The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World serve as a testament to the imagination, ingenuity, and sheer hard work of which human beings are capable. However, they are also clear reminders of the human capacity for destruction, disagreement, and embellishment.
As soon as ancient writers created a list of seven wonders, it became fodder for debate over which achievements truly deserved inclusion. Ultimately, human hands joined with natural elements to destroy all but one of the wonders. Furthermore, it’s possible that at least one of the wonders never even existed at all. Still, to this day, all seven continue to inspire and be celebrated as remarkable examples of the creativity and skill of Earth’s early civilizations.
1. Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The Great Pyramids, located in Giza on the west bank of the River Nile, are the only wonders of the ancient world that have survived to the present day.
The three pyramids – Khufu (Cheops), Khafra (Chephren), and Menkaura (Mycerimus) – were built between 2700 B.C. and 2500 B.C as royal tombs. The largest and most impressive of these pyramids is Khufu, which covers 13 acres and is believed to be made out of more than two million stone blocks that weigh from two to thirty tons each.
For more than 4,000 years, Khufu reigned as the tallest building in the world. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a taller building was built. Amazingly, these nearly symmetrical pyramids were built without the help of modern tools or surveying equipment. Scientists believe that the Egyptians used log rollers and sleds to move these huge stones into place. The sloped walls, which were intended to mimic the rays of Ra, the sun god, were originally built as steps, and then filled in with limestones.
The interior of these pyramids include narrow corridors and hidden chambers in order to try and foil grave robbers. However, although modern archeologists have found some great treasures among the ruins, they believe that most of what the pyramids contained was stolen within 250 years of their completion.
2. Hanging Gardens of Babylon
According to the ancient Greek poets, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built near the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq by Nebuchadrezzar II, the Babylonian king, around 600 B.C.
The gardens are said to have been as high as 75 feet in the air on a huge square brick terrace that was laid out in steps like a theatre. The king supposedly built the towering gardens to ease Amytis’ (his lover) homesickness for the natural beauty of her home in Media – the north-western part of modern-day Iran.
Later writers describe how people could walk underneath these beautiful gardens, which rested on tall stone columns. Modern scientists have deduced that for the gardens to survive they would have had to be irrigated using a system consisting of a waterwheel, pump, and cisterns to carry water from the Euphrates many feet into the air.
Though there are multiple accounts of the garden in both Roman and Greek literature, none of them are first-hand, and no mention of the gardens has been found in Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions. As a result, most modern scholars believe that the garden never existed.
3. Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The well-known statue of Zeus was crafted by the Athenian sculpture Phidias and was completed and placed in the temple of Zeus at Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics, around the mid-fifth century B.C.
The statue depicted the god of thunder sitting bare-chested on a wooden throne. Holding up the arms of the throne were two carved sphinxes, mythical creatures with the head and chest of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird. It was richly decorated with gold and ivory and was nearly 40 feet high.
According to legend, the sculptor Phidias asked Zeus for a sign of his approval after finishing the statue. Soon after, the temple was struck by lightning. This statue graced the temple at Olympia for more than 8 centuries before Christian priests persuaded the Roman emperor to close the temple in the fourth century A.D. The statue was then moved to a temple in Constantinople, where it is believed to have been destroyed in a fire in the year 462.
4. Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
There was actually more than one Temple of Artemis: A series of several altars and temples was destroyed and then restored on the same site in Ephesus, a Greek city on the west coast of what is now modern-day Turkey.
The most fabulous of these structures were two marble temples that were built around 550 B.C. and 350 B.C., respectively. The former was created by the Cretan architect Chersiphron and his son Metagenes and decorated by some of the most celebrated artists of the time. According to legend, the building burned down on July 21, 356 B.C, the same night that Alexander the Great was born.
Around six years later, a new temple was built to replace it. This new building was surrounded by marble steps that led to a 425-foot-long terrace. Inside stood 127 60-foot columns and a statue of Artemis. Archeologists disagree as to whether the building has an open-air ceiling or was topped with wood. The temple was destroyed by Ostrogoths in A.D. 262, and it was not until the 1860s that archeologists dug up some of the ruins at the bottom of the Cayster River.
5. Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
Located in what is now south-eastern Turkey, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was a tomb built by Artemisia for her husband, Mausolus, the king of Carnia in Asia Minor, after his death in 353 B.C. Mausolus was also Artemisia’s brother, and, according to legend, when he died she was so grief-stricken that she mixed his ashes with water and drank them.
The massive mausoleum was made of white marble and is thought to have been around 135 feet high. The building’s complicated design, consisting of three rectangular layers, might have been an attempt to reconcile Greek, Egyptian, and Lycian architectural styles. The first layer was a 60-foot base of steps, followed by a middle layer of 36 Ionic columns and a stepped, pyramid-shaped roof. At the very top of this roof was the tomb, decorated by the work of four sculptors.
The mausoleum was destroyed by an earthquake in the 13th century and its remains were later used to fortify a castle. In 1846, pieces of one of the mausoleum’s friezes were extracted from the castle and can now be found in London’s British Museum.
6. Colossus of Rhodes
This was an enormous bronze sculpture of the sun god Helios built by the Rhodians over a period of twelve years during the third century B.C. The city was targeted by Macedonians early in the fourth century B.C. and, according to legends, the Rhodians sold the tools and equipment that they left behind to pay for the Colossus.
Designed by the sculptor Chares, the statue, at 100 feet high, was the tallest building in the ancient world. It was completed around 280 B.C. and stood for six decades before it was toppled during an earthquake. It was never rebuilt.
Hundreds of years later, Arabs invaded Rhodes and sold the remains of the statue as scrap metal. Due to this, archeologists don’t know much about the exact location of the statue or what it even looked like. Many believe that it depicted the sun god standing naked while he lifted a torch with one hand and held a spear in the other.
7. Lighthouse of Alexandria
This lighthouse was located on a small island called Pharos near the city of Alexandria. Designed by the Greek architect Sostratos and completed around 270 B.C. during the reign of Ptolemy II, the lighthouse helped to guide ships in and out of the city’s busy harbor.
Archeologists have found ancient coins on which the lighthouse was depicted, and from them they have deduced that the structure had three tiers: a square level at the bottom, an octagonal level in the middle, and a cylindrical top. Above that stood a 16-foot statue, most likely of Alexander the Great or Ptolemy II. Overall, it is believed that the lighthouse was around 380 feet tall.
The lighthouse was gradually destroyed during a series of earthquakes from 956 to 1323. Some of its remains have been discovered at the bottom of the Nile.