My own 7 Wonders

The ancient Greek writer Herodotus wrote the original list of the Seven Wonders of the World, based on travellers’ accounts. That’s why the original list comprised purely things that could be seen around or close to the Mediterranean and ignored the far off lands of India and China. It’s not even certain that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon actually existed.

I decided to put together my own list, and limit it (a) to things I’ve actually seen myself, and (b) to things that are manmade. I’m well aware that there are plenty of awesome sights that fail those two criteria; heck the only place I’ve been to in China is Hong Kong, and in the United States, New York.

Nonetheless, here is my list – and some not-quites.

The Pyramids of Giza

The only one of the original seven wonders left standing, the pyramids have the curious aspect of being unphotogenic. Yes, you’ve seen pictures of them, but somehow they seem to shrink in photographs. When you see them in the flesh the sheer amount of work that must have been involved in constructing them nearly blows the mind.

The Grand Mosque in Esfahan

I’m going to quote what I wrote for my own benefit about the mosque: “I am not a religious man. I do not put much stock in the gods of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. And yet, as I looked through the entrance portal to get my first glimpse of the south iwan and the main sanctuary, my jaw dropped and I felt what is probably the closest thing to reverence that I will ever experience in my life. The mosque, quite simply, is one of the most amazing and astonishing buildings in the world.”

The Taj Mahal

Let’s get some statistics in place. According to the website How Many Are There, there are 125 million houses in the USA alone. Throughout the whole of human history the total number of buildings constructed could be several multiples of that. The total number might even reach a billion.

And yet the Taj Mahal still stands out as the most beautiful building ever constructed. That is quite something.

Luxor – the hypostyle hall at Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings

A double entry here. The Hypostyle Hall at Karnak is a giant forest of pillars and has lost none of its power to awe after thousands of years. The Valley of the Kings, on the other hand, not only houses remarkably preserved tombs with fantastic paintings, it is also has the coolest name of any tourist attraction, ever.

Meteora Valley

In a remote part of Greece, the rock pinnacles of the valley would be an attraction in their own right, carved as they have been by the winds into smooth forms. But atop some of these rock pinnacles sit monasteries, a strange and surreal site.

Casa Batlló

Not Antonio Gaudi’s most famous building – La Sagrada Familia and Casa Milà are both better known – but this is his best. The melted-wax front is matched by a luscious interior. Several of the floors are private an not accessible to visitors – how I envy whoever owns them.


The only place I’ve even been that seemed magically hypnotic, like a day dream, even while I was there. Clearly a dying city, but what a dowager.

Not quites:

Setenil de los Bodegas: an extraordinary Spanish town where house are built beneath rock overhangs along the gorge of the river, resulting in a remarkable aesthetic where it looks like the earth is consuming the town. The picture at the top of this post was taken in Setenil

Il Duomo, Florence: soaring and magnificent, Il Duomo remains a stunning feat of engineering, art and architecture.

The Melancholy Roman

Those detained travellers

There has been a lot of publicity recently about an Australian couple who have been detained in Iran. They are said to have flown a drone close to a military base on the outskirts of Tehran.

Before their identities and the details of the offence were released, press reports merely said that two dual Australian-British women and one Australian man had been detained. The Australian government was taking the lead in all cases. There’d been some high profile detainees of Westerners in recent years, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but she was actually a dual British-Iranian citizen. These three new detainees did not have Iranian citizenship at all and it was the first time non-Iranians had been detained in years.

One explanation put forward was that it was hostage-taking by the Iranian government to put pressure on the governments of other countries. It is no secret that at the moment the United States is trying to pressurise Iran.

But then the details of the drone flight came out and I must admit that my own reaction was probably the same as everyone else’s. How could they be so stupid?

I’ll qualify that. Unlike most people who’ve been following the case, I have actually been to Iran.

I went there as a tourist in May 2009, about a month before the elections. And just writing that makes me sound like a CIA spy. I should hasten to add that I’m not, of course.

And here’s my take on the country: like most people in the West, my own impressions of Iran were formed by the news reports I saw for much of my life. Those impressions lasted until about a week after the 9/11 attacks in America. On the BBC news one night I saw a report about a candlelit vigil in Tehran for the victims of the attacks. When I saw that report I realised that everything I’d seen or read about the country could not be the full story.

Years later my work brought me into occasional contact with Iranians. They would ask what I thought of their country and would urge me to investigate further because media impressions were inaccurate. “It’s not how you think,” more than one person said.

I did my research and realised that Iran had the Bisotun Inscription which I’d read about and wanted to see. I also have a fascination for classical Islamic architecture. And so I secured a visa and went to Iran for two weeks in May 2009. I spent two weeks backpacking around the country.

If you ask me which is the most beautiful country I’ve been to, Switzerland is my answer. If you ask me which country is the easiest one to be a tourist in, Switzerland is once again my answer. But if you ask me which is the friendliest country I’ve ever visited, the answer is Iran. No question.

But here’s the thing. Everyone knows the refrain “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But more than that, you should avoid doing anything that seems obviously unwise. And if in doubt, ask. That’s just common sense.

If you go to the site of the former American embassy in Tehran, there is a long wall of anti-American and anti-Western graffiti. A lot of it is quite well done but I couldn’t tell you what most of the writing accompanying the pictures says, because it’s in Farsi. However, some of the graffiti comes complete with translations in English for the benefit of tourists like myself.

You can find pictures of this graffiti online pretty easily. Nonetheless, while I was there I didn’t take any pictures myself.

Why? It’s quite simple. I didn’t think it was a wise thing to do. I am an almost stereotypically obvious Westerner.

Which gets me back to that couple and their drone-flying. Maybe it simply didn’t occur to them that their drone-flying was illegal, but consider:

  • The Lonely Planet guide to Iran specifically tells you not to get caught taking photographs near sensitive military installations; moreover
  • They’d previously travelled through India, so they would have been familiar with the need in some places to buy a ticket for the right to film things.

All of which suggests that they weren’t really thinking. There’s no way I would’ve tried it.

The good news is that the Australian government’s Smart Traveller advice for travelling to Iran has been updated. Not about the overall danger of going there – it has for years recommended people to reconsider their need to travel, and warned against travelling close to the borders with Iraq and Afghanistan. But there’s now an additional bit of guidance: “The unauthorised use of drones is illegal. You’ll need permission to bring in electronic equipment including satellite phones, GPS trackers and walkie talkies.”

The Melancholy Roman