Travel isn’t a competition, but it’s full of superlatives. And despite today’s media whirlwind of newsbytes and self-aggrandizement, the urge to rank, rally, and recommend the “best” places to visit appears innate to our competitive nature. For as long as mankind has been exploring and creating, we’ve been categorizing. The deepest valley. The longest river. The tallest tower.
With today’s limitless the lists like “best foodie destination” (Lima, Peru, according to the World Travel Awards) or “best landmark” (Machu Picchu, according to Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards), and even a Seven Wonders of the World 2.0 (called the New Seven Wonders of the World; Christ the Redeemer Statue makes the list), it’s worth remembering it all started before our Common Era even began.
How did our ancestors know where to spend their holidays back in the days before the Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and crowd-sourced tourism competitions? How did a city know if they had the best building or intricate design?
They turned to the intellectuals.
The first “must see” list dates back to 225 B.C. when the Greek engineer and writer Philo of Byzantium picked seven man-made monuments and named them the themata, Greek for “things to be seen.” Travel back then wasn’t for the masses, but the elite educated themselves and further solidified their social standing by traveling to the cultural centers of their era. Though Philo is commonly credited with creating the Wonders of the World list we know today, the concept of collecting a list of the greats often goes to Callimachus of Cyrene, a Greek scholar at the Library of Alexandria who wrote the now lost essay, “A collection of wonders in the lands throughout the world.”
Of course, not everyone agreed with Philo’s selections. There was disagreement and other great minds of the time offered up their own opinions and nominees. However, it is Philo’s list that has endured the test of time.
The original Seven Wonders of the World, also called the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World, is a collection of man-made monuments near the Mediterranean belonging to a list complied during the Greek classical era. Of the seven, only one still stands.
The Colossus of Rhodes was a giant bronze statue of Helios, the Greek sun god. Built by Chares of Lindos 280 B.C., the colossal monument overlooked the harbor on the island of Rhodes. Though we have no drawing of the Colossus, scholars believe the figure held a torch in one hand. The wonder stood for 56 years before tumbling during an earthquake. After its collapse, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder was still impressed, writing in the first century A.D., “Few people can even put their arms around the figure’s thumb, and each of its fingers is larger than most statues.”
The only original Wonder left for modern travelers to admire, the Pyramids of Giza is also the oldest. Built between 2560-2510 B.C., this series of three pyramids rise from the Giza Plateau, an ongoing testament to the might of the ancient Egyptians. The Great Pyramid was 480 feet high with 775-foot sides, making it the tallest structure for four centuries after its construction. When Philo of Byzantium originally created his list, the walls of the pyramids were still covered in white limestone and carved with hieroglyphics. What is an impressive site today may have been the most spectacular structure ever created when seen in its prime.
Guiding guests into the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt, was the practical ancient wonder: the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The lighthouse was an impressive three-tiered structure situated on the island of Pharos. Topped with a statue of Zeus, the lighthouse surpassed 400 feet, making it taller than today’s Statue of Liberty. The creative force behind the lighthouse is disputed—some think it was inspired from a dream, dreamt by the famous Alexander the Great—but regardless of the origins, construction with marble and mortar began in 285 B.C. The lighthouse helped ships navigate the mouth of the Niles Delta until it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1300 or 1400s. Stones from the ruins were salvaged to build a fort on the island.
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia once sat majestically on massive throne. Housed within the Temple at Olympia—home to the early Olympic Games—the godly likeness was nearly 50 feet tall and shaped from ivory and god. Greek artist Phidias made the statue in eight years, finishing around 435 B.C. Records make special mention of the fierce expression on Zeus’ face. Though the statue reigned within the temple for over 800 years, no one is sure what happened to it. Some theorize it was destroyed in a fire at the Temple at Olympia. Others believe that as Christianity became increasingly popular in the region, the statue was removed to Constantinople for protection. It then, likely, was destroyed in a fire.
This ornate structure once stood in modern-day Bodrum, Turkey. The name of the building bears memorial to the man it was built to honor: King Mausolos, from which the word “mausoleum” originates. After his passing, Artemisia, his grieving wife (and sister), commissioned the construction of an elaborate structure in membrane of King Mausolos. The work became a free-for-all for the greatest sculptors of the time, giving the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus a distinctive blend of style. After being toppled by an earthquake, the stone were used to build a castle.
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was a building built to impress. Constructed around 550 B.C., the temple had 128 60-foot tall columns and an estimated size of 425 by 225 feet—large by today’s standards, massive by ancient standards. Built in honor of the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis, the temple incorporated Eastern design and religious elements. Its inclusive nature and location on trading crossroads attracted worshipers of various faiths. If still standing today, the Temple of Artemis would be in Selcuk, Turkey.
Any “best of” list requires a bit of controversy. On this list, we have the Hanging Gardens of Babylon… or do we? Unlike the other places on this original list, the gardens left behind no solid structures. They were, after all, gardens. More intriguing is the lack of documents mentioning the hanging gardens. The multi-level gardens were supposedly built around 600 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife, yet Babylonian documents don’t mention the flourishing structure. At the time, Babylon was a thriving urban hub. Though no one is certain of its exact former location, today Babylon is located nearly 50 miles from modern day Baghdad in Iraq.
Thanks to Wilhelm Joys Andersen for the title image of this blog.