Commentary Magazine


Is It Any Wonder?

The new Seven Wonders of the World, which were announced last week with great fanfare in Lisbon, are a droll affair. Two are from pre-Columbian America (the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru and the temples of Chichén Itzá, Mexico), two from Asia (the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China), and one from the Middle East (the rock tombs of Petra, Jordan). The modern world comes up rather short (the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), as does European civilization in general (represented only by the Coliseum in Rome). Is this list something to take seriously? Does its comprehensive global sweep give it an authority that the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—mostly huddled around the Mediterranean—lacked?

The new list was created by the New7Wonders Foundation, whose own website proclaims—and without apparent irony—that it “was created in 2001 by Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber.” Weber has certainly been enterprising. Rather than forming a panel of experts, he allowed the public to vote for its favorite monuments. It is no surprise, then, that countries with large populations (China, Brazil, and India) dominate the list, and that monuments without constituencies (one thinks of the Stone Heads of Easter Island) do not figure. How Weber tabulated the votes, or what measures he took to prevent multiple voting, is unclear. The Vatican has speculated, according to the (London) Times, about the systematic exclusion of Christian monuments. As the Times reported,

Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, who heads the Vatican’s pontifical commission for culture and archeology, said that the exclusion of Christian works of art such as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was “surprising, inexplicable, even suspicious.”

One can no more quarrel with such a list than with television ratings. Still, as a thought exercise, one might speculate as to how a contemporary list of wonders might be drawn up—one not dependent on the erratic wisdom of the internet electorate. For one thing, one might turn for guidance to the original Seven Wonders. Several were noteworthy for their bold engineering, such as the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes, which showed their cultures building to the limits of their structural acumen. A contemporary list might recognize structures of similar engineering audacity. Three obvious candidates would be the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France. One might also note that landscape art was represented by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Would it be too chauvinistic to suggest Yosemite National Park as a wonder, one shaped and organized by human intervention?

Whether or not the Vatican is correct about bias, the list certainly ignores one of the wonders of western civilization, the poetic shaping of interior space. Weber’s list of wonders consists of photogenic exteriors—which look good on computer screens, unlike architectural interiors, which need to be experienced. The organized spatial poetry achieved in such buildings as Hagia Sophia, Istanbul; St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome; and Cologne Cathedral is indeed a wonder, and one or more of these monuments certainly belong on such a list. After all, one of the principal reasons for having such a list is educational.

In the end, the new Seven Wonders of the World have less to do with Herodotus than with David Wallechinsky, whose bestselling Book of Lists (1977) ranked the “worst places to hitchhike” or “people suspected of being Jack the Ripper.” Weber’s new list is at best a bit of harmless conversation fodder—although nowhere near as diverting as Wallechinsky’s “famous people who died during sex.”