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Bettany Hughes on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and Women

Posted on 10th January 2024 by Anna Orhanen

In her new book The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Bettany Hughes – the acclaimed historian, broadcaster and author of Istanbul and Venus and Aphrodite  – takes the reader from the Great Pyramid at Giza to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, revealing the history of these ancient marvels in captivating prose. In this exclusive piece, Bettany discusses the role women played in the fascinating stories of how these spectacular places came into being.  

I love sitting with friends and asking them which of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is their favourite. Pretty much without exception the answer comes back ‘The Hanging Gardens of Babylon’, which is interesting because this is the only one of all the famous Seven that may, possibly, not have existed. Or at least we have no hard, conclusive archaeological evidence for where these ancient Hanging Gardens actually were (they could have been in Babylon, or 100 miles to the north in Assyrian Nineveh). The one thing that historical sources pretty much all agree on is that these gorgeous, pendant gardens were built for a woman. 

The story goes that Amytis, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia, was pining for her lofty birthplace in the mountains of Media (modern-day Iran). Enraptured by his beloved, home-sick spouse, the great Babylonian King raised his Hanging Gardens in Amytis’ honour. This romantic motivation isn’t entirely impossible (a number of leading Babylonian scholars have advised me not to be so cynical when I’ve previously poured cold water on this charming tale!), but the truth is that the female form was there in the ancient regal gardens of the Middle East. In the palaces and walls roundabout we hear that the Great Kings commissioned statues of their Queens. Just listen to how one, Sennacherib, lionises his creation of his palace-garden complex and his love of his wife; ‘for the queen, my beloved wife, perfect and beautiful, I had a palace of love, joy and pleasure built. I set female sphinxes of white limestone in its doorways’.

Investigating these gargantuan ancient monuments, originally catalogued in lists of seven on papyrus rolls by scribes and librarians in the ancient city of Alexandria, you can feel as though you’re exploring a catalogue of great men, doing great things at scale. And there is certainly some truth in that. But, as ever, history is more interesting than its stereotype and in a number of these iconic wonders, we can find fascinating female stories.

Take the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, built in honour of a virgin goddess. The Temple was protected by a glowering image of a Gorgon, the monstrous semi-divine, female creature whose stare could turn men to stone. Artemis’s Temple was also smothered with images of Amazons. These warrior-women were said in some myth-traditions to have founded the sanctuary itself, while sheltering from an attack by the god of wine and ecstasy, Dionysius, and they were commemorated in the temple and across the city. Artemis’s strength came not just from attack, but from acts of defence. The goddess was believed to offer safety and protection – asylia (which gives us our word asylum) to those who sheltered within her precinct. A number of high-profile women sought sanctuary here; Artemesia I, the Persian female-general, (with the children of the Persian Emperor Xerxes in her charge), and less successfully Arsinoe IV, Cleopatra the Great’s sister who was murdered on the steps of the temple by her powerful, ambitious sibling, egged on by Cleopatra’s lover Marc Antony.

And wow was the goddess at Ephesus an impressive creature. Wipe from your mind the image of a wafty Greco-Roman deity in a floating chiton. This eastern Artemis was ferocious. She was adored at Ephesus as a ‘polymastic’ statue – a female laced with hundreds of breast-like objects. The jury is still out on exactly what these represented – honey sacs, bulls’ testicles, mammary glands have all been suggested. But whatever they are supposed to be, the impression was clear – this was a creature so confidently female she needed no man to propagate. She could produce parthenogenetically without the distraction of sex with anyone, or anything, male. 

Artemis’s temple, the Artemision, was twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. In control of land, salt pans and treasures the Artemision was the equivalent of an international corporation with the goddess as its CEO. And after Christianity arrived to transform the landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean, in Artemis’s hometown the Virgin Mary was honoured in the first ever church built to her as ‘Mary Theotokos’, Mary, the Mother of God.

Another Wonder famed as a monument to a man, was in large part, in fact, built by a woman. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, raised on the South-Western coast of what is now Türkiye, as the tomb for the Karian King Mausolos (whose name is the inspiration for all Mausoleums across the world), was completed by Mausolos’ sister-wife Artemesia II (a great-granddaughter of that naval commander Artemesia I who had sheltered at Artemis’s Ephesian Temple). Although Artemisia II has become infamous thanks to her supposed, excessive uxorial devotion – drinking her husband’s pulverised bones with ash, and then pining away with sorrow – she actually ruled in her own right after his death. She reputedly led clever campaigns of deceit against her arch-enemy the island of Rhodes – luring the Rhodian’s fleet into Halicarnassus’ harbour, then capturing their boats and sailing back in disguise to Rhodes where Artemesia’s sailors sprang on shore, slaying their rivals.

It is possibly Artemisia who stands proud today in the British Museum – the surmounting, greater than life-size sculpture of the Mausoleum along with its namesake King. 

So when we look at the story of the Seven Wonders, – we need to seek out women as well as men. It’s little surprise to me that through antiquity, women would declare ‘By Artemis’ as a good luck exclamation.

And finally. The youngest of the Seven Wonders – the Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria, which towered high and was said to have illuminated the sea at a reach of over 30 miles, would have been a companion to the world-famous Queen Cleopatra day and night. Guiding sailors into safe harbour along Egypt’s perilous north coast, this feted, fated last great Pharaoh must have surveyed this extraordinary construction and delighted in the fact it reminded the world she was sovereign of one of the greatest civilisations of earth. Later Arabic scholars actually credited Cleopatra with the Lighthouse’s construction. The very first mention we have of Cleopatra in Arabic sources comes courtesy of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, who tells us that ‘Queen Qulpatra’ was the Pharos Lighthouse’s’ sponsor and builder. So great was the engineering achievement of this Wonder, someone preternaturally remarkable, the mediaeval world thought, must have raised it.

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