Every now and then, I read about some new project that claims to be the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” In one day this week, I ran across two.

More than 100 feet beneath the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy, in the valley of Valchiusella, a series of interconnected chambers make up the unexpected but exceedingly impressive “Temples of Damanhur.” The vast underground temples, richly embellished with eclectic designs, are the work of Oberto Airaudi, a 57-year-old former insurance broker from northern Italy who says he began seeing visions in childhood and was inspired to create what he saw. Aided by friends from across the globe, he started digging secretly beneath a modest house and spent many years excavating the cavernous but intricately decorated halls that some have likened to the lost city of Atlantis or the Eighth Wonder of the World. Finally, the secret got out, the police came in, and the “Temples of Damanhur” was put on the map.

A few hundred miles to the north, in the English county of Cornwall, a self-proclaimed “Eighth Wonder of the World” inhabits a huge pit where clay was once quarried. The “Eden Project” is the brainchild of Tim Smit, an archaeologist turned pop music producer who decided to build a new Eden in England. Smit convinced investors to sink $100 million into his giant hole in the ground of southwest England, where geodesic domes cover vast greenhouses that bring the tropics to a most unlikely setting. The resulting eco-park has proven to be a big hit, claiming nine million visitors since it opened in 2001.

In contrast, few people have been granted permission to view the “Temples of Damanhur,” which were built without proper authorization and only recently made legal via retroactive permitting. Though dedicated to no particular god, true believers find the subterranean chambers to be a perfect spot for meditation.

So, do either of these wonders deserve to be called the “Eighth Wonder of the World”? One can’t answer that question without deciding to what wonders one should compare them, for despite the mythic status of the “Seven Wonders,” there is no fully agreed upon list of what wonders should be included, from what historical era they should come, and whether we’re talking about man-made wonders only, or including natural wonders (Wikipedia has a nice review of the “Seven Wonders” dilemma).

When you can’t define precisely what the top seven “wonders” are, it’s easier to call your own favorite the eighth.

No matter what human constructions we find wondrous, none of them can hold a candle to the canyons and caverns, to the mountain heights and ocean depths of the planet we call home, an astrophysical, geological, meterological, biological marvel not built with human hands.

The world itself — that’s the wonder.

[Photos from the linked websites, both of which include additional pictures.]

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