What Makes a Wonder? On the Human Need to Map Out Monumental Greatness

Wunder, Old English
“A marvelous thing, miracle, object of astonishment.”

In 1303 CE, 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 travelers 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 of experience, spanning nearly 4,000 years, from the vision of a single, almighty human to a network of human minds, 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 of our species 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 Seven Wonders of the Ancient World walks through the landscapes of both ancient and modern time; a journey whose purpose is to ask why we wonder, why we create, why we choose to remember the wonder of others. I have traveled as the ancients did across continents to explore traces of the Wonders themselves, and the traces they have left in history. My aim has been to discover what the Seven Wonders of the ancient world meant to “them”—to our relatives across time—and what they do and can mean to us.

The word wonder is pliable: wonder is both a phenomenon and a process. Wonders are potent because wondering helps us to realize that the world is bigger than ourselves. The wonderful generates interest, and frequently empathy, and that interest and empathy nourishes connection. We process and internalize these connections. Intellectually and emotionally, via the physical process of thought, we realize we are, truly, one world. So we seek wonders—natural, man-made, philosophical, scientific, whether they are near or far—as a socializing act.

The Seven Wonders concept reinforced an exciting, and nourishing, notion that humans could make the impossible happen.

How then do we collectively decide what is wonderful?

One time-honored 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. At the last count, seventy monuments have been officially claimed as catalogued wonders of history. There is now a vogue for the nationalism of wonders—the Seven Wonders of Everywhere, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, from Canada to Colombia. Spiritual too, the Seven Wonders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu and Christian faiths have all been eagerly gathered together.

But there was one international wonder-selection which seems to have formed a blueprint for all others. The discovery, and indeed survival, of this fragmentary alpha-to-omega inventory is close to miraculous. Compiled in the second 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.

This mummification wrapping—cartonnage—was itself discovered in an excavation at Abusir el-Melek in Central Egypt. Close to modern-day Beni Suef, Abusir el-Melek is a Nile river-city which was once an ancient capital of Upper Egypt, and which has endured as a stolid commercial centre, manufacturing linen and carpets. If one sails down the Nile today, the flourishing settlement announces its presence via a cement factory. From afar, clouds of cement-dust, somewhat ironic ally, reveal the Nile waters and desert all around with the appearance of a romantic late-eighteenth-century watercolor.

The ancient city, called se Hut nen nesut by the Egyptians (known as Hnes in Coptic, and renamed Heracleopolis Magna by Greeks and Romans), enjoyed its own prosperity—a place that was rich in both lives and afterlives. The many burials on the Nile’s sandbank-shores here privileged a cult of the Ancient Egyptian god of life and death, of fertility and immortality—the god named Osiris. The hero-gods Herishef (“Ruler of the Riverbanks”) and Herysfyt (“He who is over strength”) were also adored here—the latter a figure associated by Egypt’s Greek rulers of the Hellenistic Age with their own hero Herakles. And wrapping up one of the thousands of entombed humans found at Abusir el-Malek, in the form of mummification material, inked onto flat-reed paper—was that earliest, extant Wonder-list. Now known as the Berlin Papyrus 13044, the Laterculi Alexandrini was created 2,200 years ago.

The Laterculi Alexandrini (the name laterculus was used from late antiquity onwards to denote an inscribed tablet or a stone publishing information in a list or calendar form) is a fragmentary list of many lists—not just of the Seven Wonders of the World, but a cornucopia of sevens: the seven most important islands, the seven most beautiful rivers, the seven highest mountains, the seven best artists (the catalogue continues)—a kind of vital, ancient Who’s Who, if you like, or antiquity’s Buzzfeed.

Almost certainly written in the city of Alexandria, the Laterculi Alexandrini papyrus comes from a time and place with immense confidence. The warrior-king Alexander the Great, the ultimate colonizer who rose up from Macedonia to seize lands from Egypt to India (desiring an empire that stretched further—from the edge of the Atlantic to China) had prematurely died while effecting his world takeover, and his vast territories were being divvied up by his generals—once loyal, but now bickering amongst themselves.

The original Seven Wonders list was therefore a product of the Hellenistic Age, that baggy epoch spanning the death of Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon) in 323 BCE and the death of Cleopatra of Egypt (Cleopatra VII of the Ptolemies) in Alexandria itself in 30 BCE. This was a time when Greek culture had seeped around the edges of the world, and was also being actively forced upon it. So we find prototypes of the palaces, temples and tombs from Alexander’s birthplace at Pella in Northern Greece also turning up in exact, mathematical replicas from Sudan in Africa to Sogdia (an ancient civilization ranging across modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).

The great Buddhist kings of what is now Nepal and Northern India, such as Aśoka, left inscriptions of Buddhist philosophy outside towns like Kandahar (named for Alexander) in modern-day Afghanistan, in a Greek script and language. Homer was quoted in Pakistan, and the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides played to audiences in Susa in modern-day Iran, on the shores of the Caspian Sea and in Babylon—close to Baghdad, in what is now Iraq.

Alexander the Great, responsible for this fervor for Hellenic culture, thought nothing was impossible. His famed exclamation, “The world is not enough!” only goes part of the way to encapsulate his appetite and his drive. Insisting on literary, athletic and cultural contests wherever he went, carrying a copy of Homer’s Iliad annotated by Aristotle, one of his inspirations was the legendary hero Perseus (a mythological character claimed by Alexander’s family as an ancestor), whose life-story taught that our greatest fear is of fear itself. In a remarkable Hellenistic tomb at Derveni in Northern Greece, uncovered by accident during modern-day road-widening, a coin minted by Alexander has been unearthed with an image of Herakles’ club on one side and the goddess of wisdom, Athena, on the other. Alexander saturated his campaigns with a kind of pugilistic optimism and belief in the power of the pen and the sword.

The Hellenistic world followed suit, sponsoring a worldview that was at once aggressive and aspirational, appetitive and erudite. Belief in astrology—that pseudo-science which could allow all things to be a possibility—escalated, and the worship of the goddess of Tyche—Good Fortune—was fostered in the majority of Hellenistic cities. Travel through many sites of the Hellenistic Age, from King Antiochus I’s tomb-burial on the top of Mount Nemrut in Eastern Turkey to incense-trading cities in Oman, and you find stubborn, weathered representations of Tyche, the good luck goddess.

Just as neuroscientists now tell us we invent our memories to match a narrative of ourselves, so Hellenistic mythmakers rewrote global history to match their self-belief (declaring, for example, that Buddha was in fact a descendant of a Greek soldier who invaded India with the god of wine and ecstasy, Bacchus-Dionysos—a deity whose trail Alexander the Great would endeavor to follow). The Hellenistic Age gaslit contemporaries and future generations into experiencing the world through an Hellenic lens. It is an influence to be both feared and admired.

Alexander gave his name to at least fifty cities across Asia, Africa and Europe. Scholars and scientists in Alexandria invented extraordinary things: the first known steam-engine, the first computer, geometry, longitude and latitude—a calculation that divided the earth into the climate zones we still use today, as well as a means to accurately measure the circumference of the earth. And in the other Alexandrias around the world they took note, took interest, and took their cue to explore and draw inspiration from the wonders of the world that felt relevant and cogent. The Seven Wonders concept reinforced an exciting, and nourishing, notion that humans could make the impossible happen.


The Laterculi Alexandrini opens with an imagined conversation between Alexander the Great and the gumnosophists—literally, the naked-sapience-speakers—of the Indian sub-continent about the nature of rule. Surely referring to the Sadu, to Brahmin peripatetics, and to the Buddhist monks of Bactria (men described as being vegetarian and living naked), these gumnosophists from the East were considered by the Hellenistic world to be primordial wisdom-makers, men who understood the broadest possible sweep of human experience (and who, interestingly, advised Alexander the Great that the most powerful man on earth is the man whose power is not feared).

The Greek biographer Plutarch also tells us that Alexander met these wise men, the exacting ruler being counseled, “hard questions have hard answers.” Their presence at the top of this fragmentary list of our ancient Wonders is significant: the Seven Wonders compilation was a catalogue not just of arcane or passing interest, it was being flagged as an exercise in understanding.

The Seven Wonders list was therefore conceived as an interrogation of the nature of power, and as an advertorial, a boastful guidebook to the “known world”—that is, the world known, and colonized, by the Hellenistic Greeks and their allies. All the Wonders had connections one to the other, and all the locations could be physically visited, with relative ease. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—a list which varies but is 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, the majority of which had a direct connection to Alexander the Great and to his family and followers—immortalized a celebration of Hellenism as well as of native inspiration, and the reach of Greek culture in the star-stream wake of Alexander.

So who arbitrated this protean, impactful inventory of seven? Callimachus of Cyrene (born in Libya but also based in Alexandria) compiled A Collection of Sights in Lands throughout the World at the time that one Wonder, the Pharos Lighthouse, was being raised, but this work has been lost to time. The oldest entire seven-strong list that we know of was almost certainly compiled by a poet born on the bright, wide coastline of Lebanon, a man called Antipater of Sidon.

Antipater traveled to Rome, and he composed his wonder-verse sometime between 140 and 100 BCE. The poem features both the walls of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon but ignores the lighthouse at Alexandria. This might seem odd given that Alexandria was the epicenter of the Hellenistic world and that the Pharos Lighthouse was such an extraordinary existing construction. Perhaps, though, the Pharos was just too obvious. The Seven Wonders list came from the vantage point of the lighthouse—a beam seeking out and illuminating Wonders that could be reached by a journey. It is almost as if the Pharos Lighthouse was, as it were, base camp for Wonder quests, so familiar to authors, many of whom were based in Alexandria, that it was simply a given.

Other Wonder-list versions followed. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century CE who wrote a vast History of the World, added an obelisk in Babylon to the list. Pseudo-Hyginus, another Roman-period author, in his Fabulae omits the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The geographer Strabo, the military leader Josephus, and historian Quintus Curtius Rufus published their own lists in an age when Roman generals, from Julius Caesar onwards, had moved into Egyptian and Eastern territories.

Rather like the British Empire’s scouts or Napoleon’s savants, the Romans were scoping out and aligning themselves with the treasures of territories that they desired to call their own. A slightly shadowy figure, another Greek called Antipater, in the service of the globe-trotting Roman senator Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who flourished around the year 1 CE, a hundred years or so after the first Antipater (of Sidon), could quite possibly be one of the earliest known eyewitnesses to all Seven Wonders: “I have seen the walls of rock-like Babylon that chariots can run upon, and the Zeus on the Alpheios; and the Hanging Gardens, and the great statue (Colossus) of the Sun, and the huge labour of the steep pyramids, and the mighty tomb of Mausolos…I wonder too at the statue of Artemis at Ephesus.” (This second Antipater also neglects to mention the lighthouse at Alexandria.)

In the fifth century CE, in Constantinople, another enigmatic author, the Pseudo-Philon of Byzantium, seems to have written a short travel guidebook on the subject of antiquity’s wonderful seven—copies of which made their way to Mount Athos in Greece, and to the Vatican, where one manuscript was stolen by Napoleon’s forces, and which has now ended up in the Palatine Library, Heidelberg. All surviving copies of this text are incomplete, stopping halfway through Chapter Six of seven. A fourteenth-century version of Pseudo-Philon’s work has been digitized by the British Library and is freely accessible. The tightly written charcoal-brown ink with carmine additions dashes across the page, emphasizing the (rewarding) effort it would take to visit each Wonder within a lifetime, and the power of holding images of these great works of mankind in the mind’s eye.

Wonders were, and still are, things both on earth and in our minds, touchstones in every sense of the word.

Across time, the very Wonder-lists themselves became objects of desire. The Greek word used in many of the original documents for the Wonders was theamata—a “sight,” a thing that was “seen,” a “spectacle.” The word “theme” in Greek evolved into a site, or a thing that was placed. The notion theamata then morphed into something new: thaumata—a physical phenomenon that generated amazement and wonder. Wonders were positioned, set down; Wonders were, and still are, things both on earth and in our minds, touchstones in every sense of the word.

And these touchstones ended up as a catalogue, in that Hellenistic culture which was driven by the rational, empirical, taxonomic approach of thinkers such as Aristotle (personal tutor to Alexander the Great). For the inhabitants of Alexandria, the formulation of categorizing lists was paramount. Alexandria was the Hellenistic and Roman world’s search-engine—and the Seven Wonders were the marvels that those living in the city, or in the wider Eastern Mediterranean, could physically travel out to visit.

Indeed, although the great lighthouse of Alexandria first appears in an extant Wonder-list in the fifth century CE (originally in an anthology of Greek epigrams, it is also described as the “first” Wonder in and a Christian science text of c. 300 CE, and is then listed in the work of the monk-scholar from Gaul, Gregory of Tours), it is essential to include it here because the Pharos Lighthouse protected the very city that housed the scholars, poets and scientists—supported by a library packed floor to ceiling with papyri—who ensured not only that the story of the world was marked out by its wonders, but that knowledge of them was essential for a fully functioning world.

As I have 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 they are about the West, and as much to do with human psychology as with physical triumph. Hellenistic Greeks might have colonized the notion of Wonders in Alexandria in the third or second century BCE (the Greek culture that invented the word-idea history was famously adept at writing itself into it), yet the taxonomy of “wonders’—especially when grouped together seven at a time—was, in fact, 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. We hear of tabrati first, and most consistently, applied to the Great Walls of Babylon—those walls that were set to come tumbling down and which appear as one of the Seven Wonders in many ancient lists.

Wonder, in its original application, seems to mean something monumental. Something to fear. The walls of Babylon, for instance, and the ziggurats of Babylonia were wonders because they were, literally, sights to behold, to take the breath away, to intimidate. Tabrati is a sight, a thing made to be seen. We still understand the power of raw awe. “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair,” the King of Kings Ozymandias (the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II) is imagined by the poet Shelley to have thundered.

For many cultures in the Middle East, seven was also a number which started and ended all things—there were Seven Heavens, Seven Hells, Seven Gates to Hell (through which the almighty love goddess Inanna proceeded, shedding an item of clothing at each opening—a precursor of Salome’s apocryphal dance of the Seven Veils), Seven Ages of Man, Seven Ages of Creation in the Qu’ran.

There were Seven Celestial Bodies and eventually Seven Sages of Greece; the Assyrian word for the world, kissatu, equates with seven. The number seven had a natural, symbolic and associative power. Seven was a potent sum because it connected the four elements of the earth (earth, air, fire and water) and the three of the heavens (the sun, the moon and the stars). Seven was magical, it was all that mattered; neither a product nor a factor of the first ten numbers, it was indivisible. Pythagoras, the mathematician from the island of Samos, a short bird-flight away from all but one of our Seven Wonders, named the number seven the Athena—the Virgin. A virgin who has enjoyed many lovers.

The power of seven could be malign as well as benign. In an Akkadian text of the ninth or eighth century BCE—written a hundred years or so before the Hanging Gardens in Babylonia were probably constructed—seven sons of heaven on earth call on Irra, the god of plague, to destroy mankind. Irra, also known as Erra, pulls back just before annihilation, retreating with these seven personified weapons, these terrifying “peerless champions”—who reappear in other texts and contexts as the evil of disease.

The incantations of seven heroic saviors—the Mesopotamian bit meseri ritual—were believed to neutralize the maleficent seven. Greek interaction with the East from around this time, as adventuring Greeks pushed towards the rising sun from the eighth century BCE onwards, seems to have brought seven-themed stories into the Greek canon—the Seven Against Thebes, the seven-headed hydra et al. So although we might be led to think of the Seven Wonders as emerging from the Hellenistic world, the concept has far deeper Middle Eastern and Asian roots.

Collectively and individually, the impact of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was not just the shock and awe that was their original aim, but a yeast for ideas. The very act of connecting disparate expressions of culture gives us hope as a species—it is an act of communion. Listing them is also a political one. Collective intelligence is the hallmark of our species.

Wonders have currency because we can wonder with them. Thinking of them, we can imagine the human effort to create, we witness our strange, sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive, urge to engage with the rest of the world on the front foot. It was the selection of seven that made the subjects of this work and the compilation of those Wonder-lists extra-wonderful, that gave them a quasi-mystical aura; the Wonders themselves were very much accumulations of human wit and will, human endeavor and imagination marked out in cubits and cuts.


seven wonders of the ancient world

From The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: An Extraordinary New Journey Through History’s Greatest Treasures by Bettany Hughes. Copyright © 2024. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

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