The art and architecture of the ancient world is one of its most influential legacies. From the Parthenon a’top the Acropolis in Athens to the Colosseum in Rome and the sacred Baths at Bath, we are fortunate to have so many magnificent structures still standing today.
Of all these monumental structures however, surviving Hellenic (Greek) texts dating to the 2nd and 1st centuries BC mention seven standout architectural achievements — the so-called ‘Wonders of the Ancient World.’
Here are the 7 Wonders.
1. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The Temple of Zeus at Olympia epitomised the Doric style of religious architecture popular during the Classical Period. Situated at the heart of the sacred precinct at Olympia, it was constructed in the early 5th century BC, masterminded by local architect Libon of Elis.
Sculptures were visible along the length and breadth of the limestone temple. At each end, mythological scenes depicting centaurs, lapiths and local river gods were visible on the pediments. Along the length of the temple, there were sculptural depictions of the 12 labours of Heracles — some preserved better than others.
The temple itself was an awesome sight, but it was what it housed that made it a wonder of antiquity.
Within the temple was a 13-metre-tall, chryselephantine statue of Zeus, king of the Gods, seated on his throne. It was constructed by the famous sculptor Phidias, who had also constructed a similarly-monumental statue of Athena within the Athenian Parthenon.
The statue stayed standing until the 5th century when, following the Emperor Theodosius I’s official banning of paganism throughout the Empire, the Temple and statue fell into disuse and were eventually destroyed.
2. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
Situated at Ephesus on the rich, fertile, western coastline of Asia Minor (Anatolia), the Temple of Ephesus was one of the largest Hellenic temples ever built. Construction began in c.560 BC when the famously rich Lydian king Croesus decided to fund the project, but they only completed it some 120 years later in 440 BC.
Ionic in its design, the temple consisted of 127 columns according to the later Roman writer Pliny, though he was unable to see the wonder in person. On 21 July 356, the same night that Alexander the Great was born, the temple was destroyed — victim to a deliberate act of arson by a certain Herostratus. The Ephesians subsequently had Herostratus executed for his crime, though his name lives on in the term ‘Herostratic fame’.
3. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
During the mid 4th century BC in modern-day western Anatolia, one of the most powerful figures was Mausolus, the satrap of the Persian province of Caria. During his rule, Mausolus embarked on several successful military campaigns in the area and turned Caria into a magnificent, regional kingdom — epitomised by the wealth, splendour and strength of his capital at Halicarnassus.
Before his death Mausolus started planning the construction of an elaborate Hellenic-styled tomb for himself in the beating heart of Halicarnassus. He died before the plethora of famous craftsmen, brought to Halicarnassus for the project, finished the mausoleum, but Queen Artemesia II, Mausolus’ wife and sister, oversaw its completion.
Approximately 42 metres tall, Mausolus’ marble tomb became so famous that it is from this Carian ruler that we derive the name for all stately tombs: mausoleum.
4. The Great Pyramid at Giza
The Pyramids represent the most iconic legacy of ancient Egypt, and of these magnificent structures, the Great Pyramid of Giza towers above the rest. The ancient Egyptians constructed it between 2560 – 2540 BC, intended as a tomb for the 4th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Khufu.
Nearly 150 metres tall, the limestone, granite and mortar structure represents one of the greatest engineering marvels in the world.
The Great Pyramid holds several fascinating records:
It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by nearly 2,000 years
It is the only one of the Seven Wonders that still survives largely intact.
For 4,000 years it was the tallest building in the world. Its title as the World’s tallest structure was eventually toppled in 1311, when construction of Lincoln Cathedral’s 160-metre-high tower was completed.
5. The Great Lighthouse at Alexandria
Following the death of Alexander the Great and the bloody series of wars that ensued between the king’s former generals, several Hellenistic kingdoms emerged throughout Alexander’s empire. One such kingdom was the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, named after Ptolemy I ‘Soter’, its founder.
The nucleus of Ptolemy’s kingdom was Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander the Great on the southern shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea by the Nile Delta.
To adorn his new capital Ptolemy ordered the construction of several monumental structures: a magnificent tomb for Alexander the Great’s body, the Great Library and a splendorous lighthouse, some 100 metres tall, on the island of Pharos opposite Alexandria.
Ptolemy commissioned the construction of the lighthouse in c.300 BC, but he did not live to see his subjects complete it. Construction finished in c.280 BC, during the reign of Ptolemy’s son and successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
For more than 1,000 years the Great Lighthouse stood supreme overlooking Alexandria’s harbour. It eventually fell into disrepair after a series of earthquakes severely damaged the structure during the Middle Ages.
6. The Colossus of Rhodes
The Colossus of Rhodes was a huge bronze statue, dedicated to the Greek sun god Helios, that overlooked the prosperous port of Rhodes during the third century BC.
Construction of this monumental sculpture had its roots in 304 BC, when the Rhodians fended off the powerful Hellenistic warlord Demetrius Poliorcetes, who had besieged the city with a powerful amphibious force. To commemorate their victory they ordered the construction of this monumental structure.
The Rhodians tasked the building of this awesome dedication to a sculptor called Chares, who hailed from Lindus, a city on the island. It proved a massive undertaking, needing twelve years to erect — between 292 and 280 BC. When Chares and his team finally completed the structure, it measured more than 100 feet tall.
The statue did not stay standing for long. Sixty years after its construction an earthquake toppled it. The bronze Helios remained on its side for the next 900 years — still a wondrous sight for all who cast eyes upon it.
The statue was finally destroyed following the Saracen capture of the island in 653, when the victors broke up the bronze and sold it off as the spoils of war.
7. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens was a multi-layered structure adorned with several, separate gardens. A triumph of ancient engineering, water carried up from the Euphrates river irrigated the elevated plots.
Our surviving sources differ regarding which Babylonian ruler ordered the construction of the Gardens. Josephus (quoting a Babylonian priest called Berossus) claims it was constructed during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. A more mythical origin is that the legendary Babylonian queen Semiramis oversaw the Gardens’ construction. Other sources refer to a Syrian king founding the Gardens.
Scholars continue to debate the historicity of the Hanging Gardens. Some now believe the Gardens never existed, not in Babylon at least. They have proposed an alternative location for the gardens at Nineveh, the Assyrian capital.