From the historical perspective, the list of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World comes to us from an incomplete manuscript known as the Seven Sights of the World (which incidentally only listed six monuments), possibly authored by Philo of Byzantium in circa 225 BC. The text mentioned the theamata (roughly ‘things to be seen‘ in Greek) of the world, which basically translated to the incredible sights of the time. Interestingly enough, there were other ancient writers who referenced or even made their own lists of ‘sights to see’, including Herodotus, Callimachus of Cyrene, Diodorus Siculus, and Antipater of Sidon.
To that end, according to Herodotus, the Egyptian Labyrinth was worthy of inclusion as a wonder before the pyramids. Antipater, on the other hand, included the Walls of Babylon in place of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. However, in this article, we will only cover the ‘traditional’ Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – as mostly compiled by Philo. So without further ado, let us take a gander at the fascinating history and visual reconstructions (conveyed by images and animations) of these incredible man-made Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
- 1) The Great Pyramid at Giza (circa 2560 BC)
- 2) Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (circa 7th century BC)
- 3) Hanging Gardens of Babylon (possibly circa 7th – 6th century BC)
- 4) Statue of Zeus at Olympia (circa 435 BC)
- 5) Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (circa 353 BC)
- 6) The Lighthouse of Alexandria (circa 280 BC)
- 7) Colossus of Rhodes (circa 280 BC)
1) The Great Pyramid at Giza (circa 2560 BC)
The Great Pyramid of Giza from Ancient Egypt has always demanded awe and recognition from us ‘mortals’, and rightly so. The incredible architectural specimen was built in around 2560 BC and held the record for the world’s tallest structure for a whopping 3,800 years with its then-impressive height of 481 ft (146.5 m). Generally believed to be constructed as a mortuary monument for Khufu (or Cheops in Greek), who was the second Pharaoh from the Fourth Dynasty, the gargantuan structure is not only the oldest but ironically also the only surviving monument from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
As for its architectural history, the Great Pyramid was probably completed in 20 years, and as such was a part of Khufu’s necropolis complex that also consisted of large temples and smaller pyramids. Later on, the compound was expanded with the inclusion of the two other big pyramids of Khufu’s successors – Khafre and Menkaure; and the extended spatial scope is now known as the Giza pyramid complex (which had a huge wall enclosure that was known as the Wall of Crows).
As for the mind-boggling figures associated with the Great Pyramid itself, this first among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World rises to a height of around 455 ft – the tad reduced scale being due to soil erosion and the loss of the pyramidion, which was the uppermost capstone of the structure. In spite of the slight reduction in dimensions, the monumental giant has a base area of around 570,000 sq ft (equivalent to almost 10 American football fields) and a gargantuan volume of 88 million cubic ft (or 2.5 million cubic m) that accounts for an extraordinary 5.9 million tons of mass.
This massive scope was achieved by the use of a whopping 2.3 million stone blocks (ranging from 2 to 30 tons) – that comes to an average of 800 tons of stones being installed each day, with 12 stones being precisely placed every hour! Few of these stones (especially, the ones used in the inner chambers) weigh more than 50 tons, and yet they were transported to the site from Aswan, which is over 500 miles away.
In a short film made by the Smithsonian Channel, Jacquelyn Williamson, a Harvard University Egyptologist, gives us details on how the ancient craftsmen and artisans carved and finished the humongous blocks of limestone that are also known as ‘casing stones’ for the Great Pyramid of Giza. These slanting yet flat-topped blocks were primarily used for the external facades of the monumental structure. And, according to the documentary, the stone surfaces were almost polished to perfection with a range of abrasives like sandstone, brick, and fine sand – in a process not only requiring time and effort but also refined skills of craftsmanship.
The end result of such high levels of polishing yielded immaculately smooth surfaces that were incredibly shiny beyond reckoning. And, considering that there were limited pollution and smog circa 2500 BC (as opposed to our contemporary times), the Great Pyramid of Giza must have been an otherworldly magnificent spectacle during the time of its completion – with ethereal, glass-like facades basking in the glory of the effulgent sun. Quite poetically and rather aptly, the Ancient Egyptians called the Great Pyramid of Giza by the name of ‘Ikhet‘, which simply translates to ‘Glorious Light’.
2) Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (circa 7th century BC)
Possibly the second oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in terms of origin, the Temple of Artemis was initially established as a sanctuary during the Bronze Age, in what is now İzmir Province, Turkey. The sanctuary was destroyed by a flood (some time in 7th century BC) and its remnants were rebuilt into a massive temple by circa 550 BC, under the direction of the Cretan architect Chersiphron of Knossos and his son Metagenes (according to Strabo). This temple, however, was intentionally set to fire in an act of arson.
However, the structure was rebuilt for the second time, and this magnificent iteration was counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the words of Antipater of Sidon, the 2nd century BC Greek poet, who is also considered as one of the compilers of the list of ancient wonders –
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 labor 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 so grand.
The Ionic Temple of Artemis possibly survived until the 3rd century AD and was heavily damaged during the disastrous Gothic invasion. The roving Goths crossed Anatolia and were faced by only 7,000 Greek defenders under Roman rule at the famed narrow pass of Thermopylae (not to be confused with the earlier Battle of Thermopylae that pitted the Greeks against the Persians), though the outcome of this encounter is lost to the rigors of history. As for the Temple of Artemis, remarkably enough, it was once again rebuilt in the early 5th century but was ultimately destroyed by a band of Christians.
3) Hanging Gardens of Babylon (possibly circa 7th – 6th century BC)
Myth, history, and magnificence – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon tread the fine line between all these avenues to emerge as one of Herodotus’ Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And while the name itself evokes a reverie of a colossal construction with lush greenery complemented by the kaleidoscopic bevy of flowers and herbs, unfortunately, there is very little archaeological evidence to support the presumed massive scale of these ‘hanging’ gardens from ancient Mesopotamia.
Given the nigh-mythical status of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, we hark back to one particular legend that talks about how Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar I may have constructed the gardens in 6th century BC, as a gift to his queen Amytis. Beyond the gargantuan nature of this ‘gift, it was the thought that counted – since Amytis came from Media, the area roughly corresponding to the northwestern part of present-day Iran, and she was apparently homesick for the verdant valleys and multifarious fauna of her native land. The king thus came up with the solution of creating a blooming ‘wonder’ for his wife in the very heartland of Mesopotamia – Babylon.
Now from the historical angle, some of these legends were first described by Berossus (apparently in his book Babyloniaca), a Chaldaean priest who lived in the late 4th century BC. Subsequently, many ancient Greek authors also went on to provide written descriptions of this ancient wonder; sometimes quoting Berossus’ work and at other times paraphrasing other ancient sources. For example, Diodorus Siculus (the author of the famed Bibliotheca historica) possibly consulted the 4th century BC texts of Ctesias of Cnidus, and then made this description in 1st century BC –
There was also, beside the acropolis, the Hanging Garden, as it is called, which was built, not by Semiramis, but by a later Syrian king to please one of his concubines; for she, they say, being a Persian by race and longing for the meadows of her mountains, asked the king to imitate, through the artifice of a planted garden, the distinctive landscape of Persia. The park extended four plethra on each side, and since the approach to the garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier, the appearance of the whole resembled that of a theater. When the ascending terraces had been built, there had been constructed beneath them galleries which carried the entire weight of the planted garden and rose little by little one above the other along the approach; and the uppermost gallery, which was fifty cubits high, bore the highest surface of the park, which was made level with the circuit wall of the battlements of the city.
Furthermore, the walls, which had been constructed at great expense, were twenty-two feet thick, while the passageway between each two walls was ten feet wide. The roof above these beams had first a layer of reeds laid in great quantities of bitumen, over this two courses of baked brick bonded by cement, and as a third layer of covering of lead, to the end that the moisture from the soil might not penetrate beneath. On all this again earth had been piled to a depth sufficient for the roots of the largest trees; and the ground, when leveled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size or other charms, could give pleasure to the beholder. And since the galleries, each projecting beyond another, all received the light, they contained many royal lodgings of every description; and there was one gallery which contained openings leading from the topmost surface and machines for supplying the gardens with water, the machines raising the water in great abundance from the river, although no one outside could see it being done. Now this park, as I have said, was a later construction.
Keeping these constructional conjectures aside, archaeologists have actually come across a palatial complex inside Babylon that had its fair share of vaults and wells. But the location of this seemingly monumental structure is not close to the banks of the Euphrates, which rather contradicts the descriptions of ancient Greek authors.
On the other hand, researchers have also discovered ruins of 82-ft wide wall overlays by the banks of the river, which alludes to the possibility of a substantially large structure that was built during ancient times. Unfortunately, in any case, none of these ruins directly point to the actual existence of the incredible Hanging Gardens of Babylon – the most enigmatic of all the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
4) Statue of Zeus at Olympia (circa 435 BC)
Awe-inspiring in its collective visual ‘power’, as opposed to just the size, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, was a testament to the incredible sculptural prowess of the ancient Greeks. Built under the supervision of master sculptor and architect Phidias, the very same who previously oversaw the construction of the imposing statue of Athena inside the Parthenon, the seated Statue of Zeus was possibly finished by circa 435 BC, inside the massive temple perimeters at the sanctuary of Olympia.
The magnificent piece of art, counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was around 40 ft tall and its chryselephantine form (composed of gold and ivory panels laid over a wooden core) was bedecked with a bevy of precious materials, including silver, ebony, copper, glass, enamel, and an assortment of jewels. Unsurprisingly, the temple structure itself matched the ostentatious nature of the statue, with the precinct being the largest Greek temple at the time, measuring 210 x 91 ft in the area with facades comprising a total of 78 massive Doric columns.
Interestingly enough, this incredible architectural endeavor was undertaken to elevate the status of Olympia and its sacred games, especially to counter the growing influence of rival games being held at other places in ancient Greece, like Delphi and Corinth. To that end, the dedication of the precinct and the statue to Zeus was purely intentional, since the deity was regarded as the King of the Greek gods, who embodied the various aspects of the sky, weather, law and order, destiny and fate, and kingship.
However, by circa 5th century AD, the temple fell into disuse – coinciding with the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire that overtook the Classical pagan religions. The fate of the statue at this time is not entirely known, although some sources suggest that it was taken to Constantinople. Unfortunately, the chryselephantine Zeus possibly didn’t survive the great fire at the Palace of Lausus in circa 475 AD.
5) Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (circa 353 BC)
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (or Μαυσωλεῖον τῆς Ἁλικαρνασσοῦ in Greek) was a grandiosely constructed tomb for Mausolus and his wife Artemisia II of Caria, between 353 and 350 BC, at what is now present-day Bodrum in Turkey. Mausolus, while himself being a native of Caria, was a satrap (governor) of the Persian Empire. He was also a great admirer of the Greek culture – so much so that the entire Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was designed by Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene, while also boasting sculptural reliefs from other eminent ancient Greek artists.
To that end, the project was undertaken under the patronage of Mausolus’ heartbroken wife (and sister) Artemisia after the satrap’s death, thus in many ways mirrors the story of Shah Jahan and Taj Mahal – which incidentally is counted among the new seven wonders of the world. Reverting to the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the soaring edifice was guarded by a stone enclosure and the entire complex sat atop a platform overlooking the city.
In essence, it was the magnificence of the finished structure (which rose to over 148 ft) that prompted Antipater of Sidon to designate it as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately enough, this breathtaking architectural specimen was the last of the six destroyed ancient wonders which met its ravaged fate brought on by successive earthquakes from the 12th to 15th centuries. And in an interesting etymological note, the very word ‘mausoleum’ is derived from this ancient wonder dedicated to the Anatolian ruler Mausolus.
6) The Lighthouse of Alexandria (circa 280 BC)
One of the rare instances of Greek architecture that went beyond the human scale to ‘godly’ dimensions, the Lighthouse of Alexandria (also known as the Pharos of Alexandria) constructed by the Ptolemaic Kingdom (possibly by Ptolemy I Soter, circa 280 BC), may have been the tallest structure in the ancient world, with some accounts mentioning its height to soar up to an incredible 492 ft. Unfortunately, since the building is not extant, we have to revert to its lowest possible height in accordance with other literary sources – which was still impressive at 377 ft (or 115 m).
As Judith McKenzie, from Faculty of Oriental Studies in the University of Oxford, made it clear –
The Arab descriptions of the lighthouse are remarkably consistent, although it was repaired several times especially after earthquake damage. The height they give varies only fifteen per cent from c 103 to 118 m [338 to 387 ft], on a base c. 30 by 30 m [98 by 98 ft] square…the Arab authors indicate a tower with three tapering tiers, which they describe as square, octagonal and circular, with a substantial ramp.
Now in terms of design, the Lighthouse of Alexandria built from light-hued stone blocks was vertically divided into three components – the lowermost (and broadest) square section with four huge facades, the thinner middle section with an octagonal plan, and the upper-most slimmest section with a circular plan. The functionality of the enormous structure was related to this upper level, with a mirror being installed atop it that reflected sunlight during the daytime, while a fire was lit during the night.
And given the sheer volume of the facades, the arranged stone blocks of the ancient lighthouse were supposedly reinforced with molten lead so as to withstand the force from the incoming sea waves. Given such advanced engineering credentials, it comes as no surprise that the Lighthouse of Alexandria was considered among one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
7) Colossus of Rhodes (circa 280 BC)
The Colossus of Rhodes was originally a massive statue of the Greek god Helios, erected possibly by the harbor of ancient Rhodes (on the island which bears the same name in our modern times). It probably rose to a height of around 109 ft (or 70 cubits, 33 m) and was made by the local sculptor Chares of Lindos in circa 280 BC to commemorate the victory of Rhodes over forces of Cyprus that besieged the city in 305 BC. Interestingly enough, contemporary sources talked about how much of the bronze and iron used for the colossal statue was actually repurposed from the abandoned siege tower and weapons left behind by the unsuccessful Cypriot army.
A poem from the Greek Anthology reads –
O you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land.
On an unfortunate note, while the Colossus of Rhodes was counted among the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (in terms of construction), the statue only stood for a period of 54 years – thus becoming the first to be destroyed. It was heavily damaged, along with various sections of the harbor, when the city was hit by an earthquake in 226 BC.
And while the Ptolemaic ruler offered to rebuild the structure (since Rhodes was under the control of the Ptolemaic Kingdom), the native Rhodians declined since they perceived the calamity as a form of divine punishment. There is also an anecdote (from The Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor – an Eastern Roman monk) about how the Arabs, on briefly taking control of Rhodes in 653 AD, dismantled the remnants of the brass statue and transported the sections on 900 camels, which were to be made into coins.
*Note – The article was updated on 17th April, 2020.
Video Credits Pertaining to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:
Great Pyramid at Giza – Danila Loginov
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus – xtheatroN (Sourced from Total War: Rome 2)
Lighthouse of Alexandria – Ancient Vine
GIFS – Budget Direct
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