A team of archaeologists are busy excavating a section of the Amman Citadel in Jordan when they uncover something incredible: an enormous marble hand. And while the artifact is in itself an extraordinary find, some experts believe that the giant stone body part could be just the start of a monumental discovery.
Of course, the ancient world has something of a reputation for astonishing structures. Indeed, in the era of the Byzantine Empire, the author Philo of Byzantium wrote a work that he called De septem mundi miraculis, or On the Seven Wonders of the World. And in the treatise, Philo describes seven “themata,” or things to see. These days, we might call them must-sees. In the writer’s opinion, they were the most remarkable feats of engineering and art in the ancient world – and therefore places that every traveler should visit.
Today, we don’t actually know if all of these wonders ever really existed. And even if they did, their descriptions may well be subject to exaggeration. Six of these natural and architectural triumphs didn’t make it to modern times, you see, making it impossible to know for sure if the sites were accurately portrayed in Philo’s work. Some of the historic attractions succumbed to natural disasters such as earthquakes, while others fell victim to human malice; nowadays, then, only one survives.
But arguably the most famous of the Seven Wonders is the one that’s still around today. Completed in around 2561 B.C., Egypt’s Great Pyramid in Giza remained for nearly 4,000 years the highest structure ever built by humans. And although many of the tomb’s treasures were stolen a long time ago, the pyramid itself remains almost intact.
At the other end of the Seven Wonders scale, however, are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. You see, while the existence of the Great Pyramid can’t be denied, there’s no conclusive evidence that the Gardens ever really once flourished. In addition, there are no eyewitness descriptions of the wonder despite its popularity in Roman and Greek literature. If the Gardens were real, though, an earthquake may have destroyed them at some point following the end of the first century A.D.
Also among the ancient wonders is the Statue of Zeus, which is said to have been located on the ancient Greek site of Olympia. The 40-foot sculpture depicted the god with alabaster skin and garbed in gold robes, and the work sat on a throne in the Temple of Zeus before making its way to Constantinople. There, another earthquake – or possibly even a fire – was probably responsible for its destruction.
Then there’s the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus – a Greek city in what is now Turkey. Construction on the marble place of worship first began from around 550 B.C., and it was originally around 425 feet in length and 225 feet in width with over 100 60-foot columns lending support. However, in 356 B.C. a man who wanted infamy burned the building down, with the result being that the Ephesians ordered his name be erased from history. And while a new temple was later constructed on the site, this too would be destroyed.
Meanwhile, King Mausolus found his final resting place in the Mausoleum of Harlicarnassus – yet another of the seven wonders of the ancient world – that once stood in what is now Turkey. Grief-stricken, Mausolus’ widow commissioned the 135-foot-high marble tomb to ensure that her husband’s burial site was worthy of a former ruler. Then, after earthquakes laid waste to much of the Mausoleum in the 13th century, the Knights of St. John of Malta took its remains to build their own castle.
Also among the seven ancient wonders was the Colossus of Rhodes – a more than 110-foot tall bronze effigy of the sun god Helios. And ultimately this too succumbed to a sad fate. Specifically, the Colossus is said to have collapsed in an earthquake, after which much of its bronze was sold for scrap. The work lives on, though, as it is thought to have provided inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.
Finally, there was the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which once stood on the tiny Egyptian island of Pharos. Visible up to 35 miles across the sea, the lighthouse would guide ships into the town’s port. And while there has been much debate over the structure’s size, modern experts think that it was probably around 400 feet in height. Again, earthquakes were apparently responsible for the lighthouse’s destruction, although pieces of the structure were later used to build a fort at the same location.
However, once one writer had made a claim as to which seven monuments were the most wondrous, other authors seemingly wanted in on the act. To that end, Herodotus, Antipater and Callimachus all wrote on the subject, while the wonders themselves became a topic of debate in the ancient world. Some even made the argument that other great structures should be among their number.
And perhaps the Temple of Hercules could have laid a claim to being the eighth inclusion on that fabled list. After all, the building remains a remarkable piece of engineering. Built during the Roman occupation of Jordan in around 166 A.D, the temple still stands today in one of the oldest parts of Amman. Specifically, it’s located on a hill, where it overshadows the ancient city.
What’s more, Amman itself has a long history, with the plateau now known as Mount al-Qal’ah having been the center of several settlements. There’s evidence, in fact, that people were living in the area as far back as 6,000 years ago. And during Biblical times, the nation was home to a people called the Ammonites. King David is said to have battled members of the group, while according to lore his son Solomon took several Ammonite wives.
However, when Egypt ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus took control of Amman in the third century B.C., he changed its name to Philadelphia. And after that, Philadelphia then became one of ten cities known as the “Decapolis.” The Decapolis – which were all Greek in language and culture – also included Damascus and Scythopolis.
Then in 63 B.C. the Roman general Pompey conquered Jordan along with Palestine and Syria. As a result, the greatest city of the Decapolis, Gerasa, later received a visit from Hadrian, the Roman Emperor. And the last part of Jordan to be free of Roman control was in the south. Called the Nabatean Kingdom, the area resisted the empire until 106 A.D.
In addition, the Romans made their mark on Jordan and Syria, constructing roads, forts and theaters throughout the two areas. Latin also became the designated language of the region, although most of the local inhabitants spoke Greek. And Roman religion was ultimately introduced, too, with this shift among the changes that created some tension in an otherwise peaceful and prosperous time.
It should be noted, though, that when the Romans took control of Jordan in 63 B.C., it was still known as Philadelphia. And, fortunately, some of the monuments built during the 400-year occupation that followed have survived to this day. These include the Roman Odeon and Roman Theater as well as, of course, the Temple of Hercules.
All three of these buildings came into being while Marcus Aurelius served as Rome’s leader. And while the Temple of Hercules is the least well-preserved of the trio, in 1993 its columns were re-erected to help recreate part of its original splendor. The American Center for Oriental Research has also built a smaller replica of the temple to put on display in Amman.
And Marcus Aurelius himself was Roman ruler between 161 A.D. and 180 A.D. Known as a “philosopher king” and considered among “the Five Good Emperors,” he was highly respected during his reign. Despite his efforts to work for the common good, though, Aurelius is also associated with the persecution of Christians as well as a number of bloody conflicts.
On a more positive note, Aurelius is additionally famous for his highly personal work Meditations, which he wrote in Greek rather than Latin. These writings took on the philosophical idea of stoicism and had an impact for generations after his death. And Aurelius even makes appearances in modern popular culture, too; most notably, the emperor is Commodus’ father in the film Gladiator.
What’s more, the Romans’ arrival in Philadelphia saw somewhat of a turn around in the city’s fortunes, as parts of the area were subsequently rebuilt. By 1300 A.D., though, what we know now as Amman was gone. And while Ottoman Turks later resettled the area, for centuries only a village stood there. It wasn’t until the First World War ended that Amman first became the capital of the British Mandate of Transjordan and then the independent state of Jordan.
Way before Jordan as we know it came into being, however, the Temple of Hercules was constructed. The structure itself is part of a larger area called the Amman Citadel, which also includes a Byzantine church that may have included material from the temple. And perhaps owing to the rich history of the region, archaeologists have been continuously excavating the Amman Citadel and its surrounds since the 1920s – although they still have a lot of work to do.
At the very least, there are plenty of monuments at the Citadel. As well as the Roman temple and Byzantine church, the site also plays host to a palace built during the reign of the Arabian Umayyad Dynasty. And, as previously mentioned, the Citadel is considered one of the biggest continuously occupied locations in the world.
Certainly, the contents of an ancient tomb located at the Citadel hint at the site’s long and storied history. Indeed, the pieces of pottery inside the burial chamber date back to around 1650 B.C. – long before the arrival of the Ammonites. The area would also later be occupied by civilizations including the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians prior to the advent of the Greeks and the Romans.
Yet the Temple of Hercules is perhaps the most splendid of the structures to grace Amman Citadel. The magnificent – albeit seemingly unfinished – structure measures up at 85 feet wide and 100 feet long, although its outer sanctum is even bigger at 236 feet by 400 feet. Meanwhile, the six columns surrounding the eastward facing portico each stand at 33 feet tall. It is the lack of columns in other parts of the temple, however, that make the building appear incomplete.
And solving the mysteries of the Temple of Hercules has proven incredibly difficult, as excavations at the site have revealed little in the way of evidence for experts to analyze. What archaeologists have found, though, are parts of what appears to have been a marble statue. The tantalizing discovery consists of one giant elbow and three enormous fingers.
Experts think that those pieces may have belonged to a sculpture of the demigod Hercules – not least because coins engraved with his likeness were also unearthed nearby. The hero was also a popular character in the mythology of the time, which may lend further credence to the notion that Hercules was indeed the subject of the statue.
And as with the temple itself, the statue would have been huge. From the pieces they have, in fact, experts estimate that the structure could have been more than 40 feet tall – something that, if true, would have made it one of the biggest marble effigies ever produced. The rest of the statue is long gone, however, so the truth may never come to light.
Yes, other than the elbow and hand, the statue has completely vanished – perhaps owing to an earthquake that once felled it. As for where the marble went, it’s plausible that the material was snapped up by locals. Indeed, a 2015 Slate article quotes a guide as revealing, “The rest of Hercules became Amman’s countertops.”
Meanwhile, some scholars have speculated that there may even have once been an older structure on the site, with Hercules’ temple subsequently built on top. One theory is that this building had been the Ammonite Temple of Milcom that existed in the ninth century B.C.; the exposed rock within the inner sanctum of the tribute to Hercules, then, may have once been that temple’s sacred heart.
Milcom, it seems, was the primary god of the Ammonites, who in the Hebrew Bible has associations with human sacrifice. And as we’ve seen, the Ammonites were living in Amman in around 1200 B.C., with their civilization centered on the citadel. Conflict with the nearby Israelites was often a threat to the Ammonite locals, however.
Hercules, on the other hand, is one of Roman and Greek mythology’s most famous heroes. And while his mother is said to have been a regular Greek woman called Alcmene, legend has it that Zeus, chief of the gods, was his father. This divine origin explains, perhaps, why Hercules was purported to be so much stronger than the average man.
Being a demigod didn’t make life easy for Hercules, though. According to mythology, Zeus’ wife, Hera, saw him as a reminder of her husband’s philandering, with the result being that she tried to murder him. Even as a baby, Hercules apparently had to defend himself from his stepmother’s machinations. Indeed, he is said to have strangled two serpents that she sent to kill him while he was still in the cradle.
But that wasn’t all. Yes, as the story goes, Hera would later inflict on Hercules a madness that caused him to murder his own wife and children. Full of guilt, he then sought a way to make amends by embarking on a series of near-impossible tasks. These would famously become known as the 12 Labors of Hercules.
The labors themselves were set by Eurystheus, King of Mycenae. And some of the tasks involved killing monstrous animals that had been terrorizing the human population. Among these beasts were the lion of Nemea with its impenetrable hide, the Hydra that would regrow its heads every time they were chopped off and a flock of carnivorous Stymphalian birds.
However, other creatures Hercules only needed to capture. These included the incredibly swift running Cerynitian hind, the ferocious Erymanthian boar, the rampaging Cretan bull and the man-eating mares of Diomedes. The hero was also tasked with taking the cattle of the Geryon monster, who had six legs and three heads, and kidnapping Cerberus – the three-headed canine guardian of the underworld.
On top of this, Hercules also had to steal a girdle from the Amazon Queen Hippolyta and take from the Hesperides their golden apples, which were located in a garden at the edge of the world and presided over by a dragon. He even had to clean an impossibly large amount of manure from the Augean Stables in only one day.
Once Hercules had completed his 12 labors, though, the legend is that he continued to adventure. According to lore, he was one of the Argonauts who joined Jason in the search for the Golden Fleece; the hero would reportedly also later rescue a Trojan princess from a sea monster. Yet there were still difficulties for Hercules to face – including another bout of madness and a period of slavery.
And while Hercules did apparently experience good fortune – he would eventually marry again and have more children, for example – an enemy’s trickery tragically led to his wife poisoning him without realizing it would be fatal. After the hero died, then, his half-sister Athena is said to have used her chariot to take him to Olympus. There, he would mingle for eternity among the gods.
There is, of course, no guarantee that the hand in Amman was once part of a statue of Hercules. In fact, the only evidence to support the theory is the many coins discovered in the area that bear his portrait. But while it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure if the remnants came from an effigy of the ancient hero, there’s still hope that an archaeologist may one day dig up the truth.