Surprising Facts About the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World

Can you name all Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? We’ll forgive you if you can’t — after all, there was a lot of disagreement about what should even be on the list in the first place. The wonders were originally known as the themata, a Greek word meaning “special sights.” The original list first appeared in 225 B.C., when Philo of Byzantium wrote On the Seven Wonders, and while others compiled competing lists soon after, his is the one that stuck. Why stick with seven? Just as we think of seven as a lucky number, so did the ancient Greeks and many other ancient cultures. Read on for some surprising facts about each of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.


The Hanging Gardens of Babylon May Have Been Mythical

Close up of various lush green plants
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These majestic gardens on the banks of the Euphrates (in present-day Iraq) were supposedly built by the Babylonians in about 600 B.C. for King Nebuchadnezzar II and his beloved Amytis, who missed her homeland. "Supposedly" is the key word here, because they may not have existed. According to reports in both Greek and Roman literature, the gardens rose 75 feet into the air on a massive brick terrace. If they did exist, they would have required huge amounts of water and a complex irrigation system to keep everything lush. However, there are no firsthand mentions of the gardens in any Babylonian records uncovered so far, leading many historians to wonder if the Hanging Gardens were little more than an exaggerated description of other gardens that became almost mythical over time. Since the gardens were said to have been destroyed by an earthquake, we may never know for sure.


The Great Pyramid of Giza Was Originally White

The Great Pyramids of Giza
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The only entry on the list that still stands today, Egypt’s Great Pyramid attracts millions of tourists each year who come to marvel at its size. Little do some of them realize that the magnificent structure once gleamed brilliant white. The pyramid, also known as Khufu, was built alongside two others between 2700 and 2500 B.C. as tombs for the pharaohs. Of the three, Khufu was the largest, comprising more than 2 million stone blocks over an area of 13 acres. Nothing else on Earth rivaled it in height until the 19th century. The original white color was due to an outer casing of Tura limestone. Although it remained intact for centuries after its construction, an earthquake in the 14th century knocked some of the outer stones loose. Much of the limestone was then removed for use in other building projects.


The Colossus of Rhodes Inspired the Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty in New York
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This 100-foot-tall bronze sculpture was the most short-lived of all the ancient wonders. Built over 12 years and completed in 280 B.C., an earthquake sent it toppling down less than 60 years later. Nevertheless, the broken remains continued to attract visitors for hundreds of years — until they were sold for scrap metal after an Arab invasion in the 7th century. We will never know exactly what the Colossus of Rhodes looked like, but it did inspire one of the United States’ most beloved landmarks. The sculpture represented the sun god Helios, but reimaginings by 19th-century artists depicted the features as more feminine than masculine. Next time you see the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, you can see how this ancient wonder lives on. Lady Liberty’s sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi said that he was inspired by both the location of the Colossus, guiding people into the harbor, and by artistic renderings of the face.


The Lighthouse at Alexandria Helped to Coin a New Word

Computer generated 3D illustration with the lighthouse of Alexandria
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You know a landmark is memorable when it leads to the creation of a new word. The famed Egyptian lighthouse was built upon the island of Pharos, which soon became so famous that it was used as the generic Greek word for lighthouse and went on to influence many other European languages. For example, in French, the word for lighthouse is phare. Built in the 3rd century B.C. to guide ships in and out of Alexandria harbor on the Nile delta, the lighthouse was impressive for its time. Coins discovered by archaeologists tell us that the lighthouse had three tiers: a square base, an octagonal middle tier, and a cylindrical top. A statue of either Ptolemy II or Alexander the Great stood on top. Frequent earthquakes in the Mediterranean region damaged the lighthouse until, by the 14th century, nothing remained. Divers have located some remains on the bed of the Nile.


The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus Is a Monument to True Love

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus with city in background
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Long before India’s Taj Mahal, there was the Mausoleum at Harlicarnassus, and like the modern landmark in Agra, this was a striking white marble monument to true love. Mausolus was King of Carnia in modern-day Turkey until he died in 353 B.C. His wife, Artemisia, was so distraught by his death that she ordered that a huge marble tomb be built in his memory. Standing in the heart of the city and at 140 feet in height, it towered above its surroundings with intricate colorful reliefs covering each outer wall. Atop the pyramid-shaped roof, four marble horses pulled a chariot driven by a bronze statue of Mausolus. The tomb of Mausolus was another ancient wonder destroyed by earthquakes during the Middle Ages, but some of the sculptures do remain and are housed in London’s British Museum.


The Temple of Artemis Was Built on Sheepskin

Tourists walking together at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
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The Mediterranean region is prone to earthquakes, and tremors led to the collapse of several wonders. However, ancient engineers came up with a creative way to help protect the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Work began in 550 B.C. and took 120 years to complete. The end result was an impressive marble structure, complete with 127 columns and a statue of the goddess. One Greek poet said, “When I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy.” Yet it was the foundations that most impressed Pliny the Elder. According to Pliny, the temple was built on swampy ground to help lessen the damage of earthquakes. The foundations themselves were made from alternating layer upon layer of charcoal and sheepskins to cushion and support the weight of the building above. Later excavations did indeed reveal layers of charcoal but any sheepskin had rotted without a trace.


The Statue of Zeus at Olympia Could Laugh

Close-up of a statue of Zeus in Rome
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As King of the Gods, Zeus was deserving of a temple and statue that were nothing less than spectacular. Twenty years after the completion of the temple at Olympia in the 5th century B.C., sculptor Phidias added a statue that gazed majestically across the site of the ancient Olympics. An ivory and gold Zeus sat bare-chested on a wooden throne decorated with ebony and gemstones. The statue was so tall that his head almost reached the temple ceiling. Shortly after its completion, the temple was struck by lightning, seen as a sign of approval from Zeus himself. But there is also another legend related to the statue. Emperor Caligula decided that the statue should be moved to Rome, where his own likeness would replace that of Zeus. Historian Suetonius wrote that as a work crew planned to carry out the emperor’s wishes, a huge laugh suddenly emanated from the statue. It was so loud that the scaffolding collapsed and the workers fled in fear. Caligula was assassinated soon after, leading some to speculate that Zeus’ laughter was a warning that one should not mess with the gods.


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