Two are the things we must know about the Seven Wonders of the World. The first is that seven was a number of significance to the ancient Greeks. All important classifications and groupings seem to have been determined by it. Thus, we have the ‘Seven Sages’ of ancient Greece and the ‘Seven,’ led by Polynices, who fought to reduce Thebes, as featured in the homonymous play by Aeschylus, and Euripides in his ‘Phoenician Women.’ This number was also applied to geographical groupings. Atlantis, according to Plato, was said to have comprised seven islands, there were seven hills in Rome and in later antiquity, seven hills of New Rome, Constantinople. Though the mystical significance of such a classification seems well entrenched in ancient thought, it often confounded the ancients. According to Iamblichus, Pythagoras was said to have commented: “Number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of gods and demons.” But then again, what else would one expect from a man whose facility with numbers has caused him to be referred to as Ahl al-Tawhid and along with Plato, is revered as a prophet by the Druze communities of Lebanon? In Pythagoras’ view, the number seven was the symbol of virginity, since it neither factors nor produces among the numbers one to ten. When applied to the Seven Wonders of the World, one would assume that this signifies the fact that these Seven Wonders neither factor, nor produce new Wonders and they are meant to stand as an exclusive club for eternity.
The second thing that we should note about the Wonders of the World is that the are a Greek tourist ploy, the likes of which would turn Thomas Cook green with envy. Wily ancient Greek travel writers, in the pay of unscrupulous travel agents and Hellenic Planet guidebook owners, compiled a list of remarkable man-made constructions, located around the Mediterranean rim, presumably because it was there that the tour guides operated and a mass influx of wealthy Greek tourists, replete with amphorae of purified water slung on their backs could be anticipated and accommodated. That the orientation of such writings were touristy is proven by the fact that the ancient Greek writers did not call the Wonders ‘thaumata’ but rather ‘theamata’ or ‘must-sees,’ a sort of precursor to today’s inane lists of top ten banalities. The publication of such lists was accompanied by the usual consequences: as early as 1600BC, tourist graffiti begins to appear scrawled upon monuments in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings and ancient Greeks must have boasted about ‘doing’ the pyramids, as much as their modern antecedents do today.
The travel writers of the period are of an exalted pedigree. Herodotus and Callimachus of Alexandria are said to have been the first to have created the scam, though their writings on the Wonders have been lost and survive only in other works, as references. The first extant list is that of Antipater’s of Sidon, a Lebanese Greek, who artfully used his questionable mastery of poetic evocation to elicit the requisite emotional responses in his nouveau-riche readers, that would compel them to book a guided peregrination and circumamblulation of the chosen sights, with his agency. Quoth he: “I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which there is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the Hanging Gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the 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.” In other words, East of West, (and feel free to book your tours of both these destinations with us, as we offer many, many exciting packages) Greece is best.
Perhaps the most charming thing about the Seven Wonders is that by the time their authoritative list was compiled in the 6th century AD, supposedly by Philo of Byzantium, most of them had ceased to exist, a compelling and profoundly moving expression of the futility of all our works and deeds. The temple of Artemis, which was supposed to have been the greatest Wonder of all by Antipater, was burned to the ground by the delinquent Herostratus, who committed this barbarous act of vandalism, simply to achieve the immortality of his name. Similarly, the golden and ivory statue of Zeus by master sculptor Pheidias seems to have been misplaced. We have no documentary evidence of its fate save this tantalizing snippet from Lucian of Samosata: “They have laid hands on your person at Olympia, my lord High-Thunderer, and you had not the energy to wake the dogs or call in the neighbours; surely they might have come to the rescue and caught the fellows before they had finished packing up the swag.” The Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus were both destroyed in earthquakes, though a reconstruction of the Mausoleum exists in the form of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and Los Angeles City Hall. The Colossus of Rhodes stood for only fifty six years before it snapped at the knees during an earthquake and toppled over. Its subsequent fate is notable, in that if one believes Theohpanes the Confessor, the Arab Caliph Muawiyah sold its bronze remains to a travelling salesman from Edessa, who transported the scrap back to his city on the backs of 900 camels, giving rise to the ancient Arabian curse: “May the fleas of a thousand camels nest in your armpits.” The enduring legacy of the statue is not only the scintillating sword and sandal 1961 flick, but the arrogance of the Americans, whose statue of Liberty was inspired by the Colossus and who have inscribed upon a plaque the following taunt by Emma Lazarus: “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,/ With conquering limbs astride from land to land;/ Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand.” Yeah? And may the fleas of a thousand camels nest in your bronze gusset, Miss Liberty.
Of all the ancient Wonders, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are perhaps the most fascinating in that they may not have existed at all. The only references we have for them exist in the writings of Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, who supposedly purloined their account from Berossus, a Babylonian priest of the fourth century. No concrete archaeological evidence of the Gardens has ever been found, giving rise to the niggling suspicion that these are a clever invention by unscrupulous tour guides, as a pretext for a lengthy (and expensive) detour to Iraq. In the precursor to the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, one can plausibly imagine smug Greek tour guides shrugging their shoulders and protesting to the United Tourist Nations: “No Hanging Gardens? Impossible. They were here last time we looked. Anyway, we are here now, so we might as well make the place safe for tourocracy.” After all Babylon has always been a haven for rival tour guides.
Lowell Thomas seems not to have understood the mystical significance of the number of the ancient Wonders of the World and to have ineptly considered that this list could be added to or updated. For it was he who is primarily responsible for the abominable generation of a new list of Wonders, through his making of the 1956 film “Seven Wonders of the World,” wherein he “searches the world for natural and man-made wonders and invites the audience to try to update the ancient Greek list…”
We did not make it on the list of New Seven Wonders, his enfant terrible, which is terrible, considering that we inviented the list in the first place. Instead of hurling down Pythagorean curses upon Swiss businessman Bernard Weber, the insitigator of this blasphemy, Greek Culture Minister Georgios Voulgarakis prissily pointed out that: “Monuments do not have to parade on a podium like in a beauty contest.” One can only wonder whether he would have taken this stance had the Parthenon actually made it into the new list and it may be for this reason that both the tour guides and the soldiers guarding this superlative symbol of Athens seem to be perennially on strike this year.
The reason our Parthenon did not make it on the list of New Seven Wonders seems to be attributable to another Greek invention: democracy. Participants worldwide were invited to vote for their wonder of choice and it follows logically that they would vote for a particular construction in their homeland. For example, by July, ten million Brazilians had voted for the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. This is no wonder given the amount of marketing that went into the process. One morning in June, Rio de Janeiro residents awoke to a beeping text message on their mobile phones: “Press 4916 and vote for Christ. It’s free!” Greece, still exhausted after the 2005 Eurovision campaign to ensure the lyric Pythagorean pentagrammic supremacy of Elena Paparizou could not hope to match such endeavours. Similarly, the Hellenistic Nabatean Red City of Petra in Jordan only made the list after an intense campaign through the Arab world by Queen Rania. That campaign was so successful, despite Jordan only having a population of under seven million people, that over 14 million votes were made from the country. It comes as a rude shock to learn that the rest of the world could not care a hoot about our virtual hallowed place as the birthplace of all that is noble and sacred, and that we lack the requisite queens to get our message of cultural superiority across.
The Parthenon truly is a wonder. Though it was shortlisted as possessing the attributes of Democracy and Civilization, it was only built through Pericles’ pillaging of the Delian leagues’ treasury, which was a common fund designed for the defence of a conglomeration of Greek states. Considering the various vicissitudes it has met with over the years, including being partially blown up by the Venetian Morozini, its defacement by Lord Elgin and acid rain, it is a wonder that it is still standing at all. Yet Pythagoras yet again holds the key to our bruised egos. If the Seven Wonders are indeed virginal, and so can produce no others, how much more virginal is the Parthenon, whose very name denotes virginity? Truly then, it is peerless and subject not to the paltry attempts of the impotent to pierce the hymen of its splendour and significance. The Parthenon, and the Seven Wonders are living proof that the legacy of legend is eternal and that mankind may truly aspire to perfection. They will continue to entrance and inspire humanity in a way that the new wonders, all of them notable and exemplary buildings in their own right, will never be able to do.
Diatribe leaves you this week with the thought that if Greece was to provide a modern wonder for a modern list, surely that wonder would be a toss up between the Tardis like bigger on the inside than on the outside cave of Perama, the self-demolishing, blodd-sacrifice demanding bridge at Arta or Athens Metro, begun in 1869. Considering the delays, the prevarications and the cost blow outs over a century, it is a wonder that it was built at all, though it truly is wondrous, given that it is the only metro that doubles as a museum of antiquities in the entire world. Until next time, let us mull over the following gem, by Walt Streightiff: “There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.”