long. But the world is big, and, without fail, some marvelous sights are excluded every time. So, we here at Sideprojects have taken it upon ourselves to fix that. We’re going to look at a few of the most beloved structures in the world that somehow always miss the cut, bumping the number from seven to, say, ten. Along the way, we’ll get a better understanding of what it is that makes something a wonder.

Angkor Wat

Among all the wonders of the world, perhaps the most ridiculous one to never be included on a seven-wonders list is Angkor Wat. No matter what you look for in a world wonder, Angkor Wat probably has it. 

The structure was built by the Khmer king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and has been used as a Buddhist temple for the last 800 years. At the time of its completion, the surrounding city was the capital of the Khmer empire. Not much of that city remains, but the ruins that still stand are referred to as Angkor, which literally means “city,” while the main attraction, Angkor Wat, means “temple city.” Strangely enough, though, the building wasn’t originally meant to be a temple. At first, its sole purpose was as a mausoleum for the king who built it. But, before long, it was dedicated as a Hindu temple to Vishnu. Even today, subtle signs of the temple’s past denomination remain, though, when it was turned into a Buddhist temple, statues and other overt motifs were removed or covered up. Nowadays, the temple is among the most significant sites for followers of Buddhism, particularly Cambodians. 

While much of Angkor was built of perishable materials, the temple, made of sandstone, has stood firm since its construction. Angkor Wat has been an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists throughout southeast Asia for centuries. Yet, the western world didn’t know if its existence until about 150 years ago. The first westerner to lay eyes on it, the French explorer Henri Mouhot, declared it “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.” By most accounts, he’s absolutely correct. 

That’s because Angkor Wat has one of the most essential factors in determining a wonder: scale. Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, covering an area of 1.6 square kilometers, or over 400 acres. The land that the temple stands on is separated from the rest of the Angkor complex by way of a 190 meter wide, 5-kilometer long moat. Once on this makeshift island, the temple is surrounded by a 4.5-meter high wall. This unique setting— conspicuously separate from the city’s ruins— also plays a vital role in the sense of wonder the building inspires. 

The temple itself is made up of three graduated platforms and five towers. The base-level gallery measures 187 by 215 meters (614 x 705 ft), with the following two galleries slightly smaller and raised higher. The five towers stand on the smallest and tallest platform, though the central tower is raised above the rest, reaching 65 meters or 213 feet tall. Cambodia’s government will tell you it’s 213 meters, but— trust us— it’s 213 feet. To reach the shrine to Buddha at the top of the tower, visitors must ascend a steep staircase. The structure still houses a shrine to Vishnu, but it’s blocked from public view by a series of walls added in the late 12th century. 

Today, Angkor Wat is mainly known as a tourist destination, with several million visitors each year, but it is still an active Buddhist temple. Visitors have to follow certain customs to ensure that the sight receives the reverence that it holds in the hearts of the devout. Today, Angkor Wat is a symbol of international Buddhism and the country that it calls home.

Red Square, Moscow

Red Square, moscow

This may seem like cheating, but, trust us, it’s not. The Red Square in Moscow belongs on this list for a whole host of reasons. Not only is it the site of some of the 20th-century’s most impactful history, but it also hosts some of the most unique and eye-catching architecture in the world, most of all St. Basil’s Cathedral. While its most intriguing history is relatively recent, this site near the center of Moscow has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. Russia’s rulers have lived in various iterations of the Kremlin, located in part on the Red Square, for the better part of a Millenium. Still not convinced? Well then, let’s take you on a virtual tour.

You’re standing in the middle of the Red Square and looking to the west at the Kremlin’s eastern wall. The red wall stands 19 meters high, protecting an intricate complex of palaces, cathedrals, and towers, not to mention the homes of tsars and, at times, Vladimir Putin. Most of the complex is blocked to viewers in the Red Square, but three of the Kremlin’s towers, including the 70-meter high Nikolausturm, stand proudly above the wall. The Kremlin Arsenal is visible just on the other side of it. The entire Kremlin complex is vast and intricate, but only bits can be seen from the Red Square.

Before you turn, look just in front of the wall, and you’ll see Lenin’s Mausoleum. The sharp, angular structure bears the same red color as the Kremlin wall that it stands in front of. Believe it or not, Lenin’s embalmed corpse actually lies within the structure, which is open to visitors. The mausoleum and the lavish display of its interior are chilling symbols of Russia’s Soviet era.

Now, turn clockwise, and you’ll see the State Historical Museum marking the northwest end of the square. Despite being built in the late 19th-century, the red-walled, green-roofed building is considered a prominent example of Old Russian architecture, with arched windows, ornamental towers, and a shape similar to the Kremlin Palace that sits just a few hundred meters away. The museum hosts everything from exhibitions on the area’s prehistoric tribes to artworks from the Romanov dynasty.

Continue turning clockwise, past the Resurrection Gate, the Kazan Cathedral, and even the massive, 35,000 square meter GUM Department store, all of which are magnificent in their own right. While these buildings are all full of history and compelling design, we’re about to reach the main attraction.

On the south end of the square stands the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, or St. Basil’s Cathedral. Dating from almost 500 years ago, the technicolor, onion-domed church looks like something out of an acid-infused Disney film, yet its’ origins are much more sinister. Its’ construction was ordered by Ivan the Terrible, one of the most brutal rulers in the country’s long history, to commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. St. Basil’s became Moscow’s tallest structure for 40 years after its completion.

At one time, during Stalin’s reign, Soviet officials sought to tear the chapel down. After all, Soviet Russia was a secular society. The Moscow Communist Party boss, Lazar Kaganovich, was tasked with implementing Joseph Stalin’s urbanist plans throughout the capital. In one meeting, Kaganovich presented a display of the Red Square and picked up the model of St. Basil’s to show Stalin what the area would look like without it. Stalin responded, “Lazar, put it back!” So, instead of tearing it down, the church was converted to a museum in 1929. In 1997, though, it was rededicated as a Russian Orthodox Christian church.

It should be obvious from one quick glance why Stalin and many other devout Communists were so against tearing down the iconic structure. The Cathedral bears nine onion domes, each one standing above a distinct chapel. The tallest one, the Church of the Intercession, stands 46 meters tall and is just off-center, giving the entire structure an asymmetrical yet strangely appealing shape. St. Basil’s uniqueness has been well documented. Even today, architectural historians have no idea what inspired its stunning appearance as it has no analog in Russian or Byzantine architecture. St. Basil’s is truly one-of-a-kind. The Cathedral’s unique, awe-inspiring design, combined with the classic Russian architecture nearby, and the centuries of history, make the Red Square a wondrous sight to behold.

Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army china

Our tenth wonder of the world comes from China, but it’s not the Great Wall, which sits comfortably on the list of Medieval Wonders. The Terracotta Army, found just outside Xi’an in central China, was built around 210 BCE by the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, coincidentally the man who also began construction on the Great Wall. The Terracotta Army combines characteristics that make both Angkor Wat and St. Basil’s members on this list: impressive scale combined with intricate detail. 

The first emperor had the army built to stand with him in his below-ground necropolis, a massive complex that holds all sorts of things that Qin sought to take with him into the afterlife. The army is found in three separate subterranean pits, housing 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses, and 150 cavalry. Of course, the emperor didn’t just want protection in the afterlife. He also wanted entertainment. So, he made sure to include plenty of non-military figures like acrobats, strongmen, and musicians. 

The massive project required contributions from up to 700,000 workers. The figures were most likely built in a nearby workshop, then assembled once they were brought to the mausoleum. Altogether, it’s estimated that the necropolis covers almost 100 square kilometers. However, most of the soldiers stand in one of three pits. The most enormous pit is 230 by 60 meters, containing eleven three-meter wide rows and at least 6,000 troops. 

Speaking of the troops, they are all lifesized, ranging from 175 to 200 centimeters, or about 5 foot 8 to 6 foot 6. Modern scholars have determined that the soldiers all bear one of ten distinct face shapes, and their bodies, equipment, and facial features often correspond with their ranking in the army. Still, no two of the terracotta warriors are precisely alike. For instance, they wear different forms of armor and clothing— some wear shin pads, or long trousers, while others wear shorts and no shin pads. They also wear their hair in different ways, often corresponding with their rank in the unit.

Despite its vast size, though, the terracotta army went undiscovered for most of its existence, and not just to outsiders. Locals had long told stories of finding fractured pieces of the warriors or other fragments from the necropolis, but no one knew quite where they came from. Then, in 1974, a group of farmers accidentally uncovered a bit of the mausoleum while digging a well near the site. Archaeologists flooded to the area to discover just what it was that lay beneath the ground. 

Today, visitors can see most of the army, some of whom are paraded around the world to stand in museums. Still, many figurines stand in a sealed area to ensure that the artwork doesn’t decay. In fact, the emperor’s mausoleum has never been exposed to the air, as other portions of the necropolis showed decay within 15 seconds of exposure to the elements. Visitors can enter the largest pit but, in other areas, can only look on through glass panels. Historically, the only statues to earn a spot on a list of wonders have been gigantic ones, like the Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro. On our list, it’s the army of life-sized soldiers that makes the cut as the tenth wonder of the world.

And that’s the Sideprojects’ eighth, ninth, and tenth wonders of the world. Together, they paint a picture of what all the world’s wonders must possess—history, scale, detail, and uniqueness. Of course, in the end, there’s only one fundamental requirement in determining a world wonder, and that’s the “wow” factor. No matter the reason, the sight needs to leave viewers with a sense of awe. As shaky of a definition as that may be, it’s obvious when you come across any of these sites.

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