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When we look at monuments as enduring as the Pyramids we may be led to think it took centuries for the ancient civilisations to complete their mammoth efforts. To create landmarks as sturdy as mountains it must have taken about as long as the mountains themselves took to form, right? As it turns out, that simply isn’t true.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, arguably the most complex feat of engineering ever undertaken, was completed in just twenty years. The millennia old stone wonder that is the Coliseum in Rome was designed and built in half that time. More recently the Burj Khalifa, the 829 metre tall Dubaian colossus that has been the tallest building in the world for a decade now, was completed in just six years.
Although these wonders were completed in time for the people who commissioned them to enjoy them, there have been others where construction was more a matter of faith than anything else. Faith that one day, centuries after your death, your children may be able to see the collected efforts come to fruition. What follows is a brief look at ten of those.
The Great Wall of China: 2,200 years
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Let’s get the most famous one out of the way first. Everyone’s heard of the Great Wall of China, and most of us have heard the rumour that it can be seen from space. Although that is nothing but a rumour, the sheer scale of effort it took to build the Great Wall is unparalleled in human history.
The Wall stretches over 20,000km through deserts and across rivers, over mountains and traversing plains. It took countless millions of people and hundreds of millions of tonnes of raw material to build, and the result is nothing short of spectacular. And the Great Wall is as diverse in itself as the landscapes it crosses.
In the far west of China, although you wouldn’t know it to look, the wall is made from soil. Compacted down and stacked metres high, the Chinese have made the most erodible soil on the planet outlast thousands of years.
Through the deserts it is made from sand, stuffed between walls of reed and willow standing nine metres high. The more mountainous parts were built from rough cut stone, the mountain sides themselves, or sometimes even the bodies of the workmen who died on the job.
As the centuries passed and technology improved, so did the materials available. The newest parts of the wall, built by the Ming Dynasty, use bricks and mortar much like we do today. The Great Wall of China is more than just a construction project: it is a standing history of one of the greatest empires ever to exist.
Stonehenge: 1,350 years
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Stonehenge, the Neolithic monument in the south of England famous for its mysterious origin and purpose, comes second on our list. However the biggest enduring mystery isn’t why they built Stonehenge, or how they built it, but how on earth it took them so long.
Stonehenge does not exhibit anything like the scale of the Great Wall, or complexity of the Great Pyramid at Giza (which was built at the same time – around 2560 BC). Nonetheless the construction of Stonehenge, began around 2950 BC, was not completed until over a millennium later.
The first explanation for the incredible amount of time Stonehenge took to complete is to understand that for large periods of the time they were actually doing nothing at all. The first 350 years of construction produced little more than a lot of holes in a big circle. It wasn’t until 2550 BC that the ancients really got to work.
But even then it still took them around a thousand years of moving stones, moving the stones again, polishing the stones and apparently moving them all around again before Stonehenge as we know it came into view. Whatever they were building Stonehenge for, they certainly didn’t need it in a hurry.
Angkor Wat: 37 years
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The jump in years from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat might seem large, so large in fact that it’s a surprise that Angkor Wat is on the list at all. 37 years is almost twice as long as it took to build the Great Pyramid, but it’s barely more than a generation.
However, at four decades it is still one of the longest construction projects ever, but it is on the list for another reason. It’s here to debunk any other lists you may have read, claiming its construction took not four decades, but four centuries.
The problem with the dating of Angkor Wat’s construction at 400 years is that it considers the entire period during which the city was active, and an active city is always under construction somewhere. For the same reason you may hear claims that Petra took 850 years to complete, which is true, but only for the entire city.
The Temple complex at Angkor Wat, the one so famous and recognisable that the Cambodians have even put it on their flag, was constructed between roughly 1113 AD and 1150. Built to reflect the layout of Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods that lies beyond the Himalayas, the temple structure is undeniably a wonder of the world, but compared to what was going on in Europe at the time, 37 years is a flash in the pan.
Notre Dame: 178 years
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Begun just thirteen years after the completion of Angkor Wat on the other side of the world, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is another religious landmark that has stood the test of time. Romanticised to the highest degree by the great French author Victor Hugo in his timeless story of Quasimodo, the Cathedral that had fallen into disrepair came once again into the public imagination.
But the Cathedral had never been far from the centre of French culture. In fact it had quite literally been the centre of France ever since it was decided in 1768 that all measurements of distance would be made from its little island on the Seine.
And the beauty of Notre Dame supersedes its use as a purely religious structure. Rather than be destroyed, it was made a monument to the cult of reason during the revolution, and a monument to the cult of the Supreme Being later.
For the seven centuries since 1345 that Notre Dame has stood completed, countless millions of people have had the men who spent nearly two centuries building it to thank.
York Minster: 252 years
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The historic English town of York has had a church on the site of its famous Minster Cathedral since the year 627. So far back that the people associated with it still had old English names like Ethelburga and Ealdred.
But the churches that stood on that spot were all doomed with bad luck. The first one burned down in 740, and the second was ransacked by William the Conqueror in 1069. The luck only worsened as it was burned completely to the ground by the Danish just five years later. But from the ashes came something even greater.
The Minster that stands today is one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in Europe, and after taking more than two and a half centuries to complete, it really should be. Begun in 1220 and not declared finished until 1472, York Minster’s bad luck didn’t end there. It’s weathered fires, lootings and civil wars since then, but still stands testament to the centuries of effort that it took to build.
Cologne Cathedral: 634 years
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The Cathedral at Cologne may well hold the second place spot (behind the Great Wall) when it comes to actual amount of continuous work put into it. Unlike Stonehenge, where it seems they largely did nothing for literal ages, the workers in Cologne were working consistently, just apparently extremely slowly, for more than six centuries.
And it was no mean feat that they accomplished either. When the cathedral, begun in 1248, was finally completed at the end of the nineteenth century, it was the tallest building in the entire world. In fact it was so tall that only the invention of skyscrapers in the USA dwarfed it.
The Cologne Cathedral’s height would also prove its saving grace. During World War II the only thing that prevented the allies from destroying it in their bombing raids was its huge spire, which acted as an unmissable landmark during their missions.
Il Duomo di Milano: 579 years
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If the Germans take a long time doing something, you can bet the Italians will rival it. The largest church in Italy and the third largest in the entire world, the Duomo in Milan was started in the same year that the Renaissance artist Donatello was born, and not finished until the Beatles released Rubber Soul.
The 579 year span that it took to complete the Milanese Cathedral (from 1386 until 1965) was long even by the Italian standard of doing things. So long that the saying ‘fabbrica del duomo’ (building the cathedral) has entered the common vernacular. It’s used to mean, unsurprisingly, taking a really long time to do something.
Building the Duomo took so long that just around the time they finished the final part, the first part started needing restoration. Even today the Veneranda Fabbrica, the six century old society charged with overseeing the Cathedral’s construction, are campaigning to raise money for more work to be done. So arguably, the Duomo isn’t even finished yet.
La Sagrada Familia: 136 years and counting
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While people may debate whether restoration work counts as construction, and as such whether the Duomo di Milano is finished or not, there is no doubt about this next one on the list. Proving that it wasn’t only in the past that people took an inordinate amount of time to build anything, the world famous unfinished Basilica in Barcelona has already seen five generations of workmen come and go, and there’s no guarantee it will be finished anytime soon.
Even the official website only lays claim to the fact that it “could be finished in the 21st century”. It is supposed to be 70% complete, but standing at just 90.1 metres of the planned 172.5 it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that those numbers don’t quite add up. All that’s really certain is that no-one is making any promises.
The Temple of the Sacred Family (in English), the magnum opus of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, will finally be competed at some point, in the future.
La Alhambra: ~150 years
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Exactly how long it took to build La Alhambra (which means The Red) is just about anybody’s guess. Its history is deeply steeped in mystery, not due to ghosts or spectres or anything else, but simply because it wasn’t very well recorded.
First mentioned way back in the ninth century as a small, poorly kept, but unsurprisingly, red keep, the Alhambra came into its own centuries later when it was chosen as the royal residence by King Mohammed I of the Nasrid Dynasty. After he moved in, at some point in the middle of the thirteenth century, the castle’s golden age began.
Over the following century and a half (which is where the tentative estimate of 150 years at the beginning of this section came from) the subsequent kings (up to Mohammed V but including a Yusuf along the way) built much of what has made the Alhambra the world famous landmark it is today.
In 1492, one hundred and one years after the death of Mohammed V, the Alhambra was passed from Arab to Castilian rule, along with the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. What followed was centuries of redevelopment, reconstruction and restoration that only add to the grand total of years it took to build what stands today. But even at a century and a half, the Alhambra is more than worthy of its place on this list.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa: 198 years
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The Tower of Pisa, world famous because of its jaunty stance, took so long to complete exactly because of it. Like a centuries long, insane game of Jenga, each new generation dared to add just a little more to the tower, hoping that their contribution wouldn’t be the one that led to its collapse.
First laid in 1174, the original foundation is described by the official website in about the most Italian way possible, as being able to park 16 Ferraris. That first storey was completed rapidly and without a problem, until it was noticed that the south side was sinking into ground.
Unperturbed, the architects compensated by making the south of the subsequent floors taller than the north. Unfortunately yet predictably, it wasn’t enough. By the time they had finished the fourth floor, the south side of the tower had sunk a full six inches. They got worried, and construction stopped.
That is until 1234, when the fifth floor was added, again with the south side taller to compensate. Unsurprisingly, adding weight to what was already sinking didn’t work, and construction was abandoned again.
That is until 1260, when the sixth and seventh floors were added to the tower. In a story that approaches Einstein’s definition of madness it seems the architects were intent on doing the same thing over and over, and hoping for a different result. Of course they didn’t get one. The tower continued to sink on the south side, and construction was abandoned again.
That is until 1350, when a man named Tommaso Pisano decided he would finish the project once and for all. By adding a bell tower, he ensured no more floors could be added. However building on top of a sinking building is not an easy thing to do, and it took 22 years before the impractical landmark was impossibly completed.