Making lists of the world’s most impressive monuments is an irrational and ultimately pointless enterprise: Who has seen all the wonders of the world? And what would the criteria be? Yet scribblers have been at it since the second century B.C., when a Greek poet named Antipater of Sidon came up with his canonical seven, now all gone or reduced to rubble except the pyramids of Giza. If Antipater had lived a millennium later, he would surely have put Borobudur, the astonishing stone mountain of exquisitely wrought sculpture in Central Java, on his list. No construction of the preindustrial era makes a more wondrous impression. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the most well-traveled men of his day, wrote of Borobudur in 1869, in “The Malay Archipelago” (a book usually cited minus its melodious subtitle, “The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise”): “The amount of human labor and skill expended on the Great Pyramids of Egypt sinks into insignificance compared with that required to complete this sculptured hill-temple in the interior of Java.”

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