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Wonders of the World

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The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:

The conquests of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 B.C.) in the fourth century B.C. fostered the spread of Greek culture to the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean and through much of the Middle East, ushering in what is today referred to as the Hellenistic Period (323-31 B.C.). Guidebooks compiled by Hellenistic sightseers focused on outstanding monuments in those parts of the world now brought into the Hellenistic sphere: Persia, Egypt, and Babylon. Generally, seven were emphasized since that number was considered magical, perfect, and complete. Not all Wonders lists from ancient times agreed completely, but generally six of the seven consistently appeared (the massive Walls of Babylon sometimes substituted for the Lighthouse of Alexandria). The seven described below represent the “classic” Seven Wonders most often cited.

1. The Great Pyramid of Egypt
The oldest of the Seven Wonders, the Great Pyramid is the only one that remains largely intact. Commissioned by the Pharaoh Khufu (r. ca. 2589-2566 B.C.), it is the largest of the three pyramids at Giza. It served as the ruler’s tomb and was built over a period of some 20 years, concluding about 2560 B.C. Estimated to have been 146.5 m tall when completed, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years (until the 14th century A.D.). Most of the original limestone casing stones that formed the outer smooth surface of the pyramid are gone. Today, the pyramid’s height is about 139 m.

2. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
This is the only one of the ancient Seven Wonders for which a definitive location has never been established. There are no surviving Babylonian texts mentioning the Gardens, nor have any archeological remains ever been discovered in today’s Iraq. According to tradition, the Gardens were a remarkable feat of engineering with an ascending series of mud-brick-tiered gardens containing a variety of trees, shrubs, and vines that when viewed from below resembled a leafy green mountain. The Gardens are frequently attributed to the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562 B.C.), who had them built for his Median wife Queen Amytis, who missed the green hills and valleys of her homeland.

3. The Temple of Artemis (Artemision) at Ephesus
This Greek temple at Ephesus (3 km southwest of Selcuk in present-day western Turkey), dedicated to the goddess Artemis, was completely rebuilt twice: once after a 7th century B.C. flood and then following a 356 B.C. act of arson. In its final form it was judged to be one of the Seven Wonders and it survived for 600 years. The magnificent building was composed entirely of marble. Its massive dimensions were reported as 130 m by 69 m, with 127 columns, each some 18 m tall. The Temple was damaged in a Gothic raid in A.D. 268 and finally closed by Christians in the early-to-mid 5th century. The structure was dismantled in succeeding centuries and today almost nothing of the Temple remains.

4. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
Constructed in about 350 B.C., the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was located on the site of the present-day city of Bodrum in southwestern Turkey. It was the tomb of Mausolus, a Persian ruler, and his wife. (It is from the ruler’s name that the term mausoleum is derived.) The structure stood about 45 m high and took some 20 years to complete. A series of earthquakes between the 12th and 15th centuries A.D. devastated the structure, the last of the original Seven Wonders to be destroyed.

5. The Colossus of Rhodes
This statue of the Greek sun god Helios, constructed to celebrate Rhodes’ successful repulse of a siege, was made of iron tie bars to which brass or bronze plates were attached to form a skin. Contemporary descriptions list its height at about 70 cubits or some 33 m – approximately the same height as the Statue of Liberty from heel to top of head (34 m) – thus making it the tallest statue in the ancient world. Completed in about 280 B.C. at the entrance to Rhodes harbor, the monument only stood for approximately 54 years until it toppled in a 226 B.C. earthquake. The impressive remains lay on the ground for over 800 years before finally being sold for scrap.

6. The Lighthouse (Pharos) of Alexandria
Completed around 275 B.C., the Alexandria Lighthouse stood on Pharos Island at the entrance to the Egyptian port city for some 1,600 years! It was severely damaged by three earthquakes between A.D. 956 and 1323, when it was deactivated. We have a fairly good idea of the shape of the structure since it appears on a number of ancient coins. A solid square base, which made up about half of the height, supported an octagonal middle section, and a cylindrical top. The height of the structure is thought to have been at least 100 m and perhaps as high as 140 m. (The tallest lighthouse in the world today is the Jeddah Light in Saudi Arabia, which stands at 133 m.) At its apex stood a mirror that reflected sunlight during the day; a fire burned at night. Since it could be seen at a very great distance, the Pharos light served as a reassuring beacon for mariners from all parts of the Mediterranean.

7. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece
The giant seated statue of the king of the Greek gods in the sanctuary of Olympia was completed by the Greek sculptor Phidias in approximately 435 B.C. Roughly 13 m tall, it was constructed of ivory plates and gold panels on a wooden framework; the god’s throne was ornamented with ebony, ivory, gold, and precious stones. With the rise of Christianity, the sanctuary at Olympia fell into disuse; the details of the statue’s final destruction are unknown.

note: The Lighthouse of Alexandria may have been the last of the Wonders to be completed (ca. 275 B.C.) and the Colossus of Rhodes was the first to be destroyed in about 226 B.C., so the Seven Wonders existed at the same time for only some 50 years in the middle of the third century B.C.

The New Seven Wonders of the World:

A private initiative to come up with a new list for seven of the world’s wonders sprang up early in the new Millennium. Worldwide balloting – via the Internet or by telephone – took place covering a list of 200 existing monuments. Reportedly over 100 million votes were cast over a period of several years and the final list was announced on 7-7-2007. Even though the polling was unscientific, the seven “winners” were a worthy compilation of extraordinary Wonders to be found around the world. All seven of the New Wonders are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are frequently cited in the literature. 

1. Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
This archeological site includes the impressive remains of a large pre-Columbian Maya city that flourished from ca. A.D. 600-1100. Among the outstanding structures at the site are the massive Temple of the Warriors complex, an Observatory (El Caracol), the Great Ball Court, and the Sacred Cenote (sinkhole) where offerings were made. The most famous building, however, is the step-pyramid known as the Temple of Kukulcan that dominates the center of the site and serves as the symbol of Chichen Itza. The pyramidal structure is 24 m high; the crowning temple adds another 6 m. Although located in the dense jungles of Yucatan, it remains one of the most visited tourist sites in Mexico.

2. The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Construction began with the Roman Emperor Vespasian in A.D. 72 and was completed by his son Titus in A.D. 80. Some further modifications were made by Domitian (A.D. 81-96). The three emperors make up the Flavian Dynasty, thus providing the alternate name for the structure as the Flavian Amphitheater. The massive structure is estimated to have seated, on average, about 65 thousand spectators and was most famously used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles. Substantially ruined by earthquakes and thieves who looted much of the stone, the structure nonetheless remains an iconic symbol of Rome. The Colosseum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the World.

3. Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Built between 1922 and 1931, the 30-meter-tall sculpture is reputed to be the largest Art Deco statue in the World. Its pedestal provides another 8 m in height and the arms stretch out to 28 m. Constructed of reinforced concrete and soapstone, the statue has become the cultural icon not only of Rio but also of Brazil.

4. Great Wall, China
The name refers to a remarkable series of fortification systems that stretched across the northern historical borders of China and served as protection against various nomadic peoples. The earliest of these walls date to the 7th century B.C.; certain stretches began to be linked in the 3rd century B.C. and successive dynasties added to or maintained various sections of the walls. The best known and best-preserved portions of the wall are those built by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). An archeological survey revealed that the Wall and all its associated branches measures 21,196 km. Winding through amazingly varied terrain, the Great Wall is acknowledged as one of the most impressive architectural feats in history.

5. Machu Picchu, Cuzco Region, Peru
Perhaps the most spectacular archeological site in the Americas, the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, situated on a 2,430 m Andean mountain ridge, is now thought to have been erected as an estate for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti (r. 1438-1471). Additionally, it may also have served as a religious sanctuary. Built between about 1450 and 1460, it was abandoned approximately a century later, at the time of the Spanish conquest. Construction was carried out in the classic Inca style of polished, dry-stone, fitted walls. Some 750 people lived at this royal estate, most of them support staff to the nobility. The site is roughly divided into an agricultural sector (with myriad terraces for raising crops) and an urban sector. The latter is composed of an upper town (with temples) and a lower town (with warehouses). Some of the religious monuments include: the Intiwatana (a carved, ritual stone that served as a type of sundial and that is referred to as “The Hitching Post of the Sun”); the Torreon or Temple of the Sun, a small tower that likely served as a type of observatory; and the Intimachay, a sacred cave with a masonry entrance.

6. Petra, Ma’an, Jordan
Petra is believed to have been established in the 4th century B.C. as the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, an entity that grew fabulously wealthy as the nexus of trade routes in the southern Levant. The kingdom retained its independence until annexed by the Roman Empire in A.D. 106. The city is justifiably famous for two things, its stunning rock-cut architecture and its water conduit system, which allowed the Nabataeans to control and store the water supply in this desert region and create an artificial oasis. At its peak in the 1st century A.D., the city may have had a population of 20 thousand.

7. Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India
This gorgeous ivory-white mausoleum – described as “one of the universally admired masterpieces of the World’s heritage” – was commissioned in 1632 by Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658) as the final resting place for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The building also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. The Taj Mahal is the centerpiece of an entire 17-hectare complex that also includes a guest house, a mosque, and formal gardens. The entire project was not completed until about 1653. The Taj Mahal remains one of the most visited tourist sites in the World.

note: The Great Pyramid of Egypt, the only surviving Wonder of the ancient Seven, received an honorary status among the New Seven Wonders. Its inclusion enabled a Wonder to be listed for five of the six habitable continents (all but Australia).

The World Factbook's Seven Natural Ultra-Wonders of the World:

While all of the above Wonders are indeed outstanding, their presence in any type of list is entirely subjective. There are many other fabulous sites around the world that are equally worthy of being designated as Wonders. (An example is the inclusion of Chichen Itza from Mexico. While it is spectacular, it became a 'Wonder' for its popularity as a tourist site. Equally worthy in the same country is Teotihuacan, a far larger site outside of Mexico City that has two immense pyramids that dwarf the one at Chichen Itza.)

Taking these considerations into account, The World Factbook has come up with a Seven Wonders list that is indisputable, i.e., a list derived in a completely objective manner. A decision was made to focus on natural wonders and not anything man-made. These Wonders are all the biggest in their respective categories (they cannot be topped) and so there can be no dispute with the choice, therefore the 'ultra' designation. This fact distinguishes the Factbook listing from other Seven Natural Wonders lists that have been compiled in the past.

1. Amazonia
A trans-national Wonder that is: a. the World's largest collection of land biodiversity, b. the World's largest rainforest, and c. includes the World's largest swamp in the Amazon River floodplain; mostly in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, but also in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.

2. Central Indo-Pacific Region
A Wonder hotspot that is the World's largest collection of marine biodiversity; best represented by the Coral Triangle in the tropical waters around the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste; as well as by the Great Barrier Reef (the World's largest reef) in Australia.

3. The Aurora (Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis; aka the Polar Lights)
The World's largest light display that never ceases to awe; seen in countries of the northern latitudes, as well as those of the southern latitudes and Antarctica.

4. Mount Everest and the Himalayas
The World's tallest mountain and mountain range above sea level that stretches across Nepal, China (Tibet), India, Pakistan, and Bhutan (see alternate below).

5. Victoria Falls
The World's largest unbroken waterfall on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (see alternates below).

6. Sahara
The World's largest hot desert that spreads across Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia (see alternate below).

7. Animal Migrations
The Earth is full of astounding migrations – occurring daily, seasonally, or annually – that are truly awe-inspiring natural wonders. A few extraordinary examples are: a. the diel vertical migrations (DVM, the World's largest animal migration in terms of biomass and number of animals participating), which occur twice daily in all the oceans when zooplankton (microscopic animals) and fish rise to near the surface at night to feed on phytoplankton (microscopic plants) and then with the return of day dive back into the depths to hide in dark waters; b. the Arctic tern's annual round trip of 71,000 km (from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere and back (the World's longest avian migration); or c. the 22,000 km annual migration of the humpback whale (World's longest mammal migration).


Mountain alternate (no. 4). If measured strictly from base to peak, then the World's tallest and largest mountains would be on the Island of Hawaii, which includes both the World's tallest mountain [Mauna Kea] and the World's largest active volcano and most voluminous mountain [Mauna Loa]); United States (Hawaii).

Waterfall alternate (no. 5). What constitutes the 'biggest' waterfall(s) can be approached in a number of ways. Depending on one's viewpoint, Iguazu Falls (World's largest waterfall system (275 drops)) in Argentina and Brazil, or Angel Falls (World's tallest waterfall) in Venezuela could substitute.

Desert alternate (no. 6). If a desert is defined as a barren area where little precipitation occurs, then Antarctica with the World's largest polar desert would certainly qualify; it is about 1.5 times the size of the Sahara. The southern continent does not belong to any one country but is a condominium governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty.

note: A question might arise, how about the World's largest canyon? The Grand Canyon (United States, Arizona) is sometimes mentioned as a Wonder of the World, but 'largest' canyons can be notoriously difficult to define and measure. Does one go by length, depth, or total area of canyon system? Then too, there are largely inaccessible canyons in the Himalayas that have never been properly surveyed and massive canyons are known to exist in some ice-covered parts of Greenland and Antarctica. Therefore, it is not possible to come up with a superlative canyon.