The most enduring manmade monuments and the motivations behind them
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a contemplation on the fleeting nature of power and grandeur. The poem juxtaposes a monumental statue declaring the awesome power of a ruler with the now-barren desert he used to preside over. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” the monument commands, yet it lies in ruin amid a wasteland. Nothing lasts forever, Shelley reminds us. Yet many epic building projects have stood the test of time, speaking to us through the centuries. The motivation behind such monumental undertakings is quintessentially human, something we can all understand even today.
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan I had several wives, but one was the clear favorite. He gave her the honorific name Mumtaz Mahal (“Exalted one of the palace”) and she bore him 14 children in addition to serving as a top political advisor. When she died from complications of giving birth to the 14th child, Shah Jahan was so saddened, he built her a magnificent tomb at great expense (approximately $1 billion in today’s value). The project employed 20,000 artisans and had a board of architects overseeing its completion. When the shah died, he joined his favorite wife in the monumental tomb, now a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts 6 million visitors annually.
The pyramids at the edge of Egypt’s Western Desert continue a tradition of monumental tombs built through several ancient Egyptian dynasties. The three main pyramids at Giza were built for Khufu, his son Khafre, and Khafre’s successor, Menkaure, and completed in the 2500s B.C. Like all Egyptian pyramids, they are on the west bank of the Nile River so that the sun will set behind them and remind onlookers of the realm of the dead. They were originally faced with gleaming white limestone to shine brightly in the sun, reflecting the pharaohs’ glory to the world and beyond. Shafts connecting the main burial chamber to the sky may have been meant to allow the pharaoh’s soul to pass to the heavens. The construction is so lasting that Khufu’s Great Pyramid is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to survive despite being the oldest of those by 2,000 years. If you are interested in exploring these ancient wonders, you can find exciting package trips to Egypt.
Though Rapa Nui/Easter Island is one of the most isolated places in the world, we all recognize its famed monumental statues with large heads. Nearly all the 900-plus statues were carved from volcanic tuff in the island’s main quarry. About half of the statues remain in the quarry. Hundreds of moai, however, encircled the island, looking inward toward the ancestral lands and watching over their descendants. Built between A.D. 1250-1500, they represented powerful figures of the past and were seen by the Rapa Nui people as “repositories of sacred spirit … charged by a magical spiritual essence called mana,” according to the World Pilgrimage Guide. Though they may have lived in isolation and upper estimates place the island’s maximum population at 17,500, the moai survive to tell us their stories.
Buried for more than 2,000 years near the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, more than 8,000 terracotta soldiers served to protect the emperor. The soldiers, unearthed by farmers outside Xi‘an, China, in 1974 were joined by more than 100 chariots and nearly 700 horses. They are part of a much larger burial complex that may span as much as 38 square miles, featuring a replica of the emperor’s palace. The emperor reputedly chose Mount Li as his burial place because of its famous jade mines, and he made sure to leave his stamp on the place.
Rome is littered with imperial propaganda from emperors looking to tout their accomplishments. The Arch of Titus and Column of Trajan detail the conquering of nations by those emperors. Hadrian’s mausoleum has been repurposed over the centuries and now stands as Castel Sant’Angelo. The mausoleum of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, has been recently refurbished, but it’s a monumental altar nearby that stands out among the others. That’s because the Ara Pacis Augustae is dedicated to peace, particularly the era of peace ushered in when Augustus, then known as Octavian, defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra and started the empire. It would have been unseemly to celebrate that too much, however, so the altar was commissioned after campaigns against foreign adversaries. The era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana lasted more than 200 years. Rome’s legacy, of course, continues on.
Presiding over the Akkadian Empire, the earliest known empire in world history, Naram-Sin defeated the Lullubi people in battle sometime in the 23rd century B.C. The victory stele commissioned to mark the occasion is remarkable in a few ways. First, it’s a piece of history more than 4,000 years old. Second, it depicts Naram-Sin as a living god, towering over his opposing soldiers, trampling his enemies as they beg for mercy. The Akkadian army is in good order, in contrast to the scattered, disorganized enemy. This is a recurring theme throughout monumental art from the ancient world, where the forces of civilization take their rightful place at the top.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the neolithic monumental structure on England’s Salisbury Plain. We don’t know who exactly built it, how they did it, or how they got the stones there. The site appears to have had several purposes, including gathering and burial, but we know one thing about its use for sure: It was a very good cosmic observatory. The stones are aligned to sunset on the winter solstice and sunrise on the summer solstice, making it an effective early calendar. As with other ancient observatory monuments, it may have served as a connection to the heavens that was crucial to contemporary religious practices.
Perhaps even more so than Stonehenge, the motivation behind the Nazca Lines is a bit of a mystery. Drawn into the surface of an arid coastal plain in southern Peru, the lines depicting all sorts of plants and animals are well preserved because the area rarely gets any wind. Best seen from the air or nearby hilltops, the largest designs span 400 yards. Theories propose that they represent shapes formed by the dark areas of space between the stars, sort of the opposite of constellations, or that they are associated with water sources, extremely important to people scratching out a living in such a dry place. Whatever the reason, they’re a testament to humanity’s urge to make our mark.