The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Bettany Hughes

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Professor Bettany Hughes OBE FSA is an award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster, who has devoted the last 25 years to the vibrant communication of the past. Her speciality is ancient and mediaeval history and culture. Her published books cover classical antiquity and myth. In recognition of her contribution to research, she has been awarded a Research Fellowship at King’s London.

For those readers who are sports fans, Bettany grew up in West London with her brother, the cricketer Simon Hughes.

In her latest publication, Bettany Hughes explores the history and legacy of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in a thoroughly researched, interesting narrative enriched with the latest archaeological discoveries. This is obviously an academic work, yet the writing style is more casual than one usually finds in such a work. The text is accompanied by nine pages of maps and locations, eight pages of coloured pictures and black and white pictures throughout. There is a list of illustrations, Plate Selection Credits, timeline BCE3100-CE2022 with the rider that all dates up until 700BCE are accurate approximations.

Hughes begins her book by telling the reader that in 1303CE a monstrous earthquake ripped through the Eastern Mediterranean causing casing stones from the Great Pyramid at Giza to become loose and brought the remains of the youngest wonder, the towering Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria crashing to the ground.

She examines the word ‘wonder’ in detail and has discovered that 70 monuments have been officially claimed as catalogued wonders of history. There are wonders of the ancient, the modern, the engineered and the natural world. One list was compiled in the second century BCE on a scrap of paper used to wrap an ancient Egyptian mummified body.

Following Alexander the Great’s lead, the Seven Wonders Concept was built on the belief that humans could make the impossible happen (5). The oldest entire seven strong list of wonders is dedicated to the poet, Antipater of Sidon (sometime between 140-100 BCE). Other lists have followed with omissions and additions. The number seven is significant.

In this narrative, historian Bettany Hughes tells the reader that this book attempts not just to catalogue the seven wonders but to understand them, to appreciate them as they were first experienced and remembered; to ask why things in general and these in particular are wonderful, and to pass on their story (11).

This seven wonders’ list is presented chronologically beginning with the Great Pyramid of Giza which she says had an intense psychological purpose. It was not just a wonder in engineering but the summation of humankind’s journey of life and death through time and space. It was Khufu’s death that would give the pyramid purpose. It was a place of ascension.

The following chapters included The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and although their exact location has never been discovered, she says it remains the most famous wonder of all the seven collected in the ancient world’s wonder-lists. The chapter about the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the first wonder to be accessible to commoners, has women, mythical and historical, at the heart of its wonder’s narrative.

Chapter four takes the reader to Olympia and the statue of Zeus, still one of the largest indoor sculptures ever made. Much of this chapter is about the original Olympic Games and what happened to this icon in later years. The remaining chapters enlighten the reader about other wonders such as a monument to death, to blood and to sex (120); a 108ft colossus which guarded the harbour on Rhodes Island and the Pharos Lighthouse which survived for over 1,500 years. Some of its building stones are still visible today in the water of the southern Mediterranean Sea (267).

All the wonders promoted in this book are examined in detail for their original purpose; their physical features; the history of the area where they were believed to have been constructed; what happened to them; what has been discovered since through archaeological digs and what the author discovered herself from personal experience.

It is soon discovered that Alexander the Great’s own narrative touches each and every one of these icons as they are all geographically, physically and culturally related.

In her conclusion, Bettany Hughes shares her belief that physical creations such as those examined in this book, shape the world that made them and the generations to come. She suggests that we create wonders to prove something, and we write about them to try to understand man’s journey through time. Through the process of producing this book she is left with the belief that powerful civilisations leave behind great monuments while great civilisations leave behind powerful ideas.

This book tells us much about a world very different from our own yet even from way back then jealousy and the craving for power have seen the desecration and loss of many structures and much knowledge. At least, in this publication, some of that knowledge can be retrieved.

Today gargantuan structures are being uncovered in Crete, Saudi Arabia, Armenia and China and while most had been lost to mankind, previously undiscovered ancient wonders could still be waiting to be discovered.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World


by Bettany Hughes

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

ISBN: 978-1-4746-1033-9

$34.99; 416pp

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