For the first installment of my series, “You Don’t Get this on the Bus Tour” (people that have traveled with me understand this phrase), I have struggled to come up with an appropriate site/subject—not for lack of options, but for appropriateness. The idea of this series is to highlight places that are not well-known but which are: visually interesting, fascinating to explore, mysteriously enigmatic, historically significant, or have curious stories. As a rule, I will only feature places that I have investigated in person. Happily, I have been enormously blessed with circumstantial training and opportunity to travel extensively; mainly in the Mediterranean for school and research, but elsewhere as well. And it has been my great pleasure to take students along for explorations “off the beaten path” in addition to the well-known and standard sights and sites (more on this dichotomy below).
Of Wanderers and Wonders
Tourism may seem to us a modern development, but in the ancient world it was a popular activity—admittedly, however, almost exclusively for the super-rich elite. In the early Roman Empire, a “grand tour” with a standard itinerary of “must see” places was well known. But fascination with impressive man-made monuments is far more ancient; Egyptians, for example, were leaving graffiti recording visits at pyramids already in the Old Kingdom. Descriptions of impressive far-away sites for general readers began with the fifth-century BC historian Herodotus. By the Hellenistic period (the first three centuries BC) various lists of sites/sights began to appear, so that about 225 BC Philo of Byzantium could (supposedly) write, “everyone has heard of each of the Seven Wonders of the World . . .” (On the Seven Wonders, trans. Johnstone).
Philo of Byzantium was a Greek engineer known for his mechanical treatises in the Hellenistic period. Scholars tend to doubt that he could or would have written On the Seven Wonders, attributed to him by a single 9th century AD manuscript. Objections focus mainly on the flowery descriptions and “rhetorical flourishes” in the document; quite unlike Philo’s “just-the-facts-ma’am” approach in his technical engineering works. This hardly seems conclusive, given the significantly different genres involved. And, . . . as an engineer who crossed over into biblical studies and history, I take umbrage to the notion that we (engineers) are limited to precision and cannot write also with passion and pathos!1
In my mind, the work’s descriptions demonstrate a profound interest in materials, construction methods, and measurements; all very much in an engineer’s wheelhouse. So, with that prejudice, I consider at least the core of On the Seven Wonders as the product of Philo of Byzantium from about 225 BC.
On the Seven Wonders is rather obviously an ancestor of the proverbial list of “The Seven Wonders of the World,” known vaguely by almost anyone today. From antiquity through the Renaissance period many variants of “wonders” and even the number of them are known, before the list was “canonized” in the seventeenth century. Philo of Byzantium’s listing actually corresponds with the standard modern list, but has another interesting variation—in what they are called.
Of Sights and Sites
It turns out that On the Seven Wonders is mis-titled and, I suspect, as a result of later tradition. This is a common difficulty for ancient literature (like the Bible), where titles are often not specified in the text, but become cemented in tradition. In its opening line, Philo refers to the seven subjects, but not as “wonders.” He uses the Greek word θεάματα (theamata), meaning “spectacles” or “things to be seen;” and thus “sights.” Eventually, discussions about the Seven Sights replaced θεάματα with the similarly-spelled θαύματα (thaumata), “marvels” or “wonders.”2 Thus, the Seven Sights became the Seven Wonders.
A Digression Intended for the Betterment of Student and Other Writing: This shift in terminology reminds me of a homophone confusion in English that plagued student papers about historical and archaeological places (and may or may not have been a pet peeve of mine as a professor). “Sites,” meaning physical locations are often called “sights” (things to be seen) in such work. Get it write!
Of course, the Seven Wonders/Sights were at specific sites. And those locations (sites) had wonders to be seen (sights). Getting to the viewpoint, however, requires knowledge of the location. Even in antiquity writers produced travelogues and “guidebooks” to the major attractions. Some—notably Pausanias, in his Description of Greece—also included many curiosities found along the way and out of the way. That is what I hope to do with this series. Apart from the major Sights, I aim to focus on the hidden Sites which also may produce some level of Wonder.
But where to start? With the coolest such place I know—and go downhill from there? With my personal favorite (because of its remoteness and mystery)— so as to give it away, and thus potentially ruin it? No and no. I settled on a site that highlights the theme of this series: it has a relation to one of the Wonders, did not find designation with the Seven, but is on my list. And, of course, . . . you don’t get it on the bus tour. It will appear in a day or two.
1 See a discussion in John and Elizabeth Romer, The Seven Wonders of the World: A History of the Modern Imagination (London: Seven Dials, 1995), x-xi; with the translation of Philo of Byzantium, On the Seven Wonders by Hugh Johnstone in the Appendix, 230-33.
2 For this assertion, see Peter Clayton and Martin J. Price, eds., The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 1990), 4; disappointingly, there is no reference to the first use of “wonders” for the list here, and I have not taken the time to run it down myself.
Thanks for looking!