Rewording: Bettany Hughes’ review of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – a journey of wonder and fascination.
The phrase “seven wonders of the ancient world” may evoke negative feelings. The idea of a list of popular archaeological sites with crowded tourist buses, pushy tour guides, and unreliable air conditioning can be off-putting. However, Bettany Hughes aims to reignite our fascination with what she refers to as seven “examples of human imagination” – including the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. She has personally journeyed by both land and sea to investigate remnants of these Wonders. With a tone reminiscent of Homer, she now shares with us the reasons why we should marvel at these Wonders and perhaps embark on our own journeys.
We begin our journey on the Nile River, gazing at the blazing sun and attempting to spot the peak of King Khufu’s grand pyramid, constructed around 2560 BCE. The ruler strongly believed that a tall, pointed structure made of blinding white limestone would serve as the perfect launching pad for him to ascend into the heavens and continue onto the afterlife. Excitingly, recent findings have surfaced about his plans for after death travel. Hughes reveals that in 2011, a boat was unearthed on the eastern side of the Pyramid, still patiently waiting to transport its royal commander into the unknown. One cannot help but admire the literal interpretation or perhaps overconfidence of the Egyptian king in his belief that he could navigate his way to the stars. It is worth noting, however, that his preserved body has never been located.
Hughes’s book brings great delight in the way she explores the less-than-glamorous fates of her curiosities. During the 1930s, when Egyptology was a popular trend, it was fashionable for the glamorous youth to scale Khufu’s pyramid and flaunt their swimsuits while picnicking, in order to maintain their trendy tans.
It becomes more intricate when there is uncertainty about the existence of a specific marvel. This is the situation with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, believed to have been constructed around 600BCE. While there is significant archaeological proof for the robust walls of the Mesopotamian city, the idea that they were adorned with extraordinary shrubbery goes against natural laws and physics. Although an elaborate irrigation system could have functioned in theory, it is questionable if it was capable of delivering such a feat. It is possible, as Hughes suggests, that the gardens were simply a few sparse plants and a hopeful imagination.
Perhaps it could be interpreted as a metaphor. During the iron age, humans focused on leaving their mark on the world rather than aspiring to join the gods in the sky. This was also the time when the Book of Genesis, which includes extravagant descriptions of the Garden of Eden, was written. Whether or not a majestic garden did exist in the sky, it served as a captivating challenge for later creators of marvels. It influenced the gardens of Alexandria, some of which still exist along the Mahmūdiyya canal. It also inspired the gardens at Herod’s Winter Palaces in Judaea and the grandeur of Nero’s Golden House in Rome.
Although it may be tempting to interpret ancient marvels symbolically, author Hughes insists on the importance of factual evidence. In her book, she recounts visiting a mansion where a decapitated skull of a young, noble woman was found, believed to be a virgin sacrifice to appease the gods. This experience made the ancient stories feel shockingly real to Hughes. Her ability to seamlessly navigate between various perspectives – mythical, historical, sacred, profane, and emotionally charged – makes her an engaging and captivating guide.