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Book Review: From stunning Middle East architecture to mysterious Southeast Asian caves, a new standard for ‘greatest’ is set

Fed up with the news? No longer care about the economy? Need a rest? Then take a break from digital media. Reading a book provides an unparalleled experience. Even in its most familiar forms, the habit is looking more resilient than expected. Last year, for the first time in four years, sales of physical books increased.
“The 50 Greatest Wonders of the World” is escapism at its best. Award-winning travel writer Aaron Millar takes us on a journey of discovery to some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on the planet.
A feeling of wonder overtakes us from the very first page as we head to California to see the oldest living organisms, known as the bristlecone pines. Methuselah, the name given to the most ancient of these trees (it is more than 4,800 years old) already had its roots in the ground when the Great Pyramid was being built in Egypt. Its identity is kept hidden in order to protect it from damage. It grows with other ancient bristlecones, at 10,000 feet in the Schulman Grove, up in the White Mountains. These resilient trees thrive in an arid climate, which is windy and cold, too harsh for insects, disease and other plants. Scientists have located trees entirely covered with dead wood except for 10 percent still alive; only a tiny hidden sliver of bark connected to the root will keep a bristlecone alive for centuries.
In the same state of California, you can also see the general sherman tree; this giant sequoia found in the southern range of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains is the largest tree in the world. It is 275 feet tall and you need 18 people holding hands to circle it. The giant sequoias like the bristlecone pines owe their enormous size to their resilience. Their bark is rich with tannins, which protect them against fire, insects and disease. The giant sequoias are believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. They can be seen in the Giant Forest within the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, near Fresno.
As we move south into Mexico, we come across Chichen Itza, listed as one of the greatest wonders of the world. One of the most visited archeological sites, built by the ancient Mayan in the Yucatan, this sophisticated civilization suddenly collapsed during the 8th or 9th century. According to a new theory, a severe drought might have caused the Mayans’ gradual decline. This reminds me of the abandoned yet stunningly beautiful city of Fatehpur Sikri in India. Built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1569, Fatehpur Sikri was also abandoned in 1585 because of a lack of water due to the drying up of a spring-fed lake.
The ancient Mayans produced the first rubber products long before Goodyear obtained its patent. However, they are mostly known for their amazing knowledge of astronomy using only the naked eye. Astronomy played an essential role in the development of their culture. Chichen Itza itself was built according to their astronomical calculations. “The Pyramid itself would have acted as a kind of calendar with the interplay of light and shadows signifying key agricultural and ceremonial times of year,” writes Millar. One of the most incredible spectacles happens at each Spring and Autumn equinox: one can see the shadow of a giant snake wriggle down the pyramid’s steps.
Another unexpected wonder of the world, in Central America, is a natural phenomenon: The composition of the water in Mosquito Bay, in Puerto Rico. Whenever you move your hand in the water, you will see tiny blue lights. This bioluminescence is caused by a special kind of plankton known as “dinos.” When these organisms are shaken, they respond by flashing a blue-green light as a defense mechanism. Mosquito Bay, which has also been nicknamed Bio Bay, holds the Guinness World Record for the best bioluminescence ever recorded. Incidentally, the green glowing protein that lightens up the bodies of these one-celled jellyfish is now used by doctors as a kind of fluorescent marker.
We end this tour of the Americas with a visit to Angel Falls, the highest-falling waterfall in the world in Venezuela at a height of 979 meters. It is 15 times the height of the Niagara in the US and “by the time the water reaches the Kerep River, at the base of the mountain, it has fallen so far that most of the flow is vaporized into a sheer mist that can be felt a mile away.”
Among the greatest wonders of the Middle East, Millar has included Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the destination for the largest annual pilgrimage on the planet. More than 2 million Muslims make the journey each year. It is the largest mosque in the world. “If you added together the capacity of every Premiership football stadium in Great Britain, it wouldn’t even reach half the number of people that Al-Masjid Al-Haram is able to host in a single sitting,” writes Millar.
Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is also listed as a wonder of the world. At a height of 828 meters and 829.8 meters with its antenna, Burj Khalifa is three times the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building in New York City. You can see it from 60 miles away. Its architecture blends Islamic and contemporary influences. The design is based on the spider lily, a flower cultivated in Dubai. A marvel of engineering, the Burj Khalifa is articulated around three wings, each one based on the two others; this allows for more light and greater wind resistance. The entire building seems like a spiral-shaped rocket ready to take off into space.
A list of the wonders of the world in Africa would not be complete without mentioning the Great Pyramid of Giza. The oldest of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, it is the only one still standing today. Originally, the Great Pyramid was covered with limestone which has been looted. It took over 20 years to build; scientists and Egyptologists are still hoping to find hidden vaults and chambers. There are still numerous mysteries surrounding the pyramids and many secrets yet to be revealed.
Among the greatest wonders of the world in Africa, Millar has included the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali. Completed in 1907, it is the largest mud brick structure in the world and one of Africa’s most stunning architectural achievements. Every year, the people of Djenne participate in a colorful festival known as the “Crepissage de la Grande Mosquee” that is the replastering of the Great Mosque. Each generation participates and “adds its subtle mark helping to evolve the mosque like a living part of the community itself.”
The Great Mosque of Djenne is a testimony that mud architecture is profoundly local and is more efficient and more adaptive to local climate, local society and local ecology. Mud architecture is not only beautiful, it is also practical and ethical. With minimal means, it shelters against nature without abusing her.
In Asia, besides the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army, Millar has included the Forbidden City, the largest palace in the world. It consists of 980 buildings and covers a total area of 2.3 million square feet. A 32-foot wall surrounds the city, preventing anyone from looking in and anyone entering uninvited would be sentenced to death, hence its name: The Forbidden City, prohibited to all except family members, court officials and servants.
In Asia, beside the well-known Taj Mahal in India and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Millar has included a natural wonder, the largest cave in the world situated in Vietnam within the jungles of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. At a depth of 600 feet, the cave is so big that it has its own micro-climate. Clouds float around two collapsed roofs and where there is light, you will find an underground jungle. Stalagmites are 250-foot long and there are cave pearls as big as baseballs.
Though it is possible to explore this cave, you will not be able to descend into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, one of Oceania’s greatest wonders. The lowest point, at 36,070 feet, is known as the Challenger Deep. In this alien environment, there is no light and the pressure is 1,000 times greater than at the surface.
On March 26, 2012, James Cameron, who directed “Titanic” and “Avatar,” piloted a submersible (which he helped design). The expedition was risky: The windows could crack and the sea would pour in. But Cameron successfully descended 6.77 miles, collected samples and filmed the entire expedition that you can watch on his website: www.deepseachallenge.com
I was surprised to find the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland competing with the Acropolis in Athens and the Colosseum in Rome on the list of greatest wonders in Europe. The LHC is the biggest and most complicated machine ever built. Located 300 feet underground, this 17-mile tunnel is designed to accelerate and then smash together sub-atomic particles. “To generate the necessary levels of energy, they must accelerate a beam of particles to 99.999999 percent the speed of light,” explains Millar.
He concludes this personal list of “The 50 Greatest Wonders of the World” with another human achievement, the International Space Station, one of the most ambitious projects ever implemented in the history of our planet. He has the knack to bring a place to life. This trip around the world is a pleasure to read. Here is an enticing roadmap to some unforgettable experiences.
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