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The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The Pyramids at Giza

The Pyramids at Giza

In the Greek-speaking world a few centuries before the birth of Christ there came to be known a group of monuments that were particularly awe-inspiring, whether because of their artistry, the engineering skill evident in their construction, or their sheer scale. These were the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:

  • The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza (c. 2551—2470 BC), one of humankind's greatest architectural achievements and the tallest building in the world for more than four thousand years.
  • The Hanging Gardens (c. 810—560 BC), a series of extensive and ornate landscaped terraces in northern Iraq. Archaeologists have searched the ruins of Babylon for the fabled Hanging Gardens for decades, yet have found almost nothing.
  • The Statue of Zeus at Olympia (c. 430 BC), a forty-foot tall gold and ivory statue that was the most celebrated artistic work on mainland Greece. The statue presided over the early Olympic Games.
  • The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (c. 4th century BC), a Greek temple famous for its imposing size and magnificent sculpture, burned down by a madman who wanted to immortalize his name in the 4th century BC.
  • The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (c. 352 BC), the 140-foot high monumental tomb of the Anatolian king Mausolus, completed by his wife—who was also his sister.
  • The Colossus of Helios at Rhodes (c. 290 BC), a huge bronze statue, comparable in size to the Statue of Liberty, built on the island of Rhodes to commemorate a military victory. Toppled by an earthquake, its ruins were a major tourist attraction for nearly 900 years.
  • The Pharos of Alexandria (c. 280 BC), the largest and most famous lighthouse of the ancient world, built for a Greek king ruling Egypt. The first true high-rise building in the history of architecture.

The idea of creating a list of architectural wonders arose following Alexander the Great's conquest of much of the known world in the 4th century BC, which gave Greek travelers access to the older civilizations of the Egyptians, Persians, and Babylonians. The Greeks did not initially conceive of these monuments as "Wonders" (Greek thaumata) but rather as "sights" or "things to be seen" (theamata); in essence, they were the dramatic monuments that filled the travel guidebooks of the ancient world; the Lonely Planets or Rough Guides of their time.

The Fate of the Seven Wonders

It is a sad truth that all but one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, the most celebrated architectural achievements of antiquity, have been overcome by time, nature, and the hand of man.

Statue of Zeus maze puzzle

Statue of Zeus maze puzzle

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An earthquake toppled the Colossus only 65 years after its construction, and it lay in ruins for nearly a thousand years until its remains were scrapped and carried off on the backs of 900 camels to be melted down. Christian crusaders plundered the ruins of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in the 16th century and built a fort out of its remains, and only a few scattered stones are left from the Temple of Artemis, said to have been the most elegant of the wonders. The fate of the celebrated Statue of Zeus at Olympia, which presided over the early Olympic games, is unknown, and debate still continues over the site of the Hanging Gardens.

Only the ruins of the pyramids, whose unshakable bulk would seem to preclude annihilation, have survived through the centuries. Though medieval Muslims stripped them of their outer casings of smooth white limestone to build bridges and houses in Cairo, the pyramids still stand relatively intact, impressive memorials to the might of the Old Kingdom pharaohs. Yet even their survival was not certain: the 19th century tyrant Mohammed Ali, who obliterated many of Egypt's greatest temples for their stone in order to build factories and modernize his country, once made similar plans to tear down the Great Pyramid—and probably would have done so, had it been economical.

Hanging Gardens

A (probably unrealistic) artist's conception of the Hanging Gardens

How the Seven Wonders Were Chosen

Because Greek writers had compiled the original lists of the Wonders, many of them were Greek monuments. Other writers drew up their own lists, replacing the Pharos, for instance, with the Walls of Babylon. Ancient authors report that these walls were about 40 miles long and 82 feet in height, and that a four-horse chariot could be reversed on the roadway that ran atop them. The Roman poet Martial added the Colosseum to the list, and the Christian bishop Gregory of Tours added Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Of course, all of these writers could only list the things they had heard of or seen. Had they walked for a thousand miles beneath the ramparts of the earliest Great Wall of China and still not come close to its end, their lists might have been different.

There is also evidence that at least one lost monument—The Egyptian Labyrinth—may have surpassed all the architectural achievements from the ancient world that have survived into modern times...

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum


According to the only two ancient historians who saw it with their own eyes, the Egyptian Labyrinth was more impressive than the Pyramids at Giza.

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