Visitors to the lobby of the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan are often surprised to find a series of pictorial stained-glass panels. Added in the 1960s, they were meant to link the great skyscraper to other engineering triumphs. These triumphs, however, are not the great symbols of American modernity you might expect—other massive steel-and-concrete structures like the Hoover Dam or the Panama Canal—but the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The colorful lobby paintings make no attempt at accuracy. Rather, they echo fantasies of the ancient monuments that have been current since the Renaissance—but they are mysteriously inspiring all the same: the Pyramids of Giza, the Pharos of Alexandria, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.
Why should a collection of monuments more than two millennia old still capture the imagination—especially when six of the seven are no longer standing?
“It’s that word ‘wonder,’ ” says David Gilman Romano, professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you just called them the Seven Architectural Marvels, it wouldn’t have the same impact.” Then, too, the one that does survive—the Pyramids of Giza—is sufficiently stunning to convince us that the ancients weren’t exaggerating the splendor of the other six.
It’s also our passion for ordering the world. “We are living in a time very much like that of the Hellenic period,” says Larissa Bonfante, professor of classics at New YorkUniversity. “The Greeks loved to have things categorized—they loved anything out of the ordinary—and so do we.” In our chaotic age, bombarded as we are with new technologies and rapid cultural change, we still seem to yearn for the security of mutually acknowledged “greats”—whether it be Impressionist painters, Citizen Kane, the Washington Monument, Cartier-Bresson photographs or the HangingGardens of Babylon.
One of the first-known lists of wonders was drawn up in the third century B.C., when a Greek scholar at the Library of Alexandria, Callimachus of Cyrene (305-240 B.C.), wrote a treatise called “Acollection of wonders in lands throughout the world.” The essay has been lost, but his choices may have become the basis for later selections, such as the famous list attributed to the engineer Philo of Byzantium around 250 B.C. Of course, the whole idea of Seven Wonders started with antiquity’s fondness for the number seven: being indivisible, it gave each of its elements equal status and so enjoyed a privileged position in numerology.
The list also reflected a shift in Western attitudes toward the world, as thinkers began to celebrate man-made creations along with those of the gods. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests of the Persian Empire and parts of India (334-325 B.C.), Greeks marveled at their own achievements. “Like the sun,” raves Philo of the HangingGardens, “beauty dazzling in its brilliance.”
From their inception, the ancient Wonders were also rooted in human curiosity. In fact, the sites, originally, were not called “Wonders” at all, but theamata, “things to be seen,” preferably in person. In the Hellenic era, wealthy and erudite Greeks traveled by land and sea around the cultural centers of the eastern Mediterranean, broadening their education firsthand. Although the lands conquered by Alexander the Great had dissolved into separate kingdoms by the time Philo compiled his list, they were still ruled by Greek-speaking dynasties, and while travel was not yet as safe as it would become under the Roman Empire, the network of Greek culture extended far and wide, offering an open invitation to explore.
Today one can follow the itinerary of an ancient traveler as he—a peripatetic Greek scholar of that time was almost always male—sought out the magnificent Seven. Along the route, he would find passable highway inns and cheap roadside restaurants. At the sites themselves, professional tour guides called exegetai, or “explainers,” jostled for commissions (“Zeus protect me from your guides at Olympia!” prayed one first-century B.C. antiquarian worn down by their harangues). There were papyrus guidebooks to consult before departing and vendors with whom to haggle over souvenirs: a cheap glass vial engraved with an image of the Pharos of Alexandria has been found by archaeologists as far away as Afghanistan.
THE STATUE OF ZEUS AT OLYMPIA