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How we lost the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Blame rampaging Goths, fame-hungry arsonists and a conquering army that melted down a bronze statue and sold it off



Noah Charney
August 20, 2017 6:00PM (UTC)

In a past column, I wrote of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. This seems to be a popular theme, and the interest from readers that followed inspired a further entry on the subject. (It also features in my next book, "Museum of Lost Art," which will be published by Phaidon in 2018.)

The list of seven comes from the earliest travel writing, by Hellenic authors encouraging a sort of colonial tourism. With the Greek expansion of their empire in the 4th century B.C. to cover much of Egypt, Babylon and Persia, Greek citizens found themselves with far more territory that could be considered safe to visit. Most of the “wonders” were monuments found in these newly conquered territories, and those who wrote of them were not only describing them to those who had not (and probably would not) ever see them, but also extolling the virtues of Greek expansionism, in their ability to overcome civilizations that had been capable of creating such wonders. The Greek authors used the term theamata, which is better translated as “sites.” Taumata (“wonders”) was used by later writers. The first author to list seven sites was Diodorus Siculus, followed by Antipater of Sidon, whose list matched Diodorus’ aside from swapping out the walls of the city of Babylon for the lighthouse of Alexandria. Philo of Byzantium wrote "The Seven Sights of the World" in the 2nd century B.C., matching Antipater’s list.

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Few of the wonders of the ancient world still survive, and the list of the “big seven” includes only one that can still be seen: the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is the only one that is not known to have been destroyed, since it is not certain if it ever existed, or whether it was actually in Babylon.

The godfather of colossal statues, made by the most famous of the early Greek sculptors, was the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, sculpted by Phidias around 453 B.C. Unlike the Colossus of Rhodes, this was meant as a cult statue placed indoors, at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Emperor Caligula had designs on the statue, one of many that he ordered taken from the sanctuaries and brought to Rome, where their heads could be removed and replaced by his likeness. He died before this could be enacted. In 391 A.D., Roman Emperor Theodosius I (now part of Christian Rome) banned paganism and closed all temples. While not destroyed, the temple of Zeus was abandoned and fell into disuse. The fate of the statue of Zeus is unknown.

The Colossus of Rhodes never stood astride the harbor entrance, but alongside it. The bronze statue, about a third the size and height of New York’s Statue of Liberty (33 meters or 108 feet high), portrayed the sun god, Helios. Much of the bronze used came from the siege equipment, weapons and armor of a defeated Macedonian army, which was “up-cycled” into this famous statue. It stood for only 54 years, before a violent earthquake struck the island. In 226 B.C., much of the city was destroyed, and the colossus broke at the knees, toppling over and crashing onto the earth behind it. Greek historian Strabo wrote that the broken body of the statue, and the stone feet and plinth, remained exactly where they had fallen for over eight centuries. In its broken state, the colossus was a destination site for curious travelers. Pliny the Elder wrote that a grown man would have trouble wrapping his arms around a single fallen thumb of the statue, so giant had it been. It was only in 653 A.D. that an Arab army, under Muawiyah I, captured the island of Rhodes and, according to Theophanes the Confessor, melted down the bronze from the statue. He says that a Jewish merchant from Edessa bought the metal and required 900 camels to carry it off.

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The Lighthouse of Alexandria (280-247 B.C.), was built by Ptolomy I Soter (successor to Alexander the Great), beginning in 305 B.C. It cost 800 talents (a huge sum — the Colossus of Rhodes cost “only” 300). It was a limestone tower with a furnace at its peak, to signal vessels approaching the harbor. It was perhaps the tallest structure of the ancient world, at between 120-137 meters (394-449 feet) in height, on a base 30 by 30 meters (98 feet by 98 feet) square. It was damaged in earthquakes starting in 956 and 1323 A.D., which ruined it. The stones from which it was built were reused to construct the Citadel of Qaitbay in 1480, though some of the ruins were discovered in 1994 by underwater archaeologists, lying at the bottom of Alexandria’s Eastern Harbor.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was an elaborate tomb built around 350 B.C. for the remains of Mausolus and his wife (who also happened to be his sister), Artemisia II of Caria. The mausoleum survived many attacks on the city (by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C., and by pirates in 62 and 58 B.C.), and stood watch over the port for a good 1,600 years. A series of earthquakes, from the 12th to the 15th century, reduced it to ruins, with a 1404 report that only the base was still intact. Some of the rubble from the mausoleum was integrated into the structure of Bodrum Castle, built in 1494 by the Knights of St. John of Rhodes, while the rest was used when the fortifications were expanded in 1522, in anticipation of a Turkish invasion. It was the longest-lasting of the six destroyed wonders of the ancient world.

One of the most intricate stories is that of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. It was lost several times, and is important in the history of crime, because of an arsonist who burned it only to seek fame — a phenomenon, committing a crime in order to garner attention, that continues to this day.

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The temple was built, damaged, and rebuilt three different times before it was finally destroyed in 401 A.D. This had been a holy site since the Bronze Age, and its origins were the stuff of legend even in the ancient world: The poet Callimachus (310-240 BC) claimed that the original temple there had been built by the Amazons. This structure had been lost to a flood in the 7th century B.C., and was first rebuilt by Chersiphron, an architect from Crete, and his son, Metagenes, around 550-540 B.C. Excavations showed that the flood was so high that a meter of sand had been carried by floodwaters to smother the original, packed-clay floor. There was likely once a wooden effigy of the Lady of Ephesus, as the central votive statue in the temple, long lost to the waters.

This second temple was 115 meters (377 feet) long and 46 meters (151 feet) wide, with double rows of columns on all sides, and is thought to have been the very first Greek temple built of marble. It was burned in an act of arson in 356 B.C. The cult statue at its center was made by Endoios, carved of ebony. Excavations found more than 1,000 objects from this period of the temple’s existence, including the earliest known coins, which were made from electrum, a silver-gold alloy. Its arsonist became a notorious legend: Herostratus wanted to become famous, at any cost, so he set fire to the wooden roof-beams. He was seized and executed, and in order to quash his self-promotional plan, the Ephesians forbade the mention of his name. But the historian Theopompus wrote of his story, and thereby fulfilled the criminal’s wishes, as his name is still remembered, though not fondly. The term “herostratic fame” now refers to those who go to any lengths, even criminal, to achieve notoriety.

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It was the third incarnation that was seen by Antipater of Sidon, and made his list of wonders; he described it as the most wondrous of them all:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon, on which there is a road for chariots; and the statue of Zeus by Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the great 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.”

Alexander the Great offered to finance this rebuilding, but the Ephesians declined funds from the conqueror and arranged for the construction themselves. The new version, begun in 323 B.C., was even larger, at 137 meters (450 feet) long and 69 meters (225 feet) wide and 18 meters (60 feet) high, with at least 127 columns. The main cult statue was carved by Endoeus, said to have been a pupil of the legendary Daedalus (father of Icarus). Pausanias describes a row of images above the main altar, and a sculpture of Nyx (goddess of Night) made by Rhoecus (who worked in the 6th century B.C., meaning that some art that was ancient to 4th century Ephesians was installed in the temple — statues by past greats, like Pheidias, Phradmon, Cresilas and Polyclitus were also exhibited there). The columns themselves were dressed in gold and silver, augmenting the blinding brightness of the white marble.

The temple stood for six centuries. A work of Biblical apocrypha, "Acts of John," includes an invented description of the destruction of the temple: “of a sudden the altar of Artemis split into many pieces . . . and half the temple fell down,” resulting in the instant conversion of the population of Ephesus. The actual loss of the temple is blamed on the rampaging Goth tribe that swept through Ephesus in 268 A.D., making it the only one of the ancient wonders to have been destroyed by human hands.

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Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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