The ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’ is the collective concept and canon of knowledge, widely known to the ancient European (Klein 1998:136). The entry into the canon was determined not only by the majesty and uniqueness of a given building, but also by its historical significance and, above all, the myth related to these wonders (Ibid.:136). The latter has always revived ancient monuments and their creators in wandering human minds trying to fully embrace their mystery with a triggered imagination. Such feelings must have accompanied ancient travellers while they were setting off in the unknown to visit the outstanding monuments, many of which had already been said archaic in those times. Even today, when one is faced with the fate of the seven ancient wonders, they unconsciously study the history of the real world from those ages, where such monuments were a real symbol of human striving for perfection and beauty, and of a growing desire to discover and travel far, beyond one’s limits and knowledge (Ibid.:136). But visitors of the ancient wonders had already been guided.
Eternal ancient wonder in Egypt
I was in Egypt on the Plateau of Giza, surrounded by over two millions of squared multi-ton blocks of stone, piling up into three massive pyramids. While standing at the foot of the Pyramid of Khufu, I was looking up at its cone shining in the background of the clouded sky. After a while, I decided to follow some visitors in their way up along the pyramid’s northern wall.
When I approached its base at the north side, the pyramid’s stones enormously grew in my eyes, which is quite logical when one observes something from close but at the same it was still surprising how large they really turned out to be, especially for someone who had just looked at illustrations of the pyramids depicted from the distance. Simultaneously, I noticed at the bottom of the pyramid a fragment of a flat and white row of stones which were said to be the remains of the outer casing of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). It was not, however, placed there originally, as if its trajectories are stretched up it would hit the opposite blocks just above it (Ibid.).
Presumably, the fragment of the imitated casing was there just to show how it may have looked like in the past, yet it does not give any valuable insight into an actual construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). When I got used to my first impressions, I started climbing up the pyramid, stretching my arms forwards and lifting my legs up to reach the edge of another block above, using each like a successive step of the stairs on my way up the building. Every block reaches at least to my hips, and some even up to my arms, so climbing up the pyramid definitely involves some physical fitness and strength. Soon my sister joined me and we were both found ourselves just under the original entrance to the pyramid, flanked by angled stones forming a pointed arch above it.
“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”
The Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery (Ibid.). Actually, it was already so in the times of Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), who, together with other contemporary and later authors unanimously identified it and the two other pyramids of Giza as one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world (see: Zamarovsky 1990:13-64; Klein 1998:141-146).
It may have been either due to their massiveness, majesty, age or mystery, or all these aspects together were taken into account, deciding about their high status throughout human history (Zamarovsky 1990:13). The pyramids are also the only wonder of the ancient world that has ever survived and is still enjoyed by the modern world. As such these three pyramids in Egypt seem to be eternal, which is highlighted by the old and broadly known Arab proverb “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.”
As many wonders as their lists
Since the discovery of the pyramids in Egypt by the Hellenized world, much progress had already been made in history by construction of brand-new in comparison to the pyramids but spectacular buildings that arouse such admiration among people to which only natural wonders inspire (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). There were many authors of the lists of wonders, enumerating these human achievements, and their selection was measured, as it seems, by certain criteria (Ibid.:2).
At some point in history, there were huge discrepancies in various records of the Seven Wonders, which were prepared by independent ancient authors. And although the enumerated wonders were always compiled in the number of seven, each list slightly differed depending on its author. After an archaeologist from the University of Trier (Germany), Michael Pfrommer, If one would sum them all up, they could find ten, if not eleven, or even a dozen ancient wonders described by all the ancients writing on the subject (Klein 1998:137). On the other side, the fact that the successive wonders are listed by various authors in a different order is quite irrelevant as they are all treated on the same scale; It is not a ranking (Zamarovsky 1990:8).
Modern list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
The modern canon of the ancient wonders, known today as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is provided by numerous contemporary lexicons and the Internet (Zamarovsky 1990:7). It includes works which, due to their technical or artistic qualities, were admired by the ancients (Ibid.:7). These are: the Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods), and the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Ibid.:7).
Although at first the Seven Wonders of the World, including the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon, were considered must-see attractions on ancient travel routes, they were later considered the greatest structures ever built by man (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1). What was so special about them that they were clearly distinguished by the ancients? Philo of Byzantium answers that question:
For these wonders are the only things which diminish the worth and reputation of other distinguished sights, for, truly, ordinary men may see them in the same way as other sights, but they do not marvel at other sights in the same way. For beauty, like the sun, dazzles by its own brilliance and does not allow one to see the others.Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World”. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.
Though tarnished by time, the Pyramids of Giza have fortunately survived to our times. But what about those wonders that have already gone? Michael Pfrommer says that ancient travellers describing the wonders were surely convinced of the durability of these places and monuments (Klein 1998:137). Often, however, of the architectural wonders people consider to be eternal, there is absolutely nothing left behind after all (Ibid.:137). Or at least very little. The garden on the terraces of Babylon and two statues, one of Zeus made of chryselephantine and the other of Helios made of bronze, have disappeared forever. Of the burial site of Mausolus of Caria, the mighty temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the Lighthouse of Pharos, there are left only few remains, of which some are scattered in museums around the world.
The real authorship of the list
Little is known today about an ancient Greek poet, named Antipater of Sidon, who lived in the second half of the second century BC. (Klein 1998:147). His character unfortunately disappears now in the fog of history (Ibid.:147). Still it is believed that it was him who compiled the first completely preserved list of wonders of the ancient world in the second century BC. and perhaps he had seen them all himself during his long and distant journeys (Ibid.:147). It was a list of architectural wonders that would surely have been labelled today as ‘must see monuments’, and therefore his work can be regarded as the first travel guidebook for contemporary adventurers and travellers.
Initially, the creation of the list was mistakenly attributed to a certain Philo of Byzantium, a mathematician who probably lived in the second century BC. and was wrongly said to have been the author of a treatise titled On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7). Such information was first disseminated by the first modern translator of the book by Philo of Byzantium, a French D.S. Boessius, who in 1640 discovered the Greek original in the Vatican Library and translated it into Latin as De septem mundi miraculis (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Such mistakes once in writing are often copied in the literature, and the wrong information about the authorship had been then unintentionally replicated and so circulated from one work to another (Ibid.:7-8).
The matter was clarified only by a Swiss classical scholar, Johann Caspar von Orelli, who published Philo’s book in print for the first time in 1816 and it finally turned out that there were actually two different ‘Philos’, who had initially been confused (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The real author of the work is also Philo of Byzantium but he lived much later than his namesake, probably in the third or fourth century AD. (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The records of him are fragmented almost as much as those of the ancient Philo (Ibid.:7). It is only known for certain that Philo from our era is an actual author of the book On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Additionally, from this work one can also learn that he had not seen a single monument of the architectural wonders he described in his work (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). So he depicted them just with the eyes of his imagination, inspired only by what he knew from second-hand accounts (Ibid.:7-8). To justify such practice, it can be added that many current authors, including myself, do the same today, when it Is not possible to take a trip and see a given site personally (Ibid.:8). Sometimes, it is an education that relieves some authors of the necessity of traveling, and things worthy of their attention they learn just from books without even leaving home (Ibid.:8).
In any case, Antipater of Sidon has regained his right to be named the first author of the list of the Seven Wonders of the World that he described in a poem written about 140 BC. (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3; Klein 1998:147-150; “Antipater of Sidon” 2021). Accordingly, his name is now placed just along with Philo of Byzantium, Strabo, Herodotus and Diodoros of Sicily, who were all involved in writing on the subject (“Antipater of Sidon” 2021).
Travel fever in ancient times
Today there is a common view that real travellers no longer exist and a noble phenomenon of traveling has already been replaced by the less noble term of mass tourism (Lachowicz 2015). As a result, white spots on the travel map of the world are slowly disappearing, being replaced by tourist folders to distant, so far inaccessible places on the planet (Ibid.). The epoch of pioneering unknown routes and travelling over hidden treasures has unfortunately ended with the last dare-devil explorers at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, I believe that a human desire for an adventure is still alive in the hearts of curious modern travellers and there is somewhere not a single wonder still waiting for its discoverer.
Simultaneously, I can imagine all these ancient visitors coming to see the seven wonders, directed just by guidelines of contemporary authors, who had visited the sites first. Surely, a journey along the track of the seven wonders must have taken many years or even a lifetime to be accomplished, providing that one was taking a journey with intention to see all the monuments on the list. Alternatively, ancient travellers could have chosen their desired destinations at random, according to their own bucket list, as it is practised today. I can bet that many modern travellers, if they only had a chance to live in those times, would have travelled long distances to visit the wonders at their height. Nowadays, there are, after all, lots of people who are addicted to travelling and they are only fully alive on the way, even at their personal cost. On the other side, although such an ancient journey made one’s dreams come true, it must simultaneously have been a real challenge to contemporary travellers.
Everyone knows of the renowned Seven Wonders of the World, but few have set eyes on them, for, in order to do so you have to arrange a long journey to the land of the Persians on the far side of the Euphrates; you have to visit Egypt; you must then change direction and go to Elis in Greece. Then you must see Halikarnassos, a city-state in Caria, and Ephesos in Ionia, and you have to sail to Rhodes, so that, being exhausted by lengthy wanderings over the Earth’s surface, and growing tired from the effort of these journeys, you finally fulfil your heart’s desire only when life is ebbing away, leaving you weak through the weight of years.Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World“. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.
An outstanding ancient travel journalist, Antipater of Sidon must also have possessed quite a bit of courage and endurance to visit all the wonders he later described (Klein 1998:147). Certainly, in antiquity there were people such as the author, who were ready to endure the hardships of dangerous journeys, especially in the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, when the world known at that time expanded considerably in the fourth century BC., including the lands of Babylon, Persia and Egypt (Klein 1998:147; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1).
Those ancient travellers took risks that modern tourists have not even dreamed of (Klein 1998:147). To imagine any struggles they may have encountered on their way, it is enough to read various descriptions of a number of journeys done by mythological heroes, such as Hercules, Theseus or Odysseus, who on their way met hosts of various monsters, robbers, giants, including cyclops, or mermaids, and their journey lasted for years, additionally experienced by the violent vagaries of nature and the whims of the gods deciding about travellers’ fate (Ibid.:147,149). All these stories testified to the dangers that the ancient traveller had to reckon with (Ibid.:147,149). How mysterious and dangerous but, at the same time, fascinating the world must have been for them (Ibid.:147,149). For some, travel meant fullness of life, but also death (Ibid.:147). Nevertheless, the ancient traveller, though exposed to many dangers, trusted in both, their lucky star and the smile of gods (Ibid.:147,149). They were also able to be delighted with what they had seen, as can be noticed in the verses recorded by Antipater of Sidon, returning from his expedition (Ibid.:147,149).
I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.Antipater, “Greek Anthology IX. 58“. In: “Antipater of Sidon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
The walls of Babylon instead of the Lighthouse of Pharos
It is noteworthy that Antipater mentions the walls of Babylon in his work, an object that does not appear in later lists (Klein 1998:149). And he omits the Pharos Lighthouse (Ibid.:149). This may be a decisive clue saying that Antipater used a prototype for his own work as the Lighthouse had already been there when the author lived, that is to say in the second century BC. (Ibid.:149-150). Babylon’s walls made of fired bricks were on everyone’s lips in the fourth and third centuries BC, while the Pharos Lighthouse had not been built until around 280 BC. (Ibid.:149-150). On the other hand, the original list cannot be much older than the Alexandrian Tower, since the author mentions the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.:150). This statue was built less than twelve years before the Lighthouse was built (Ibid.:150). Thus, the date of the creation of the oldest list of wonders of the world can be placed between 292 and 280 BC. (Ibid.:150).
Accordingly, some scholars claim that in the third century BC., a Greek scholar of the Great Library of Alexandria, Callimachus of the Cyrene, Libya, was probably the first to have compiled the very first list of marvellous buildings (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Presumably, he placed on it the greatest achievements of contemporary Greece, taking into account their size, materials used, technical solutions and innovation of their creators (Ibid.:3). His list, however, has not survived to our times (Ibid.:3).
As it is seen, while searching for any historical traces of the first description of the ancient wonders, one comes across many complex issues, in which they move like in a maze of assumptions and questions (Klein 1998:150). Generally, taking into account the above, Antipater of Sidon, who was born a hundred years later than the estimated above dates, may have used an earlier source, treating it as a travel guidebook in his journey and at the same time the source of his own work (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Is it possible that Antipater had access to Callimachus’ work, and so compiled his list a century later? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Or maybe his trip, which he described, took place only in his imagination …? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje). Or for the author, the walls of Babylon he had visited deserved more attention and privilege to be called one of the wonders than the Lighthouse itself; accordingly, the latter did not appear on his list, which was created in the second century BC.
The truth, however, remains unknown.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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