Triumphs of Ancient Architecture and Art: The Seven Wonders and the Parthenon

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Triumphs of Ancient Architecture and Art: The Seven Wonders and the Parthenon


The expression "Seven Wonders of the World" has become commonplace, so much so that people often speak of things or even people as "the eighth wonder of the world." There are lists of seven modern wonders, seven natural wonders, seven medieval wonders, and so on; but all these have their roots in the concept of the ancient world's seven wonders. Whereas Roman engineering represents an ancient triumph in the practical application of technology, these structures stand for something else: aesthetic beauty, physical magnificence (either in size, detail, or both), and the political unity of the peoples who built them.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World include two tombs, two statues, a temple, a lighthouse, and a set of hanging gardens. Included are one each from Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations, as well as five structures from the Hellenic and Hellenistic civilization scattered over three continents. Indeed, one notable feature of the list is the preponderance of Greek structures included, a fact that results partly from the fact that the idea of such a grouping comes from the Greek historian Herodotus (484?-420? b.c.).

But there is more to it than that. Influenced by the Egyptians, builders of the oldest Wonder, the Greeks created new standards of beauty and durability that created lasting definitions of architectural and artistic achievement. It is for this reason that the buildings of the Athenian Acropolis, and particularly the Parthenon, deserve to be discussed alongside the structures included on the canonical, or accepted, list of Seven Wonders.


In fact, Herodotus could only have known three of the Seven Wonders, and perhaps only two, since some historians question the existence of Babylon's Hanging Gardens as anything other than a figment of Greek writers' imaginations. His list included the Pyramids and Hanging Gardens, as well as the Walls of Babylon, and—though the latter did not make the final roster—it appears on the first definitive version of the list, attributed to the historian Antipater of Sidon in the second century b.c. Only in the early modern era did the final list take form, thanks to Dutch painter Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), who created depictions of each.

In Heemskerck's time, the number of existing Ancient Wonders was the same as it is today: one. That one is the Great Pyramid of Giza, the first of the Wonders to be built and already some 2,000 years old before the erection of the second Wonder. The last of the Wonders, the Lighthouse at Alexandria, was also the last destroyed, when just a few years before Heemskerck's birth it ceased to function.

There is of course a certain symmetry in the fact the first and last Wonders were both in Egypt, but the Egypt of the pyramid-builders was quite different from the one that saw the creation of the Alexandrine lighthouse 23 centuries later. By that time Greek civilization had spread from its homeland in southeastern Europe to permeate the entire Mediterranean world: hence the distinction in terminology between Hellenic (Greek) and Hellenistic (Greek-influenced). Alexandria became home not only to the lighthouse but to another wonder of sorts, the city's library, whose librarian Callimachus of Cyrene (305-240 b.c.) composed "A Collection of Wonders Around the World." The particular buildings on his list will never be known, because his manuscript—like the library—has been lost.

This sad record of loss and destruction only serves to highlight the world's great fortune that at least one of the monuments survives, and the fact that the Great Pyramid is also the most massive and, in some ways, the most perfectly constructed only enhances its value. Many things about this structure are compelling, not least of which is its antiquity: built between about 2550 and 2530 b.c., the pyramid was as ancient to Antipater of Sidon as he is to the modern observer.

All the great pyramids of Egypt were built during the Old Kingdom (2650-2150 b.c.), but there is only one Great Pyramid with a capital "G," erected for the pharaoh Cheops (reigned 2551-2528 b.c.). Originally 481 feet (147 m) tall, it is now 33 feet (10 m) shorter due to the removal of its finished exterior by Egypt's Arab rulers in medieval times, but it remains a structure of staggering proportions. Its height makes it equivalent to that of a 50-story building, and it would be almost 4,000 years before there was a taller structure, the thirteenth-century cathedral of Cologne, Germany. At 755 feet (230 m) along each side, St. Peter's of Rome, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul's Cathedral in London, as well as the cathedrals of Florence and Milan, could all fit comfortably on its base. Or, to put it in modern American terms, the pyramid occupies an area equivalent to 10 football fields.

Two million blocks of stone, each weighing more than 2.5 tons (2,270 kg), comprise the Great Pyramid. It has been estimated that there is enough stone in the structure to build a wall 10 feet (3 m) high and 1 foot (0.3 m) thick all the way around the nation of France. Yet as is well known, the interior stones fit together so well, and without mortar, that it is impossible to slip even a card between them. The pharaoh's interior burial chamber bears an incredible burden of stone, and does so through an ingeniously designed triangular roof that deflects the weight of the structure atop it. Other corridors and escape shafts run through the pyramid as well. Most impressive of all is the fact that the maximum difference between the lengths of the sides on this massive structure is less than 0.1%, making it much more square than the average home built in America today.

It is amazing, then, to consider that the people who built the pyramid apparently had no knowledge of iron tools or the wheel. These facts, combined with the structure's precise orientation—each side faces one of the cardinal points of the compass—has led in modern times to pseudo- or plainly unscientific suggestions that extraterrestrial beings were responsible for its construction. Much more interesting, however, are the more realistic theories concerning how the pyramid was built—theories that, rather than calling upon magic from the sky, highlight the resourcefulness of the civilization that built this great structure.

In fact modern archaeologists generally believe that with the use of the Egyptians' large work gangs (whose members, contrary to popular belief, were not slaves), it would have been possible to raise the blocks of the pyramid by use of sloping earthen ramps. These would have been built up alongside the pyramid itself, then removed when the structure was completed. It is possible, also, that the Egyptians used long levers, one of the earliest forms of machine. As for the moving of the blocks from stone quarries up the Nile in Aswan, this too could have been achieved by use of the barges available to the Egyptians at the time.


Compared to the Great Pyramid, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon seem relatively recent, yet so little remains of them that they have sometimes been dismissed as a fiction. Legend holds that the great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (630?-562 b.c.) wanted to build a structure to make his wife happy: she came from the mountainous land of Media, and was homesick in the flatlands of Mesopotamia. Therefore he ordered the building of a huge set of terraced structures containing all manner of lush plants watered by a complex irrigation network.

One Greek writer described the Hanging Gardens as "a work of art of royal luxury," but it is likely he was drawing on imagination rather than firsthand experience. Babylonian records from Nebuchadnezzar's time contain no mention of the Hanging Gardens, and some historians maintain that the very idea of the gardens came from tall tales related by soldiers of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) after they saw the great city many years later. In the late twentieth century, however, archaeologists began to find remains in Babylon, by then a ruin in southern Iraq, including massive walls that may have been stepped to create terraces.

Historians know far more about the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Asia Minor, built in about 550 b.c. by Croesus (reigned 560?-546 b.c.), king of Lydia. Though Croesus preceded the golden age of Greek civilization, the temple is linked with Hellenic culture because over the centuries it acquired increasing enhancements from great Greek sculptors such as Phidias (490?-430? b.c.) and Polyclitus (fifth century b.c.). The deity worshipped was closely related to the Greeks' own Diana, but the temple also bore elements of other cultures, reflected in decorations brought from Persia and India. Adding to its international character is the fact that the temple, or at least the cult of Artemis, is mentioned in the Bible by the Apostle Paul (a.d. 5?-67?), who preached to the Ephesians against idol-worship.

The temple, which earned its place on the list of Seven Wonders purely on the basis of its aesthetic qualities rather than any particular feat of engineering it represented, went through several incarnations. On July 21, 356 b.c., a certain Herostratus burned the temple to the ground. The date was significant because it also marked the birth of Alexander, who helped rebuild the temple. In a.d. 262 an invasion by the Goths destroyed the temple, but the Ephesians rebuilt it again—only to see it destroyed for good in a.d. 401. by the zealous Christian leader St. John Chrysostom (347-407).

Next among the Seven Wonders was the Statue of Zeus at Olympia by Phidias, but that great sculpture must be viewed in light of the larger spectacle of the Greek Golden Age, which lasted from the victory over the Persians at Salamis in 479 b.c. to the defeat of Athens by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War 73 years later. It was an era when Athens, led by Pericles (495?-429 b.c.), ruled the Greek world—an age that in its great intellectual and cultural advancements rightly deserves the appellation of "golden."

Symbolic of Athenian self-confidence was the great program of rebuilding undertaken by Pericles, who intended not only to restore the city, destroyed by the Persians, but also to erect lasting monuments to the democratic state he and others had helped create and sustain. Like other Greek cities, Athens had an acropolis, an elevated fortress, and it was there Pericles arranged the construction of several great structures: the temple of Athena Nike; the Erechtheion, famous for its Porch of the Caryatids; the monumental entryway called the Propylaia; and a temple to Athena, the maiden or parthenos for whom Athens was named.

In its damaged beauty—it suffered an explosion during a war in a.d. 1687 between Venice and the Turks, when it was used as a munitions warehouse—the Parthenon seems to whisper of humankind's deepest aspirations, symbolized both by its physical power and the delicate simplicity of its design. By the time it was built, two distinctive styles of Greek architecture had developed, the Doric and Ionic. (A third style, the Corinthian, had also emerged, but it was actually a version of the Ionic, distinguished primarily by a difference in the design of the capital, or the decorative top of the column.) Both the simple Doric and less formal Ionic showed the influence of the Egyptians, who drew upon natural forms in the design of columns, and used these to strike a powerful emotional response in the viewer.

The Parthenon itself was of Doric design, but with Ionic features such as a continuous frieze, or relief sculpture, which occupied the pediment, or triangular roof gable. The roof was supported by a single row of columns, eight at each end and 17 along a side. The architects, Ictinus and Callicrates, clearly possessed an advanced understanding of how humans see objects in space. In a number of places where lines appear straight, these are actually curved, because a truly straight line would have seemed curved. Likewise the columns bulge slightly at the center in order to look as though they taper gently from bottom to top.

Historians have a less clear idea about the interior of the Parthenon as it was in classical Greece. At the center was a huge statue of Athena, designed by Phidias, that was made of gold and ivory. It probably showed Athena with a shield and weapons of war; in any case, few Athenians ever got to see it, because the Parthenon's inner chambers were the reserve of priests. The statue of Athena is also tied with the decline of Pericles's influence: his enemies charged that Phidias had stolen part of the gold for the statue, and carved pictures of himself and Pericles on Athena's shield—claims which, if true, would have constituted a serious offense to the goddess. They managed to make the charges stick, and Phidias was forced to leave Athens.

Yet Phidias's most renowned work lay in the future, when the city of Olympia, home of the Olympic Games, commissioned him to create a statue of Zeus for their temple. Covered in gold and ivory, the seated god was 40 feet (13 m) tall, and the proportions of the building were such that if he had stood up, his head would have gone through the roof. Some regarded this as a design flaw, but in fact it was a hallmark of the statue's brilliance, emphasizing the greatness of the deity's size.

As with the temple of Artemis, this one contained gifts from other parts of the world, befitting its status as a gathering place for the city-states of Greece. The glory of the temple, however, faded with that of Greece itself, and after Rome's emperor Theodosius I (347-395) banned the Olympics as a pagan spectacle, the site fell into disrepair. Earthquakes, landslides, and floods destroyed much of the temple, and a fire in a.d. 462 left it a ruin.

Fifth among the Seven Wonders was the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (Herodotus's hometown) in Asia Minor. It was built for Mausollos (reigned 377?-353? b.c.), who ruled a vassal kingdom of the Persian Empire. As with the nearby temple of Artemis, a number of Greek sculptors contributed their efforts, and the tomb was decorated with all manner of statues either life-size or larger, depicting humans, lions, horses, and other animals. Indeed, one of its distinctive features was the fact that its artwork illustrated natural forms, rather than gods and heroes as in most Greek decorative arts. Thanks to this structure—destroyed when the Knights of St. John of Malta used its stone to build a fortress in the late fifteenth century—above-ground tombs today are still called mausoleums.

As the mausoleum was the second tomb, so the Colossus of Rhodes was the second statue on the list, and like the Athenian Acropolis it represented the self-confidence of a people who had just won a victory against outsiders. In 305 b.c. the Antigonids of Macedonia attacked the city-states of Rhodes, which had united a century earlier. After a long siege, Rhodian resistance forced the Antigonids to withdraw. The invaders had left a large quantity of weapons, which the Rhodians sold to raise money for the building of a stature in honor of the sun god Helios or Apollo.

Completed in 282 b.c., the Colossus stood about 110 feet (33 m) high. Though in a sense it "guarded the harbor," it did not straddle the harbor's entrance, as numerous illustrations mistakenly suggest. For it to have done so would have required an even more massive statue than the incredibly impressive Colossus; and furthermore, when an earthquake broke the statue at its knee just 54 years after its construction (making it the shortest-lived of all the Wonders), the broken statue would have blocked the harbor.

As it was, Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23?-79) wrote that "few people can make their arms meet round the thumb" of the fallen giant. The ruins stayed where they were, and when the Arabs invaded Rhodes in a.d. 654, they dismantled the remains and sold them to a Jewish merchant from Syria, who reportedly required 900 camels to transport the pieces. In later centuries, the Colossus served as model for numerous giant statues depicting human figures, most notably the Statue of Liberty in the United States.

Finally, there was the Lighthouse at Alexandria, the only one of the Seven Wonders that served a practical purpose. It was built on the island of Pharos (and thus is sometimes called the Pharos Lighthouse), beginning in about 290 b.c., and its architect was named Sostratus. The coastline near Alexandria was a dangerous one, and thus the lighthouse, which stood as tall as a 40-story building, constituted a highly advantageous addition to the region. The core of the structure was a shaft with pulleys for raising fuel, which lit fires that burned by night. During the day, a gigantic mirror reflected the Sun's rays and provided a signal to ships as far away as 35 miles (50 km) out at sea. The mirror also reportedly served a defensive function, using sunlight to burn enemy vessels at a distance.

Like many of the other Wonders, earthquakes—which in this case occurred in 1303 and 1323—helped bring the lighthouse to an end. When the Mameluk sultan Qait Bay needed to fortify the city's defenses in 1480, he used the fallen stone and marble from the lighthouse to build a fortress on the spot where it had stood. Then, more than half a millennium later, in 1996, divers off the Egyptian coast discovered the remains of the famed lighthouse, and in 1998 a French company announced plans to rebuild the great structure on the spot where it had originally stood.

The latter illustrates the continuing allure of the Seven Wonders, though it should be pointed out that any number of other ancient structures—the Great Wall of China, for instance, or the Pyramid of the Sun in the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan—certainly deserve the appellation of "ancient wonder." The structures on the canonical list, however, along with the Parthenon and the other great buildings of classical Greece, exert a special pull on Western civilization. Together they symbolize the greatest of human aspirations, and the continuing allure that lies in the application of intellect to mastery of the physical world.

Further Reading

Bowra, C. M. Classical Greece. New York: Time-Life Books, 1965.

Lullies, Reinhard, and Max Hirmer. Greek Sculpture. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1957.

Robertson, Donald Struan. A Handbook of Greek and Roman Architecture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Scarre, Christopher. The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: The Great Monuments and How They Were Built. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999.