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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Sailing south to Egypt, a journey of several days, travelers up to 50 miles out to sea could spot the fifth—and the only practical—ancient Wonder: the Pharos, or lighthouse, of Alexandria, whose orange flame guided ship pilots along the Nile Delta’s treacherous coastline. Looming above Alexandria’s busy EasternHarbor and surrounded by palm trees and statues of the Pharaohs, the 445-foot, three-tiered limestone tower was taller than the Statue of Liberty. At its pinnacle, a giant burning brazier topped by a statue of Zeus provided a suitably theatrical arrival to the city where Europe, Africa and Asia met. Once ashore, visitors hastened to Alexandria’s Great Library to observe the scientists, astronomers and geographers who labored in what amounted to the first government-funded think tank, the Mouseion. It was these learned men who had produced the lighthouse.


Eventually, our Seven Wonders tourist would likely have torn himself away from Alexandria’s pleasures to sail up the Nile and gaze upon the oldest and most impressive wonder of them all—the Pyramids of Giza, three pyramids that rise, even to this day, from the undulating sands of the Giza Plateau. (For thousands of years, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest and most precise stone building in the world.) The pyramids were especially dazzling in the Greek era when they were still sheathed in white limestone and covered by hieroglyphics and graffiti, glistening brilliantly in the desert sun. Surrounding the pyramids, the remains of ancient temples dating back to the Old Kingdom—the apogee of Egyptian military power and artistic skill circa 2500 B.C.—dotted the landscape. Shaven-headed priests, acting as tour guides, pretended to translate the pyramids’ hieroglyphics, which they said described the construction of the monuments, including even what the Egyptian workmen who built them, between around 2580 and 2510 B.C., ate on the job.


The final site on our traveler’s itinerary would have been the most difficult to visit. He would have had to sail to Antioch, in Syria, then follow 500 miles of desert tracks, either on horseback or by carriage, to gaze upon the gardens’ splendor. Babylon, lying some 45 miles south of modern Baghdad, was once widely regarded as the most intoxicating urban center in the world. Travelers entered the city through the Ishtar Gates, inlaid with blue glazed bricks bearing images of lions, bulls and dragons, only to behold a forest of towering ziggurats, obelisks and smoking altars by the Euphrates River.

The Hanging Gardens—a rooftop paradise of sculpted terraces, shade, and perfumed flowers—rose majestically above the human sprawl, watered by a hydraulic irrigation system. (“A work of art of royal luxury . . . suspended above the heads of spectators,” noted Greek engineer Philo around 250 B.C.) The gardens had been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 B.C.) for his wife, a princess from Media, a fertile kingdom by the southern Caspian Sea, who was homesick for greenery; it was said Alexander the Great gazed upon them from his deathbed in the royal palace in 323 B.C.

But much about the gardens is unknown, including their exact location. “The Hanging Gardens, by their very nature, cannot be definitively found,” says Richard A. Billows, professor of history at ColumbiaUniversity. “They would not leave a very clear footprint that says ‘this must have been the spot.’ This isn’t helped by the fact that there is no clear idea of what the gardens looked like.”

Though only one of the Seven Wonders survives, it and the sites of the six others still launch a thousand package tours each year. Fascination with the Pyramids of Giza is certainly understandable; even stripped of their gleaming limestone—Arab conquerors used it as building material in the Middle Ages—the pyramids’ majesty, antiquity and bulk continue to astonish visitors, even if their first glimpse is from a crowded Cairo suburban highway.

But our fascination with the “missing” Wonders is harder to explain. Two of them exist only as fragments on display in museums; others have been scorched entirely from the earth. And yet, they remain curiously compelling. Phidias’ Statue of Zeus at Olympia was taken to Constantinople in the fourth century A.D. and was later destroyed in a palace fire, but the sanctuary itself—near the first Olympic Stadium through overgrown ruins buzzing with bees—remains one of the most visited attractions in Greece. All that is left of the Temple of Zeus is its foundation, but the spot where the statue stood has been identified. In 1958, archaeologists found, some 50 yards from the temple ruins, the workshop in which the artist Phidias sculpted the statue in the fifth century B.C.—including pieces of ivory and the base of a bronze drinking cup engraved with the words “I belong to Phidias” in classical Greek.

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