Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Ancient Wonders and Motives For A New Selection

What are the Seven Wonders of the World?

It's a famous and prestigious title, but how many people can actually identify all seven? Until recently I, like most people, could have come up with a handful, perhaps five if I was feeling particularly inspired: The Pyramids of course, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Statue of Zeus of somewhere. Which am I missing? No, The Great Wall of China isn't one, or The Colosseum. There's a mausoleum there, and a temple...

More accurately, the Seven Wonders are the Seven Ancient Wonders, all based around the Classical world of Greece, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and as the name suggests they are pretty old. Or were pretty old. You see, the thing is, apart from the Pyramids, all the other ancient Wonders no longer exist. The Hanging Gardens possibly never existed in the first place. All were destroyed hundreds of years ago, with nothing or virtually nothing remaining. So if we feel like a little trip down mankind's memory lane, or just a little wonder in our lives, we don't have much to go on.

In fact, given the various times of construction and destruction, the window available to see all seven in their full glory was less than sixty years, between 280-226BC, the lifespan of the Colossus of Rhodes (although its ruins were said to be pretty impressive in their own right). It's unknown whether anyone actually ever did so: the various "daddies" of the Wonder list, which emerged over time rather than from one single source, all had slightly differing monuments in their seven. The wonders varied between individuals. And with most of the lists being written by Greeks, it's no surprise that a distinct Greek slant emerged over time - five of the seven were built by Greeks, with only the Pyramids and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon being of foreign origin.

But that's not to say the Seven Ancient Wonders weren't grand or deserving of the accolade "Wonders". All were impressive feats of art and engineering, and overwhelmingly large:  

1. The Pyramids - or more accurately, just the Great Pyramid of Khufu (its near-equal neighbour, the Pyramid of Khafre doesn't seem to have got a look in) - have kept their fame for thousands of years and deservedly so. The Great Pyramid was the tallest building in the world for over 3800 years.

2. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, if there was such a thing (or if it was instead located, as some evidence suggests, in Nineveh), were surely a luscious feast of flowers and irrigation marvel, a green and man-made mountain rising from the plain, anywhere between 25 and 100m in height.

3.The Lighthouse – or Pharos – of Alexandria was a 100m plus goliath of light and mirrors, visible from 50km away, and rumoured to be able to burn approaching enemy ships.  

4. The Colossus of Rhodes was a 35m tall statue, dominating the harbour, forged in the bronze and iron taken from a defeated invader.

5. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was a seated statue built from ivory and gold, sized so that if it could have stood up it would have unroofed the temple housing it.

6. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was a vast tomb (for a leader called Mausolus and his family) in what is now modern-day Turkey, lavishly adorned with sculptures and carvings, inspiring the word “mausoleum” to enter the language.  

7. The Temple of Artemis, also in modern-day Turkey, was a Greek temple with over a hundred columns, and packed with works of art and sculpture.

All were truly world class spectacles of artistry, engineering and, crucially, size. But all were only available for a limited window, and as time went on each suffered total destruction until – like Christopher Lambert's Highlander - only one remained.

And so to rectify this shortage of wonders, eleven years ago, a Swiss-Canadian man called Bernard Weber decided to have a worldwide vote on the new Seven Wonders of the World. A shortlist of twenty-one was drawn up from hundreds of nominations and, after the Pyramids were rightfully exempt following furious protest from the Egyptians, seven new Wonders were selected. Seven man-made works of majesty from across the ages, to inspire awe, to represent mankind's mastery of engineering and technology in harmony with craftsmanship and an eye for aesthetic beauty. Icons of mankind. Here's what UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the international body concerned with the protection and preservation of world cultural and natural heritage sites, had to say about it (emphasis mine):

In order to avoid any damaging confusion, UNESCO wishes to reaffirm that there is no link whatsoever between UNESCO’s World Heritage programme, which aims to protect world heritage, and the current campaign concerning “The New 7 Wonders of the World”. 

This campaign was launched in 2000 as a private initiative by Bernard Weber, the idea being to encourage citizens around the world to select seven new wonders of the world by popular vote. 

Although UNESCO was invited to support this project on several occasions, the Organizaton decided not to collaborate with Mr. Weber. 

There is no comparison between Mr Weber’s mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The list of the “7 New Wonders of the World” will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the internet and not the entire world. This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.

I side with UNESCO.

You see, the selection of these seven new Wonders wasn't exactly impartial. Although the vote was thrown open to the world, some, as UNESCO say, had far more ready access to vote: a global competition where only the more privileged may enter. Significantly, this wasn't a vote that would have passed the scrutiny of independent vote-monitoring bodies: Jordan, a nation of about six million, cast an estimated fourteen million votes. The cariocha of Rio de Janeiro were subject to a heavy promotional campaign to vote for the Christ the Redeemer statue, in which voting for by text message was free. India and Peru had similar campaigns for their respective candidates. Simple demographics were also at play: China and India have over a billion people each, and so a natural bias would exist for populous nations' Wonders; so even if the vote had been entirely democratic with one-person-one-vote we would not have seen a calm and reasoned assessment of the world's monuments.

So the system was very flawed, almost wilfully so, and brought out the worst of democracy: the popularity contest. Most voters had not seen more than one Wonder candidate, and most voters voted with an agenda. Even those who were neutral, for all their best intentions, could not have fairly judged the contenders without having actually seen them.

How to resolve this? To be honest, most people in Europe just ignored it - how many readers here even heard of this campaign, let alone voted for it? But the problem is that this new list - these new Wonders - are gradually gaining acceptance. For obvious reasons, each location now proudly acclaims itself a "new" Wonder, as though this is now an acknowledged and undisputed fact.

This is wrong.

And hence the inspiration for this trip. It's all very well me sitting and slinging insults at the internet, ancient monuments and the biased populace of earth, but how many of the twenty-one candidates have I visited? As I write today, just five (Rio's Christ statue, the Eiffel Tower, the Hagia Sophia, the Statue of Liberty, and the Sydney Opera House) - plus the exempt Pyramids. Of the so-called New Wonders, I've been to a solitary one - the Christ statue. So who am I to suggest that the new seven - the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, Machu Picchu, Petra, Chichen Itza and the Christ the Redeemer - are invalid choices? I'm just an armchair critic, with an opinion no more informed than the majority of the voters, based on books, films, media and hype.

You wouldn't judge Crufts by looking at some dog photos and listening to the owners rave on about their pedigree's mastery of commands, and in a similar way any assessment of a building or location surely has to involve actually visiting it. And so the only way to confirm my gut feeling that Bernard Weber's New Wonders are not necessarily the greatest monuments in the world is to visit a whole heap of them and decide for myself.

The shortlist of twenty-one makes for an easy starting reference, but it doesn't even include the likes of buildings such as the Empire State Building and Cologne Cathedral, both of which I've visited before and both of which impressed me immensely. So I began compiling a larger list, to include anything that had impressed me in the past, anything that looked good in photos, anywhere I simply quite fancied seeing, and anywhere that cropped up in people's lists across the internet.

In the end, I came up with a list of ninety-three locations, in every continent, ranging from the ancient to the brand new. And these are what I'll describe briefly in my next entry.

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