How the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Work

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

Zeus, king of the Greek gods, was embodied in larger-than-life form in the Temple at Olympia in ancient Greece. Olympia was a sacred site and the location of the Olympic games. The temple represented Greek architecture's fascination with proportion. It was 68 feet (20.7 meters) tall with 72 Doric columns. The pediment and metopes (eaves beneath the roof) were sculpted, and imposing bronze doors opened to reveal the wonder housed within.

Written accounts described that temple visitors shuddered and cowered under the shadow of Zeus' mighty statue. The Greek artist Phidias was commissioned to create this likeness of the god. His work began in 450 B.C. and concluded eight years later with a legendary masterpiece of ivory and gold. Ivory was an unusual choice for sculptural media, but it might have been a natural choice for the king of the gods, given its rarity [source: Times]. Phidias sculpted Zeus sitting ramrod-straight in a bejeweled throne. The statue measured 50 feet (12 meters) high, and observers noted that if Zeus were to rise from his throne, his head would likely burst through the ceiling.


Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the statue was Zeus' expression. His eyes appeared to penetrate even the most hardened souls to elicit piety [source: Smithsonian]. He held an object in each hand: in the right, a statue of Nike (goddess of victory) and in the left, a scepter adorned with an eagle. Zeus' throne was carved with images from mythology of gods, demigods and other heroes.

Legends say that Phidias asked for Zeus' blessing when he finished his sculpture. In response, a bolt of lightning struck the temple.

There is some debate about the statue's reign as master of the temple. While some sources claim that the statue was placed in the temple around 450 B.C., others estimate the date 430 B.C. With Christianity's encroaching threat to the ancient gods, some Greeks paid to have their beloved statue removed to safety in Constantinople, which is modern-day Istanbul. Christians shut down the temple in 391 A.D., and the statue was guaranteed safe-keeping until either 462 or 475 A.D., when it was burned in a fire.

We know quite a bit about the statue. Just as United States' currency depicts important monuments and faces, ancient Greek coins featured the prominent statue of Zeus. This currency gives us details about his appearance, and we can judge how strong an attraction the statue had to tourists based on how far they carried coins from Olympia. And in 1950, a major archaeological breakthrough came when Dr. Emil Kunze and his team found the remains of Phidias' workshop next to the temple's ruins. Using evidence from inch-long to 18-inch-long terra cotta and iron molds, Kunze was able to reconstruct what the statue might have looked like and how it might have been built. Kunze theorized that the statue was built from thin plates of gold stretched across wood model.

From the immortal god to the immortalization of an ordinary king, our exploration of the ancient wonders takes us back to Turkey next.