By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
PARIS, March 12 -- Maybe it simply feeds modern society's obsession with lists and rankings, but more than 2,000 years after ancient Greeks identified the Seven Wonders of the World, millions of people around the globe are casting Internet ballots to update the list.
Whether motivated by nationalism, conservation, curiosity or sheer boredom, more than 4 million Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Americans and others have cast 28 million votes, organizers say. They have generated 21 wonder finalists, including the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis in Athens, Jordan's ancient city of Petra and the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
Also in the running are Britain's Stonehenge and the statues of Easter Island in Chile. A few finalists -- notably the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Sydney Opera House -- have left experts and neophytes alike wondering.
"It is comparing apples and oranges, and that's why it is a subjective thing, but a wonder is something that moves you and makes you wonder why they built it and how they built it," said Tia Viering, a spokeswoman for the organizers, the New7Wonders Foundation.
The seven winners will be announced on July 7, or 07/07/07.
The new list would join the roster of the seven ancient wonders, only one of which, the pyramids, still exists. There is scant physical evidence that some, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, ever existed.
In recent times, more than a few panels of experts have compiled Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The American Society of Civil Engineers, for instance, drew up a list that includes the Empire State Building and the English Channel tunnel. A list in the Reader's Digest Book of Facts honors the space shuttle and Chartres Cathedral in France, among others.
The new campaign has generated controversy in Egypt, where Culture Minister Farouk Hosni called it "absurd." Zahi Hawass, head of the country's Supreme Council of Antiquities, demanded that the 4,500-year-old pyramids at Giza be removed from the competition, saying they "don't need a vote to be among the world's wonders," according to the state-run Middle East News Agency.
Viering said the pyramids could not be removed because the competition is a purely democratic process, driven by Internet voting (and to a lesser extent phone balloting). "It's the people of the world who are making this list. It's not our decision," she said.
The idea for the campaign came from Swiss Canadian filmmaker Bernard Weber, who, according to the group's Web site, formed the nonprofit foundation in Zurich in 2001 "to protect humankind's heritage across the globe" and alert people "to the destruction of nature and the decay of our man-made heritage."
Weber, who clearly has a knack for self-promotion, has spent recent months touring the finalists with a massive blimp, ginning up publicity and filming and photographing the sites for a forthcoming movie and book about the project. Organizers promise that half the proceeds will go toward efforts to protect and restore threatened sites.
Voting began in 2001. Nominated monuments swelled to 177, were culled to 77, then winnowed in late 2005 by a group of experts to the current 21 finalists, each from a different country. Among the experts was Federico Mayor, who served for 12 years as head of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural heritage agency. He is now head of the New7Wonders panel of experts.
Unlike in earlier rounds, organizers say, the winning wonders will be based solely on votes cast. To avoid obsessive ranking, the final seven will be announced as a group, with no specific vote tallies.
According to Viering, as of Jan. 31, the top seven vote-getters were Petra, the pyramids, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, the Easter Island statues, the Colosseum in Rome and the Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru. The Statue of Liberty has stubbornly remained in the bottom seven for most of the campaign, she said.
Organizers note high enthusiasm for the vote in developing countries where the Internet is in its infancy, with people sometimes generating votes with chain letters and the like. In 2002 in China, for instance, as many as 10,000 people a day were casting ballots, according to the foundation's Web site.
Schools also are involved, using teaching aids on the foundation's Web site for history and geography classes.
In an effort to promote thoughtful consideration of the sites, voters on the Web site ( http://www.new7wonders.com/) must submit a ballot with seven votes, not just their national favorite. Compulsive voters can cast a second ballot for $2 and receive a special certificate -- not exactly the purest expression of democracy, but somebody has to pay the bills.
Including corporate sponsors, voting fees and other donations, Viering said in an e-mail, "funds raised and investment in the campaign since the beginning has been in the eight figures." Although the group's financial statements are open to the public because of its nonprofit status, she said, precise information about finances is not currently available because the group's staff of six is focusing for the next four months on getting out the vote.
In Internet chatter about the campaign, some people call it pointless, commercial and self-promoting. Others call it harmless fun or a valuable effort to protect the world's heritage.
Matt Rosenberg is among those on about.com suggesting a different kind of modern wonder, the creation of the state of Israel. Another blogger suggested German chocolate cake.
"I have been laying on my lawn for the last three weeks straight without moving," Nick Young wrote on the Google Earth blog. "I hope that google satellites will take pictures of me and everyone will vote it to be one of the seven wonders of the world."