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Image of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, representation of how it would have appeared. Source: Civilization. Wiki /CC BY-SA )

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus: What Made the First Mausoleum a Wonder?


The word mausoleum is nowadays defined as “a special building made to hold the dead body of an important person or the deceased bodies of a family”. This word is derived from the name Mausolus, for whom the original ‘Mausoleum’ was built. Located in modern day Bodrum, Turkey, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’. Due to this status, the Mausoleum is one of the most well-known structures in the ancient world. After the Great Pyramid of Giza, this was the longest surviving Wonder, standing for more than a millennium and a half, until its eventual destruction.

Who was Mausolus?

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was built for Mausolus, the second ruler of Caria from the Hecatomnid dynasty (and nominally a Persian satrap) who died in 353 BC. As the man who re-founded Halicarnassus, Mausolus was entitled to receive cultic honors and a tomb on the central square of his city, in accordance with Greek custom. The person in charge of this project was Mausolus’ grieving widow, Artemisia II, who, incidentally, was also his sister.

Statue of Mausolus at the British Museum, 2012. (shako/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Statue of Mausolus at the British Museum, 2012. (shako/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Who Designed the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus?

The design of the Mausoleum is said to have taken its inspiration from the early 4th century BC Nereid Monument of Lycian Xanthos, albeit on a much grander scale. The Greek architects Satyros and Pytheos were said to have been invited by Artemisia from Greece to design the overall shape of the Mausoleum, whilst the sculptors Byraxis, Leocharis, Timotheus, and Scopas of Paros were in charge of the decorations of the monument. Working under them were hundreds of other workmen and craftsmen.  The end result was a wonder  built in the styles of three different cultures – Greek, Lycian and Egyptian.

A partial reconstruction of the Nereid Monument at Xanthos in Lycia (Public Domain)

A partial reconstruction of the Nereid Monument at Xanthos in Lycia ( Public Domain )

Perhaps for maximum visibility, the Mausoleum was built on top of a hill overlooking the city. A stone platform was first built, and was enclosed with a courtyard. The top of this platform was reached by a flight of stairs flanked by stone lions. Along the outer walls of the courtyard were statues of various gods and goddesses, whilst mounted stone warriors were stationed at each corner. At the center of the platform was the Mausoleum itself. Whilst the building was constructed of bricks, it was covered with white Proconnesian marble, giving it a splendid look.

Detail of the Amazon Frieze from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus: combats between Amazons and Greeks. 2012 by Carole Raddato. (Carole Raddato/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Detail of the Amazon Frieze from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus: combats between Amazons and Greeks. 2012 by Carole Raddato. (Carole Raddato/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The first 1/3 of the Mausoleum was a square, tapering block covered with relief sculptures. These reliefs included standard images from the Greek repertoire, including the Centauromachy (the battle between the Lapiths and centaurs) and the Amazonomachy (the battle between the Greeks and Amazons). The next 1/3 of the monument consisted of a set of 36 ionic columns. Between each column was a statue, and a solid block was constructed behind the columns to bear the weight of the structure’s roof. This roof, which covered the final 1/3 of the building, was a step pyramid with 24 levels, topped with a sculpture of Mausolus and Artemisia riding a four-horsed chariot.

Optical Illusions and Artistry: The Ingenious Design of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

The construction of the Mausoleum was a remarkable feat of engineering and craftsmanship. It is said that the Greek architect Pytheos, who was involved in the design, incorporated various innovative architectural elements into the structure. One notable feature was the use of optical illusions to create a sense of grandeur and magnificence. For example, the columns on the middle section of the Mausoleum were not evenly spaced but gradually decreased in distance towards the top. This optical trick, known as entasis, gave the illusion that the columns were straight and not tapering.

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was not only a grand tomb but also a magnificent work of art that showcased the skills and craftsmanship of the ancient world. Its design, incorporating elements from different cultures, and its immense size made it one of the most impressive structures of its time.

Destruction of the Mausoleum

Whilst the conquest of Alexander the Great several decades later brought the Hecatomnid dynasty to an end, the Mausoleum outlived the dynasty for over a millennium. During the 13th century, a series of earthquakes destroyed the columns, and brought the stone chariot crashing to the ground. By the early 15th century, only the base of the structure was recognizable. By the end of the same century, and again in 1522, following rumors of a Turkish invasion, the Knights of St. John used the stones from the Mausoleum to fortify the walls of their castle in Bodrum. Additionally, much of the remaining sculptures were ground into lime for plaster, though some of the best works were salvaged and mounted in  Bodrum castle . Several of these statues were later acquired by the British ambassador for  the British Museum .

Photos of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus site, 2013. (I, Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Photos of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus site, 2013. (I, Sailko/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus Today

The location of the Mausoleum was subsequently lost, and was only rediscovered during the 19th century by Charles Thomas Newton, who was working for the British Museum. Newton was successful in his quest, and managed to locate some walls, a staircase, and three of the corners of the foundation. In addition, Newton also discovered sections of reliefs that decorated the wall of the building, portions of the stepped roof, a broken chariot wheel from the sculpture on the roof, and two statues believed to have been in that chariot. These objects were then taken to London, where they are still on display in the British Museum, though the  Turkish authorities are seeking to have them repatriated . They are the last remnants of a once spectacular monument that had the ancient world in awe.

In 2017,  it was announced  that the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus will be revived by  The Danish Halikarnassos Project.   While no dates have been provided yet for the restoration of the Mausoleum, when the ancient structure is restored it means there will be at least two of the ancient wonders of the world available for modern eyes to gaze upon once again.

Meanwhile, the Culture and Tourism Ministry of Turkey set plans in motion  to create an open air museum  at the site and launched this initiative on July 14, 2018. 

Top image: Image of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, representation of how it would have appeared. Source: Civilization. Wiki / CC BY-SA  )

By Ḏḥwty


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Oxford University Press, 2015. Oxford Learner's Dictionary: mausoleum. [Online] Available at:

The British Museum, 2015. Mausoleum of Halikarnassos (Room 21). [Online] Available at:

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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