Lots to Wonder About
Mrs. Laningham had never been out of Texas but she could recite the Seven Wonders of the World. Since she was my fourth grade geography teacher, I was immediately required to memorize the name of every one of them. They soon drifted out of my mind because I had no idea where or what they were.
That old list was devised by a handful of wandering Greeks, mostly historians, over a period of four centuries. One of them, Antipater of Sidon, immortalized the list in a poem that’s lasted for two millennia: “I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught (anything) so grand.”
Honor the Old
The “old” wonders have been discarded now, but let’s pause for a moment and honor them by at least understanding what they were.
Statue of Zeus at Olympia (Greece): Around 432 B.C., Phidias, paying homage to Zeus, constructed this 40-foot-high seated figure on a wooden frame, using ivory for the flesh and gold leaf for garments and armor.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Iraq): Around 600 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar built the gardens to please his wife who longed for lush surroundings in the harsh landscape. The gardens, nurtured by water from the Euphrates River, were a quadrangle about 400 feet on a side. They consisted of a series of ascending terraces, vaults, arches, and galleries built in tiers that crested at 75 feet. Some historians say they perished in an earthquake in the 1st century B.C.
The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Turkey): As Wonders go, King Mausollos’ tomb was a small structure with a base of 120 by 100 feet and a height of 140 feet. Finished in about 350 B.C., it stood stoutly until Crusaders tore it down at the end of the 15th century. Now you know why a large tomb came to be known as a “mausoleum.”
Temple of Artemis at Ephesus: The greatest of the wonders to Antipater’s eye was the Temple of Artemis with a floor plan of 377 by 180 feet and 127 Ionic marble columns, built around 550 B.C.. It was first destroyed by arson, rebuilt, destroyed again by marauding Goths, rebuilt, and destroyed by a mob in 401. It was created to worship the Greek virgin huntress, Artemis, goddess of the moon. Today only a single column remains of the breathtakingly beautiful temple.
Colossus of Rhodes (Greece): A 110-foot-tall statue (at that time the tallest in the world) of the Greek god Helios was erected on Rhodes in the 3rd century B.C. to honor the island’s patron god. After only 54 years, it collapsed during an earthquake. To avoid offending Helios, the remains were left where they had fallen until sold as scrap in the 7th century. It was built on a breakwater and, contrary to myth, never straddled the entire harbor.
Great Pyramid at Giza (Egypt): This brilliantly engineered pyramid near the Nile and Cairo is thought to have been built as the tomb of the pharaoh Khufu. Completed circa 2570 B.C., it’s built of 2.3 million granite, limestone, and basalt blocks. The estimated number of workers varies from 40,000 to 350,000 (working for 20 years). At 455 feet, it remained the tallest man-made structure for more than 3,800 years (until barely surpassed in 1235 by the Gothic spire of the Lincoln Cathedral).
There seem to have been two number sevens. In his poem, Antipater included the formidable wall that encircled Babylon. With a thickness of 32 feet, four chariots abreast could race atop it. But he referred elsewhere to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, a tower built in the 3rd century B.C. to serve as that port’s landmark and lighthouse. At a height that may have reached 450 feet, it was one of the tallest man-made structures on earth (behind only the pyramids of Khufu and Khafra) for 1,000 years or more. It was crippled by earthquakes in the 14th century and was rubble by the time Columbus crossed the Atlantic.
The Kings are Dead; Long Live the Kings
A few years ago, a Swiss traveler named Bernard Weber noted the limited scope of those early Greek historians whose experience included little more than the Mediterranean basin. He decided it was time for a new list of Seven Wonders so, through an entity called New7Wonders he organized an international poll.
Although millions of ballots were cast online, no one insisted that the poll met any scientific standards. In fact, UNESCO sniffed haughtily that it had its own World Heritage List that included places in addition to man-made structures. In any event, the New7Wonders winners are Machu Piccu (Peru), the statue of Christ the Redeemer (Brazil), the Taj Mahal (India), Chicen Itza (Mexico), the Coliseum in Rome (Italy), the Great Wall (China), and Petra (Jordan). I think the Great Pyramid at Giza was given honorary membership. It’s an impressive lot but predictable.
Few can look upon any structure on either list without wondering why it was built. Answers vary from place to place, but I suggest there are some common themes. One theme is size; most of the structures are massive, intended to emphasize the power of the ruler. Another theme was expressing worship or perhaps fear of some entity (Zeus, Artemis, Helios, and the Christian God). Great tombs spoke to immortality and the desire to be remembered (Mausallos, Giza, Taj Mahal). Two structures were even motivated by love (Hanging Gardens, Taj Mahal).
Maybe people connect universally with these themes but I found myself wondering why, in the New7Wonders poll, voters made the choices they did. Well, for one thing, the choices are all accessible and well known to travelers. They were also promoted as tourist attractions by their home countries. Almost all are so massive that visitors marvel at the colossal amount of manpower and skill it took to construct them. In addition to being beautiful to behold they possess the quality of endurance, the advantage of using stone as a building material.
Now, suppose you decide to create your personal inventory that excludes all those on the other two lists. What criteria would you use? Would you exclude anything modern, as voters in the poll did (except for Christ the Redeemer)? Would you choose structures less grand, but with which you feel some special resonance?
More Wonderful Wonders
It’s painful to leave out unique places and cultures that have touched my heart over the years, but the ground rules limit us to structures. I’ll suggest a few and hope you’ll make your own list.
Sure, the Taj Mahal is breathtaking but so are Fatepur Sikri, Akbar the Great’s ill-fated capital, and his splendid Red Fort. While in India, what about the temples decorated with erotic carvings in Khajuraho—and Sarnath’s Dhamekh Stupa where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment?
In China, the Great Wall is impressive—but so are the Forbidden City, the Ming tombs, the Summer Palace, and the thousands of buried terra cotta warriors in Xian.
The Statue of Zeus had its merits, but I’m drawn to the penetrating, all-seeing eyes of Buddha on the great Swayambunath stupa in Kathmandu. And to the hundreds of haunting pagodas on the misty plains of Bagan, Myanmar. And to the powerful fortress/monastery dzongs in Bhutan.
I have to add the vibrant Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh high in the Himalayas, the Temple of Karnak on the Nile, Tikal (the masterwork of the Maya in Guatemala), the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the brooding Potala Llasa, and the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
For some buildings, the word “stories” refers to more than height. That’s certainly true for the opera house in Manaus on the Amazon River, built to entice Enrico Caruso to entertain barons so rich from their rubber plantations that they sent their laundry to Paris.
Some cultures are almost summed up by their city squares. Think of Brussels, Mexico City, and Cusco. Or by their public markets: from Marrakesh and Fez to Chichicastenango and Istanbul.
For me, Wonders include museums such as the Louvre, Hermitage (St. Petersburg), British, Metropolitan, Getty, and the National Air & Space Museum.
And since cities are comprised of structures, my list must include Hong Kong (and Kowloon across the harbor), Shanghai (and Pudong across the Huangpu River), Paris, Manhattan, Sydney, San Francisco, the Vatican, Dubrovnik, Venice, and Jerusalem’s Old City.
I’ll end my list with one of the Wonders that touches me most: the Abraham Lincoln Memorial at the end of the Mall in Washington, D.C.
We needn’t flock to the “new” Seven Wonders simply because they’re on someone’s list. The world is full of wonders. The most important ones are those that make your heart sing.