Greek Cypriot Sculptor Given the Right to Reconstruct Colossus of Rhodes

Nikolaos Kotziamanis with bronze maquettes
Nikolaos Kotziamanis with his bronze maquettes of a new Colossus

For 20 years, Nikolaos Kotziamanis, a Greek Cypriot sculptor living in London, has been trying to pull off the greatest commission of them all – rebuilding one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And now the dream may come true. Fotis Hatzidiacos, mayor of Rhodes, has given his backing to the reconstruction of the Colossus of Rhodes – the 30 metre-tall (98-foot) bronze statue of the sun god, Helios, raised at the mouth of the island's harbour in around 280BC.

It was designed in honor of Rhodes's victory over invading Macedonians under Alexander the Great's general, Demetrius, after a long siege. The bronze came from Macedonian weapons abandoned on the battlefield. The mighty figure, the last of the Seven Wonders to be built, was felled, barely half a century after it was erected, by an earthquake in 225BC.

"I started making plans for the Colossus in 1991," says Nikolaos Kotziamanis. "And I made the two bronze maquettes in 1993."

Because there are no precise descriptions of the Colossus, Kotziamanis came up with two interpretations. One shows Helios directing the rays of the sun with a hand clasped to his forehead. The other has him holding the flame of civilisation in an outstretched hand. "They caused such an excitement all over the world," says Kotziamanis. "It is an ecumenical project and lots of countries were interested. Private investors were all lined up. But the Rhodians couldn't make up their mind."

In 2000, the Rhodes municipality announced an international competition to rebuild the Colossus, but nothing concrete – or bronze – came out of the discussions. Now, however, the mayor of Rhodes has announced that he is consulting scientists and planning a site for the Colossus. Kotziamanis is hopeful that his vision will be finally cast in bronze – a particularly inspirational icon at a time when Greece is going through such intense agonies.

At the moment, around two-and-a-half million tourists visit Rhodes every year. That figure is projected to rise to six million if its wonder is restored to life. No wonder Rhodes's hoteliers have agreed to back the project although the anticipated cost is about 50m. "It would be a great achievement of Hellenic culture," he says, "in the way the Eiffel Tower is the pride of France. It can be done if people fight for it and believe in it."

Abduction of Helen amidst the wonders
Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World, showing all seven Walters Art Museum

Structural engineer Ove Arup has provided, free of charge, a detailed technical plan to accompany Kotziamanis's maquettes. To deal with the prospect of another earthquake, the bronze statue would be wrapped around a seismic-friendly steel skeleton and then placed near its original site. No one knows the exact spot, but it certainly stood within the old walls of Rhodes, overlooking the ancient harbour. The 60 tonnes of bronze would be cast on the island, as the original was – remains of ancient bronze foundries have been discovered on Rhodes. The sculpture would use the latest computer design technology but the basic principle would be the same as the technique used by the ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias, in that parts of the sculpture would be cast separately before being fused together.

Pheidias was responsible for another ancient wonder – the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese. The fifth century BC statue was destroyed in the fifth century AD. But some tantalising clay casts of fragments of the statue survive in the museum at Olympia. They were discovered in the ruins of Pheidias's workshop there, having been incorporated into a Christian statue. We know Pheidias cast the great sculpture here, because of a charming broken cup, also in the museum, with the inscription, "Pheidio eimi" – "I belong to Pheidias" – on its base. The sad truth of it is that the Seven Wonders of the World have had a pretty rough time of it since Antipater, a Greek from Sidon, wrote the original poem highlighting them in 140BC; in that first list he included the walls of Babylon, later popularly replaced by the lighthouse at Alexandria.

We are rightly horrified at the current destruction of ancient monuments in Syria and Iraq – and the heart-breaking ISIS threat to the peerless Roman ruins of Palmyra, "the Venice of the Sands". But, considering the fate of the Seven Wonders, it is staggering that those sites in Syria and Iraq have survived into the present day at all. Natural disasters – and the unnatural wickedness of man – are powerful vaporisers of exceptional buildings. All seven wonders only existed together at one time for less than 60 years, between 280BC and 225BC, the lifetime of the Colossus of Rhodes.

Another wonder, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus – now Bodrum – is today a sad pile of scattered column drums, unvisited by the sun-seekers who descend on Turkey's western coast. I had the shattered mausoleum to myself for several hours on the day I visited. When it was built in the fourth century BC, it was a mighty memorial to the Persian king Mausolus; thus our word "mausoleum". A series of earthquakes – along with the Knights of St John of Rhodes, who looted the mausoleum to build their castle at Bodrum – left little behind. The best bits are now in London at the British Museum.

The same goes for the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, whose best fragments are also in the British Museum. Much of ancient Ephesus survives – enough for the city to be named a Unesco World Heritage Site this month – but not its greatest temple. Diana's sixth century BC temple, burnt and plundered by the fourth century AD, was the favourite of Antipater, the man who dreamt up the idea of the wonders:

"I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the temple of Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus," Antipater wrote. "I have seen the hanging gardens and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus. But, when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus." Of all the wonders, only the existence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon has never been convincingly proved. My God, who knows what horrors Isis would have inflicted on the gardens if they were around?

It is a strange irony, given the fragile nature of the wonders, that the only one to survive is the oldest, the Pyramid of Giza, built in 2584 BC. It's also intriguing that, together with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the pyramid is one of only two non-Greek wonders. Antipater, like so many Greeks, was a patriotic soul. But the encouraging news is that, along with the Colossus of Rhodes, another wonder – the Lighthouse at Alexandria, built in 280BC, toppled by an earthquake in 1303AD, may rise again. In May, Egypt's Supreme Antiquities Council approved a plan to rebuild it.

Of course, these proposals may come to nothing – particularly given the chaotic state of Greece and Egypt. But how gratifying that the rebuilding spirit is there at least. After more than 2,000 years of pillage and destruction, Antipater's glorious list may stop shrinking and start growing. Now that really would be wondrous.

Greek Cypriot Sculptor Given the Right to Reconstruct Colossus of Rhodes | Opinion