There is a really cool scene in the Fellowship of the Ring in which the heroes, floating down the river Anduin into Gondor, pass two giant marble statues. These are the Argonath, a pair of statues carved in the likeness of Isildur and Anarion. The statues mark the northern border of ancient Gondor and serve as a visual warning to her enemies as well as a reminder of Gondor's might.
The Argonath aren't essential to the plot; they're little more than scenery, but the statues serve another purpose. Their presence reminds the viewer (or reader) that Middle Earth is an old world with thousands of years of history. The Argonath show us that Gondor was once a much larger and more powerful nation. They also tell a little something about Gondor's culture.
A GM would do well to include such man-made wonders in his campaign, for many of the same reasons that Tolkein included the Argonath in his book. They make the world feel more alive; they're interesting to view, experience, and explore; they give a sense of history to the campaign; and they can teach the players something about a society.
For inspiration, here are the classic “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” As a bonus, I've included a few wonder entries from the different incarnations of Sid Meiers Civilizations computer games. Some of these are not “wonders of the world” in the traditional sense, but they were important developments nonetheless. Remember that your own ideas don't have to be as large or obvious as the pyramids.
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
The Great Pyramid of Giza: The tomb of the Egyptian Pharoah Khufu. The pyramids themselves are impressive icons, and the Great Pyramid is largest of them. It was one of the largest structures of the ancient world, it has lasted for thousands of years, and it is houses the tomb and treasures of Egyptian kings. There is also the matter of how it was built, a question that still remains unsettled among some modern scholars.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: King Nebuchadnezzar II constructed this wonder of multi-leveled gardens for his wife. The gardens, complete with a complex irrigation system, was notable for its architecture, design, and the beauty of its lush plants. The fact that they were built in the desert climate of what is now Iraq adds to the Gardens' appeal.
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus: 120 years in the building, this grand example of Greek temple architecture was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. Antipater of Sidon, a poet who helped create the concept of the 7 Wonders of the World, said of the Temple: “...but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, 'Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”A mystery cult, called Amazons by some ancient scholars, may have been associated with the Temple site in its early days.
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia: A 40 foot statue of ivory and gold depicting the king of the gods. The statue was so massive that one scholar proclaimed that it would “unroof the temple” if it were to stand up. Legend says that when workers came to disassemble it and bring it to the Roman Emperor Caligula, the statue let out a peal of laughter so powerful it destroyed their scaffolding and sent them fleeing in terror.
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus: An enclosed tomb nearly 200 feet in height built for Mausolus, a governor of Persia. Four different sculptors created the carvings that decorated the large tomb's corners, and statues and bas-reliefs decorated the whole of the building. Renown for its aesthetics and architecture, the Mausoleum is also a monument to love and grief. It was built by Mausolus' widow (who was also his sister) after his death and meant to serve as a tribute to her late husband. The name Mausolus has carried on into modern times as the world Mausoleum.
The Colossus at Rhodes: A 100 foot statue of the god Helios, built to celebrate the city of Rhodes' victory against an invading army. The statue was the largest of its kind in all of the ancient world. Its imagery captured the imagination of Shakespeare (in Julius Caesar), the designers of D&D (as a monster), and the designers of the Statue of Liberty.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria: The lighthouse, at upwards of 400 feet tall, towered above all other structures on earth. Indeed, it was centuries before man was able to build anything larger. Its light shined out a warning guide to ships for hundreds of years, and the last remnants of the lighthouse stood until the year 1480; nearly 2,000 years after its construction.
A Few “Wonders” from the Civilization Computer Games
Moai Statues: Strange monolithic human statues carved from rock on Easter Island. Thought to represent deified ancestors, the Polynesian people that carved the heavy statues transported them all around the island, sometimes bearing them over several miles. The tallest known Moai is over 30 feet tall and weighs a staggering 82 tons.
The Great Wall of China: Not a single wall, but a series of stone and earthen fortifications built to protect China's northern border against barbarian incursions. The entire wall, taken as a whole and including all its branches, stretches nearly 4,000 miles.
Royal Library of Alexandria: Built in Egypt, the Great Library was the most significant collection of written works in the ancient world. Its goal was to collect all of the world's knowledge. As ships came into the port at Alexandria from both the eastern and western world, scholars at the library would gather any books from their cargo, make copies for their owners, and keep the originals. According to legend, the scribes were so skilled at this, the books' rightful owners often didn't even notice that they were receiving copies. No modern record of the library's contents exists, but it is likely that it contained tens of thousands of individual works collected on hundreds of thousands of scrolls.
It should be easy to take a few of these, add a fantastic twist, and then use them to spice up your own campaign.