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The Seven Wonders of Antiquity

The generally-accepted Seven Wonders of the Antiquity were established by prominent Greek writers and travelers of the ancient world. The first discussion of the world’s most beautiful “sights” seems to have been by the historian Herodotus. Remnants of his list are incomplete, but they show an early desire to sum up the architectural accomplishments and beauty of Greek civilization. 

In the 4th century BCE, Greece expanded her empire to cover much of their known world, from mainland Greece to Egypt to the edge of Persia, and with the expanded potential for travel, Herodotus’s idea caught on. The lists changed over time but eventually settled on what is now considered the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Today we’re going to discuss each of these seven wonders, their legacy, and how we view them in the modern world.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was built during the Ptolemaic Kingdom’s reign of Egypt, around 280 BCE. The Ptolemaic Kingdom was a Greek state that started under Ptolemy I in 320 BCE and ended with Cleopatra’s death in 30 BCE. Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria around 335 BCE and, just across the water from the new city, sat a small island called Pharos.

Ptolemy I commissioned the lighthouse’s construction on Pharos in 305 BCE, and it began sometime in the following decade. Ptolemy died before it was completed, but his son, Ptolemy II, oversaw its completion. The building took twelve years to construct, and it was seen as an incredible monument from the moment it was completed, with its striking walls of limestone and granite.

Over the next fifteen hundred years, a handful of Arab writers took detailed notes on the lighthouse’s dimensions and design, giving us a tiny margin of error as to its size and structure. Estimates on its height range from 103 to 118 meters (338 to 387 ft), with a 30 by 30 meter (98 by 98 ft) square base. The tower was made up of three tapering tiers: the lower square section, a middle octagonal section, and, at the top, a circular segment.

The building was decorated with text and motifs of the Greek gods Zeus and Poseidon. From imprints on surviving Roman coins, we can see that the structure was topped by a statue of one of these gods and that each corner included a statue of the lesser god Triton. 

Aside from its appealing appearance, though, the lighthouse was also totally functional. A massive mirror was attached to the top of the structure to reflect sunlight during the days, while a furnace lit the way for ships sailing at night.

The lighthouse stood firm for over 1,000 years before a series of earthquakes finally did it in. Around 800 CE, the first quake damaged the top tier of the structure, which was then replaced with an Islamic-style dome. But, a magnitude-7 earthquake in 956 caused irreparable structural damage. The crumbling lighthouse stood another 400 years before it was finally destroyed for good in 1480, at the hands of another earthquake.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, also known as the Tomb of Mausolus, was built from 353-350 BCE. In the 4th century BCE, Halicarnassus, which sits in modern-day Turkey, was the capital of the small regional kingdom of Caria. The kingdom’s leader, Mausolus, expanded his empire into the nearby region called Lycia, known for its distinct raised tombs. 

Near the end of his life, Mausolus was determined to build a similar resting place for himself and his wife, inspired by the Lycian tombs and the ruler’s obsession with Greek architecture. Mausolus died in 353 BCE, so his wife, Artemisia, took control of the project. She hired the region’s most famous artists and architects, including Scopas, the man who designed the Temple to Artemis in nearby Ephesus.

Artemisia lived another two years, but the result, completed the year following her death, was unlike any tomb the world had ever seen. In fact, it supposedly looked much more like a Greek temple than a house for the dead. It included two main levels of construction, with a large marble staircase leading to a raised platform surrounded by 36 large pillars. 

Between the pillars sat statues of lions, which reached 1.6 meters tall (5+ ft). The tomb itself sat on the raised platform and, at its peak, reached 45 meters (148 ft) above the ground. The tomb’s roof was pyramid-shaped and included a quadriga: a statue of four massive horses pulling a chariot on which Mausolus and Artemisia rode.

The tomb became so iconic that the word for an above-ground tomb, or mausoleum, was derived from the name of the man who lay inside. The Mausoleum was the longest standing of any wonder but the Pyramids, surviving countless invasions by foreign rulers, including Alexander the Great. It stood for sixteen centuries until, like so many of the ancient wonders, it succumbed to a handful of earthquakes and collapsed completely in 1404.

The Temple of Artemis

the temple of artemis
This model of the Temple of Artemis, at Miniatürk Park, Istanbul, Turkey, attempts to recreate the probable appearance of the third temple.By Zee Prime, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Temple of Artemis was built and rebuilt three times over its long history, and each time the result was more grand and beautiful than the last. All three iterations stood in the historical city of Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey.

Though the original construction date is unknown, it was likely at some point in the 8th century. This iteration didn’t last long, as it was destroyed by a flood in the 7th century. The second iteration was built around 550 BCE and was the first Greek temple ever built primarily out of marble. It was large and grand, but, again, it didn’t last long. An infamous arsonist named Herostratus set fire to the temple’s wooden roof beams, resulting in its destruction in 356 BCE.

Alexander the Great personally offered to finance the temple’s reconstruction, but the Ephesians refused, stating that “it would be improper for one god to build a temple to another.” Instead, they financed the project themselves, and the result was arguably the most beloved Greek temple.

It was a massive structure, 137 meters (450 ft) long by 69 meters (225 ft) wide and 18 meters (60 ft) high, with more than 125 columns. It retained the striking marble exterior, and, upon its completion around 320 BCE, became perhaps the most striking of any of the ancient wonders, as the writer Antipater noted, “when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the other [wonders] were placed in the shade.”

This final reconstruction survived for over 600 years and was even mentioned several times throughout the Bible, as Ephesus was a hotspot for Christian missionaries. Once Christianity spread throughout the region, the temple was shut down, though it remained intact until a Goth invasion in 268 CE. The Goths may have burnt it to the ground or simply damaged it. Other recollections claim that it was finally destroyed by the Archbishop of Constantinople around 400 CE.

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

The Statue of Zeus, built by the famed sculptor Phideas, was completed in 435 BCE and sat in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. The Eleans, famous for hosting the Olympic games, had a bitter rivalry with their neighbors the Athenians and sought to improve their own stature by building the wonderful tribute to one of the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods. 

Though considerably smaller than most of the wonders on this list, the 12.4 meter (41 ft) tall statue would’ve been a sight to behold. Its frame was made of wood, but the exterior was covered with gold pannels and precious gems. The sculpture depicts Zeus seated on his massive throne, holding a scepter in one hand and the goddess of victory, Nike, in the other. A crown of olive branches sat upon the god’s head.

The enormous statue consumed half of the width of the temple and, according to the geographer Strabo, would have been taller than the temple had the enormous figure stood from his throne. 

Little is known about the statue’s ultimate fate. As the centuries passed, Greek mythology fell out of favor, and it became a symbol of Paganism. Around 40 CE, the Roman emperor Caligula reportedly requested that the statue’s head be removed and brought to him in Rome, but, according to legend, Zeus struck Caligula dead, and the statue at Olympia let out a burst of raucous laughter at his victory. 

The statue likely stood for about 800 years, and, in the fifth century CE, it was either destroyed in a fire that burned the temple to the ground or broken down and taken to Constantinople, where it would have been melted down for the value of its metals. 

The Colussus of Rhodes

The Colussus of Rhodes was both the last completed and first destroyed of the ancient world’s seven wonders. It was started around the same time as the Lighthouse of Alexandria and was completed in 280 BCE.

In the late 4th century BCE, the island of Rhodes was under siege by an army under the command of a man named Antigonus Monophthalmus. Rhodes’ ally, Ptolemy I, the man who commissioned the construction of the lighthouse, sent a fleet of ships to deter Antigonus, whose armies fled without their weapons. The people of Rhodes gathered up these weapons, melted them down, and sold the metal for a sum of 300 talents, quite the payoff. In thanks to their patron god Helios, the Rhodians used the money to build a colossal statue in his likeness.

The resulting figure stood 33 meters (108 feet) high— approximately two-thirds the height of the Statue of Liberty—making it the tallest statue in the ancient world. The figure only stood for 54 years, but, in that time, it became one of the most beloved sights in the Greek world. It was destroyed by, you guessed it, a massive earthquake in 226 BCE, breaking it into pieces which fell across the land on which it stood. However, such was the scale of the sculpture that the massive remnants remained a popular attraction for visitors to the Greek island. 

Ptolemy III offered to finance the reconstruction of the statue, but the Oracle of Rhodes advised against it, claiming that the statue’s destruction was a clear sign that the Rhodians had somehow offended the god Helios that it was meant to honor. 

Modern depictions of the figure tend to show it with spread legs standing over a narrow passage of water, but, despite the glorious image that would have been, it almost certainly stood completely on solid ground. Not only would the weight of the materials have collapsed the statue, but the ruins would have blocked off entry to the local harbor. The statue and its ruins likely stood on the acropolis overlooking the port until they were melted down in 653 CE by Arab invaders.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Hanging garden of babylon model
Hanging Gardens of Babylon model.By DestinationFearFan, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Perhaps the most hotly-contested entry on this list is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Not only is there little recorded history about the wonder, but ruins of the supposedly massive structure have never been found.

According to legend, the gardens were constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his Median wife, who missed the lush gardens of her homeland. This would place the construction of the gardens sometime around 600 BCE, but Nebuchadnezzar’s histories, and those of Babylonians of that era, are completely devoid of any mention of such a wondrous structure.

In fact, most of the descriptions of the gardens come from men who lived centuries later and likely never saw the gardens themselves. They simply passed on the grand tales they heard. The gardens supposedly sat on a gigantic multi-tiered structure, with each tier containing a balcony that housed the rich oases. Waterfalls irrigated each level, creating a lush, cascading image of vines and water descending from the heavens to the earth. 

If the gardens did exist, it’s almost impossible to determine where they would have stood. While Babylon sat somewhere along the Euphrates, the river has changed course over time, possibly covering the area of the city where the gardens would’ve stood. What’s more, some archaeologists claim the gardens stood in the city Nineveh, where the Assyrian king Sennacherib is known to have built a magnificent garden.

We will likely never know for sure whether the Hanging Gardens ever did exist, as the possible location near Babylon is currently too unstable to excavate.

The Great Pyramid

the great pyramid of giza
The Great Pyramid Of GIZA.By Nina, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The only one of the ancient wonders to survive to modern times is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, near Cairo, Egypt. Perhaps even more impressive, the pyramid was built almost 2,000 years before the completion of any other wonders. 

The Ancient Egyptians, of course, built the pyramids as monumental tombs for their rulers, but they also contain chambers for the pharaoh’s wives and treasures. Khufu’s tomb was once part of a much larger complex of temples and pyramids, two of which still stand today. But, while the surviving neighbors are certainly quite wonderful, none of them can match the scale of the Pyramid of Khufu.  

The Great Pyramid towers above the rest of the wonders on this list, standing at 146.5 meters (481 feet) tall and holding the title of the world’s tallest building for nearly 4,000 years. 

Upon its completion, the pyramid was covered with a bright limestone casing, which was eventually pillaged over the following millennia. Estimates of its shape with the casing conclude that the length of each 230 meter (755.0 ft) side differed by as little as 18 centimeters of each other. Even with its outer layer gone, the pyramid weighs over 6 million tons and consists of 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite. 

The Great Pyramid is so large and complex that its construction still puzzles engineers and historians to this day. Keep in mind, the Ancient Egyptians did not use wheels, pulleys, or iron tools for the construction, yet modern estimates believe that it was built in as little as ten years by a force of at least 40,000 men. At its height, this meant that one 80-ton granite block was placed on the foundation every 20 seconds.

Frankly, we can only thank the Egyptian gods that the Great Pyramid was never destroyed because, if it had been, then we might not believe it was real.

The World Wonders

Despite some disagreement between the ancients on which structures truly belong on the list of wonders, the world seems to have settled on a consensus. 

But we at Sideprojects can’t help but feel that the phrase “Wonders of the Ancient World” is a bit misleading. To the original writers of the lists, it may have been factual, but with our modern scope, the fact that 5 of the 7 wonders were built by the Greek empire begs the question of whether a new name is in order. Lists of still-standing ancient wonders have been compiled to include more global entrants, but perhaps the title “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” may be more appropriately called the “Seven Wonders of Ancient Greece.”

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