Journey to the Seven Wonders

Though only one of the ancient marvels still stands, they still engage our imagination—and launch a thousand tours—more than two millennia later

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Departing in the shadow of the Acropolis from Athens, the traditional center of ancient learning, a scholartourist of 250 B.C. would likely have set off on his grand tour with a couple of servants and a pair of pack mules to carry the luggage. The first and easiest Wonder to visit was the great sculptor Phidias’ (c. 485-425 B.C.) Statue of Zeus (completed around 435 B.C.) at Olympia, a religious sanctuary in southern Greece and the site of the Olympic Games. An energetic walker could cover the 210 miles in ten days. Arriving at Olympia, visitors beheld a walled enclave where a trio of Doric temples, 70 altars and hundreds of statues of past Olympic victors created a dazzling sculpture garden. The most impressive of the structures was the Temple of Zeus, built between 466 and 456 B.C. and resembling the Parthenon in Athens. Through its grand bronze doors, a constant stream of travelers passed into the flickering torchlight, there to behold a glowering, 40-foot-high, gold-and-ivory figure of the King of the Gods seated on a throne, his features framed by a leonine mane of hair.

“It seems that if Zeus were to stand up,” wrote the Greek geographer Strabo, who visited the statue early in the first century B.C., “he would unroof the temple.” Beyond its stunning size, viewers were struck by the majesty of the image’s expression—even stray dogs were said to be cowed. The sculptor had captured both Zeus’ invincible divinity and his humanity. Roman general Aemilius Paullus (c. 229-160 B.C.), an earlier visitor, “was moved to his soul, as if he had beheld the god in person,” while the Greek orator Dio Chrysostom wrote that a single glimpse of the statue would make a man forget his earthly troubles.


From Olympia, our intrepid traveler would have caught a merchant ship from the isthmus of Corinth, sailing eastward some 300 miles across the pellucid waters of the Aegean. Since there was no exclusive passenger service, one simply negotiated a price with the ship’s captain and took a place on deck. One’s servants would arrange the creature comforts, leaving the traveler to enjoy the view and make small talk with fellow passengers.

Arriving a few days later at their destination, the bustling island of Rhodes, the travelers would have been greeted with a breathtaking sight. There, towering majestically above the island’s port, so crowded with ships’ masts that it was said to resemble a field of wheat, stood a 110-foot-high Colossus—a gleaming bronze statue of the Greek sun god Helios. It was long believed that the statue straddled the harbor entrance, but modern archaeologists say this would not have been possible with the bronze-casting techniques available to the sculptor, Chares of Lindos, when he erected it between 294 and 282 B.C.

While not even a drawing of the statue survives, scholars theorize the Colossus was an upright figure holding a torch aloft in one hand not unlike the Statue of Liberty; Helios’ face was quite possibly modeled after Alexander the Great’s. Yet, for all its majesty, the Colossus turned out to be the most fragile Wonder of them all—standing for only 56 years before collapsing in an earthquake in 226 B.C. “Even lying on the ground, it is a marvel,” wrote Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. “Few people can even put their arms around the figure’s thumb, and each of its fingers is larger than most statues.”


The colossus would have made an appropriate introduction to the opulence of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), where the Temple of Artemis mixed Oriental splendor and Hellenic artistry. Size mattered in the ancient world, and in the ostentatious port of Ephesus, citizens built their greatest temple to tower above the city skyline. Though the Parthenon of Athens was regarded as the most perfectly proportioned of all buildings, the Temple of Artemis overwhelmed it in scale. Estimates suggest the interior was about 425 feet long and 255 feet wide, making it nearly as cavernous as New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. One hundred twenty-seven columns, painted in gaudy colors, supported its huge ceiling; some visitors felt lost in the dizzying forest of pillars, as imposing as sequoia trunks. Guides warned tourists not to stare at the temple’s polished white-marble walls lest they be struck blind by their brilliance. Swathed in clouds of incense, a statue of the mother goddess beckoned with open arms. This was not the svelte, athletic huntress Artemis of Greek lore but a majestic, maternal creation from the East, whose multiple breasts hung like papayas from her torso. Among eunuch priests offering sacrifice at the statue’s feet, silversmiths peddled souvenir miniatures of the temple and goddess for the pagan faithful. “Only in Heaven has the Sun ever looked upon its equal,” gushed Greek author Antipater around 100 B.C.


No less splendor graced the Mausoleum, rising 140 feet into the air like a gigantic wedding cake above the turquoise harbor of Halicarnassus, now the modern port of Bodrum on the so-called Turkish Riviera, about 60 miles from the Colossus. Built, legend has it, around 350 B.C. for King Mausolos, the ruler of Caria, by his grief-stricken sister-wife, Artemisia, the Mausoleum was an art lover’s fantasy whose tiers teemed with more than a hundred statues of heroes, kings and Amazon warriors, carved by the five greatest Greek sculptors of the day. “Even today,” noted Pliny the Elder in 75 A.D., “the hands of the sculptors seem to vie with one another in artistry.” The glittering confection was topped with a statue believed to be of the dead king and his wife riding a golden chariot.

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