Sixteen years ago, the New Seven Wonders of the World were declared after an international poll. The project, organised by a Swiss foundation, aimed to establish a fresh category of man-made marvels, because the original seven wonders had been established more than 2,000 years before – and six of them no longer existed.
While the seven new wonders – Petra, Machu Picchu, the Colosseum, Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza and Christ the Redeemer – earned even greater fame, a range of other remarkable attractions made the shortlist. These near-misses include a Japanese temple linked to supernatural beings, the Istanbul mosque that survived a “mystery cloud” and a Sydney landmark that was designed blind.
Sydney’s beloved abomination
Few cities are as strongly linked to a single visual cue as Sydney is to the spiky silhouette of its opera house. This unique piece of architecture, next to Sydney Harbour, is the most admired building in Australia and one of the world's instantly recognisable structures, which makes it hard to imagine how it was once loathed by many.
My home country of Australia is far less amenable to experimental building design than places such as the UAE, where architects have been given free rein to create some brilliantly idiosyncratic structures. Australian cities, meanwhile, brim with bland, boxy buildings bereft of inspiration. That was an even greater issue in 1957 when Danish architect Jorn Utzon conjured up the radical idea for the Sydney Opera House.
A daring blend of curves, tiers and sharp angles, the exterior of this building was unlike anything in Australia. It was this bracing appearance that helped Utzon’s idea defeat more than 200 other architectural proposals as part of a huge competition.
So complex was Utzon’s vision that the building took 14 years to construct, involved about 10,000 workers and ended up costing more than 14 times its original budget. Part of the problem was the opera house had been designed blind. Utzon had never even visited Sydney, let alone the location set aside for the building, when he drew up its blueprints.
The endless delays, together with constant budget blowouts and its bizarre appearance, made it hugely unpopular with the public. After it opened in 1973, it took at least a decade for all of those controversies to recede and for people in Sydney people to truly embrace it. Now, it’s the pride of the city and one of the world’s top bucket-list tourism attractions.
Istanbul’s controversial landmark
With its enormous roof and towering minarets, Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s main attractions. Remarkable tales are embedded in the thick stone walls of this giant building, which began life 1,500 years ago as a cathedral, became a mosque, then a museum and, in between, survived a sequence of bizarre catastrophes.
Its construction in the 6th century is said to have coincided with a natural phenomenon called a “mystery cloud”. This was a volcanic ash cloud that some historians believe limited Istanbul’s sunlight for 12 months, forcing the tradesmen constructing the Hagia Sophia to often work by lamplight.
Soon after it was completed, many of those workers died in what was then the world's worst pandemic, the Plague of Justinian. That outbreak killed more than 50 per cent of the city's residents and was followed by a sequence of earthquakes that devastated the city and badly damaged the Hagia Sophia.
Yet, more than a millennium later, the Hagia Sophia still stands. In 2020, it was converted from a non-denominational museum back into a mosque.
Japan’s eerie masterpiece
Nestled in a lush valley and embellished with seemingly endless temples, shrines and pagodas, Kyoto is so peaceful that every time I visit, it lulls me into a meditative state. Yet beneath this serene facade lurk some grim myths.
Several of these eerie legends centre on the colossal Kiyomizu-dera Temple. One of the Japanese city’s most photographed sites, the 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple is made from wood and is elevated above the surrounding landscape as it is built on a high stage.
Many tourists who come to absorb its majesty probably aren’t aware of the supernatural forces that supposedly linger in its shadow. Just behind this temple’s main prayer hall is Jishu-Jinja Shrine that, for centuries, has been a site for placing curses.
Although most Japanese people who attend this shrine do so to pray for positive outcomes, others go there to wish harm or misfortune upon their enemies. The being who supposedly answers these bleak prayers is called Okage Myojin. Local folklore says this god, who is pictured on a plaque at the shrine, will grant any wish, even if it brings death or disaster.
Don’t let that put you off visiting, however. There are few places in all of Asia more tranquil than the green, sprawling grounds of Kiyomizu-dera. From its high perch on a hillside, visitors can enjoy panoramic views across Kyoto, the spiritual hub of Japan. This vista is especially sublime in April and November, when the city is decorated with cherry blossoms and autumnal bloom, respectively.