The greatest artistic and engineering achievements of past civilizations are celebrated via a number of lists termed as the seven wonders of the world. In this article we examine the original list, and those that have come about more recently.
Introduction to The Seven Wonders of the World
Many are aware of the list of the seven wonders of the world, even though most of the original list have since been lost or damaged beyond all recognition. Some items on the list have been reduced to legend, but historians have managed to provide fairly reliable accounts of how they likely would have looked at the time. Exploration around 1st Century BC brought about the spread of knowledge on a number of ancient civilizations and it became possible to compare and document the finest achievements of different civilizations and peoples, eventually leading to the list of the seven wonders being compiled. The list has since been updated to reflect more recent innovations and we cover both iterations within this article.
The Greeks who lay behind much of the original list would describe these as 'sights', rather than wonders, and essentially saw this list as a collection of the finest items that they had witnessed. It is likely that the seven items would only have existed at the same time for around sixty years, and some may have even been destroyed prior to the list being created. It must also be remembered that the Greeks constructed this list based on the whole world, as they knew it at the time, but would later realise that this only covered the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions. The new list constructed in 2007 made a conscious effort to widen the search to what we now understand to be the entire world, taking in Asia, plus Central and South America.
Whilst there are many different lists of the seven wonders today, the original list dates back to the 1st or 2nd century and is now generally known as the The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, most of these items are now in ruins, or completely lost, but their strong legacies continue thanks to the famous status of this list. The list is relatively well spread, with items located in modern day nations such as Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, and being built by skilled sculptors and enginners from a number of different civilizations. The inevitable demise of these ancient creations has recently led to the formation of a new list of seven wonders which was constructed in 2007 in Switzerland.
The timing of the original list can be easily explained by the conquests of Alexander the Great, events which uncovered the secrets of many other historic civilizations and started the process of spreading historical knowledge between many different cultures. They would come across the achievements of Egyptians, Persians, and Babylonians, with the some of their finest engineering and artistic achievements being catalogued, much lauded, and eventually included within this list. A similar list has been uncovered from as early as 100BC, which suggests that the ideas was passed on for several centuries before being set in stone in early AD. Each of the seven ancient locations are included below, alongside artistic impressions of how they might have looked, for those that have since been lost or significantly damaged.
Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid of Giza was built in early 26th century BC, making it one of the oldest buildings included in the Ancient List of Seven Wonders of the World. Indeed, it is the only one of these creations still in existence and remains a hugely popular tourist attraction within modern-day Egypt, despite the wide cultural offering on display in this historic country. The construction was built using limestone, mortar and granite and stands today at 138.5m, which is slighly shorter than when the pyramid was originally finished. Giza is a large city in Egypt and the Great Pyramid was built alongside two other smaller pyramids, which also still exist today.
The pyramid was originally covered in limestone but this has since been removed, thus changing its aesthetic, as well as reducing the height and width of the pyramid. It is believed that the original work took around 27 years to complete, with a reliance of traditional architectural techniques requiring much more manpower and longer time frames than would have been the case were it built today. Despite that, it is still an entirely remarkable feat of engineering, just as with the other Egyptian pyramids which collectively remain highly regarded within the history of mankind. The initial work of sourcing and preparing the stone alone would have been a huge task, with around 2.3 million large blocks quarried from the surrounding areas even before the initial building work could commence.
There remains just a few limestone casings left from the original work, mainly around the base of one side of the pyramid which can help to educate us about how the construction would have been intended to look all those years ago. The height of each row of stones also changes across the pyramid, with the tallest stones situated at the bottom before shorter stones being found near the summit. The original purpose of this particular pyramid was to serve as the tomb of pharaoh Khufu, who was present during what is known as the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
Great Pyramid of Giza - Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Giza Egypt Pyramid Ancient Wonder of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon featured a series of levels, each containing stunning gardens which included trees, shrubs, and vines as well as a number of other small exotic plants. Many of these plants were designed to grow and overhang, and so the original name more relates to "overhanging" gardens. The overall effect was a truly organic construction which was built in what is Iraq today, but the Hanging Gardens are sadly no-longer in existence. Thankfully, their addition to the list of the Seven Wonders of the World has ensured a strong legacy, with no chance of this incredible feat of engineering and horticulture ever being forgotten.
Babylon was an ancient city which held great significant in the region between around the 18th century BC up to around 7th–6th century BC, spanning two empires known as the Old Babylonian Empire, followed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Babylon served as the capital of both empires, and so enjoyed considerable wealth of resources which allowed for the construction of such ambitious projects as the Hanging Gardens. One common story, which might hold some truth, is that a ruler of the time was concerned about his wife missing the rolling green hills of their native land, and so decided to construct this series of gardens directly opposite their grand palace.
The Hanging Gardens remain the most mysterious of all entries to the Seven Wonders of the World, with little evidence or information available on this particular construction. Despite that, knowledge of it is entirely widespread all across the globe, perhaps in part due to its inclusion within this famous list. It was also taken up by writers who have become inspired by the legendary nature of this project, as well as the city itself which fell from grace many centuries ago. Much discussion continues on the Hanging Gardens, with historians referring to historical artworks and literature for possible clues as to its existence.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon - Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Colossus of Rhodes
The Colossus of Rhodes was formed in celebration of the successful defence of Rhodes against a considerable army of opposition forces. The tall statue represents the Greek God Helios and was erected in 280BC, before collapsing soon after in 226 BC, due to an earthquake. The sculpture stood as 33 metres in height and took around twelve years to complete, eventually being positioned on a wall protecting the harbor of Rhodes. The god was depicted with one arm aloft, with headwear indicating his role as the God of Sun. Many of the features used in the sculpture to identify Helios have also since appeared in other interpretations of Helios, including reliefs, architectural features, sculptures and paintings.
Whilst most artist impressions of the original statue have it placed on the harbor wall, protecting the city in a symbolic manner, its precise location at the time still reminds unknown. In recent years there has been a plan to construct a new version, but for many years after it collpsed it was decided that the wills of the Gods should be accepted and that the statue would not be re-constructed. In the present day, it could help bring more tourism to the region, and perhaps remind others of the cultural and historical significance of Rhodes, hence the growing support for this new sculpture.
Artistic impressions of the original status have differed over the years, with some artists depicting the sculpture as standing across the entry to the harbor, with one leg positioned on each side of the wall, whilst others have instead positioned it on a single wall, close to the opening. The size would make the latter more likely, as it could not have been wide enough to spread across the entire opening to the harbor, considering the likely pose of the God. This sculpture has also served as inspiration for a number of historically-themed television dramas in recent years, even though they may not have specifically mentioned it as a source of influence.
Colossus of Rhodes - Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Temple of Artemis
The Temple of Artemis was dedicated to the goddess of the same name, who is sometimes known as Diana in Roman mythology. This Greek temple was built in Ephesus, which would now be in modern-day Turkey. The temple itself did not last beyond 401 AD, though some small elements from the ruins remain there today. Various temples were situated on the site, dating back many centuries before the version pictured below. Following on from the first temple in 7th Century BC, the first Greek temple was commenced in around 550 BC and featured the architectural styles of the period, and took ten years to complete before being destroyed in 356 BC. By 323 BC the third version was commenced, and it was decided that this would be the grandest of all and lasted until around 401 AD.
A visitor to this third incarnation was shocked by the building's beauty and eventually decided that is should be included in the seven ancient wonders of the world, describing it in poetic language. Sadly, as civilizations came and went all across Europe and in surrounding continents over the centuries, so their architectural contributions would be swept away by the changing times, sometimes by force, and other times simply by neglect or natural disasters. Eventually, we would reach the sad point when only one item from the original seven wonders would still be in existence, or at least somewhere comparable to its original form, which is namely the Great Pyramid of Giza.
An artist's impression of how the original building would have looked is shown below, and a large model has also been constructed in Turkey, close to the site of the original, which underlines its Greek-inspired architectural style and the grand nature of the original construction. The slow and gradual demise of these seven wonders of the world would eventually inspire the creation of many new lists, some of which have been treated with great respect and highlight many of the great achievements of humanity over more recent times. The Temple of Artemis was around 18m in height, and featured 127 columns in total.
Temple of Artemis - Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Lighthouse of Alexandria was constructed during the successful period of Ancient Egypt and is one of a number of entries in this list of seven wonders of the world which were located in Egypt. It is believed to have been up to 118 metres in height and was completed in around 246 BC. It was built using masonry stone and featured several sections which helped to strengthen its design, with a square lower half, and a round upper section, plus a beautifully sculptured tower placed on top. Multiple earthquakes in the region between the period of 956 and 1323 AD would ultimately damage this construction beyond repair but it was recent enough that some documentation and discusion around it survived to the present day, giving us plenty of information about how it would have looked at the time.
Many of the items in this ancient list of the seven wonders of the world were tall and impressively sculptured, but would ultimately fall foul of natural disasters sooner or later, and even the most brilliantly engineered designs would have struggled to survive some of the natural disasters that have occurred in these regions over the past few thousand years. Whilst we continue to celebrate these creations, it became necessary to update the list to a new set of seven wonders, which has shifted things to new civilizations and geographical locations. Many other lists have also been produced recently, allowing regional governments and tourist boards to attempt to build support for some of their native attractions.
Many elements of ancient Alexandria are believed to have fallen into the sea around the Egyptian coastline and there are plans afoot to retrieve as many of these items as possible and to re-arrange them within a new museum which could continue to educate us on the merits of this ancient city. Some of the remaining elements of the Lighthouse many centuries ago were actually re-purposed for other buildings, including for the Citadel of Qaitbay which is located close to where the lighthouse itself once stood.
Lighthouse of Alexandria - Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was a breaktaking sculpture produced in 5th century BC. The sculpture was added to the Temple of Zeus in Olympia but was mysteriously lost, presumed destroyed, in 5th century AD. Greek sculptor Phidias put together this intricate design which captures Zeus as on his throne, surrounded by a number of symbolic and historical features. A number of artistic impressions have been made of this sculpture and the surrounding architecture in the past two thousand years, but there is not enough consistency across them to make any great conclusions over how the original sculpture would have looked.
The significance of Zeus within Greek mythology is underlined by the grandeur of this design, which featured materials and adornments such as ebony, ivory, gold, and precious stones, with no expense spared. The statue was commissioned to decorate the newly complete Temple of Zeus, and the respected Greek sculptor Phidias was chosen for the task - he had a proven track record in large scale sculptures already, and so seemed a reliable bet to deliver something bold but also technically sound.
Different regions would compete to out do each other using art at this time, just as they would later do in the Italian Renaissance between competing provinces, and so there was a great prestige and political significance attached to the sculptor's work for the statue of Zeus. This also helps to explain why so many expensive and ornate materials were added to decorate the sculpture prior to its unveiling in around 435 BC.
Statue of Zeus at Olympia - Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was built between 353 and 350 BC in what is today, Turkey. Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene designed this elaborate building, on which a model exists today in a museum based in Bodrum, close to where the original Mausoleum would have been located. It must be remembered that there was a heavy Greek-bias towards the original list of wonders, but that does not stop each item from being worthy of inclusion. The structure was believed to have been around 45m in height once completed, and it lasted until around the 12th to 15th century AD, at which point a series of earthquakes continually damaged its structure, ultimately leaving it in ruins. Indeed, it would be natural disasters that saw an end to most of the items in this list, even though they held strong religious and political roles which might have brought the wrath of competing peoples.
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus - Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Updated List of The New Seven Wonders of the World
In 2007 a newly updated list of the Seven Wonders of the World was announced. 200 monuments and related cultural buildings were identified as early as 2001 and over the next six years a process was established to reduce this down to seven. The reactions varied considerably once the list was unveilied, with most regions and governments showing clear bias towards their own cultural assets, and sought to promote those rather than taking more of a neutral perspective. That said, no-one would question the qualities of the seven items that were ultimately chosen, by rather wanted some of their own sites included alongside. More recently, further lists have been constructed as a means to promoting global tourism and the preservation of these cultural assets, including the New Seven Wonders of Nature, and the New Seven Wonders Cities.
Inevitably, with so many competing views on this highly subjective list, a large number of other lists have also been produced in recent years, and it seems the original process of updating the original ancient list has now set off a never ending discussion across the globe attracts all manner of different political and commercial interests. The list below describes the seven new wonders of the world, as decided in Switzerland in 2007, with photographs of each and descriptions of how and when they were created. Rather than arguing over the list, many prefer to appreciate these highlights of what humanity can achieve, with items dating back thousands of years and spanning many different civilizations.
Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China was an extensive series of fortifications with its earliest incarnation appearing in 7th century BC, whilst most of the more famous sections were added much later in the Ming dynasty of the 14th to 17th century AD. Whilst most are aware of the wall for its defensive purposes, protecting parts of China from other invading forces, the Great Wall of China has also brought other benefits too, such as the ability to impose taxes and duties more effectively, promoting trade via specific locaions, and also to control the flow of the general population.
Over the long period of Chinese history, many different sections of the wall have been built, often not connecting with existing parts, in order to protect specific ruling empires and regions of their era. Many have since fallen into disrepair, though the key sections continue to be maintained and protected as a means to respecting this key historical construction which was eventually chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It also serves to remind us of the ingenuity and considerable impact of previous Chinese empires, which dates back much further than even the earliest elements of the Great Wall.
In order to strengthen the defensive capabilities of the wall, additional items were added alongside it, such as watchtowers and garrisons of soldiers which ensures the wall's effectiveness. It remains an extraordinary feat of engineering to build something on such a large scale as this, overcoming considerable logistical challenges and doing so without many of the advantages that the organisers would have enjoyed today, such as lighter materials, easier transportation, and improved construction techniques.
Great Wall of China - New Seven Wonders of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Petra, Ma'an, Jordan
Petra is an historic city in Jordan which is best remembered for its extraordinary architecture, in which buildings have been carved from native rock, alongside a number of other engineering innovations that were ahead of their time. Much of this architecture remains today, and this helped ensure that Petra made its way into the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World. To add to the mystical nature of this historic location, it is necessary to travel through a narrow passageway in order to reach what remains of Petra.
Many elements of Petra remain, including churches, castles, theatres, tombs and more, but the most famous section is known as Al-Khazneh, and is pictured below. This tomb is cut directly from the surrounding rock and captures the extraordinary sculptural skills of the Nabatean Kingdom and dates to around 1st century AD. The distinct tone of the rock in this region makes all elements of Petra particularly unique, leading to it becoming known as the "Rose City". Since this period, many other elements were built in Petra, giving it a mixture of cultures, including influence from Roman and Byzantine cultures which came after the Nabataeans.
Petra was designated a World Heritage Site in 1985 and since then considerable efforts have been made to preserve this entire construction. The stunning architecture provides an important example of the achievements of past civilizations and also delivers considerable tourism to the region. A recent flood in 2022 reminds us of the fragility of such historical sites, but hopefully these passionate efforts can allow many future generations to continue to appreciate this unique and historical treasure.
Al-Khazneh, Petra, Ma'an, Jordan - New Seven Wonders of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
The Colosseum in Rome dates from the 1st century and is believed to have been the largest standing ampitheatre in the world. Its construction lasted many decades, and was directed under the rule of emperor Vespasian, followed by his heir, Titus. Some modifications were then made in the years after the latter's death, and the overall era became known as the Flavian period, leading to the Colosseum also becoming known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. It stands today and remains one of Italy's most popular tourist destinations, which is a considerable feat when considering the considerable cultural legacies of the Roman empire followed by the later Renaissance era.
The ampitheatre was designed to hold between 50-60,000 spectators and was constructed from a variety of stones, including limestone and volcanic rock. Its hosting of gladiators is well known, but the venue would also have been used for many other purposes, including theatrical performances, executions and also re-enactments of historical battles. The construction has suffered from continual thefts of its core stone and interior, but natural disasters have also damaged the main construction in the two thousand years which have passed since its completion. Enough of the shell remains today to appreciate how this theatre would have originally served.
The Colosseum features two main walls, the inner and outer. The most obvious damage which still exists today resulted from a large earthquake in 1349 which led to one side of the upper outer wall collapsing. Thankfully, the inner wall was left in a good state and in the years since the location has been continually used for all manner of different purposes, many of which would not have been intended by the original designers. In more recent times, pollution has caused considerable issues for historical structures within Rome, but today many efforts are made to best conserve this historic building.
Colosseum, Rome, Italy - New Seven Wonders of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Chichén-Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico
The Temple of Kukulcán is the most famous building of what remains of Chichén Itzá, a large city from ancient times located in modern-day Mexico. This heavily protected archaeological site is amongst the most popular tourist spots in Mexico and has now been accepted into the New Seven Wonders of the World, to replace the ancient list whose entries are mainly now lost to the world. The temple pictured below dates from around 8th–12th century AD and is known as a Mesoamerican Step pyramid and was constructed mainly from limestone. It is around 30m in height and provides a series of large steps which slowly lead up to the temple which sits at the summit.
This temple also features a variety of sculptured elements, many of which are based on animals or mythical creatures and these are dotted around the structure, both inside and out. Indeed, Kukulcán was a mythical serpent to whom this building was dedicated, and a sculpture of the serpent can be found at the base of the west face of the building. Similar dedications were made elsewhere in the region and its role carried across into a number of civilizations. Today, the temple, also sometimes known as El Castillo, is the best known section of this archaeological site and remains the biggest focus for tourists visiting the region.
In order to preserve this critical piece of architecture, many efforts are now being made to protect the structure, including new limits on the numbers that can enter and navigate the building. These controls, when extended over many centuries, can help to significantly protect ongoing damage to the temple, reducing the need for maintenance and also keeping as much of the original work present as possible. These types of interventions have been necessary in all items included in this list of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Chichén-Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico - New Seven Wonders of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu can be found in southern Peru and was constructed in the 15th century by the Incan Empire. It consists of a fortified settlement which was located on a mountain ridge, providing a formidable defence against any attacking forces. Today, the construction provides beathtaking views and is amongst the most popular archaeological attractions in the world, despite being relatively hard to reach. By the 16th century the Incas were displaced by Spanish rule and Machu Picchu would then be left deserted. Its inclusion within the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World has helped to retain its international fame, and also to allow considerable conservation efforts to be set up for its long term preservation.
Besides preserving what remains, efforts have also been made to restore many items which have deteriorated or been lost in the years since Europeans first arrived. This has helped experts to better understand Machu Picchu, as well as the Incan culture more generally. With no written element to their language, it has taken western experts much longer to decipher much of what they have uncovered here. It is now believed that the citadel was built in around 1450, and would sadly only use it for around a century, having to flee after the arrival of Spanish forces. The fragile nature of the local environment, as well as the historical buildings themselves, ensures that visitor numbers to Machu Picchu must be carefully controlled.
It is believed that Machu Picchu was constructed as a retreat for the Inca rulers of the time, with a number of the buildings placed here being used as spiritual temples, including the Intihuatana (ritual stone, possibly serving as a primitive clock or calendar), the Temple of the Sun, and the Temple of the Three Windows. Indeed, much research continues to be carried out in the region alongside conservation efforts, leading to regular discoveries over elements of the settlement and much more is likely to be learnt in future years.
Machu Picchu, Peru - New Seven Wonders of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The Taj Mahal in India is another mausoleum to make its way into the New Seven Wonders of the World. The particular construction was built in the early to mid 17th century and the overall development covers an impressive 42 acres, which includes a number of gardens and several other buildings. Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan had organised the Taj Mahal and intended it to be the resting place of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, to whom he was entirely devoted and wanted a building fitting of her presence. He himself would also be housed here, perhaps marking his delight with the final development which took around 22 years to complete.
Whilst the Taj Mahal mausoleum was completed in 1643, work on many of the surrounding elements within the complex would continue for another decade and work has contined ever since to preserve and evolve the many gardens. The main challenge today is to deal with the millions of visitors who arrive to enjoy the Taj Mahal each and every year, most of whom are fellow Indians, though many thousands continue to arrive from abroad to appreciate the incredible architecture on display here. The emperor is known to have appreciated this region within Agra and felt it a suitable resting place for his wife who had sadly died in child birth and left her husband devastated.
Much of the beauty of this building is from its major use of white marble, and its style is termed Mughal architecture, which relates to Islamic design within India. Some consider it to be the most beautiful building in the world, and certainly one of the best examples of architecture to be found within India, a country which itself has a rich and diverse selection of cultural elements which cover a variety of influences, dating back many years. Its inclusion within the New list of the Seven Wonders of the World, revised to include more recent items still in existence, should therefore not come as a great surprise.
Taj Mahal, Agra, India - New Seven Wonders of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Christ the Redeemer is a huge statue which depicts Jesus Christ and stands high up on the Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca National Park, overlooking the citizens of Rio de Janeiro who live below. This iconic statue has become significant to Christians and non-Christians alike and its design is broadly described as Art Deco. This tall sculpture was designed by French sculptor Paul Landowski and then subsequently built by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, due to the challenges that come from constructing such a large statue, followed by the difficult process of arranging it within its current location.
The statue was built during the years of 1922 and 1931, making it one of the more recent items found in the New Seven Wonders of the World list. The sculpture is 30m tall, by 28m wide, though it was placed on a strong pedestal which added an additional 8m in height but helps to keep this artwork firmly established as it is exposed to the elements. It was formed predominantly from concrete and soapstone, which appears to have survived well over the years, and perhaps its relatively modern construction, from the early 20th century, allowed the designer and engineer to make use of more advanced techniques and materials.
Many tourists flock to this city in order to visit this iconic sculpture, with the open, welcoming arms of Jesus Christ often bringing a strong emotional reaction for those who see it in person. Its considerable size and the awkward nature of its location means that it is hard to appreciate up close, as it towers above us, but from a slight distance we can appreciate the overall structure and its impressive symbolic value which helps to bring strength to the Christian community within the city of Rio de Janeiro.
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - New Seven Wonders of the World (image courtesy of RawPixel)
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.