There are beautiful structures and there are absolute works of art. These aren’t the classic (or even the ancient) seven wonders of the world but as far as iconic architectural marvels go, these rank right amongst the most symbolic edifices of their times. Significantly these seven structures continue to draw visitors by droves, and their significance was formally recognized when they were officially voted as the ‘new 7 wonders of the world,’ a few years back.
1. Machu Picchu
The ruins of Machu Picchu, rediscovered in 1911 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham, are one of the most beautiful ancient sites in the world. While the Inca people utilized the Andean mountain top (9060 feet), erecting massive stone structures from the early 1400’s, legends and myths indicate that Machu Picchu (meaning ‘Old Peak’ in the Quechua language) was revered as a sacred place from a far earlier time. Whatever its origins, the Inca turned the site into a small but extraordinary city. Invisible from below and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces sufficient to feed the population, and watered by natural springs, Machu Picchu seems to have been utilized by the Inca as a secret ceremonial city. The structures, carved from the gray granite of the mountain top are wonders of both architectural and aesthetic genius. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tons or more yet they are sculpted so precisely and fitted together with such exactitude that the mortar-less joints will not permit the insertion of even a thin knife blade. One of Machu Picchu’s primary functions was as an astronomical observatory and several stone structures around the site have been shown to record the exact dates of key periods in both solar and lunar cycles. One particularly fascinating astronomical sighting device is called the Intihuatana Stone, the ‘Hitching Post of the Sun,’ and shamanic legends say that when sensitive persons touch their foreheads to this stone, the Intihuatana opens one’s vision to the spirit world. When an Intihuatana stone was broken at an Inca shrine, the Inca believed that the deities of the place died or departed. The Spanish conquistadors never found Machu Picchu therefore the Intihuatana stone and its resident spirits remain at the site. The mountain top sanctuary fell into disuse and was abandoned some forty years after the Spanish conquered Cuzco in 1533.
2. Great Wall of China
I had seen photos of the cable car leading up to sections of the Great Wall of China but I hadn’t seen any photos of the tobogganing slide going down. From that opening sentence you may think that I visited Great Wall: Tour Group Central, but I didn’t; Mutianyu is one of the best preserved sections of the wall but it’s not the most heavily touristed. Fair play about the cable car, it’s a very steep trip up to the wall in this section, the mountains rise straight up, stepping out of the flat plain Beijing sits on, and a lot of people would have been unable to walk on the wall if they hadn’t been able to get up in the cable car, but when I got up to the first landing there was a television production crew filming some kind of song and dance spectacular, a stage had been set up and there were red lanterns everywhere as well as kids singing and dancing and men flying kites. I have no idea what the occasion was but it can’t happen every day—neither can the wave after wave of kids playing chasings around the first few guard towers and families sat on the wall having picnics, but then the views of the surrounding hills are impossible for me to put into words—you’ll have to look at the photos and watch the video when I finish it, so it is a great spot for a picnic. A few hundred meters on as the arrow flies the people start to thin out and the going gets a little steeper, the final open section to the left has really steep stairs to climb and there was a nice sense of international camaraderie as people gee’d each other on to get to the top section, where, as well as an even more indescribable view there was a fellow wall walker singing songs from the Peking Opera. Strange and probably an impossibly unlikely one off but I’m sure it will be one of my enduring memories of this trip to Beijing. Also enjoying the entertainment were a group of people working on repairing the next section of wall, with a horse who was looking precariously over the edge at us. Older people had stalls along the wall selling cold drinks, including beer which they kept offering all the men speaking English, they bring their wares up every day on mules, you can see the mules on the tracks beside the wall. The toboggan slide was a long stretch in the other direction. And it was a regular toboggan track, like a big slide. Yep, it is a logical way to get down the mountain, but it kinda jars with the kinds of things I was thinking about while I was walking along the wall, namely how brilliant it is that such a huge undertaking could actually exist, but it brings in the money which supports the local economy, and it looked really fun, so I went on it. Around the base of the wall are the souvenir stalls, but once you get up onto the wall there are sections where you’re at least out of hearing distance of any other walkers and you can sit and have a ponder and take some breathtaking photos. If you can get further out and walk on the ruined sections it may be more the experience you’re looking for but if you’re short on time, M is only about an hour and forty minutes out of Beijing and you’re still able to appreciate how huge an accomplishment it wall is and why it definitely deserves the title ‘Great’. And did I mention the view, and that you can see the wall dwindle off into the distance, linked by towers which stand out on the top of mountain ridges.
3. Christ the Redeemer
Nothing like a giant, 130-foot tall statue of Jesus, arms gracefully outstretched to keep a city as known for its taste for vice as Rio in line. Christ the Redeemer (who watches over us with what I think is a slightly anxious expression in his rather elegantly draping robe) stands atop Corcovado, trust me, you won’t miss him, in the Tijuca National Park. Outside he’s soapstone but inside he’s reinforced concrete, much safer for everyone (I do have dreams about him falling on the city, but that could be a sign his presence is working and suggesting I lay off the vice), especially since he’s been standing there since 1931. Underneath his great plinth is a Catholic chapel. In 2007, Christ was voted one of the Modern 7 Wonders after a hectic media campaign from local industry, but the best story about him is the number of people who schlepped up the hill to see him unveiled, about one and a half million, trust me, you can see him pretty well from many parts of Rio and less well up close. But there is a grand view looking down so maybe they were after a Christ’s Eye View like so many tourists today. But you can climb the 220 stairs or get the elevator, if you want to get close enough to whisper in his ear. I was lucky enough to be in Rio when he got struck by lightning in February—naturally he survived intact—need I say more.
4. Chichen Itza
The earliest archaeological remains found at Chichen Itza date from the 1st century AD yet the Yucatan Peninsula had been inhabited for at least 8000 years. After their conquest of the holy city of Izamal, the seafaring Itza people settled in the 8th century at the enormous natural well, known as Wuk Yabnal, meaning ‘Abundance Place’. Their city became known as Chichen Itza, which means ‘Mouth of the Well of the Itza’. From this site, the Itza Maya rapidly became the rulers of much of the Yucatan Peninsula. Contrary to popular belief, the Maya were not an empire. Rather, they were a collection of autonomous city-states in frequent communication with other city-states in their region. The Temple of Kukulkan, the Feathered Serpent God (also known as Quetzalcoatl to the Toltecs and Aztecs) is the largest and most important ceremonial structure at Chichen Itza. This 90-foot tall pyramid was built during the 11th to 13th centuries, directly upon the foundations of previous temples. The architecture of the pyramid encodes precise information regarding the Mayan calendar and is directionally oriented to mark the solstices and equinoxes. Studies by archaeoastronomers have revealed that other structures at Chichen Itza also have significant astronomical alignments, such as the Caracol observatory, which indicates key positions of the planet Venus, particularly its southern and northern horizon extremes. Studying the ground plan of Chichen Itza and the spatial relationships between its primary temples, it is evident that the site was actually a mirror of star positions in the night skies, during the erection period of the temple complexes. This is an example of sacred geography, or terrestrial astrology, on a local scale. The Mayans also practiced sacred geography on a larger regional scale by the placement of their temple-cities at specific sites, which were themselves also mirrors of the heaven.
The most famous symbol of Rome, despite the crowds and the touts still one of the world’s greatest monuments. A breathtaking achievement in terms of Roman engineering and an architectural icon, Rome’s Anfiteatro Flavio (better known as the Colosseum) boasts a colourful, theatrical history of events to rival any other. It began in 80AD, when the main structure of the building was finally completed under Emperor Titus, and it was used to stage dramatic, bloody gladiatorial fights and games, and public executions. Records written by a historian of the time indicate that nine thousand animals were killed in the Colosseum during the very first games held there. Less violent forms of entertainment were also presented, such as re-enactments of glorious battles, celebratory spectacles such as epic fights or hunts, and Classical dramas. The building was damaged by fire in the year 217, almost destroyed by earthquakes in 443 and 1349, converted into a cemetery in the 6th century, rented out as residential and commercial real estate in the 12th century and occupied as a castle in the 13th century. It was used variously as a bull-fighting ring, a source of building materials and very nearly as a wool factory, until it was consecrated in 1749 and gradually restored. The awesome structure has stood more than the test of time and has accumulated an incredibly varied collection of personal stories as well as reflecting a national one. Colosseum ghost stories passed down through generations tell of unjustly slaughtered gladiators who return by night to re-enact their final moments in combat and invisible chariots that rattle and race across the long-vanished sand. Visitors have described hearing words spoken in Latin, the shouts of petty criminals slaughtered at the whim of the watching crowd and the cries of wounded animals, and many have reported seeing disappearing audience members and shadowy Roman guards silhouetted against the sky—images so evocative that they seem to represent the ghost of the Roman Empire itself.
I sighed and handed over my 55 Dinar ($77USD) to the man at the ticket counter; a hefty sum for an otherwise budget friendly country to travel through. This fee would buy me two days in the ancient city of Petra. He asked me to type my name in the computer and then handed me a ticket. I waited for more, but there was nothing more; not even a map. I walked away and thought “Geez, even at Disneyworld they give you a map!” Luckily I had a little Jordan guide book which provided me some sort of map and I had plotted out my Petra walking plan the night before based on the guide book and some advice of people at the hotel I was staying in. It all looked rather simple. First I would go through the Siq, see the famous Treasury, then I would go to the High place of Sacrifice and down the other side to see Lion Monument, the Roman and Soldier Tomb. Next I would go through the Upper Market and head towards the Monastery, then the church, amphitheatre, and other tombs along the East cliff. That would pretty much cover Petra…a simple plan for the day. It was my plan until I descended through the mile long Siq and stood staring in awe of the famous Treasury Building; then I knew I needed a plan B. I felt dwarfed by the rock formations that towered above me; the place was much larger than my little guide book map appeared. I should have paid more attention to the scale of the map. This was an ancient hiking playground; trails leading in every direction and all of them leading upwards. I was starting to sweat just looking at them. This was going to be a much more active day than I originally thought. The buildings carved into the rocks were gigantic, ornate, and were the color of orange sherbet. The light was streaming through the rock formations providing an ethereal feel to the city. Tourists groups huddled around their guides listening intently as I tried my best to avoid them. But it was next to impossible, they streamed from the Sik and into the Treasury area as if it were a giant slide depositing them all at the bottom giddy from the wild ride. Vendors were immediately at your side selling you camel and donkey rides. Men were hawking jewelry and young kids raced up to you to show you’re their postcards. I wasn’t very fond of the masses of people; but it served me right for sleeping in. I looked around at all of the out of shape tourists and I decided to stick to my original plan and start climbing to the High Place of Sacrifice. I knew I could lose them as the steep flight of stairs would weed out the old and out of shape. The High Place of Sacrifice was worth the climb; not only did I shake the tour groups, but it offered staggering views over Wadi Musa. It was a perfect place to sit down, have a snack and breathe in the fresh, crisp air. There were few tourists up here, a welcome reward after the challenging climb. After a short rest I continued down the other side of the mountain completely alone. I found myself surrounded by ancient tombs and absolutely nothing or no-one else. No merchants, no donkeys, no tourists…just me; I felt like Petra belonged only to me…and the occasional cat. I climbed around the tombs, inside them and generally stood in awe of my solitary experience in such a tourist location as much as I was in awe of the tombs themselves.
7. Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal is considered by many, to possess architectural beauty unsurpassed by any other structure in the world. Constructed over a period of 22 years, employing twenty thousand workers, it was completed in 1648 C.E. and cost a whopping 32 million Rupees. Built entirely of white marble, it almost seems to glow in the moonlight, with the shimmering Jamuna river situated just across. The Muslim emperor Shah Jahan built this monument in the memory of his wife Mumtaz, whose grave is housed within the premises at the lower chamber. The grave of Shah Jahan was added to it later. The Taj stands tall and regal on a raised, square platform, forming an unequal octagon with its four truncated corners. The architecture uses the interlocking arabesque concept, where each element is singular in its entirety, but integrates seamlessly with the whole. The central dome spans 58 feet in diameter and soars to a height of 213 feet. It is flanked on four sides by smaller domed chambers, and four slender minarets rising to a lower height of 162.5 feet. The entire mausoleum is decorated with an inlaid design of flowers and calligraphy using precious gems like agate and jasper, and the main archways are carved with passages from the Holy Qur’an.