My pilgrimage to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

In an extract from her new book, historian Bettany Hughes finds out what’s left of the magnificent seven - and what they mean to us now

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In 1303CE, a monstrous earthquake ripped through the Eastern Mediterranean. The trauma shook glittering casing stones loose from the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt – the most ancient of our Seven Wonders – and brought the remains of the youngest, the towering Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, crashing to the ground.

The Great Pyramid embodied enormous effort for the sake of one, virtually omnipotent man. Alexandria’s Pharos Lighthouse had been a public beacon to keep travellers from four continents safe, and to announce a repository of all the knowledge that was possible for humankind to know.

But across that complex arc, spanning nearly 4,000 years, no human-made Wonder could prove a match for the might of Mother Earth.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were staggeringly audacious impositions on our planet. Incarnations of the beautiful, mournful, axiomatic truth that we are compelled to make the world in our image and to modify it to our will. They were also brilliant adventures of the mind, test cases of the reaches of human imagination.

The word wonder is pliable: both a phenomenon and a process. Wonders are potent because wondering helps us to realise that the world is bigger than ourselves. The wonderful generates interest, and frequently empathy, and that interest and empathy nourishes connection.

How then do we collectively decide what is wonderful? One time-honoured way is to create Wonder-lists. There have been many wonders at many times. There are wonders of the ancient, the modern, the engineered and the natural worlds. Spiritual, too, the Seven Wonders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu and Christian faiths have all been gathered together.

We still feel a connection to these distant Wonders partly because our ancestors did, too

But there was one international wonder-selection which seems to have formed a blueprint for all others. The discovery, and survival, of this alpha-to-omega inventory is close to miraculous. Compiled in the 2nd century BCE, the earliest extant recording of a Seven Wonders of the World compendium was found on a scrap of papyrus used to wrap an ancient Egyptian mummified body.

The Laterculi Alexandrini is a fragmentary list of many lists – not just of the Seven Wonders of the World, but a cornucopia of sevens: the most important islands, the most beautiful rivers, the highest mountains, the best artists (the catalogue continues) – a kind of vital, ancient Who’s Who, if you like, or antiquity’s Buzzfeed.

The Seven Wonders concept reinforced an exciting, and nourishing, notion that humans could make the impossible happen. The Laterculi Alexandrini was conceived as an interrogation of the nature of power, and as a boastful guidebook to the ‘known world’ – that known and colonised by the Hellenistic Greeks and their allies.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – most typically the Great Pyramids at Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria – immortalised a celebration of Hellenism as well as of native inspiration, and the reach of Greek culture in the star-stream wake of the warrior-king Alexander the Great.

As I discovered, though, the fundamental truth of the Seven Wonders is more nuanced, more capacious, more about internationalism than pure patriotism. Because the original Seven Wonders are as much about the East as the West, and as much to do with human psychology as with physical triumph.

Hellenistic Greeks might have colonised the notion of Wonders in Alexandria, yet the taxonomy of ‘wonders’ – especially when grouped seven at a time – was a Middle Eastern tradition.

The word in a written script originally used to describe wonders is tabrati – a Babylonian notion dating back 5,000 years. Tabrati is a sight, a thing made to be seen.

For many cultures in the Middle East, seven was also a number which started and ended all things – Seven Heavens, Seven Hells, Seven Gates to Hell, Seven Ages of Man, Seven Ages of Creation in the Qu’ran. It was the selection of seven that gave them a quasi-mystical aura.

We still feel a connection to these distant Wonders that range from the Early Bronze Age to the apogee of the Hellenistic experience, partly because our ancestors did, too.

Let us not forget that fascinating new research demonstrates that each and every one of us is the direct descendant of either a pharaoh who ordered the construction of the pyramids, or a worker who built them.

Does this help to explain the allure of the golden ages that raised ancient Wonders, the notion that if we achieved ‘greatness’ once, we can do so again? Certainly it is curious that many of us know what some of these Wonders are, even if we can only name one or two, out of the hundreds of thousands of ancient monuments across the earth.

We want to follow in the tradition of the generations who have told themselves (and therefore us) that these places matter, that somehow we have taken on the privilege of their guardianship, and therefore of their domains.

Just as the philosopher asks: if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound? – so for the Wonders: without those willing to wonder, are they nothing? Wonders are the incarnation of an early Proto-Indo European phrase for 'immortal fame' which becomes kleos in ancient Greek and means the value of being talked about, of being remembered.

Rather than pick over these Wonders with the detachment of the clinician, it has been fabulously rewarding to research and imagine each in its heyday and to investigate the close and intriguing connections between them all.

It has been a stimulating (if sometimes perilous) adventure to follow the trails of those who pilgrimaged by land and sea, from Roman authors to Arab merchants, from Ottoman officials to fervid mediaeval nuns, to pay homage to these ancient Wonder attractions.

The creation of each tells us something salient about history and a historical moment; its impact speaks of the passage of time, and the evolution of the human experience.

This is an edited extract from 'The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World' by Bettany Hughes (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback £25, ebook £12.99, audio £29.99), available now.

Updated: January 29, 2024, 4:16 AM