Antipater, a Greek author living in the Phoenician port of Sidon, lists in one of his poems the most remarkable creations of mankind. They are seven in number: the pyramids of Egypt; the hanging gardens of Babylon; the walls of Babylon; the statue of Zeus at Olympia; the temple of Artemis at Ephesus; the mausoleum of Halicarnassus; the colossus of Rhodes.
His list is the basis of the Seven Wonders of the World, much repeated ever since. Posterity makes one change. It seems a waste for Babylon to have two of the wonders. By about the 8th century AD the walls of Babylon have dropped out, to be replaced by the lighthouse of Alexandria.
The pyramids: c.2500 BC
The three pyramids at Giza, a few miles southwest of Cairo, are by far the earliest of Antipater’s seven wonders. The largest of the pyramids, built as the tomb of the pharaoh Khufu (known to the Greeks as Cheops), dates from about 2500 BC. No building in the subsequent 4500 years of history has matched this pyramid for sheer bulk. Nearby, and only slightly smaller, are the pyramids created for Khufu’s son and grandson, Khafre and Menkure.
The next in date, among the Seven Wonders, follows after a very long gap of two millennia. It is the hanging gardens of Babylon.
The hanging gardens of Babylon: c.580 BC
No archaeological trace has been found of the hanging gardens, but tradition assigns them to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the last years of Babylon’s greatness. One story says that he built them to console a wife, homesick in this flat region for the landscape of her childhood, the mountainous country of the Medes. They are ‘hanging’ gardens in the sense that the plants appear to float in the air, growing on different levels of artificial terraces irrigated from the Euphrates.
The other five wonders are all connected with Greek civilization. They include the most sacred statue of the entire Greek cult, the image of Zeus at Olympia.
The statue of Zeus at Olympia: c.430 BC
The statue of Zeus is the centrepiece of the god’s temple at Olympia. About seven times lifesize, it shows him seated on a throne. In one hand he holds the winged figure which to the Greeks symbolizes victory; in the other is a sceptre surmounted by an eagle. The surface of the statue is gold and ivory. In the eyes of the ancient world this is the masterpiece of the great sculptor Phidias, surpassing even his earlier statue of Athena (also of gold and ivory) for the Parthenon in Athens.
The discovery of the workshop of Phidias at Olympia has enabled archaeologists to date the statue of Zeus to the years around 430 BC. Both the temple and the statue are destroyed in the 5th century AD.
The temple of Diana at Ephesus: c.550 BC
The fourth and fifth wonders of the world are in western Turkey. The temple of Artemis (or Diana) at Ephesus is built in about 550 BC by a man whose name has become a byword for wealth – Croesus, king of Lydia. In keeping with his image, the temple is outstandingly large. But it also contains a famous and unusual statue of Artemis.
This Artemis is not the virgin huntress of Greek myth. She is a local fertility goddess, festooned with swathes of pendulous objects variously interpreted as breasts, eggs or even, it has been argued, testicles (the chief priest of Ephesus is always a eunuch). The temple of Artemis is destroyed by Goths in AD 262.
The mausoleum at Halicarnassus: c.350 BC
Halicarnassus in southwest Turkey (the modern Bodrum) is selected as a new capital in the 4th century BC by the ruler of a small kingdom, Caria. The king is Mausolus, who dies in about 353 BC. His spectacular tomb, built for him by his widow Artemisia (she is also his sister), has given the world a new word, ‘mausoleum’. It is adorned with sculptures, including a frieze of the battle between the Greeks and the female Amazons.
The temple stands until the 12th century AD, when it is damaged by an earthquake and later plundered for building materials. Many fragments of the sculptures are in the British Museum.
The colossus of Rhodes: 292 BC
A giant bronze statue of Helios the sun god, known subsequently as the colossus of Rhodes, is put up to celebrate the city’s survival of a long siege in 305-4 BC. Reinforced with iron and about 30 metres high, it takes some twelve years (292-280 BC) to build and erect beside the harbour. The image of the colossus straddling the harbour entrance is a medieval invention.
Before the end of the 3rd century BC an earthquake snaps the statue off at the knees. It lies, a humbled giant, until AD 653 when the Arabs capture the island. They break it up for scrap and require, it is said, more than 900 camels to cart it away.
The pharos at Alexandria: c.280 BC
The sun god Helios features also in the last of the seven wonders. This is the lighthouse put up on the island of Pharos at Alexandria (as a result pharos becomes the Greek word for any lighthouse). It consists of a three-tier stone tower, said to be more than 120 metres high, which has within it a broad spiral ramp leading up to a platform where fires burn at night. They are reflected out to sea by metal mirrors. Above the fires is a huge statue, of either Alexander or Ptolemy in the guise of Helios.
The lighthouse survives until the 12th century. In the 15th century a fort, still standing today, is built from its ruins.