What Were the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?

Discover the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, from the majestic Great Pyramid to the awe-inspiring Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Jan 27, 2024By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology

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The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were a series of remarkable architectural feats famous among ancient Greek travelers. The list  of the monuments that are now recognized as the original wonders of the world was compiled by Antipater of Sidon (2nd-1st century BCE) and included the following monuments:

 

  1. Great Pyramid of Giza
  2. Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  3. Statue of Zeus at Olympia
  4. Temple of Artemis
  5. Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
  6. Colossus of Rhodes
  7. Lighthouse of Alexandria

 

The oldest of the monuments is the Pyramid of Giza, which is also the only one of the wonders still standing today. Read on to learn more about these grand-scale monuments that captured the imagination of artists and scholars for centuries.

 

1. Great Pyramid of Giza

Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, Egypt. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Great Pyramid of Giza in Ancient Egypt is the only one of the Seven Wonders to have passed the test of time. The pyramid is a monumental tomb (146,5 meters tall) built around 2500 BCE for Pharaoh Khufu and is still standing, even after 4500 years. Its making was a true marvel of ancient engineering; a demanding endeavor that required more than 2.3 million blocks of stone to be quarried and transported from different locations. In addition, the pyramid had a casing of white limestone, giving it a different appearance than the one we are used to seeing today.

 

The Pyramids of Giza, August Albert Zimmermann, 19th century. Source: Bradford Museums and Galleries.

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The Great Pyramid (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu) is not the only pyramid in Giza. Khufu’s successors, Khafre (his son) and Menkaure (his grandson), built their own tombs next to the Great Pyramid. The tombs of the three kings make a unique sight, a sort of artificial mountain that has been attracting crowds of tourists since ancient times. The Great Pyramid included two mortuary temples next to the rooms where the Pharaoh and his wife were buried. Together the pyramids and the Egyptian Sphinx make the Giza Pyramid complex.

 

2. Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Decker Coenraet, 1679. Source: New York Public Library.

 

According to ancient sources, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by King Nebuchadnezzar II around 605 and 652 BCE. There was also an ancient legend that the Gardens were built by the mythical queen Semiramis. As a result, they were also called the Gardens of Semiramis. The Gardens were a series of terraces containing fauna and flora. The most impressive thing about them, except for their size, was that they were self-watering. It is not known for certain how this worked. However, there are many different suggestions as to how ancient engineers could have managed it.

 

According to the legend, the Hanging Gardens were a gift by Nebuchadnezzar II to his wife Amtis of Media, who was missing the green mountains of her homeland. The king ordered the construction of large artificial mountains filled with plants and trees to make the queen feel at home.

 

Hanging Gardens of Semiramis, H. Waldeck, ca 1900. Source: Dorotheum

 

The existence of the Hanging Gardens has been long disputed by historians. That is because the wonder is not mentioned by Babylonian and major Greek historians, like Herodotus. According to a fascinating theory by Oxford University Assyriologist, Stephanie Dalley, the gardens were actually built by Sennacherib at Nineveh. Dalley argues that earlier Akkadian inscriptions were misunderstood, thus confusing Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon with Sennacherib’s Nineveh. The main reason would be that after the Assyrians took Babylon in the 7th century, Nineveh was referred to as the New Babylon. In contrast to Babylon, Sennacherib’s gardens were actually well-documented and are supported by archaeological finds such as an impressive system of ancient aqueducts. In any case, the wonder was destroyed in the 1st century CE by an earthquake.

 

3. Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis, Philip Galle, 1572. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

The temple of Artemis or Artemiseion at Ephesus was a temple devoted to the cult of the Goddess Artemis or Diana, and should not be confused with the temple of Artemis in Corfu. The first temple was destroyed in a flood at some point in the 7th century and was rebuilt in the 6th century BCE. It is said that King Croesus of Lydia funded a great part of the temple’s reconstruction, which reached 115 meters in length and 55 meters in width.

 

The second temple was burned in 356 BCE by Herostratus, a man who wanted to destroy the monument in order to earn easy fame. His action triggered a damnatio memorial (an official erasure of his memory from all records), but in the end, Herostratus was right. Destroying the temple did earn him a spot in the history books, and his story remains known as one of the most famous examples of destruction of cultural heritage in history.

 

The Temple of Diana at Ephesus, Salvador Dali, c. 1954. Source: Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí.

 

After Herostratus’ arson, the temple was rebuilt and took an even more grandiose form. It was this new version of the temple that was commemorated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Antipater of Sidon, who flourished at the end of the 2nd century BCE, was particularly impressed by the temple and even wrote that it was the most remarkable of the Wonders. Eventually, the temple was destroyed with the coming of Christianity.

 

“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 labour 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.'”  (Antipater of Sidon, Greek Anthology IX.58)

 

4. Statue of Zeus at Olympia

The Statue of Olympian Zeus, Salvador Dali, c. 1954. Source: Morohashi Museum of Modern Art.

 

Phidias, one of antiquity’s greatest sculptors, created the statue of Zeus at Olympia in the 5th century BCE. The statue was made of gold and ivory. It depicted the father of gods, Zeus, sitting on his throne, holding the sculpture of the victory goddess Nike and a scepter with an eagle at the top. The statue was placed inside the temple of Zeus at Olympia, and it was so large (almost 12.5 meters) that people joked that if Zeus wanted to stand up, he would hit his head on the ceiling. In front of the statue, there was a reservoir filled with oil. That helped preserve the statue in good condition by balancing the humidity levels inside the room.

 

Allegedly, the Roman emperor Caligula wanted to transport the statue to Rome and have Zeus’ head replaced with his own bust. Caligula’s death in 41 CE was a twist of luck that allowed the statue to survive a bit longer. Eventually, it was moved to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in a fire in the fifth century CE.

 

5. Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

The Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, Philip Galle, 1572. Source: National Gallery of Art.

 

Just like the pharaohs of Egypt built monumental pyramids as their tombs, a Persian satrap of Caria called Mausolus decided to build a tomb for himself and his sister and wife Artemisia II that no one would forget. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus would have been around 45 meters in height. It was the work of the Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene. The four sides of the massive structure were decorated with sculptural reliefs by four famous Greek sculptors: Leochares, Bryaxis, Scopas, and Timotheus.

 

Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Salvador Dali, 1955. Source: Christie’s.

 

Artemisia continued the work after Mausolus’ passing but also died before the monument was finished. In the end, the architects and sculptors agreed to finish the work thinking that this was not simply a tomb for the rulers of Caria but also a monument to their own art. The Mausoleum was the second-longest surviving of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, after the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was destroyed after a series of earthquakes in the 15th century.

 

6. Colossus of Rhodes: The Shortest-Lived Wonder

Colossus of Rhodes, Philip Galle, 1572. Source: British Museum.

 

As the name suggests, the Colossus of Rhodes was a colossal statue of the god Helios (Sun) on the island of Rhodes. The sculptor Chares of Lindus was the creator of this monument that came to be known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The sculpture was said to be 32 meters high and to have taken 12 years to build (ca. 294-282).

 

The Colossus was so large that the structure did not manage to stand for a long time. An earthquake around 225/226 BCE toppled the sculpture. The ruins were left in place until the Arab invasion of 654 CE. Then the invaders used the remnants of the statue as a source of bronze that took 900 camels to transport. The statue was the tallest sculpture in the ancient world and a common theme in the coinage of the Rhodians.

 

7. Lighthouse of Alexandria

The Lighthouse, by Jean Golvin. Source: JeanClaudeGolvin.com

 

The last one on the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the Lighthouse of Alexandria. This was also the most famous lighthouse in antiquity. The building was the work of Sostrates of Cnidus. It was standing on the island of Pharos (lighthouse in Greek) in the harbor of Alexandria. If the estimates are correct and its height surpassed 110 meters, it would have been the second tallest building of its time after the Great Pyramid of Giza.

 

Lighthouse of Alexandria, Philip Galle, 1572. Source: Rijksmuseum.

 

The Lighthouse was built in three stages, with a fire burning on the top. It is also quite possible that there was a colossal statue of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I Soter, or the god Helios standing on top of the building. The lighthouse was still in place in the 12th century CE. It is said that Ahmad ibn Toulon replaced the beacon with a mosque. However, the monumental building had collapsed by the 14th century, and only parts of it survived. At around 1480, its ruins were used in the construction of the Citadel of Qaitbay.

 

Why Were They Called Wonders? 

 

During the Hellenistic period, the known world (the Mediterranean and the Middle East) was opened to Greek travelers. As they began exploring the world, travel guides became more and more necessary, and travelers began recording their journeys and compiling lists of impressive monuments they encountered. These must-see destinations were initially known as “theamata” (sights) and eventually as “thaumata” (wonders).

 

With time, the lists were limited to seven wonders, with each traveler having their own special preferences, based on the places they visited. As a result, there was some variation as to the monuments that went on these lists. For instance, some included the walls of Babylon, while others replaced them with the Lighthouse of Alexandria or, later, even the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

 

Who Wrote the List of the Seven Ancient Wonders?

Map of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Source: TheCollector

 

Herodotus (5th century BCE) and Callimachus of Cyrene (3rd century BCE) were the first to compile lists of Seven Wonders. However, their lists were not preserved. As a result, the list of the monuments that we now recognize as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World belongs to Philo of Byzantium (3rd century BCE) and Antipater of Sidon (around 2nd century BCE).

 

If the list had been created by someone living in another part of the world, it would certainly be different, as explained in our lesser-known Wonders article. So if you wonder why the Great Wall of China or the Colosseum were not included in the list, the answer is simple. The Colosseum was not built until after the end of the Hellenistic period, and the Great Wall was out of the Greek travelers’ reach.

 

Legacy of the Wonders of the Ancient World

Temple of Kukulkan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The original list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that dates back to Antipater and Philo proved to be particularly influential. Subsequent writers compiled their own lists of Wonders, based on their respective culture, education, and geographic location. For example, in the second century CE, when Rome was the center of the known world, the Roman poet Martial added the Colosseum of Rome in his version of the list. Christian writers, notably Gregory of Tours (6th century CE), would add the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and Noah’s Ark, and make lists with natural wonders.

 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, multiple lists made their appearance. Monuments like the Kom-El-Shoqafa in Alexandria, the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, and the Great Wall of China were listed among others as the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World, while Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon were featured in lists of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

 

The New Seven Wonders of the World

Map of New Seven Wonders of the World. Source: TheCollector

 

In 2001, the Swiss NewWonders Foundation compiled a list of the New Wonders of the World through an online vote, including monuments from all around the world. The only ancient wonder that made it into this new list was the Pyramid of Khufu. Interestingly the Pyramid was not voted in but was added as an honorary entry. The list included the following seven wonders:

 

 

The same foundation has also compiled a list with the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World, and there are multiple different lists focusing on different areas, like wonders of modern engineering, the solar system, and more.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.