Day 264: The Seven Ancient Big-Shots

originally published September 20, 2012

With so many things (Disneyland, West Edmonton Mall, Christina Hendricks) being billed as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, you’d think the unspoken first seven should be branded on the surface of our collective brain. But the average person would trip over their garbled memory if they tried to list them. This supposed ‘common knowledge’ is far from common – I’d bet I could run into more people today who could list seven previous winners of American Idol before rattling off the Big Seven.

Part of the confusion comes from the diffusion of this list. We now have the Seven Wonders of Wales, the Seven Wonders of Nature, and a smattering of modernized lists to choose from. I may revisit one of these other lists in the future; today I’m sticking to the original seven, or the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The word ‘wonder’ is, along with this list, just a marketing ploy. After the Greeks ran the table and conquered most of the known world in the 4th century BC, the list became a kind of tourist guide for the masses. The oldest such list comes from a poem by Antipater of Sidon, and it makes use of the word ‘theamata’, which means ‘sights’. I guess this wasn’t drawing in the gift-shop bucks because later lists use ‘thaumata’ instead, which means ‘wonder’. Always go with the sizzle, that’s an Ancient Greek saying.

So what’s on the list? What did the ancients save up their hard-earned travelling budget to soak up? Let’s start with the oldest one.

This is the one most people can remember, possibly because it’s the only one that’ll still make it into guidebooks today. The Great Pyramid of Giza took about ten or twenty years to build, and remained the tallest man-made structure in the world until the central spire at the Lincoln Cathedral in England was raised up in about 1311, more than 3800 years later.

The Great Pyramid was already caked in dust by the time the Greeks put together this list. Its original raison d’être was as a tomb for the Egyptian Pharoah Khufu, who is known today for only one thing: building the Great Pyramid. Okay, it was a vanity project. Still, pretty impressive.

Around 600BC, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed near what is now Al Hillah in Iraq. Well, maybe. This is the one Ancient Wonder that may or may not have existed. King Nebuchandnezzar II allegedly ordered its construction because his wife was homesick for the plants of her homeland (which may or may not have been the forest moon of Endor).

A number of writers from the era refer to the gardens, but modern scholars aren’t entirely certain the place wasn’t simply a poetic landscape. There is no archeological evidence of its existence, though it was allegedly struck down by an earthquake around the first century AD. Still, it doesn’t seem like that big a stretch: send some slaves to gather some plants, then stick ‘em around a building. Voila, it’s a Wonder.

The Temple of Artemis was an impressive slab of Greek architecture, located in Ephesus, which is near the modern town of Selçuk, Turkey. Artemis was a pretty well-loved goddess back then, with her specialties including animals, childhood, virginity, and relieving disease in women. Naturally, any temple devoted to someone as cool as this would be destroyed by non-believers. This one was rebuilt completely three times, but after the Goths torched in 268AD, the locals decided to move on.

If you make the pilgrimage down to Selçuk, there is still a single column standing where the temple used to be. Not quite guide-book worthy, but hey, this is history.

You simply can’t have an Ancient Greek list of awesomeness without some mention of Zeus. This Wonder was a giant-ass statue (about 39 feet tall) carved by the sculptor Phidias around 432BC. It sat in Olympia until the Roman Emperor Caligula, famous for his killer parties, decided that all famous artistic statues should be decapitated and replaced with Caligula-heads.

Whether or not this happened, no one knows. The statue was evidently carted off to Constantinople at one point, where it was burned in a temple fire in either 425 or 475AD. Nothing left to see of this one, unless you want to jet over to Olympia to have a look at Phidias’ workshop where it was made. Meh.

Just as modern-day adventurists might skulk through a Paris graveyard to pop a peek at Jim Morrison’s headstone, the Ancient Greeks loved looking at places that housed dead people. If the Great Pyramid was too far a trip, they could always slip over to Halicarnassus (near Bodrum in Turkey) to have a look at the Mausoleum.

The structure was built around 350BC for Mausolus, a ruler of Caria – actually an enemy of the Greeks. It stood close to 150 feet tall, and was festooned with some ornate sculpture work by four of Greece’s A-list sculptors. The thing withstood sixteen centuries of invasions and attacks, and long outlived the city of Halicarnassus, which sat in rubble at its feet for ages. Mother Nature had her say though, and by the 14th century, earthquakes had reduced the thing to a stump.

The word ‘Mausoleum’ came to stand for any such structure, so I guess that’s Mausolus’ big win for the world.

The Colossus of Rhodes offered Ancient Greek sailors the opportunity to sail beneath Helios, the God of the Sun’s taint. Slapped together on the Greek Island of Rhodes around 280BC, this 107-foot statue must have been quite a sight.

As the depiction above indicates, it wasn’t a particularly stable structure for an area that seems to have had its ass kicked repeatedly by earthquakes. The Colossus lasted only 56 years before a quake snapped Helios at the knees.

No one is really certain the statue was built like that, or even if it stood at the harbor. By the late 19th century, the Colossus was believed to have only one arm raised, the other tucked at his side, holding what looks like a small staff, or maybe a marching-band baton. The Statue of Liberty’s posture was designed off this perception of the Colossus.

Oh, and they’re rebuilding this one. Rhodes needs more tourist bucks.

Lastly there’s the Lighthouse of Alexandria, built on the island of Pharos in Alexandria (surprise!) around 247BC. The Lighthouse was an impressive 450 feet high. Once the Muslims took over Egypt, it was used as a mosque. After a trio of earthquakes between 956 and 1323AD, it wasn’t much good to anybody.

You can still check out the remains of the lighthouse, which were discovered in 1994, but you’d have to go diving beneath Alexandria’s Eastern Harbor to find them.

Those are the Big Seven of the Ancients. There’s nothing mythical or wondrous about them, except that they were probably among the finest tourist destinations in the world back then.

Kind of like Disneyland, West Edmonton Mall, and Christina Hendricks today.

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