Fruits and flowers, waterfalls, exotic animals and gardens hanging from the palace terraces... This is the picture of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon that most people have in their minds. But it may be surprising to know that they might have never existed except in the vivid, and drug-induced imaginings of the Greek poets and historians.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were supposedly located on the east bank of the River Euphrates, about 50km south of Baghdad, Iraq. However, nothing written at the time made a single reference to the Hanging Gardens, and even the historians who gave detailed descriptions of the Hanging Gardens never actually saw them.
The Babylonian kingdom flourished under the rule of the famous King, Hammurabi(1792-1750 BC). It was not until the reign of Naboplashar(625-605 BC) of the neo-Babylonian dynasty that the Mesopotamian civilization reached its ultimate glory. His son, Nebuchadnezzar II 1 is credited for building the legendary Hanging Gardens. Apparently, the Gardens were built by Nebuchadnezzar to please his concubine, Amyitis who is said to have been brought up in Media and had a passion for mountainous surroundings.
While the most descriptive accounts of the Gardens come from Greek historians2, Babylonian records stay silent on the matter. Tablets from the time of Nebuchadnezzar do not have a single reference to the Hanging Gardens, although descriptions of his palace, the city of Babylon, and the walls are found. Even the historians who give detailed descriptions of the Hanging Gardens never saw them. Modern historians argue that when Alexander's soldiers reached the fertile land of Mesopotamia and saw Babylon, they were impressed. When they later returned to their rugged homeland, they had stories to tell about the amazing gardens and palm trees at Mesopotamia. About the palace of Nebuchadnezzar. About the Tower of Babel and the ziggurats. And it was the imagination of poets and ancient historians that blended all these elements together to produce one of the World Wonders.
About 100 years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar, Herodotus3 failed to mention the gardens in his description of the city in which he wrote 'In addition to its size, Babylon surpasses in splendor any city in the known world.'
He claimed the outer walls were 90 kilometer in length, 25 meters thick and 98 meters high. Wide enough to allow a four-horse chariot to turn. The inner walls were 'not so thick as the first, but hardly less strong.' Inside the walls were fortresses and temples containing immense statues of solid gold. Rising above the city was the famous Tower of Babel, a temple to the god Marduk, that seemed to reach to the heavens.
While archaeological examination has disputed some of Herodotus' claims (the outer walls seem to be only 16km long and not nearly as high) his narrative does give a sense of how awesome the features of the city appeared to those that visited it.
Other ancient Greek sources, including the writings of Strabo and Philo of Byzantium, provide us with further detailed descriptions of the gardens. Here are some excerpts from their accounts:
The Garden is quadrangular, and each side is four plethra4 long. It consists of arched vaults which are located on checkered cube-like foundations. The ascent of the uppermost terrace-roofs is made by a stairway...
The Hanging Garden has plants cultivated above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in an upper terrace rather than in the earth. The whole mass is supported on stone columns... Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow down sloping channels... These waters irrigate the whole garden saturating the roots of plants and keeping the whole area moist. Hence the grass is permanently green and the leaves of trees grow firmly attached to supple branches... This is a work of art of royal luxury and its most striking feature is that the labor of cultivation is suspended above the heads of the spectators...
New theories suggest that the Gardens were an ancient plant support system, where water was supplied by a pump. More recent archaeological excavations at the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq uncovered the foundation of the palace. Other findings include the vaulted building with thick walls and an irrigation well near the southern palace.
A group of archaeologists surveyed the area of the southern palace and reconstructed the vaulted building as the Hanging Gardens. However, the Greek historian Strabo had stated that the gardens were situated by the River Euphrates. So others argue that the site is too far from the Euphrates to support the theory since the vaulted building is several hundreds of metres away. They reconstructed the site of the palace and located the gardens in the area stretching from the river to the palace. On the river banks, recently discovered massive walls 25m thick may have been stepped to form terraces.5
Hydroponics may be an ancient form of growing plants. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were a series of terraces filled with plants. Excavations have found an elaborate tunnel and pulley system that apparently brought water from the ground level to the top terrace.
Whether the Hanging Gardens were hydroponic depends upon a simple question of whether nutrients were added to the water. The plants were thought to be growing in soil, which would at first glance remove these gardens from consideration as a hydroponic system, but soil could be used as the media, with water and nutrients delivered from the water system.
There is an intriguing possibility that the water used for the plants may have been waste water from the human inhabitants. If so, the system would qualify as hydroponic (because nutrients were added to the water) and would be an example of technology we are just beginning to rediscover - using our household grey water (from bathing and washing etc) for irrigating gardens, golf courses, and landscaping.
Archaeologists are still struggling to gather enough evidence before reaching the final conclusions about the location of the gardens, their irrigation system, and their true appearance.