The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were a collection of buildings admired as feats of beauty and human engineering. A number of ancient authors such as Diodorus Siculus and Antipater of Sidon, compiled lists of these ‘sights to be seen’, but the list we know today has eclipsed all other compilations to become the definitive selection of famous ancient sites in the Eastern Mediterranean. The list includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus from Olympia, the Colossus of Rhodes, Alexandria’s Pharos or Great Lighthouse, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
All but one of them has since been lost. This article will describe these seven great wonders and the miserable fates that befell so many of them.
1. The Great Pyramid of Giza: The Only Ancient Wonder Still Standing
The only surviving wonder is, of course, the Great Pyramid of Giza. Built in the 2500s BCE during Egypt’s 4th Dynasty, the Pyramids are great structures on the Giza Plateau that were built by three generations of monumental pyramid builders. The Great Pyramid was the first and largest and was built by Khufu, called Cheops by Herodotus. The second largest pyramid was built by his son Khafre who most Egytpolgists also believe constructed the Sphinx, while the third and smallest was built by Khafre’s son Menkaure.
The Pyramids are the crowning glory of the Giza Necropolis and originally gleamed in shining white limestone with golden capstones. They served as tombs for the Pharaohs and were invested with intense religious symbolism, although the exact nature of that symbolism still divides scholars, and acted as a statement of the Pharaoh’s power over the materials and manpower needed to create them. Scholars now understand that their construction was a product of the immense resources Egypt could mobilize and a talented, well-paid labor force — neither armies of slaves nor aliens had a part to play.
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Like almost all royal burials in Egypt, the Pyramids were robbed millennia ago. Most likely, they were plucked clean in the First Intermediate Period that followed the collapse of Egypt’s Old Kingdom in the 2200s BCE. The Pyramids acted as tempting beacons for plunderers, and their failure to protect their occupants might explain the later shift to less conspicuous tombs like those in the Valley of the Kings. Time and scavenging took away the limestone casings and golden capstones, leaving the rough stone exteriors that we see today.
Despite the looting and damage, the Pyramids are some of the most recognizable structures on Earth and a magnet for tourism from all over the world. They may have failed to protect their Pharaonic occupants, but for over 4,000 years, they still stand as a testament to their immense power. Unfortunately, the rest of the wonders weren’t so lucky.
2. Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was built at the city of Halicarnassus on the Western coast of modern-day Turkey in the mid-4th century BCE for the Carian king Mausolus and his family. It was started before his death and finished posthumously on the orders of his sister-wife Artemisia II. Artemisia’s grief was said to be immense and endured in art and literature for millennia, but the Mausoleum was the ultimate monument to that grief.
The Mausoleum was a towering 45-metre structure containing over 400 sculptures from some of the finest sculptors in the Greek world. It was topped by a pyramid upon which Mausolus and Artemisia rode in a four-horse chariot. Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Vitruvius, and others described its beauty which cemented its place among the Seven Wonders.
These descriptions and the fragmentary remains of a handful of the statues are all that remain. As will become a trend with the wonders, we do not actually know how it fell to ruin. It was still standing in the Roman period, but at some point in the following millennium it fell into disrepair. No sources describe how or why this happened. The only thing we can say for certain is that by 1402 the Mausoleum was little more than a ruin when crusading knights cannibalized its remains for stones to build the nearby Bodrum Castle. Frustrating but not unusual even for something so famous and respected in its day.
3. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
Modern Turkey also played host to another of the wonders: the Temple of Artemis at the formerly Greek city of Ephesus. Artemis was the Greek goddess of the hunt and had strong associations with the moon and female youth, which earned her high regard across the Greek world. Ephesus treated her as something of a patron deity, quite similar to the Athenian veneration of Athena, which is why they constructed a massive temple to her — or, should we say, constructed several.
The Temple of Artemis was actually three temples built and destroyed at separate times. The date of the construction of the first temple is unknown, but we do know that it was destroyed by a flood in the 7th century BCE. It was rebuilt larger with slight design changes soon after, only to burn down in 356 BCE due to arson by a man named Herostratus. This was around the time of the birth of Alexander the Great in Macedonia and Plutarch relates one story that said the temple burned because the gods were distracted by his arrival into the world.
The third and final form of the temple was built in the late 4th century BCE and stood for centuries before facing a gradual decline. This is the version of the temple most associated with its place among the seven wonders and this version, with the impressive number of peripteral columns surrounding it, is what endures in popular imagination.
It was severely damaged by Gothic raids in the 3rd century CE which might have left the temple in ruins before it was finally demolished by Christians in the late 4th century. The site was lost for years until a British expedition rediscovered it, and now a lone column assembled from disparate fragments uncovered at the site is all that stands from one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world.
4. Statue of Zeus at Olympia
A similar grim fate awaited the massive Statue of Zeus at Olympia. The statue was made of wood covered in gold and ivory plates and stood at 14m tall, although it must be noted that Zeus was seated on a similarly massive throne, so the figure itself was considerably larger than the height suggests. It was built some time in the 5th century BCE by the famous Greek architect Phidias. Phidias was probably the greatest of the ancient Greek sculptors and also created the statue of Athena Parthenos that used to stand on the Acropolis, which might be why Olympia chose to enlist him to erect a statue to their own favoured patron.
The exact fate of the Statue of Zeus is unknown, and it is one of the hardest wonders to trace through the historical record. It was still there in 391 CE when Theodosius I closed all pagan temples in the Roman Empire but there’s no clear record afterwards. It was most likely destroyed when the temple itself burned down in the 400s. There’s a wild story that it was secretly hidden away in Constantinople, where it was reassembled before being burned again, but there’s no evidence for that. It’s as if the Statue of Zeus simply faded away into history and historians are still at a loss over what became of it.
5. Colossus of Rhodes
Rhodes’ entry into the pantheon of ancient wonders was the mighty Colossus of Rhodes. This was a massive 33m tall bronze statue of the traditional Greek god of the sun and patron of Rhodes, Helios, which towered over the harbor of the maritime nation. Historians are unsure of its precise location in the harbor, how exactly it was made, and even the pose it was cast in. However, that hasn’t stopped centuries of admiration and speculation regarding it.
The statue was built in the 280s BCE to celebrate the defeat of Demetrius Poliorcetes during the Siege of Rhodes from 305-304 BCE and was allegedly paid for by selling off their enemy’s abandoned siege equipment. It took 12 years to build, but its long construction time was not matched with a long lifetime. In 226 BCE, just 54 years after its completion, a devastating earthquake sent the Colossus toppling to the ground. Despite being offered help to rebuild it by the Ptolemies of Egypt, Rhodes interpreted its destruction as a sign of divine disfavor and never repaired it.
The Colossus lay where it fell for centuries and still inspired awe in visitors. Like the Statue of Zeus, its exact fate is then a mystery. Most likely, it degraded over time while the locals scavenged it for metal for other purposes. It was certainly gone by the late 650s CE. One source accuses Muslims of selling the remains of the statue shortly after their conquest of the island in 653, but little, if anything, of the Colossus, probably remained by that point. Like the other ancient wonders, there was no definitive final moment, but a slow death as the once-great icon of Rhodes became too unimportant to even warrant a clear record of its fate.
6. Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos)
While most of the wonders served religious or monumental purposes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria had an immediate practical use to its city. Situated on the island of Pharos, which is also the ancient name of the lighthouse, it was perfectly placed to serve Alexandria’s bustling maritime industry.
The soaring 100m tall structure was built upon the orders of Ptolemy II to support the young city’s meteoric ascent to become the most important port in the Mediterranean. It was one of several incredible monuments that defined the city, including the famous Library of Alexandria and the Tomb of Alexander the Great. The Lighthouse remained in use for centuries, surviving multiple invasions, earthquakes, and foreign occupiers of Egypt.
However, those earthquakes would eventually be its downfall. The first major structural damage occurred in 956 and forced the city’s authorities to conduct significant repairs. It suffered serious damage again in 1303 and 1323 which toppled the bulk of the structure and left it completely defunct. It was finally removed in 1480 when the Mamluks cleared the base and used the stones to build the Citadel Qaitbay on the site. Remnants of the lighthouse still lie in the shallow waters near where it once stood, but its barnacle-encrusted bones are a grim legacy for one of the most enduring and impressive monuments of antiquity,
7. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Lastly, we have the most challenging wonder of all: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Why are they a challenge? Because they might never have existed in the first place.
Supposedly they were built by Nebuchadnezzar II, one of Babylon’s finest kings, during the 7th century BCE. Sources suggest it was a towering structure with multiple tiers full of a vast array of plant life, sustained by elaborate irrigation works. This combination of beauty and engineering prowess were what earned the Gardens their spot among the seven wonders. However, while several ancient writers talk about the Gardens, all of them are second-hand; none of the surviving writers ever saw them. The Gardens are curiously not mentioned by a number of sources that discuss Babylon, such as Herodotus or any of the surviving historical accounts of Alexander the Great, who made his capital in the city. There are also no Babylonian texts indicating the existence of the Gardens nor any trace of them at the modern archaeological site of Babylon.
Some believe that the Gardens existed in as-yet unexcavated parts of the city. Another theory suggests that the Gardens, only ever attested by Greeks who never visited Mesopotamia, are a corrupted miscommunication of real gardens built by the Assyrian King Sennacherib elsewhere in Nineveh. This Assyrian garden is supported by archaeological evidence and its descriptions of marvellous engineering works and an array of exotic plants fit those of the Hanging Gardens.
Therefore, we cannot say anything concrete about the Gardens or what befell them. If they ever existed, their fate probably mirrored that of its city and most of the other wonders: a slow, ignoble death as apathy and time replaced the respect and care that previous generations gave it. Babylon’s fall from a mighty ancient city to an insignificant village so minor that its location was considered lost for centuries echoes the same theme as the fate of the other wonders: no matter how wonderful, elaborate, or famous something is, time will lay it low.
The Fate of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World
Time humbles everything. It can be difficult to accept how things so famous, so impressive as feats of human achievement, could be lost. These works were incredible pieces of art yet, through time or apathy or human action, all but one crumbled to dust. It’s tragic to imagine how much effort and beauty were wrapped up in these things only to be lost.
The idea of preserving the remnants of the past purely for the sake of preserving the past rather than for some continuing religious, practical, or political function is a surprisingly new idea. The notion that we would simply abandon the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower seems absurd to us, but countless people did that exact thing to their greatest works. Whether it’s the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus or the ruined remnants of British castles, the vine-covered ruins of Chichen Itza or the sunken remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, time has often been left to take its toll on humanity’s great achievements. The rise of modern history and archaeology, with its instinct to preserve what we have and restore what we’ve lost, is a very recent peculiarity of our society. We may sit and wonder why people let these marvelous creations slide into oblivion, but perhaps we should be asking why, today, we work so hard to pull them back out.