There is something inherent, inalienable, undeniable and indestructible about the human spirit that has seen us grow from a largely unremarkable primate species, inspired throughout history to produce spectacular objects, into the most dominant form of life on the planet. Anyone who’s ever dangled a set of keys over a baby knows that our fascination with shiny, gleaming trinkets starts early and only seems to grow stronger over time. Much of human history is riddled with tales of adventure, exploration and conquest, all in the name of glittering treasure. Yet, what are these riches for which humanity has risked life and limb? What makes their discoveries the stuff of legend and their acquisitions the stuff of fantasy? It’s an exclusive combination of rarity, financial value, historical context and artistic triumph that gives any artifact treasured status.
Human beings have always sought to impress our spiritual connection to the universe through our creation of beautiful things, most of which have tragically been lost throughout history. Fortunately however, many have survived and continue to be re-discovered even today. They comprise an incomplete though nevertheless enthralling record of our existence, our artistry and our endurance as a species, and as such are indisputably priceless. Some of these choices may surprise you, others may seem overly familiar, but they are all uniquely worthy representations of the human experience. Here then are 10 (or more) of the world’s most valuable treasures;
15) The Cave Paintings of Lascaux, France
When four young boys and their dog discovered a hole that led to a system of caves near Montignac in Southern France on September 12, 1940, they had unwittingly opened a time capsule into our pre-historic past. The caves contained some of the earliest works of art ever found in a series of inter-connected underground caverns that generally became known as the Lascaux Cave Paintings.
Beautifully vivid depictions of animals fill the walls, some as large as 15 feet long, still brightly colored and dynamic even eons after they were created. The largest is known as ‘The Great Black Bull,’ a towering picture of a huge, powerful beast measuring 17 feet across. Analysis revealed the images dated from between 17,000 and 15,000 BC.
Comprised of a single human figure, dozens of different animals species, some now extinct, as well as stunning abstract designs, there are over 2,000 individual depictions. The paintings are noted for their extraordinary size, detail, brilliant color and obviously their age. Many of the animal figures appear to be in motion, and there is a clear attention to realism that conveys the sense of honored reverence in which the artists obviously held them. This is highlighted by the fact that the caves don’t appear to have ever been inhabited, indicating they may have been reserved as sacred sites specially adorned in tribute to their spiritual beliefs. Regardless, the discovery of the caves completely re-wrote the book on human artistic history, and though other even older cave art has been found since, Lascaux is still the most spectacular.
The over 900 representations of extinct aurochs and mammoths, as well as bison, horses, lions, bear, deer and wolves are wonderfully executed, using only natural mineral pigments the artists were able to find, such as manganese oxide (green), ochre (red, orange and yellow) and charred soot (black) which they ground and applied by outlining the figures primarily in black, and then blowing the colors onto the cave surface by spraying them either orally or through a hollow reed. The effect is amazing, made even more so by the fact these incredible images were created by a Cro-Magnon society.
Although the caves also feature hundreds of fascinating engravings composed mainly of abstract designs, it’s the phenomenal number and variety of the paintings that Lascaux has become famous for, and rightfully so; there is simply no other place quite like it on the face of the Earth where the modern world can look back on pre-history through the creative lens of artistic expression. Pretty damn cool for a bunch of cavefolk.
14) Bust of Queen Nefertiti
Ancient Egypt is arguably one of the most artistically skilled civilizations the Earth has ever seen, and for anyone who doubts it, there are many examples that illustrate the heights to which ancient Egyptian craftspeople elevated their creations to truly Divine status.
Believed to have been created around 1340 BC by the royal sculptor Thutmose, this superb bust of Queen Nefertiti, the 14th century wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton, is among the most famous works of art in history and for good reason. Her sublime beauty has gazed out upon the annals of time and remains one of the crowning achievements of ancient Egyptian artistry.
Made of a base of solid limestone covered in layers of applied plaster with inlaid glass eyes and exquisitely painted in vivid colors that have withstood eons, she is the epitome of regal Egyptian beauty and grace from the height of its ancient empire. The very fact that something so fragile could survive the ravages of history is mind blowing. The delicacy of her features, the almost surreal slenderness of her neck, the realism of her adornments and makeup and her indomitable, inscrutable one-eyed stare have all combined to endow this sculpture with a tangible aura of immortality.
Discovered in 1912 by German archeologist Ludwig Bordchardt, this exquisite treasure has resided in the Berlin Museum since 1923, though Egyptian authorities have long claimed Bordchardt deceived them about the value of the bust and his intentions to abscond with it, and have demanded its return ever since. Like so many ancient treasures, the exact financial value of Nefertiti’s bust may never be accurately calculated, but its symbolic value to Egypt, its history and its people is undoubtedly even greater. So great is her charm and so emotional is her connection to the majesty of the ancient Egyptians, she continues to completely dismiss the trivialities of money and ownership in favor of something much more ethereal; an eternal life after death.
13) King Tutankhamun’s Death Mask
By some great chance of history, Akhenaton fathered (though with another wife, not Nefertiti), the single most famous Egyptian of all time, the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, or more familiarly, King Tut.
The discovery of ‘the Boy King’s’ tomb in 1922 by English archeologist Howard Carter, was an international sensation that has continued unabated to this day. Carter had managed to find essentially a completely intact royal tomb from ancient Egypt’s golden age, made even more astonishing by virtue of Tut being a rather lowly Pharaoh by Egyptian standards who served very briefly as ruler and whose sudden but mysterious death meant his burial and tomb were rather hastily carried out. Heaven only knows that of the dozens of other more prestigious though looted tombs found in the famous Valley of the Kings, what countless spectacular works may have been lost to raiders and thieves over the centuries.
Of the thousands of incredible artifacts Carter extracted from the cramped tomb, the one that would become most synonymous with Tut is his stunning death mask. Believed to have been created soon after his death in 1325 BC, it’s made of the purest solid gold inlaid with semi-precious stones, lapis lazuli and colored glass, weighs 24 pounds and is quite literally awe inspiring. The skill required to accomplish a work of art of this complexity and astonishing beauty with this precision is almost impossible to imagine.
As with Queen Nefertiti’s bust, the dollar value of this fantastic work of art is nothing compared to what it has meant to the history of Egypt, its importance to the science of archeological research and its symbolic resonance with modern Egyptians who have every right to be immensely proud of these truly priceless treasures.
12) The Pantheon
The largest and best preserved building from the ancient Roman empire, the Pantheon is an enormous and highly impressive structure believed to have been both a temple dedicated to all the pagan Roman gods as well as the site of important occasions and ceremonies involving the Emperor.
Completed around 125 AD by the Emperor Hadrian, its magnificent brick and concrete ocular (the large opening in the center of the dome that allows sunlight into the building) dome spanning some 142 feet has made it the largest of its kind in the world for nearly two thousand years. Its exterior was once sheathed in brilliant white marble, while the interior is a breathtaking collage of beautiful statues of the numerous Roman gods, enormous marble columns, numerous priceless paintings from the Renaissance and a stunning tiled floor that looks as though it was completed just yesterday, so vivid and modern is the design.
With brick and concrete walls some 20 feet thick to support the enormous weight of the dome, its designers brilliantly used lighter and lighter concrete mixed with stone to defer the weight as the height of the dome rose; the highest levels are made almost exclusively of a porous concrete and pumice mixture that is significantly lighter than its lower levels and was the key to making the structure the wonder of its age.
It’s difficult to express the profound sense of awe this building elicits from visitors who can literally step back in time and experience life as it must have been in ancient Rome through the sheer spectacle of this magnificent remnant of one of the most important periods in the evolution of human society. For historians, the reality of the Pantheon’s astonishing endurance provides the stuff of dreams; to have a building of this scale so beautifully well preserved from antiquity, is to have a time capsule unlike any other on Earth.
11) Michelangelo’s David
After purchasing a gigantic 19 foot marble block twenty-five years earlier that had been abandoned by no less than two other sculptors, in 1501 the city of Florence was eager to see its investment completed as a work of art that would befit the city’s rising status as one of the world’s most powerful states. The block had been left outdoors for many years and was in far from ideal condition when a third and final attempt on the stone was made.
In 1504 when Michelangelo Buonarroti unveiled his David to the expectant crowds before the Palazzo Vecchio or Town Hall in Florence, it must have been like watching the moon landing of Apollo 11. That’s because gazing on this statue for the first time is a life altering experience. Its impressive scale (17 feet not including it’s large pedestal and weighing 16 tons), its exceptional realism, its uniquely elegant and proud posture and above all its wondrous, transcendental beauty, make this statue unforgettable and it has long been hailed as the epitome of the male physique.
This marked a major departure from the traditional depictions of the Biblical David who was always portrayed as a boy engaging the giant Goliath, while Michelangelo chose to present him as a young man in the prime of vitality and health, resplendent in his power, serene in his conviction and anxious to fulfill his destiny. In short, exactly the kind of work the Florentians desired to represent their growing wealth and power. The statue is the crowning achievement of Michelangelo’s unsurpassed skill and entrenched his reputation as a master sculptor above even the best Greek or Roman rivals from antiquity. It was the ideal symbol of the city’s rising status as a global player.
Michelangelo’s David is quite literally perfect, despite certain discrepancies such as the right hand being larger than the left, though these aesthetics only aid in its overall perspective effect. The marble appears to glow from its exquisitely flawless surface, the carving achieved with such astonishing realism that include life-like wrinkles and veins that seem to throb while the minute details of his incredible face and hair are sublime.
The city soon realized that the roof of the cathedral was not an appropriate setting for such a masterpiece, and it instead stayed in the Palazzo until 1873 when it was moved to the city’s Galleria dell’Accademia where it remains to this day. A copy now resides in the Palazzo in its place.
What Michelangelo gave to the city of Florence and the world with this treasure cannot be measured in something as crass and insubstantial as money, as it will forever remain a testament to the creative mastery of a genius and the enduring power of art to amaze and inspire us.
10) Rodin’s The Thinker
In 1880 French sculptor Auguste Rodin was already the most famous and celebrated of his day when he embarked upon a grand commission from the French Government that would eventually see him create several of his most famous works, including his enigmatic Le Penseur; ‘The Thinker.’
He envisioned an enormous bronze work entitled The Gates of Hell which would house dozens of miniature human figures depicting his vision of Dante Aligheri himself, as represented by the Thinker (though originally dubbed by Rodin as ‘The Poet’), musing over imagery symbolizing elements that would become the themes and characters of his epic poem, The Divine Comedy.
Though he hoped to display the work at the 1889 World Exposition, and after having completed hundreds of figures, Rodin was still unsatisfied with the composition, and the Gates remained unfinished. During his lifetime, he only ever exhibited a plaster version, which curiously doesn’t include what is now arguably the single most recognized statue in the world. A later bronze casting of The Gates some 20 feet high complete with the famous Thinker was made after well after Rodin’s death in 1930, and is now on display at the Musee Rodin in Paris.
Fortunately Rodin was interested in making a few bronze casts of some of the individual figures in the Gates of Hell that included The Three Shades, The Kiss and of course, The Thinker. A version of it in its original size of just under 2.5 feet tall was exhibited in 1888, and it was an immediate sensation. There is something simply mesmerizing about this work that is deeply moving, even in such a miniature form. It seems to encapsulate a universally recognized expression of our humanity more simply and profoundly than virtually any other sculpture in history. Another cast Rodin made in 1906, one of just three he authorized during his lifetime, sold at Sotheby’s in New York for a record $15.3 million in 2013. A larger, nearly 6 foot bronze cast supervised by Rodin in 1904 now resides at his Paris museum, and it’s this version that has come to be the most familiar to people around the world.
Though it has long since lost its association with The Divine Comedy, it’s difficult to overstate just how pervasive this iconic work has become in the human psyche. With a simplicity and directness that belies Rodin’s understanding of human psychology, The Thinker is a work of art that grows more inspirational with time, and will remain an invaluable treasure and the apex of a master’s career, no matter how many t-shirts it appears on, and likely partly because of them.
9) Angkor Wat
When French Naturalist Henri Mouhout wrote in 1863 about his ‘discovery’ of a gigantic temple structure rising out of the South-East Asian jungle, it ignited a firestorm of interest in the so called ‘lost city.’ What he described was nothing short of an architectural and engineering marvel. At nearly 250 square miles, this vast site at the ancient city of Angkor just outside the modern day city of Siem Riep in Cambodia, is an enormous complex of reservoirs, temples, canals, monuments, carvings and statues dedicated to the Khmer dynasty which built it and who ruled the region for over 700 years.
At over twice the size of Manhattan Island, it is the largest temple structure on Earth. It may once have housed a population of up to a million people, making Angkor the largest city in the world until the 19th century. The crown jewel of the massive project is the magnificent temple know as Angkor Wat. Begun in the early part of the 12th century (approximately A.D. 1113 to 1150) by King Suryavarman II, it is estimated to have taken a workforce of tens of thousands 30 years to complete. Enormous blocks of sandstone quarried up to 30 miles away were floated on barges down the Siem Riep river to the canals leading to the work site.
Although originally dedicated as a temple to the Hindu God Vishnu, it was later converted into a Buddhist shrine in the 14th century. Protected by a 650 foot wide moat that encircles the site at a radius of over 3 miles, the temple itself is a marvel of symmetry and balance. Its central tower rises an incredible 699 feet, is surrounded by four smaller towers all of which are resting on three enormous pediments that grow smaller as they rise above the landscape. The vastness of the complex is meant to represent the universe, with the temple itself placed symbolically at the center. The entire site is decorated with magnificent statues, superb carvings and exquisite paintings that number into the thousands, many of which display a decidedly robust appreciation of the sensual as well as spiritual aspects of the Khmer civilization.
Any monetary assessment of something on this scale that includes an almost unlimited display of artistic treasures, the height of which is the temple structure itself, would take decades. Fortunately, the harmony and celestial order this site exudes is unmistakable; it really does seem like a representation of heaven on Earth. Angkor Wat was the spiritual home of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 15th century, but its impact on the identity of the Cambodian people has extended far beyond that.
8) Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is literally a fabled city in the clouds. Situated over 7,000 feet atop an Andean plateau above Peru’s Urubamba River valley near the modern city of Cuzco, its very existence seems to defy belief. A testament to the spectacular architectural and engineering skill of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu is thought to have been constructed at the height of their rule sometime in the 15th century. It’s a simply astonishing collection of thousands of steps, over 700 massive stone terraces, roads, ramps, palaces, temples and a sophisticated water collection and irrigation system built directly into and on top of the mountain itself.
The city is divided into three areas; the upper levels were reserved for religious structures, the middle region consisted of the majority of the impressive terraces designed for agriculture while the lowest levels housed the living quarters. It’s estimated that at its peak around 1550, Machu Picchu may have contained up to 1,200 residents. There’s still some debate as to the exact nature of the site, why it was constructed and for what purpose, but it’s known that it was completely abandoned around the turn of the 16th century after the arrival of Spanish Conquistadores, though the city apparently remained utterly unknown to them.
In 1911, Yale Professor Hiram Bingham fulfilled a lifelong dream by accompanying a local guide who led him to ‘Vilcabamba;’ the lost city of the Incas. He was likely the first person outside of the region to ever lay eyes on it, though this too is in dispute, as there were references to the site previously made by other Europeans, though none had ever examined the city with archeological intent. Bingham found stone walls with individual blocks weighing more than 50 tons carved and fitted so precisely he could not pass a knife blade between them. This was all the more remarkable because the Inca had no iron tools, they created the city by quarrying the stone directly from the mountain itself using only stone chisels. Using no mortar, the huge blocks that make up the city align with such fantastic precision that is incomprehensible; even today archeologists are not entirely certain as to how this incredible city was constructed.
As in many Incan cities, the center of life in Machu Picchu appears to have been focused around what’s known as the Intihuatana stone; ‘The Hitching Point of the Sun’ was carefully positioned to point directly at the Sun during the Summer and Winter Equinoxes, guiding it as it moved across the sky and to symbolically represent the divine power of the King who could harness the Sun and lash it to the stone. The Spanish destroyed these pagan monuments across South America, and the fact that it remains in Machu Picchu lends further evidence the site was unknown to them. Although the city never yielded the kinds of glittering treasures found in other Inca sites, the city itself is one of the wonders of history and will forever bear witness to the incomparable creative talents of a glorious empire.
7) The Amber Room
Like many historical treasures, the fate of the fabled Amber Room remains an unsolved mystery. Commissioned by the King of Prussia, Frederich I, for his home at Charlottenberg Palace, its construction began in Berlin in 1701. Designed by Andreas Schluter and created by Gottfried Wolfram along with scores of other craftsmen it was a triumph of Baroque artistry.
Composed entirely of amber (petrified, ancient tree resin), precious stones and gold, the glittering work eventually covered an area of nearly 180 square feet made of dozens of intricately formed panels and was said to glow with a mystical, almost ethereal shimmering effect that enthralled visitors.
In 1716, the Amber Room was gifted to Peter the Great by the then King of Prussia, Frederich-Wilhelm I, and it was dismantled and shipped to Russia where it was installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg. In 1755, Peter’s second oldest daughter Czarina Elizabeth had the Amber Room moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, where famed Italian designer Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli reshaped and enhanced the dimensions to fit the larger scale of its new home. After the German invasion of Russia in 1941, a systematic looting of Russian antiquities and treasures began in earnest, culminating in the theft of the Amber Room by German soldiers in 1942.
The Amber Room re-emerged in Konigsberg Castle in Germany where it was last seen in 1945 during the height of the Allied air blitz, when it was once again dismantled, packed into shipping crates, and has never been seen again. In 2003, a 20 year project to reproduce the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace to celebrate the 300th anniversary of its presentation to Peter the Great was completed. Though exacting as possible in every detail from what little photographic evidence of the Amber Room exists, the replica gives only a hint as to the magnificence of the original, which remains one of the most tantalizing mysteries in the history of art.
6) The Concert by Johannes Vermeer
When two men dressed as police entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston on the evening of March 18, 1990, no one could have suspected that they would successfully pull off the single greatest art theft in modern history.
After duct taping the two security guards to pipes in the basement, the two made off with three works by Rembrandt (Storm on the Sea of Galilee, A Lady and Gentleman in Black and Self Portrait), five sketches by Edgar Degas, Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk, and most famously, The Concert by Johannes Vermeer.
In the art world, Vermeer is like the James Dean of painting, in that he was a rebel, an innovator, a rogue and a genius. He died young at just 43 and he left behind a stunning though very limited legacy of work. Despite the mastery and talent which Vermeer held in spades, he produced a very small number of pictures, with only 32 confirmed paintings of his known to exist.
Vermeer is celebrated for his revolutionary use of light that seems to imbue his work with an inner radiance that is unmistakeable. The Concert (1658-1660) is perhaps his best example of this; it’s a portrait of a young woman playing a lavishly decorated harpsichord under the watchful eye of a male figure, likely her music tutor, with his back to the viewer and what appears to be her governess standing adjacent to him. They are sitting in a well furnished room with a single open window through which sunlight floods in, illuminating all the incredible details Vermeer doted on.
This may seem like rather dull subject matter to be so highly regarded, but the fact is this painting was a real game changer in its day, not only for the unique symbolism which Vermeer employed throughout his work (and whose precise meanings historians are still debating), but because there is something intangibly compelling about how he creates the illusion of realistic sunlight, shadows, emotions and moods with his impeccable brush work.
At the time of the robbery, it was estimated that the combined value of the stolen works was over $500 million. It’s difficult to even know how much that would mean today, but with only 32 Vermeer paintings in existence, the loss of even one is undoubtedly devastating. While the case has never been closed and police have several times indicated that they may have a promising lead, none of the works, including The Concert have ever been seen again. Imagine having only 32 known copies of Sgt. Pepper and then two punks come along and hoist one; how could anyone put a price tag on that? The sad reality is that after nearly 25 years, the trail of the robbery is growing colder every day and the likelihood is that this rare and beautiful object may never again be available for people to admire and marvel at, which is truly tragic.
5) The Louvre
The Louvre was originally constructed by King Phillipe-Auguste II as a fortress in the west of Paris on the banks of the Seine. Begun in 1190 and completed in 1202, it was a formidable achievement. Successively re-enforced and expanded by his heirs, it was eventually transformed into a royal palace by Charles V beginning in 1364. By 1530, the last vestiges of the old fort were demolished and the Louvre became the official residence of the French monarchy.
The building reached the height of its lavish splendor under the careful direction of none other than ‘The Sun King’ himself, Louis XIV, though this was short-lived. With just three years of work on the structure, he abandoned it in 1664 after moving permanently into his lush palace at Versailles. By 1692, the Louvre was occupied by a number of prestigious Academie Royales which oversaw the care and archiving of the vast collections of Royal art treasures amassed by Louis and his family. The museum continued to grow until the French Revolution (1787-1799), which overthrew the French monarchy and its hold on the Louvre’s contents, forever.
In 1793, the Louvre was officially opened to the public as a national museum. Today it is the world’s largest and is one of the most visited sites anywhere on Earth. Millions flock annually to see its unique collections of some of the most celebrated works of art ever created, such as the famed Venus de Milo, Whistler’s Mother and The Mona Lisa. The building is enormous, holding no less than some 35 to 40,000 of the millions of precious objects it owns on display at any given time. The task of attempting to appraise the Louvre’s collections into monetary terms, would be torturous. Suffice to say that only one other iconic structure comes anywhere close to matching the incredible fortune in art and history it contains.
4) The Hermitage
The Hermitage began its storied history as the royal Winter Palace commissioned by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (the daughter of Peter the Great) in 1754, and was completed in 1762 in time for the coronation of Catherine II, (who history would come to know as Catherine the Great) who dethroned Elizabeth’s nephew Peter III to seize power. She greatly enhanced the palace’s collections of art treasures during her reign, which saw the palace become one of the largest private museums in the world. This required the construction of additional salons and galleries to display the works, a series of additions which came to be known as The Hermitage.
Sadly, some of it was destroyed in a great fire in 1837 which raged for three days, though fortunately most of its priceless items were saved. Czar Nicholas I vowed to rebuild the structure within a year, but the work wasn’t completed until 1839. By this time the palace had been growing in size and status for some time, adding fabulous paintings, sculptures, literature, tapestries and other historic and artistic objects to its already impressive collections. It wasn’t until the Russian Revolution however, that the Winter Palace/Hermitage ceased to be a residence for the Romanov dynasty, and became a symbol of the new, Marxist society envisioned by Lenin.
In 1917 both the Winter Palace and the Hermitage were declared national museums open to the people. Though it may be less well known than the Louvre, at over three million objects, the Hermitage nevertheless contains one of the largest and most spectacular collections of art treasures ever assembled. Estimates of the value of such a unique horde would be staggering, if anyone ever had the tenacity to take on such a project. Covering everything from pre-history to modern abstraction, it is in and of itself a priceless work of art. More than that however, it is a symbol not only of a long lost era in Russian history, but of the enduring spirit of the Russian people for whom artistic expression and appreciation runs deep.
3) The Great Pyramid of Khufu
The last remaining member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the great pyramid at Giza in Egypt is to this day the largest single building ever constructed. Despite centuries of study, we are still not certain how this near miraculous structure was created. With its four sides perfectly aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, it’s 756 feet wide on each side (with no more than 8 inches difference between them), and at 480 feet (originally; it has since been reduced to 450 feet), it remained the tallest building on Earth until the mid-19th century, earning it the nickname ‘The Great Pyramid.’
Begun around 2,560 BC, it is the burial monument for the Pharaoh Khufu, a.k.a. Cheops, and it is one of the most unparalleled triumphs of engineering ever undertaken by human beings. Over two thousand years after it was built, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the pyramid took an enslaved workforce of over 100,000 more than twenty years to complete (though this account has been disputed), and considering the scale of the structure, it’s not hard to see why. Khufu’s pyramid is composed of 2.3 million solid coarse yellow limestone blocks that weigh between 2.5 and 15 tons each. Originally they would have been covered in a gleaming white limestone sheathing, making the building a gigantic beacon in the blazing Egyptian sun. So well carved and placed are they that there is not a trace of mortar in the entire structure; it has been held aloft for centuries by the beauty and perfection of its design.
Some of these enormous stones were quarried as far as Aswan, hundreds of miles away, and were floated along the annual Nile floods on barges to Giza. The interior of the pyramid contains several perfectly carved, angled narrow shafts that lead from the King and Queen’s chambers to the sky and are believed to have been employed to help guide the spirits of Khufu and his wife to the heavens on their journey through the afterlife. Some of these shafts appear to have been blocked by the builders using large stones with copper handles attached, possibly as a deterrent to tomb robbers.
The interior is a marvel of narrow passageways, several decoy rooms and tunnels to thwart thieves (some of which extend deep under the base of the pyramid itself) culminating in what’s known as ‘the Grand Gallery,’ which has both an ascending and a descending passage. The ascending passage is an incredible incline of 26 degrees that rises 153 feet long but is less than 7 feet wide. This incredible feat of engineering sits under a corbel vaulted roof 29 feet high and the entire area is made of immense blocks of solid granite. It leads to the stunning King’s Chamber, while the descending passage leads to what’s been called ‘The Queen’s Chamber,’ though it’s unlikely her body was actually interred there.
The King’s Chamber is a room 34 feet long, 17 feet wide and 19 feet high made of enormous granite blocks built near the top of the pyramid that still contains the giant granite sarcophagus meant for Khufu; sadly it’s the only object ever discovered in the tomb, as tomb robbers probably made off with its treasures not long after it was built. Despite not yielding glittering artifacts, there is no denying that the architectural, engineering and construction mastery that created the Great Pyramid will remain the single greatest example of the incredibly sophisticated and artistically gifted skill of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
2) The Great Wall of China
Along with the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China is the only other feat of human construction that can be visible from Earth orbit in space, and it’s far and away the largest engineering project ever undertaken by human beings. Begun around 220 BC by China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, it stretches unbroken a phenomenal 5,500 miles across the north of the country. It meanders its way like a gigantic serpent, snaking through the Northern Mountains just north west of Beijing to create a massive stone barrier. Fortified guard posts and watch towers dot its entire length at regular intervals, and though it’s surface is rather unadorned and austere, there is a certain magical effect it has simply by winding its way through the nation like a vast dragon’s tail.
Starting with the connection of four older walls in the region, it was strengthened and extended by successive rulers not only as a fortification against barbarian invaders, but also as a tangible symbol of their vast wealth, status and power. Made of hundreds of millions of blocks of stone with phenomenally skilled masonry, it has become synonymous with the independence, determination, fortitude and incredible ingenuity of the Chinese people. It’s estimated that at any given time in its 15 century existence, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people from every walk of life were commandeered to construct the wall.
It’s difficult to describe the logistics required to complete such a huge task, but suffice to say that the immensity of the project was only made possible by the availability of a staggering volume of workers. The Great Wall was not just a defensive endeavor, it was a cultural one. The Wall itself quickly became a source of considerable pride for the Chinese, especially their Emperors, for whom the wall represented a tangible, physical expression of their power and prestige which helped define their empire. Nothing like it had ever been achieved before, and it would take until the 20th century for technology to advance far enough for something similarly enormous as the construction of the Panama canal to even be considered, much less attempted.
For over 1500 years, the Great Wall of China has withstood countless invasions, domestic turmoil, revolutions, wars and plagues and remains an astonishing example of the boundless creativity of the human spirit. Nothing like this monumental effort has ever been attempted before or since, which means the Great Wall of China will forever be a testament to the ambitions and prescience of one of the most enterprising civilizations to have ever graced the face of the Earth. How can something this epic ever be measured in something as trivial as Dollars or Yen? It can’t; but it can honestly be said that the Great Wall of China is truly one of the Earth’s most valuable accomplishments.
1) The Taj Mahal
Now, we reach the finale of our list, and it’s a doozy folks.
The construction of the ‘Crown Palace’ in the Indian city of Agra is one of the most celebrated and romantic symbols of the power of human emotion ever built, and it is simply sublime. The Taj Mahal may be the most famous of the buildings in Agra, but it is merely the spectacular mausoleum for a larger complex comprising many other structures on the 42 acre site. However, it certainly remains one of the most recognizable buildings on Earth by virtue of its unsurpassed beauty.
Throughout human history, lovers have devoted themselves to affirming their affections by creating monuments to the joys of their relationships, and the majesty of the Taj Mahal is the single greatest expression of this sentiment ever achieved by any civilization. In 1631, the Fifth Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan began work on a series of monuments he envisioned as a shrine to his third and favorite wife, affectionately called Mumtaz Mahal, meaning ‘Beloved ornament of the palace.’ Her death in 1631 during the birth of their 13th child was a loss which Shah Jahan was never able to completely overcome. Their 19 year marriage was celebrated for their unabashed love for one another, and with her death, he became obsessed with erecting a lasting testament to his adoration of her; a home for his Queen in Paradise.
No one is certain as to who actually designed the Taj Mahal, but its basic form is reminiscent of many Muslim mosques and tombs of the era. It’s believed that a workforce of twenty thousand were recruited from all across Northern India for its construction. Completed around 1650, it immediately became one of the most famous buildings in history. Rising above a large, beautifully symmetrical formal garden with an enormous reflecting pool directly opposite the structure, it sits on a pediment of red sandstone guarded by four elegantly slender minarets 137 feet tall which surround the wondrous main dome flanked by two smaller versions. The dome’s interior measures 81 feet tall by 58 feet in circumference, but is covered by an exterior domed shell that rises to nearly 200 feet.
Made of red sandstone layered over with gleaming white marble, the exterior contains intricate carvings and magnificent inlays of jade, jasper and yellow marble that make the Taj Mahal a completely unique treasure whose color actually changes during the day and with the seasons. The interior is a breathtaking array of exquisite paintings, gorgeously tiled ceilings and floors, superb carvings and sumptuous inlays of precious and semi-precious stones in the thousands; agate, coral, garnet, lapus-lazuli, onyx, turquoise and jade. The centerpiece is the incredible Queen’s sarcophagus (Shah Jahan’s rather ungainly tomb by its side was added later, and seems somewhat out of place within the perfectly balanced design of the structure, though both are wonderfully decorated with beautiful inlaid stones).
While admiring the splendor of its symmetry, its polished marble surface, its glorious interior and its unforgettable impression, attempting to estimate the value of this spectacular treasure would be utterly vulgar and crass. As anyone on the planet can tell you, this is not its true value, because it is not merely a mausoleum or a shrine, it is one man’s homage to his heart’s eternal commitment. No literature, poetry, play or any other human endeavor has quite matched the intense emotional impact setting eyes on the Taj Mahal creates. It is quite simply amazing in every sense of the word; few buildings have ever represented such a pure and harmonious expression of love that has been universally admired since its creation and it will remain a symbol of the incomperable depths of the human heart.