Wonders of the World
I’ve just noticed that the Rough Guides have celebrated their 25th anniversary with a book on the 25 Wonders of the World – the must-see-before-you-die list. The Rough Guides are a great series, even if the “Rough” bit is getting increasingly genteel (“middle-aged and slightly, but safely alternative” might be a better description). But, for my taste, their choice of Wonders was a combination of disappointingly predictable and over-exotic. It was also certainly biased against anything classical.
Unless you count Petra -- the rose-red Nabataean city within the Roman empire --, they didn’t manage to find a single Greco-Roman monument that was “Wonder-worthy” . This is a bit of a slap in the face for antiquity, since it was the Greeks and Romans who invented the category in the first place. So no Parthenon (here seen in its Nashville re-incarnation) or Pantheon, no Colosseum . . .
Instead the list was worthily multi-cultural and dotted with natural Wonders amongst the man-made. The Grand Canyon here rubs shoulders with the Pyramids at Giza (who have made it through from the “ancient” list of Wonders). The Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (yes, they were new on me too) next to the Great Wall of China. Number 25 is Itaipu, the world’s biggest dam in Paraguay and Bolivia. Am I being irretrievably and conservatively “old world” or is the idea to boost sales of their South American guides, I began to wonder.
I must confess, I have an axe to grind here. I edit a rival list -- series of books on Wonders of the World, nine up so far, and another five in the pipeline. This means I’ve spent a long time wondering what might count as a Wonder. For me the basic rule is that it must be more than the sum of its parts, as it were. It must be able to exist in the mind, as well as in bricks and mortar. It must be a mental and cultural category, as well as a concrete one.
In fact one of my Wonders doesn’t actually exist in physical form, but has more resonance than an awful lot of monuments that do – it’s the Temple of Jerusalem, cleverly conjured up by Simon Goldhill. (OK you might say, the Salt Flats of Bolivia may have exactly that kind of resonance for inhabitants of South America…but that’s where I think the Greco-Roman roots of the idea still has some sort of guiding hand.)
Predictably my series (it’s published by Profile in the UK, and Harvard in the US) doesn’t stint on the classical – the gold standard by which all other Wonders have to be judged. I kicked the whole thing off with a book on the Parthenon (how on earth did the Rough Guides manage to overlook this one?), and then another (with Keith Hopkins) on the Colosseum. But we’ve also gone back to the glory days of Greek prehistory (with Cathy Gere’s Tomb of Agamemnon) and have a Roman Forum in the offing.
Up there with the Classics, we’ve also got Robert Irwin’s Alhambra (another baffling omission from the Rough Guides’ top 25) , Richard Jenkyns’ Westminster Abbey, John Ray’s Rosetta Stone and Keith Miller’s St Peter’s (the Rough Guides curiously go for the over-rated Sistine Chapel). The Forbidden City, The Taj Mahal (both of these shared with the Rough Guides), Stonehenge and St Mark’s Square are to come.
But part of the fun of this is the opportunity of turning up some unexpected Wonders, of giving some new candidates for Wonderdom a bit of a boost. In this spirit, Gavin Stamp has marvellously canonised Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and Simon Bradley has done the same for St Pancras Station (soon to be the wondrous Eurostar terminal).
So where next? Well, a North American Wonder would be very good to have. The Rough Guides came up with nothing apart from the Grand Canyon. Could we do better than a notable skyscraper or the Statue of Liberty (and I think we have probably decided against Ground Zero). And, despite my jibe about the Rough Guides’ enthusiasm for South America and my other apparently reactionary musings above, I am aware that my list (with a couple of obvious exceptions) could look a bit too European. And are natural wonders going to count (a friend once had the idea of Mount Ararat, another the Rock of Gibraltar…)
Has anyone got any good candidates?