If you were an ancient globetrotter or sight-seer, you might be a little unsure about where to go at first. After all, information didn’t travel very quickly, and you couldn’t check out pictures or travel guides of the places you were thinking of going — if you even knew where you wanted to go. Luckily, around the year 225 BCE, a few Greek historians put together a handy list that told you exactly what was worth checking out around the globe. They called it the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were a list of monuments and structures that these ancient Greek writers considered so impressive and stunning that they called them thematas, or “must-sees”. Unfortunately, the only one still around today is the Great Pyramid of Giza. We’re not even sure that the Hanging Gardens even existed in the way that ancient writers described, but we can make our best guesses.
The 7 Wonders of the World were as follows:
- Pharaoh Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza, a staggering feat of ancient engineering.
- Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which might or might not have been real.
- The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, which must have been an awe-inspiring sight for anyone who believed in the power of the god.
- The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a temple so huge that it dwarfs most places of worship we have today.
- The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, which was one of the grandest tombs ever built.
- The Colossus of Rhodes, which actually spent more time lying in pieces on the ground than it did erect and even then was impressive.
- The Lighthouse at Alexandria, a structure whose magnificence generated so much fame that it inspired copies all around the Mediterranean.
Let’s take another look at each of these feats of ancient engineering.
Great Pyramid of Giza
Dates: Completed in 2562 BCE; it took only 20 years to build.
Location: The Giza Plateau, outside modern day Cairo.
Who built it: Built under the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, planned and designed by his vizier Hemiunu.
Fun fact: The Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 4,000 years after it was built. It was finally beaten out by the Eiffel Tower in 1889 CE.
What it looked like
The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only one of the original 7 wonders that still stands today. It is 480 feet tall with a base that measures 754 feet on each side. Each corner is oriented perfectly with a cardinal direction. While the pyramid we see today is still an awe-inspiring sight, it would have been even more impressive in its time. When it was originally built, the pyramid was covered in bright white limestone that shone in the hot Egyptian sun and would have been visible for miles in every direction. At the time, it would have been the most striking thing a visitor had ever seen.
Building the pyramid
The construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza is a near-impossibility by modern standards. Today, it would cost $5 billion to construct. What makes the Great Pyramid such a stunning feat is the magnitude and exactness of the planning, engineering, and organization of the project.
The Great Pyramid is made up of more than 2 million blocks of stone weighing between 2 and 60 tons, which fit together so precisely that they don’t even need mortar to stay in place and have stood for more than 4,000 years. Think Lego bricks, but Lego bricks that are the size and weight of elephants and were created by a society whose basic unit of measurement was supposedly based on the distance between the tip of a man’s middle finger and his elbow.
That’s not to say that the ancient Egyptians weren’t incredibly accurate and scrupulous; they had to be for the project the size of the Great Pyramid. Hemiunu, pharaoh Khufu’s vizier, was the second most powerful man in the kingdom and was the man in charge of the project. He was tasked with managing the design, materials, transport, labor, payments, and every other administrative responsibility that came with creating a monument as enormous as the pyramid. That said, there’s very little documentation actually explaining how the pyramids were built, which could mean that methods were so commonplace and ubiquitous that the ancient Egyptians saw no reason to note them.
It’s left modern scholars to piece together what archaeological evidence we do have to try and understand how the pyramid was built. The idea of using ramps to raise blocks to the level they needed to be placed was popular for a long time, but it has some holes.
First is a problem of pure physics. If ten men were to haul a 2 ton block up a ramp to the top of the pyramid (480 vertical feet), they would need a ramp with an angle of no more than 8 degrees, or else the force of gravity on the block would be too much. This means that the ramp would have to be almost a mile long and would require as much material as the pyramid itself.
There’s no archaeological evidence that a ramp this big existed near the pyramids, and besides, it wouldn’t make much sense to do it that way.
Another theory that makes a little more sense is that the Egyptians started from the outside, and then finished the construction from the inside of the pyramids, using a combination of ramps and hydraulic power. Hydraulic power, you say, in the desert?
Let me explain. In the time of Pharaoh Khufu, the water table under the Giza Plateau was much higher than it is today. The water table is the depth at which soil is completely saturated by the water that sits under much of our seemingly solid ground. So while it may seem like the Giza Plateau would’ve been the last place you’d find water, there was actually an abundance of it — it was just underground.
The theory is that the builders of the pyramid used a combination of interior ramps, hoists and pulleys, and hydraulic power from below to lift the huge blocks into place. Of the theories that have been put forth, the hydraulic power-ramp combination makes the most sense as an explanation of how ancient Egyptians, who didn’t even have any technology that resembled a crane like we have today, built such an enormous structure with such precision.
Because of the biblical myths, many people assume that the pyramid was built on the backs of Hebrew slaves. Although slavery was practiced in ancient Egypt, there is no record of any slaves working on the pyramids. Ancient Egyptian documentation shows payment to workers for their labor on state-sponsored monuments like the pyramids. Excavations have also revealed workers’ housing at the site of the pyramids.
Further, it would have been a part of the existing labor cycle in Egypt for Egyptian laborers to work on the pyramid. For two months every year the Nile River would flood, depositing nutrient-rich soil onto the surrounding farmlands. This meant that nearly all of Egypt’s workforce was idle during this time. The pharaoh would offer food for work and promised benevolent treatment in the afterlife, where he would rule them just as he did in the living world.
Skilled and unskilled workers volunteered their efforts in order to pay off a debt, fulfil community service requirements, or earn money (or the equivalent of it at the time). During the two months of flooding, these workers would flock to the site of the pyramid in the tens of thousands and transport the blocks that a permanent crew had spent the rest of the year quarrying. All of this is well documented, whereas the idea of slaves building the pyramids only appears in the Bible. Since the Egyptians clearly had no qualms about practicing slavery, there doesn’t seem to be a reason that they would lie about or omit that fact in regards to the construction of the pyramid.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Dates: Completed in 562 BCE
Location: Babylon, 50 miles south of modern day Baghdad, Iraq
Who built it: Built under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II
Fun fact: Nebuchadnezzar supposedly had the gardens built for his wife, who was from Media (a northwestern area in modern day Iran) and missed the mountains and flowers of her homeland.
What it looked like
Although nowadays we may take the idea of a “pleasure garden” for granted, it wasn’t always the case that gardens were thought of as places of leisure rather than work. The idea of cultivating a garden purely for pleasure seems to have originated in the Fertile Crescent (the highly fertile area of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the first human societies are thought to have been established) simply because there was enough excess land that it was viable to use up space and resources on a “nonessential” garden.
It’s hard to say exactly what the Hanging Gardens of Babylon looked like because we’re not actually completely sure that they existed. Several contemporary historians describe them as being very real and give descriptions of them, while other historians don’t mention them at all. There’s also no archaeological evidence of them at this moment.
They were first mentioned in the writing of a priest named Berossus, who was from Babylon. He describes high stone terraces that looked like mountains where a variety of trees and flowers grew. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that the terraces sloped upwards like an ancient theater and were supported by pillars lined with reeds and bricks. These terraces would have been nice to look at, but more importantly, would have made watering all the plants much easier. The gardens were probably around 70 feet tall.
Strabo, a Greek cartographer, described the gardens as being near the Euphrates River, which ran through Babylon. He says that in order to water the gardens, Nebuchadnezzar used complicated machines like giant screws that brought the water to the top of the gardens. It also makes sense that the gardens would be on the river because Nebuchadnezzar had one of his palaces on the river, and would have wanted the gardens to be nearby.
Mysteries and mix-ups
There are a few theories about whether or not the gardens existed, and if so, where and in what form. One big roadblock on the path to declaring the garden real is the work of Herodotus, the “Father of History.” As you might gather from his name, Herodotus spent a lot of time writing about what he considered worth preserving as history — but he never mentioned the gardens in his descriptions of Babylon. However, Herodotus also missed a lot of other things in his documentation, including the Great Sphinx at Giza. It’s likely he’d never actually been to Babylon.
Part of what makes the gardens’ existence believable is that other hanging gardens definitely existed in the Fertile Crescent. Archaeologies have found a relief panel from the North Palace of Arshurbanipal at Nineveh — the Assyrian capital — that clearly depicts a large garden on a stepped structure. For this reason, it’s sometimes thought that it’s all just an ancient mix-up and the gardens were actually at Nineveh, which is sometimes referred to as “Old Babylon.” However, even if there were gardens at Nineveh, it doesn’t mean there weren’t also gardens at Babylon.
Some scholars point to a different potential mix-up and say the stories of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon come from the Hanging Gardens of Pasargadae in the Zagros Mountains, which definitely existed but weren’t as big as the Babylonian ones were rumored to be. The gardens at Pasargadae do sound a lot like the Babylonian ones: they were terraced for ease of irrigation, had high walls for shade, and were near a water source.
Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Dates: Completed in 430 BCE
Location: Olympia, Greece
Who built it: Built by the sculptor Phidias, who supervised the construction of the Parthenon as well as the giant statue of Athena (both of which are in Athens)
Fun fact: Phidias’ representation of Zeus was criticized for its proportions. If Zeus were to stand, he’d knock the roof clean off the temple.
What it looked like
The statue was 40 feet tall (the height of a 4-story building!) and depicted the god Zeus seated on a throne. In his right hand he held a Nike, a minor goddess of victory, and in his left he held a scepter with an eagle sitting on top. He wore a garland of olive shoots on his head and sandals to go with his robe. Both the robe and throne were decorated with ornate details.
READ MORE: Greek gods and goddesses
His skin was made of carved ivory and his clothes, beard, and staff were made of hammered gold, all layered over a wooden core, all of which is a combination called “chryselephantine”. Phidias also used a variety of other materials to create details on the statutes, like silver, glass, copper, ebony, enamel, paint, and jewels.
The throne was made of ivory, ebony, and gold, decorated with glass and gems. It had many relief sculptures depicting famous scenes from Greek mythology. On his throne were the Graces, the Seasons, various Nikes, sphinxes, and Amazons. Between his legs on the throne, Phidias’ brother painted the Labors of Hercules, Achilles with Penthesilea, Hippodamia with Sterope, the city of Salamis, and landscapes of Greece. On the footstool that Zeus had his feet on, Phidias depicted a battle scene between Theseus and Amazons.
All of this – the throne, the god, and the stool – stood on a base of black marble, which was decorated with scenes from the Birth of Aphrodite. As a finishing touch, Phidias signed the base with the inscription, “Phidias, son of Charmides, an Athenian, made me.” The statue used to stand in front of a pool of olive oil, which was supposed to keep the air in the temple moist to protect the ivory from cracking. It also created a pretty mesmerizing effect when the statue was reflected on the surface of the oil.
Temple of Artemis
Dates: Started in 550 BCE, finished in 430 BCE; it took 120 years to build
Location: Ephesos, Ionia, once coastal city in what is now Turkey
Who built it: Sponsored by King Croesus of Lydia, supervised by Cherisphron of Knossos
Fun fact: On July 21, 356 BCE, a man named Herostratus set fire to the temple to “achieve lasting fame by forever being associated with the destruction of something so beautiful”. The Ephesians decreed that his name should never be written down nor remembered, but the historian Strabo noted it as a fun fact.
Artemis and Ephesus
Ephesus was a Greek colony on the eastern coast of Asia Minor, in modern day Turkey. Since the Greeks believed that Artemis had been born nearby at Ortygia, the goddess was especially important to the Ephesians.
The construction of the Temple of Artemis was started by King Croesus of Lydia, a longtime neighbor and enemy of Ephesus. Croesus conquered and held Ephesus between 560 and 550 BCE after being repelled many times by the Ephesians. During this occupation, the Ephesians absorbed some Eastern elements of goddess worship, which set their vision of Artemis apart from Greek mainlanders.
The temple that Croesus began was not the first temple of Artemis at Ephesus, however. There had been several versions over the centuries. The one that had existed immediately before the now-famous Temple of Artemis, the Ephesians had tied a rope almost a mile long to and ran it to the city, hoping that this symbolic dedication of the entire city to Artemis would save them from the Lydians. (It didn’t.)
What it looked like
The temple, sometimes called the Artemisium, was nearby the city but ensured to be surrounded by nature, since Artemis was thought to be the goddess of vegetation, animals, and nature in general. In fact, the area where the temple was built was so marshy and soft that it was necessary to create a flexible foundation to support the enormous weight of the temple.
While the soft ground did a lot to protect the temple from earthquakes, it meant that special precautions had to be taken to keep the temple from sinking. Pliny the Elder noted that the builders used alternating layers of charcoal and sheepskin to provide stability under the temple. Excavations have found that the foundations were composed of a soft mortar, charcoal, and marble chips, but so far there’s no evidence of sheepskins.
The temple itself was made entirely of white marble and was bigger than a football field. Its columns were 60 feet tall, and that’s not counting the height of the roof. In total, there were 127 columns that were arranged in double rows on each side, 20 or 21 on the long sides and eight or nine on the short sides. The columns themselves were 4 feet in diameter, or 12.5 feet around.
Unless you’re taller than 6 feet, you and another person wouldn’t even be able to wrap your arms all the way around one. These columns were Ionic, meaning they had vertical divots cut into them from top to bottom and were decorated at the top with scroll-like designs.
The pediments (the triangular parts that sit on top of the columns at either end) were decorated with friezes of Amazons, who were thought to have hidden from Hercules at Ephesus. These pediments are thought to have weighed 24 tons each (as much as 8 elephants). All this was to house a cedar wood statue of Artemis for which the temple was built.
Today, only the foundations and a single column stand at the site.
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
Dates: Completed in 351 BCE
Location: Halircarnassus in Caria, modern day Turkey
Who built it: Commissioned by Satrap Mausolus and his wife Artemisia, supervised by the architect Pythius of Priene and the sculptor Satyrus
Fun fact: The mausoleum wasn’t actually completed until after the deaths of both Mausolus and Artemisia. The laborers supposedly continued their work out of respect for the king and queen, and the desire to add their work to what would become a grand and famous monument.
What it looked like
Halicarnassus was a Greek city, although it was situated in what was at the time Persia. It also traded with other states around the Mediterranean, which left the city with features that were Greek, Near Eastern, and Egyptian all at once. Since Halicarnassus was influenced by a variety of cultural tastes, the Mausoleum was fairly eclectic as well.
The Mausoleum was made entirely of marble and stood 140 feet tall, which is 30 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. The whole structure stood on a rectangular podium surrounded by Ionic columns and topped with a stepped pyramid roof. At the top, there was a 20 foot tall statue of Mausolus dressed like Hercules, riding a chariot.
The outside of the Mausoleum would have been covered in statues, friezes, and paintings, the variety and volume of which had never been seen before. According to ancient historians, several very famous artists and sculptors created work for Mausolus’s tomb. In fact, the artists likely critiqued each other’s work before it was added to the Mausoleum. Part of these artists’ motivation for adding their work to Mausolus’s tomb would have been to show off their work and place it among the work of other greats, ensuring their fame and reputation for as long as the structure stood.
It’s hard to tell now what went where as the remains of various pieces of art are excavated, but there were probably statues that stood on the steps of the podium and between the columns that held up the roof. These statues would have been brightly painted. Pieces from 66 statues have been found, and historians estimate that there were over 100 originally.
Around the base of the chariot that stood atop the roof was a frieze that showed fighting centaurs. Another frieze at the top of the podium showed Greeks fighting Amazons and a chariot race. On the steps, there used to be a statue of a big lion and a man, almost 10 feet tall, wearing Greek and Carian clothes.
Colossus of Rhodes
Dates: Finished in 280 BCE; took 12 years to finish
Location: Rhodes, Rhodes (the city and the island had the same name)
Who built it: Made by Chares of Lindus
Fun fact: Contrary to popular modern depictions of the statue, it’s almost definitely the case that the Colossus did not, in fact, straddle the harbor of Rhodes. The construction of this kind of statue would be extremely difficult, and all likely representations of the statue at the time show it with its legs together.
What it looked like
The Rhodesians decided to build the Colossus after successfully weathering a year-long siege by Demetrius I of Macedon. Demetrius turned tail and left all of his siege equipment outside the city, which the Rhodesians took and sold. With the money, they funded the construction of the Colossus as a celebration of their victory.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any scale representations left of the statue of Helios at Rhodes like there were for other famous statues of the time. The closest we have are images of Helios on Hellenistic silver coins used in Rhodes, which show the god with his usual crown of pointed sunbeams, and a carving of Helios from a temple in Rhodes that shows him shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand.
The statue was made of bronze and stood 108 feet tall. It was probably made of sheets of bronze that were shaped over supports made of iron and weighed down by stone for stability. The god probably stood with his feet together, unlike usual representations of Helios, which showed him riding a chariot carrying the sun across the sky. At the base of the statue there was an inscription that said,
“To you, Helios, yes to you the people of Dorian Rhodes raised this colossus high up to the heaven, after they had calmed the bronze wave of war, and crowned their country with spoils won from the enemy. Not only over the sea but also on land they set up the bright light of unfettered freedom.”
We’re not really sure what the exact location of the statue was. One popular theory says it was probably near the eastern harbor. Lots of ports around the Roman Empire place great statues at their harbors, a precedent which might have been set by Rhodes. There is also a large circle of cut sandstone blocks that might have served as the statue’s base. Nearby, more modern buildings have some large marble blocks in them that might have been the stones that weighed the statue down.
Another possible spot for the Colossus would have been in the city center where there was a sanctuary dedicated to Helios. The Greeks were known for putting statues of their gods near the sanctuaries dedicated to them, but there isn’t any evidence that the statue actually stood there.
The fall of the Colossus
The Colossus was toppled by an earthquake less than 60 years after its completion. According to historians of the time, the statue broke at the knees and was left there for a millenia in pieces because the locals feared that moving it would bring further misfortune.
Even in pieces, Pliny the Elder noted that it was still a magnificent sight. He said a man could barely wrap his arms around the statue’s thumb, and, as it lay on the ground, you could see into its hollow insides, which looked like huge caverns of bronze filled with the enormous rocks that once weighed it down.
Finally, around 654 CE, a merchant from the city of Edessa bought all of the bronze pieces left from the wreckage of the statue to melt down. He supposedly used 900 camels to transport all the metal to the East.
Lighthouse at Alexandria
Dates: Completed in 280 BCE
Location: The Island of Pharos, outside Alexandria, Egypt
Who built it: Commissioned by Ptolemy I and II
Fun fact: The word pharos came to mean ‘lighthouse’ in many languages because of the lighthouse’s widespread fame.
What it looked like
The Lighthouse at Alexandria faced the harbors of the city of Alexandria from the island Pharos, intended to help show sailors the way into the harbor. The tower is one of the more vaguely documented of the seven wonders of the world. There are disagreements about the exact details of the tower, and when certain features were added.
However, there is generally a consensus that it was white, making it especially visible in the sun during the day. The tower was made up of three sections: the bottom one was rectangular, the middle one was an octagon, and the top was a circle. Scholars also mostly agree that there was a statue of Zeus Soter at the very top of the tower. The top of the tower itself may have inspired the Arabic minaret design.
Arabic writers writing after the tower has been completed for a while described a ramp that went around the bottom part of the tower and became an internal staircase that rose the rest of the way to the top from the inside of the tower. Arabic sources were also the first to write about a mirror at the top of the tower designed to reflect light at a greater distance than with just a fire.
Depictions of the tower have appeared in everything from Roman coinage to Egyptian mosaics and sarcophagi, confirming its existence, if not the exact details. Even if there are some uncertainties about the true shape of the tower, there’s no doubt that it inspired many more monumental lighthouses around the Mediterranean.
What it did
The lighthouse was built to guide sailors as they navigated into the harbor. For that reason, it was dedicated to two gods: Proteus and Zeus Soter. Proteus was the Greek god of the sea and sometimes called the “Old Man of the Sea.” Zeus Soter, whose name means “deliverer,” had his name inscribed in 1.5 foot tall letters on the side of the tower.
Pharos – the name of the island it stood on became synonymous with the lighthouse – was the first monumental lighthouse to ever be built, but not the first lighthouse ever. Beyond its size, what made the lighthouse unique was that it served not only to guide sailors into the harbor, but also to show them the dangerous shallows and turbulent waters in Alexandria’s harbor.
It did this using a huge polished bronze mirror that reflected the sun during the day and an oil-burning fire at night. Modern excavations have found the wrecks of nearly 40 ships in Alexandria’s harbors, but that begs the question: how many ships did the lighthouse save during its lifetime?
While the seven wonders don’t exist anymore (except the pyramid), it’s still an amazing testament to the ingenuity and artistic capability of humans to create such grand monuments using what we would now consider to be primitive technology. The pyramid was an incredible example of genius engineering and planning. The Statue of Zeus would have been awe-inspiring in its golden and marble glory. The Colossus was a symbol of strength, wealth, and success.
As an ancient traveler, maybe you would’ve gotten the chance to see all seven, although it’s thought that even the writers who created the list didn’t visit every single one. That’s part of why it’s still hard to know everything about them.
But if you’re interested in visiting the last standing wonder, you won’t have the rush. The Pyramids at Giza will probably outlast most buildings we have today. So if you get the chance, it might be worth it to see one of the greatest structures humanity has ever created.
Read More: Ancient Civilizations Timeline