Were there only SIX Wonders of the World? Historian Bettany Hughes explores the continued


The Seven Wonders Of The Ancient World

by Bettany Hughes (W&N £25, 416pp)

Aproto-science fiction story by the 2nd century AD Greek writer Lucian of Samosata has its hero travelling to the Moon. Looking down, he can recognise the Earth only when he spots two of the Seven Wonders of the World — the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos Lighthouse.

Despite the fact that only one Wonder — the Great Pyramid at Giza — survives more or less intact, they still mean something today. In this deeply researched book, the historian and TV documentary maker Bettany Hughes explores the fascination these ‘brilliant adventures of the mind’ continue to hold for us.

Over the centuries there have been various, slightly different lists, but Hughes’s book focuses on what might be called the canonical seven, the ones most frequently cited. The first, and the oldest, is the Great Pyramid, built as a tomb for the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu in the 26th century BC. Those working on it had to raise one limestone block every two to three minutes, ten hours a day, for at least 24 years.

The legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders, was a lighthouse in the form of a statue of the god Helios

The legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders, was a lighthouse in the form of a statue of the god Helios

And how magnificent, she speculates, would have been the treasures buried with Khufu. All long since vanished, pillaged by tomb-robbers, but they must have far outshone what was found in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, a relatively insignificant pharaoh.

The second of the Wonders may not have even existed. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon retain their fame today, but there is very little evidence to prove they were real. Neither Xenophon nor Herodotus, two ancient Greek historians who almost certainly visited Babylon, mention them. Some scholars now argue that, if they did exist, they were located not in Babylon but in Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

There is no doubt about the reality of the other Wonders. ‘The sun has never shone on anything that can compare to this,’ one visitor to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus wrote. Reportedly the largest building in the ancient world, twice the size of the Parthenon, it was destroyed and rebuilt several times.

One of its patrons was Croesus, a man so rich his name is still a byword for fabulous wealth.

It remained a tourist attraction for nearly a millennium. Visitors could buy mini Temples of Artemis, just as today you can get mini Big Bens in London.

Size mattered to the ancients. The statue of Zeus at Olympia, the only Wonder on mainland Greece, was as big as a three-storey house. 

Its creator, Pheidias, is reported to have asked the king of the gods for his approval when it was finished. Zeus sent down a thunderbolt. (How he would have responded differently if he had disapproved isn’t clear.)

Pheidias may also have used the statue to confess his infatuation with a famous athlete. ‘Pantarkes is beautiful’ was said to be inscribed on Zeus’s finger.

Only one Wonder — the Great Pyramid at Giza — survives more or less intact

Only one Wonder — the Great Pyramid at Giza — survives more or less intact

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon retain their fame today, but there is very little evidence to prove they were real

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon retain their fame today, but there is very little evidence to prove they were real

The tomb of Mausolus, ruler of Karia in what is now south-west Turkey, was so impressive it merited listing as a Wonder. It was reopened and pillaged within a few years of the man’s death in 353 BC, but his name lives on. We still refer to a grand piece of funerary architecture as a ‘mausoleum’.

Another of the Wonders, the Colossus of Rhodes, was, in Hughes’s words, ‘legendary within weeks of its completion’. 

More than 100ft tall, with a skeleton of iron and a skin of bronze, it stood sentinel over the island for only 60 years before it was toppled by an earthquake. An earthquake also did for the final Wonder, the Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria, for a long time the second tallest structure in the world. It finally fell in AD1303, close to 1,500 years after it was built.

Hughes has written a richly detailed guidebook, providing a host of insights into what the Wonders meant to the people of the classical world, and what they can and do still mean to us today.



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