by Jason Heppenstall

“So what is this ‘Ulhumbra’ place that you
talk about?” asked my mother in law on one of her visits. I explain that the
Alhambra is a
magnificent palace-fortress complex, symbol of a bygone era and the pride of Granadinos. I talk of the honeycomb vaulting in the
ceilings and about how, in times past, poets and scholars would sit in
contemplation in the exquisite garden patios while the Caliph would cast a wry
eye over his concubines and lob a pomegranate at the one who took his fancy
(hence the term ‘apple of my eye’).

“Well,” she says “if it’s as fantastic as you say,
how come I’ve never heard of it?”

She had a point. A completely unscientific poll conducted by myself
reveals that at least half of my correspondents from foreign lands have never
heard of the revered palace. So it comes as no surprise to learn that the
Alhambra, along with twenty other hopeful contestants from around the world, is
vying for a place – X Factor style – as one of the new Seven (man made) Wonders
of the World.

What’s wrong with old seven wonders? I asked myself. Despite half an
‘A’ level in Classical Civilisation, I had to admit that I could only name
about two of them (and even then it turns out that Atlantis isn’t included). A
quick internet search revealed the depths of my ignorance. Just what was this
mausoleum of Maussollos at
Halicarnassus? And how had the Lighthouse of Alexandria evaded me all these
years? And then I realised: of the original seven, only one still stands (the
Great Pyramids of Giza) – all the others having been
biblically destroyed by earthquakes and fires.

A pale blue zeppelin hung in the airspace above Granada last
weekend, urging the citizens to log on and vote for their prized monument at Now, call me cynic,
but I’m not sure I see this need for classifying the ancient monuments of our
world into some sort of Premier League. I can already see the Kontiki and Thomas Cook brochures insisting that these N7W
(as they will undoubtedly be referred to) as the definitive places-you-must-visit-before-you-die.
The website blurb proclaims the exercise as ‘the biggest global vote ever to
have taken place’ (possibly the only global one?).

Nevertheless, one is drawn in by the hype. One wonders how skewed
the final vote will be. Given that you can only vote online or by premium rate
phone line, can we expect monuments situated in richer countries to fare better
than ones in poorer countries? Everyone in Britain might vote for Stonehenge
and everyone in France is bound to vote for the Eiffel Tower. Pity poor
Timbuktu in Mali. Alas, there are
no ancient wonders in
Scandinavia to vote for – which means that Denmark
Sweden won’t be able to vote for each other, Eurovision-style.

So this means the Alhambra stands a good chance, right? Wrong. On current projections, after
millions have already cast their vote it is languishing in the relegation zone
alongside (yes)
Timbuktu and Neuschwanstein Castle (where?).
Perhaps the zeppelin was there to rouse sleepy Granadinos
from their apathy and get them clicking on the home front.

I do my bit and click on the ‘Vote’ button. To my surprise I find I
am expected to vote for not just one wonder, but all seven. Should I want to
vote for only one I am expected to pay two US dollars.
But, hey, I get a free authentic certificate recording my vote. I have to click
a box saying I have agreed to the terms and conditions. I have a quick look at
the terms and conditions and discover that the enterprise is run by NewOpenWorldFoundation Corp. and that I must not, whilst
writing this article, use any content from their website, adapt anything
written therein or generally refer to them at all without a certificate
personally thumb printed by a member of the Executive Panel. I must also be 16
to vote, but I knew that anyway.

So without further ado, here, in no order of preference, are my
seven votes (not including the
Alhambra which, naturally, I have also voted for) and reasons for doing so:

– The Parthenon, Athens. It was here that I arrived aged eighteen with an Inter Rail pass
in my hand, a bottle of Ouzo 69 in my backpack and the aforementioned half an ‘A’
level in Classical Civilisation in my head. Yes, I knew what a caryatid
was. Yes I could talk with semi authority about that statue of Dionysus lying atop
a heap of rubble. No, my friends didn’t want to hear it.  

– The Colosseum, Rome – Situated just east
of the Roman Forum the Colosseum is almost as
spectacular today as it must have been two thousand years ago. For five hundred
years man and beast met their end here before a titillated public. With its
three stories of arcades and 240 corbels sitting on top, what you see today is
merely the inner shell of the building. Most of the rest was destroyed by
earthquakes or else carted away by light-fingered Roman. For some reason, when
I visited a group of nuns wanted to take my picture (they obviously don’t get
out much).


– The Taj Mahal,
Agra, India. Oh the Taj. Was there ever a greater
monument to love? A surviving gem of Mughal
architecture, the Taj Mahal
was built by Shah Jahan in the mid seventeenth
century as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz. Later,
his wicked son, Aurangzeb, imprisoned him in a fort
where he was to spend his remaining years gazing wistfully out of the window at
the Taj. Interestingly, he allegedly developed an
incestuous relationship with his eldest daughter, Jahanara
Begum, who helped him through those times.


The Taj is not as big as you might expect from
the pictures and the air pollution has actually turned the marble grey.
Alongside the Taj is the Yamuna
river which, when I was there, was a slowly slithering
gel of bin bags, industrial chemicals and dog corpses. Enchanting


Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK. England’s very own Neolithic megalithic monument.  Although nobody can quite
figure out how the giant stones were transported there without the aid of heavy
machinery, most scholars agree that the site is some kind of ancient pagan temple.
One theory goes that Merlin the wizard had it magically transported from
Mount Killareus in Ireland. Radio carbon dating reveals that the stones were placed there over
five thousand years ago and their positioning seems to correlate exactly with
the sun and moon at the time of the solstices. 

In 2001 an attempt was made to pull a similarly sized stone from Wales to
Wiltshire using timber rollers and ropes. Volunteers heaved the rock with some
success across the landscape and managed to load it onto a replica prehistoric
boat specially built for the purpose of transporting it across the
Bristol Channel. It was here at
Milford Haven that both boat and rock sunk without trace.

Machu Picchu, Peru. Some people hike the Inca trail, which is a three day yomp through the Andes culminating in the splendid mountaintop site of Machu Picchu. We
took the train, which goes all the way along a rickety track and takes only a
couple of hours from
Cusco (John Peel’s last stop). Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham
‘discovered’ the site in 1911 whilst looking for a fabled lost Inca city. The
spectacularly sited complex rests on a deep set ridge in the
Andes, low enough in altitude
to allow the growth of tropical foliage (it is, after all, not far from the
outskirts of the Amazon).  The buildings
– all constructed from large blocks of inter-connecting stone with not a drop
of cement in sight – are a mixture of temples and housing. One theory goes that
this was a city of women, leading to excited speculation that this could have been
home to the ferocious tribe of warrior women known as the Amazons. The only
occupants these days are a few peaceful llamas who munch grass and pose for


Chichén Itzá, Yucatan peninsula,
I was so enchanted by
the ruined Mayan cities of
Mexico that I ended up using them as a setting for a novel. We spent a
month in the vicinity of
arguably the greatest Mayan city – stumbling up and down pyramids and listening
to troupes of howler monkeys in the tree tops. Some people believe the Mayans,
who popular belief says disappeared without trace, blasted off into space using
their pyramids as transporters. The more down to earth truth is that their
civilisation collapsed following the deforestation of the region which led to
starvation and depopulation. But the Mayans never really went anywhere, you can
still see them there today cleaning offices and serving burgers in McDonald’s.

One day I crawled down a narrow passageway into the centre of one of
the great pyramids and the silence was so complete that I could hear the blood
pumping around my body. The bodies of kings were buried in these vast tombs which,
like my book, never saw the light of day.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. If I could nominate a clear winner – this would be it. More of a
city in the jungle than a single temple (wat =
temple). The city of
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire between the ninth and sixteenth
century AD. Here can be found some of the world’s most incredible and ancient
architecture – all in a mostly ruinous state and slowly being eaten by the
jungle. Most of the temples are devoted to Hindu deities and the Buddha with
the Bayon temple being the most well known for its
depiction of giant stone faces facing in each of the cardinal directions. The
face is thought to be that of King
Jayavarman VII, who commissioned the temple, in a state of blissful
nirvana. Some commentators have seen a sinister aspect to the carvings,
suggesting that the faces were an early version of Big Brother – implying that
the king, who also claimed (modestly) to be the divine ruler of the entire
universe, knew what everyone was doing at any one time.
The site was cloaked in forest until the 19th century
when French archaeologists began large scale reconstruction work, which
continues to this day. To explore it you need at least three days to wander
around – preferably by hired motorbike – and the alleged presence of bandits
lurking amongst the stones adds a frisson of excitement. Wear sturdy shoes.

Voting is open for the New Seven Wonders of the World at
7th 2007
(7.7.7. geddit?) whereupon the winner will be announced in Lisbon. Half
of all the proceeds raised go towards UNESCO restoration projects.

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