There are countless lists of wonders throughout world history, some more well-known than others. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the first, as historians from Ancient Greece compiled a list of the known world’s most incredible man-made structures. Future historians were aware of this original list, but, in the following centuries, most of the original seven didn’t stand the test of time. Civilizations expanded, trade routes reached from East Asia to Western Europe and Africa, and, suddenly, travelers across Eurasia were exposed to new wonders.
The Seven Wonders of the Medieval World is a strange list, though. Many of the structures found on it weren’t actually built during the Middle Ages. In fact, the final roster wasn’t compiled until the early 20th century, as one of the entrants wasn’t discovered until 1900. The entrants have changed over time, generally between eleven or so possibilities. Among those that didn’t make the cut are the Taj Mahal, the Cairo Citadel, Cluny Abbey in France, and Ely Cathedral in England.
Instead, we’re left with sites from Egypt and England to China, with build dates ranging over 4000 years. So, these structures represent achievements built or discovered in the centuries following the first Ancient Wonders list. Today, we’ll be diving into the history and architectural aspects of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World.
The Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa
The catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa were discovered in Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 1900 when a traveler’s donkey fell through the earth and into the access shaft. The most controversial inclusion on this list, because of its discovery date, archaeologists worked over the following decades to uncover the complex’s various tunnels and passageways, revealing more and more aspects of the structure. It includes a series of tombs, statues, and archaeological objects that reflect the Roman and Hellenistic influences of the Pharaonic funeral cult of the 2nd century AD. It was used as a burial chamber for the next 200 years. Since its excavation, three sarcophagi have been found, along with other human and animal remains throughout the complex.
Kom El Shoqafa means Mound of Shards, a name derived from the broken heaps of terra cotta surrounding the land above the catacombs. This is because the site is far enough from Alexandria that visitors had to bring food and drink to sustain them for the trip. They would dine above the catacombs and smash their terra cotta plates there rather than carry them back.
Inside, the catacombs are separated into three distinct levels, the lowest of which is now completely underwater. Visitors access the different levels via the six-pillared central shaft, which opens into the various rooms and chambers. The grandest of these chambers is the triclinium, a banquet hall where friends and family could dine after funerals or other important events. The other main room is the tomb chamber, which has a temple-like facade covered in traditional Egyptian motifs, like the god Horus, with Greek and Roman mythology sprinkled in. The three ornate sarcophagi lie within this chamber, where their inhabitants still rest today.
The Roman Colosseum needs no introduction. Found just east of the Roman Forum in the former empire’s capital city, the Colosseum has lived a long and diverse life. The emperor Titus oversaw the building’s completion in the year 80 AD, and the building has undergone countless renovations in the following centuries.
The structure is built of limestone, volcanic rock, and Roman brick-faced concrete, a staple of their most extensive construction projects. At its height, the building could hold 50-80,000 spectators for all kinds of events, from gladiator fights and naval battles to executions and dramatic theater. By the early Medieval period, the building was rarely used for entertainment, though. Instead, it was repurposed for housing, workshops, a fortress, and other similarly utilitarian means.
Much of the structure has crumbled in earthquakes since its completion, but the Colosseum remains shockingly intact. Though only a small portion of the outer wall stands today, it reaches 48 meters (157 ft) tall and would’ve had a perimeter of 545 meters (1,788 ft) when intact. With its elliptical shape, the building is 189 meters (615 ft) long and 156 meters (510 ft) wide.
Aside from its magnificent appearance, one key to the Colosseum’s iconic status is its location. Throughout much of the Roman empire, amphitheaters were traditionally located in a city’s outskirts. This would have been the case for the Colosseum if not for a large fire that burned down the buildings that once filled the densely populated neighborhood. The fire left a large patch of flat, uninhabited land, which was quickly seized by Emperor Nero, remaining in the government’s hand until construction began. Even today, thousands of years earlier, our modern stadiums are heavily influenced by the Colosseum.
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China captured the imagination of explorers from across Eurasia since a time before outsiders had even laid eyes on it. Travelers from the Middle East and Europe trekked thousands of kilometers to China, inspired by tales of the magnificent sight, only to return empty-handed, without ever seeing it in person.
The Great Wall of China is a bit more like the Great Walls of China. The earliest portions were built during the reign of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, around 200 BC. Little of this section remains intact today, though some of the ruins endure. Later dynasties, including the Han, Northern Dynasties, and Sui either repaired and upgraded portions or added their own contributions. These earliest examples were not the sturdiest walls, though, as the structure was built of rammed earth.
The Ming dynasty changed that. Shifting to brick and cut stone, the Ming Dynasty built the most significant portion of the wall, reaching about 6,259 km (3,889 mi) long. Combined with natural barriers like hills, rivers, and trenches, the Ming section runs 8,850 km (5,500 mi). Coming up with an exact length for the entire wall is impossible, given the fragments that have fallen apart or were never connected to the main structure. However, best estimates place this total at 21,196 km (13,171 mi). Along this stretch are more than 25,000 watchtowers. The most famous bit of the wall is the Badaling, about 80 kilometers northwest of Beijing. Not only is the portion in excellent shape, thanks to renovations, but it sits 1000 km above sea level, giving sweeping views of the surrounding area. The wall welcomes tens of millions of visitors every year.
The only proper place of worship on this list, Hagia Sophia stands in Istanbul near the banks of the Bosphorus. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian The First had it built in the early 6th-century, with its completion in 537 AD when the city was still called Constantinople. It became the patriarchal cathedral of the Christian church— mainly Eastern Orthodox, though also Roman Catholic for a brief period in the 13th-century.
Upon completion, Hagia Sophia was hailed for its pendentive dome, the first of its kind, which relies on sweeping, curved supports extending from a square base into a round copula. The crown reaches 55.6 m (182 ft 5 in) from the floor and is surrounded by 40 arcaded windows. Though it looks circular to the naked eye, the dome is actually not quite a perfect circle, with the diameter ranging from 31.24 to 30.86 m.
The building was so iconic and gorgeous that it inspired Byzantine architecture for the next thousand years. Following the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th-century and the Fall of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia became a mosque. It then inspired Ottoman architecture for the next several hundred years. It even largely influenced its neighbor, the Blue Mosque, which sits just a few hundred meters away.
The structure was heavily modified around this time, partially to remove Christian motifs and add Islamic elements, like the minarets that stand today. There are four minarets in total, each standing at 60 meters (200 ft) in height, giving the building its highest points.
Hagia Sophia remained in service as a mosque until after the fall of the Ottoman empire. It was converted to a museum in 1935, a symbol of Turkey’s new secular government. However, last year, it was reconverted into a mosque with Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s blessing.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a freestanding bell tower for the nearby Pisa Cathedral. Standing 56.67 meters (185.93 feet), the building is, of course, most famous for the dramatic four-degree tilt that has threatened the tower since before it was complete.
It’s unclear exactly who designed the heavy tower, which weighs in at 14,500 metric tons, perhaps because the architect was embarrassed by the controversy surrounding the structure. Altogether, the building took 199 years to complete. The tower’s foundations were laid in 1173, and, by 1178, with construction barely beginning on the second-floor, the sinking began. This is primarily due to the weak soil in the area and the fact that the foundation is just three-meters deep. After discovering the lean, though, the Republic of Pisa spent the next hundred years fighting wars against Genoa, Lucca, and Florence, delaying construction dramatically. However, this was a blessing in disguise, as the delay allowed the tower’s base plenty of time to settle into its foundation. If not for the break, the tower almost certainly would have toppled.
In the centuries following its completion, engineers and architects made several efforts to straighten out the tower, but to no avail. With modern techniques, the slant was reduced from more than 5 degrees to less than 4, but efforts to straighten any more have been universally vetoed, as the tip is, of course, the characteristic that draws visitors. Following the most recent structural work, the tower was declared stable for the next 300 years, when it will need more adjustments to keep the base at its current slant.
Aside from giving the tower its signature tilt, the soil beneath the foundation played an essential role in its longevity. A relatively active seismic zone, several earthquakes have shaken Pisa over the last eight hundred years. However, the soft soil, combined with the necessarily stiff column, allowed the structure to withstand any severe damage. In an ironic twist, the feature that caused the tower to almost collapse became the thing that made it famous and kept it from toppling after all these years.
The Porcelain Tower
The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing was once a part of the Great Bao’en Temple along the banks of the Qinghai river in the historic city. It was built under the direction of the Yongle Emperor, who ruled in the early 15th-century. Upon its completion, it was immediately hailed as one of the world’s most wondrous structures, thanks in large part to the porcelain white brick that marked its exterior. The tower reflected sunlight during the daytime and was lit by 140 lamps at night to ensure that its glistening beauty always shone on the surrounding area.
The tower stood 79 meters (260 feet) tall, with an octagonal base running 30 meters in diameter. Among the tallest pagodas in Chinese history, travelers from around the world came to the city to lay eyes on the building, which was originally topped by an ornamental gold pineapple. However, the beauty wouldn’t last, as a series of tragedies fatally struck the tower.
First, it was hit by lightning in 1801, which shook the building so dramatically that the top four levels collapsed. The building was restored in the following years, as records show it was completed in the 1840s. However, civil war broke out in the 1850s as the Taiping Rebellion reached the surrounding area. Rebels destroyed all Buddhist images in the city, including the tower’s internal staircase. The hollowed building remained for several years until it was demolished by insurgents in 1856.
The site then lay dormant 154 years until, in 2010, Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin donated one billion yuan (US$156 million) to restore the tower and the surrounding area. Work commenced almost immediately, and the replica was completed and opened in late 2015.
Stonehenge is the oldest entry on the list by far. Older than even most of the entrants on the Seven Wonders of Antiquity list, the site was included on the Medieval version because little was known about the British Isles when the Greek and early Roman historians compiled their lists over two millennia ago. With construction beginning on the site more than 5,000 years ago, little is known about exactly how it was built.
The structure consists of an outer ring of standing stones, each one 4 meters (13 feet) high, 2 meters (seven feet) wide, and weighing around 25 tons. Inside this circle is a ring of bluestones, then a series of trilithons made up of two vertical stones with a smaller horizontal lintel stone across the top. The monument is oriented towards the sunrise on the summer solstice, leading some people to believe that it was a sight for religious ceremonies. However, just like how it was built, what it was used for remains a mystery.
One of the most confounding puzzles surrounding its construction is that the massive bluestones must have come from a quarry in a Welsh town called Maenclochog, which is almost 300 kilometers from Stonehenge. The rest of the stones likely came from nearby quarries, but the bluestone was selected for its unique acoustic properties and was very difficult to find. When struck properly, they produce a beautiful, pitched ringing noise, which was even used for church bells in Wales until the 18th-century.
Theories about the site’s purposes range from an astronomical observatory to a religious center to a healing center. The area is surrounded by an unusually high number of burials, mostly bodies that suffered traumatic injuries. Strangely enough, many remains there have been proven to come from the Mediterranean region, up to thousands of kilometers away. One thing that most historians agree on is that it must have been a multi-purpose facility of some sort. Today, visitors aren’t allowed to touch the rocks, but it remains one of England’s more popular tourist destinations.