How did this royal tomb become an ancient wonder? Size and style.

Built in the 4th century B.C., the lavish—and massive—Mausoleum at Halicarnassus awed onlookers for more than 1,600 years.

By Eva Tobalina Oráa
Published 12 Dec 2022, 11:50 GMT
Mausolus' capital city
The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus rises high above the harbor of the fourth-century B.C. Carian capital. Richly decorated, the wondrous tomb stood tall for more than 16 centuries.
Photograph by Balage Balogh, Scala, Florence

Visitors approaching ancient Halicarnassus, capital of Caria (in modern Turkey’s southwest corner) would encounter a number of exciting sights on a morning journey to market in the fourth century B.C. From the crest of the final hill, the whole city would be laid out before them, nestled at the base of the Carian mountains. They would see the harbour and a large continuous wall that surrounded the entire city. Numerous large buildings would be visible, such as the king and queen’s palace, theatres, temples and other public sites, as well the agora.

Outshining them all would be the monument standing next to the marketplace, in the city centre. Set off from the city by a high wall, it was the recently completed tomb of King Mausolus and his sister-queen, Artemisia II. Compared to everything else around it, the tomb was immense. Ancient sources say it stood more than 140 feet tall (nearly 10 modern stories high). The outer walls tapered as they rose, giving the tomb the impression of having been thrust organically from the earth. Most striking, however, the foundation, surrounding terrace, walls, and roof had been covered with brilliant white marble, causing them to gleam in the full sunshine of a Mediterranean morning.

The tomb was adorned with more than 400 freestanding marble sculptures on four different levels and decorative friezes running along its sides. Many of the sculptures featured bronze accents—on weapons, armour, crowns, robes, and other features—that shone in the sun. But the sweep of the building drew the eye upward, to the quadriga, the statue of a four-horse chariot carrying the larger-than-life statues of Mausolus and Artemisia, crowning what would become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Even today the Mausoleum would dominate the city it once occupied, as shown in a re-creation as it might appear in modern-day Bodrum, Turkey, once ancient Halicarnassus.
Photograph by Neomam Studios

Carian might

Located in southwestern Anatolia, the district of Caria played a prominent role in ancient times. The Carians spoke their own language and had unique religious rites. Famous for their war-like nature, they were greatly influenced by the Greeks, who had established colonies along the coast. Carian territory was conquered by the Persians in the sixth century B.C. and became a satrapy, or province, of the Achaemenid Empire in the early fourth century B.C. Despite this, the satraps who ruled it were local nobles who often flirted with independence and were not always loyal to Persian power.

This sculpture recovered from the Mausoleum has traditionally been identified as Mausolus.
Photograph by British Musuem, Scala, Florence

Mausolus, satrap of Caria between 377 and 353 B.C., did just that. After taking over from his father, Hecatomnus, Mausolus ruled as a semi-independent sovereign, to the point that many sources grant him the title of king. He signed alliances, founded cities, and even seized the island of Rhodes. Although at the start of his rule he showed loyalty to the Persians, he soon joined the so-called Revolt of the Satraps, a series of uprisings against the Achaemenids promoted by Egypt. However, when it became clear that the revolt was doomed to failure, Mausolus played it safe and once again aligned himself with the Persian monarchy.

Mausolus’ father, Hecatomnus, came from the sacred city of Mylasa (present-day Milas, Turkey). But Mausolus moved his capital to the bustling coastal colony of Halicarnassus. He calculated that this strategic Greek port, opening toward the Dodecanese archipelago in the Aegean, might serve his ambitions better than provincial Mylasa.

Mausolus built walls around Halicarnassus strong enough to withstand attacks from the newly invented catapult. He set his palace on a promontory. Below it, he built a secret port, where he could surreptitiously amass ships and soldiers. But all of this construction paled before the building that would come to immortalise his name.

The grandeur of the Mausoleum resonated through the ages, as shown by this 1669 fresco by Nikolaus Schiel in the Monastery of Novacella, South Tyrol, Germany.
Photograph by DEA, Scala, Florence

Massive monument

King Mausolus began work on his tomb while he was still alive. The location of the tomb, right in the centre of the city, already made it exceptional. Across the ancient world, burials almost always took place outside the city walls. But among the Greek, there were some exceptions to this rule. Indeed, the tomb of Hecatomnus stood at the heart of Mylasa. His son’s tomb’s location in the very centre of the city and its grandeur sent a clear message: Mausolus was a mighty Carian king.

In 353 B.C. Mausolus died, shortly after work began on his tomb. He was succeeded by Queen Artemisia who invited artisans throughout the Mediterranean to finish the project, ensuring that the magnificent tomb would attest to the mnema (memory) of her husband. She entrusted the design to two architects: Satyros of Paros and Pythius of Priene. Satyros was a craftsman who had worked all his life for Mausolus’ family. Pythius was an influential architect, famous not only for his designs but also for his architectural treatises.

Next, the task of decorating the tomb was entrusted to four, perhaps five, sculptors, each deemed equally skilled, and each of whom took charge of one face of the Mausoleum. First-century A.D. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, names four artists—Scopas, Bryaxis, Timotheus, and Leochares—and mysteriously alluded to an unnamed fifth. Vitruvius, a Roman architect working in the first century B.C., writes that the renowned Praxiteles rather than Timotheus was one of the four. Others have stated that Praxiteles took charge of the sculptures on the roof, in particular the quadriga and the statues of Mausolus and Artemisia.

This second-century A.D. Roman-era tomb in the Turkish city of Milas (ancient Mylasa) echoes the style of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.
Photograph by Ivan Vdovin, AWL Images

Whatever its exact composition, this group was a dream team. Praxiteles and Scopas were judged among the greatest sculptors of their time. Hundreds of other artisans and craftsmen were employed on various portions of the tomb. It was the combination of Artemisia’s determination (including her willingness to open her coffers, even bequeathing a legacy from her estate after her death) and the talent of the workforce she assembled that created one of the most magnificent collections of stone sculpture. Artemisia II lived just two more years after her husband’s death. When she died, the Mausoleum was still unfinished. The artisans stayed on, and their work continued.

This re-creation of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus shows that it stood inside a tenemos, or sacred enclosure. It was accessed through a monumental door that abutted the city’s agora. The Mausoleum itself was made up of three parts, one on top of the other. At the bottom was a square structure that tapered slightly toward the top. The middle section, called the pteron, was a peristyle formed of 36 Ionic columns with sculptures placed between them. A solid-rock base supported a pyramid of 24 steps, also adorned with statues. The pyramid was topped by the marble sculpture of a quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses abreast, driven by Mausolus and Artemisia.
Photograph by Illustration by Jean-Claude Golvin

Long-standing wonder

Once finished, Mausolus’s and Artemisia’s ashes were placed in an underground chamber, accessed by a hidden entrance in one of the walls. A stone block, fixed into the rock with metal bolts, concealed the entrance. Behind the block there was a small corridor, an antechamber, and a square space, decorated with columns and statues, which housed funereal urns.

The building housing Mausolus’ remains soon became famous. All the assembled talent that had gone into creating the Mausoleum had burst forth with a new, explosively energetic style. It made such an impression that renowned poet Antipater of Sidon included it among his Seven Wonders of the World in an ode in the second century B.C. The monumental tomb served as inspiration for similar memorials for the great and mighty, and “mausoleum” would come to refer to similarly grand tombs.

The Mausoleum stood firm on its foundation for about 17 centuries. Some 16 years after completion, the tomb largely survived Alexander the Great’s conquest of Halicarnassus in 334 B.C. In the Middle Ages a series of earthquakes damaged it. But at the beginning of the 15th century, its imposing bulk still dominated Bodrum, the Byzantine port city that then stood on the site of ancient Halicarnassus.

Built with stones salvaged from the Mausoleum, the Petronium was also decorated with reliefs and sculptures taken from the tomb, as shown in this 1844 engraving.
Photograph by DEA, Getty Images

At this point, the Knights Hospitaller arrived in the city. These former crusaders, after being expelled from the Holy Land, settled in the Dodecanese Islands, headquartered at Rhodes. In the early 1400s, shortly after occupying Bodrum, they erected the Petronium, a vast and imposing castle fortress dedicated to St. Peter that still stands on a promontory overlooking the city harbour. Unfortunately, the builders used the damaged Mausoleum as a quarry, from which they salvaged high-quality square-cut stone blocks (ashlars) for their fortress. When Bodrum fell to the Turks in 1522, the Mausoleum was almost completely dismantled. Soon, even the memory of its location was gone. It wasn’t until 1856 that the English archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton, while exploring Bodrum’s centre, discovered the buried remains of this most splendid memorial.

Exploration of the site recurred over the next century. But from 1966 until 1977, Kristian Jeppesen and a team of Danish archaeologists made the most detailed exploration of the Mausoleum’s remains ever conducted. It is largely due to their work that we have an understanding of this true wonder of the ancient world.


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