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The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

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The Seven Wonders of the World:
The Great Pyramid of Giza | The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus | The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus | The Colossus of Rhodes
The Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria

Fruits and flowers, waterfalls, gardens hanging from the palace terraces where exotic animals frolic. This is the picture of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in most people's minds, inspiring countless works of art throughout the centuries1. Did they ever exist outside the imagination of Greek poets and historians?

Modern historians know that Alexander the Great's soldiers were impressed with Mesopotamia's bountiful lands. When they later returned to their rocky, rugged homeland, they had stories to tell about Mesopotamia's fertile flood plains, with gardens and palm trees, the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, the Tower of Babel and other ziggurats. Did the imagination of poets and ancient historians blend all these elements together to create one of the World's Wonders, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?

The Ancient City of Babylon

Located on the east bank of the River Euphrates, about 50 miles south of today's Baghdad in Iraq, the ancient city of Babylon must have been a wonder to a traveller's eyes. Historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus, wrote in around 450 BC:

In addition to its size, Babylon surpasses in splendour any city in the known world.

Herodotus claimed the outer walls were 56 miles long, 300 feet high and 25 feet thick - wide enough to allow a four-horse chariot to turn. The walls went 35 feet below ground level too so no-one could tunnel beneath them and were guarded by 250 towers 450 feet high, with eight gates allowing entry into the city. 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 many of Herodotus' claims, for example the outer walls seem to have been only 16 kilometres long, not 90, and not nearly as high, his narrative does give us a sense of how awesome the features of the city appeared to those who visited it. Interestingly enough though, the city's most spectacular site (according to legend) is not even mentioned by Herodotus - The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Other writers, including Philo of Byzantium who composed the list of the Wonders of the World in the 3rd Century BC, considered the walls of Babylon, then the largest walls ever made, to be the equal of the gardens. Yet none of the ancient Greek writers who described the gardens had ever seen them for themselves.

Babylonian Background

The Babylonian kingdom first flourished in the First Babylonian Dynasty under the rule of the famous King Hammurabi in 1792-1750 BC. After a long period of being ruled by Assyrians, it was not until the reign of Naboplassar (c625-605 BC) that the Neo-Babylonian dynasty began its final period of glory, or 'Head of Gold'. Naboplassar's son Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) is credited with building the legendary Hanging Gardens and the Walls of Babylon as well as rebuilding a large proportion of the city itself in his 45-year reign.

It is said that Nebuchadnezzar built the gardens to please Amytis2, his wife3, who had been 'brought up in Media and had a passion for mountain surroundings'. Princess Amytis is believed to have been the daughter of the Median king, either Cyaxares (c625-585 BC) or Astyages (c585-550 BC), and the wedding secured Media and Babylon's alliance against the Assyrian empire.

The Hanging Gardens

Ancient Greek sources provide us with 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 chequered cube-like foundations... The ascent of the uppermost terrace-roofs is made by a stairway...
- Strabo
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 labour of cultivation is suspended above the heads of the spectators.
- Philo

Letting It All Hang in Paradise

One question that hangs over the Hanging Gardens is what exactly was meant by 'Hanging'. As the records we have of the garden were written by Greeks, what do they mean? Greece, being a particularly hilly country, often had terraced gardens. A garden consisting of multi-layered terraces is therefore a possible explanation. As such a garden would need vast quantities of water, a riverside location is most likely.

Similarly, the gardens are described by Berosus as a 'hanging paradise', and 'paradise' too is a word whose meaning has changed. Like 'forest', the word paradeisos originally meant a hunting reserve, where game was encouraged to breed.


New theories suggest that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was an ancient plant support system, but how was enough water supplied? By a massive pump? Was there an elaborate tunnel-and-pulley system to bring water from ground level to the top terrace? Both Strabo and Philo mention spiral screws used to continually bring water up to the garden from the river, although the gardens were supposed to have been built 400 years before Archimedes, the man credited with inventing such a device, was born. Though the Archimedes screw would have been an invention both familiar to later historians and a logical method of watering such a garden, it does not conclusively prove that the gardens existed or were watered in this manner.

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 have been used as the support medium, with water and nutrients delivered by the watering system. Hydroponics may therefore be an ancient form of growing plants.

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 household grey water (from bathing and washing etc) for irrigation of gardens, golf courses and landscaping.

The Search: Taking a Gander at the Garden

One of the first scientific archaeological expeditions in the Middle East took place at the site of Babylon in 1899, led by Dr Robert Koldeway of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft. Koldeway spent two decades excavating the site and discovered Babylon's temples, gates and the vast walls, second only in scale to the Great Wall of China. He also uncovered the foundation of the palace and, after surveying the area, concluded the thick-walled vaulted building near the southern palace had an irrigation well and reconstructed the building as the Hanging Gardens. Koldeway only left the area when the Great War resulted in nearby Baghdad becoming a battlefield. He then published his discoveries and claimed to have found the area that he felt must be the Hanging Gardens, in King Nebuchadnezzar's southern palace. This disagreed with historic accounts, which indicated that the Gardens were situated next to the River Euphrates.

Koldeway's theory has since been largely discounted by modern historians who have reinterpreted the area as a administrative and oil storage area, with what Koldeway considered to be the foundations of the terraces in fact buttresses for a walkway. There are no traces of roots or plant material to be found in the area of the believed garden, but instead there are numerous clay tablets. As a moist, damp, heavily-watered garden would damage any fragile and valuable clay tablets kept nearby, this implies that the area could not have been the site of the gardens. Some of the clay tablets list amounts of oil provided for the court of Jehoiachin, the King of Judah held captive in Babylon. Although Biblical scholars were delighted with this independent evidence that corroborates the Bible5 regarding this king's existence and captivity in Babylon around 597 BC, it isn't quite the same as uncovering a Wonder of the World.

No archaeological site at Babylon has since been convincingly put forward as the location of the Hanging Gardens. There are massive walls 25 feet thick located on the river banks, which some historians have argued may have been stepped to form the terraces described in Greek references. Alternatively, others have proposed that the site is now beneath the River Euphrates and so vital evidence is submerged.

Writers' Records

The Greek historians who wrote about the Seven Wonders were not trying to write a Hitchhiker's Guide to Mesopotamia, but instead trying to inspire the imaginations of their readers so that they would not have to visit in person. While the most descriptive accounts of the Hanging Gardens come from these historians, including Berosus in Babylonica (3rd Century BC) and Diodorus Siculus (1st Century BC), Babylonian records stay silent on the matter. Tablets from the time of Nebuchadnezzar do not have a single reference to the Hanging Gardens, although numerous descriptions of his palace, the city of Babylon, and the walls have been found. Even the Greek historians who gave detailed descriptions of the Hanging Gardens never saw them. Modern historians have also debated and questioned the accuracy of the Greek histories we do have and whether they were actually what the Greek writers wrote. The original texts would have been handwritten and consequently copied and recopied over the centuries until we get the surviving versions preserved today. How accurate the copies we have now is something we cannot know for certain.

The most substantial written record of the Gardens' existence found in Babylon itself is the phrase 'gardens enhance the pride of the city' in what appears to be an ancient hymn, which could in fact mean anything.

The Gardens are believed to have been built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC), but when do the records we have of it date from? Both Herodotus in the 5th Century BC, who wrote about Babylon's walls and temples in depth, and Megasthenes, who wrote about numerous gardens and lived at Babylon around 290 BC, never actually mention the Hanging Gardens.

The earliest surviving record is in the Persika by Ctesia, dating from c400 BC, which simply states it was by the Acropolis. Diodorus Siculus mentions:

The so-called hanging garden was by the Acropolis, built... by a later Syrian king for one of his concubines. For they say that she was of Persian race and that, as she missed the meadows in the rolling hillside, she asked the king to imitate the distinctive features of her native Persia by means of a wonderfully designed garden...

This does not seem an account from someone completely convinced. It also seems to contradict Borsus, a Babylonian priest who wrote in the 3rd Century BC that:

In the palace [Nebuchadnezzar] built lofty stone terraces, made a vista as if of mountains and planted all sorts of trees. He built the so-called hanging gardens because his wife, who had been brought up in the area around Media, wanted mountain scenery.

So did Amytis want to see meadows and rolling hillside or trees and mountains?

When Philo composed the list of the Wonders of the World in the 3rd Century BC, the Hanging Gardens were the first Wonder he mentioned, yet curiously he never actually stated where the gardens were. He states that to visit them, a visitor has to 'cross the Euphrates River'. Babylon was the mightiest city on the Euphrates, yet what if his intention was not to locate the gardens on the banks of the Euphrates, but instead was describing a key landmark on the way to the Gardens from Alexandria?

Alternative Hanging Gardens

Babylon is not the only city in ancient Mesopotamia which had spectacular gardens. According to Xenophon of Athens writing in 362 BC, Prince Cyrus the Younger (c421-404 BC) boasted to Lysander that he had planted the amazing arboretum at Sardis himself. The Bible mentions gardens in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire, in 479 BC. Remarkably, the site of the palace garden at Parsagadæ, capital of the Achaemenid Empire, built by King Cyrsus the Great (559–530 BC) still survives, with the area a World Heritage Site.

Earlier than that in 877 BC we have the records of Ashurnasirpal II, who had two hobbies. The first involved the bloodthirsty slaughtering, dismembering and burning alive of vast numbers of captives. The second was gardening, creating a tree-filled botanical garden at Nimrud on the River Tigris.

Babylon's Paradise or Nineveh's Nirvana?

Of course the destination for every tourist swallowed by a fish and/or whale is the ancient city of Nineveh on the River Tigris. Built by Sennacherib (c705–681 BC), the man who conquered Babylon during his long reign in the century before Nebuchadnezzar, it too had impressive gardens6. Records mention vast orchards and trees from Lebanon and India, a garden described as being 'like Mount Amanus' complete with vines and olives. A theory often proposed and recently persuasively propounded by Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University is that Nineveh may be the site of the Hanging Gardens.

Dalley's theory is based on both archaeological and written evidence. She has studied King Sennacherib's cuneiform records which state:

I raised the height of the surroundings of the palace to be a wonder for all peoples... [creating a] high garden imitating the Amanus Mountains with all kinds of aromatic plants, orchard fruit trees, trees that sustain the mountains and Babylonia as well as trees that bear wool planted within it.

Historians also know that Nineveh had an immense canal network stretching almost 100km north to Khinis, complete with a vast aqueduct carrying the water over the Jerwan Valley. This is believed to possibly be the first aqueduct built in the world. Dalley has also speculated that this would have provided the gardens with enough water to flourish and is proof that Sennacherib had the technological means to create a hanging garden. His royal records also say:

In order to draw water up all day long, I had rope, bronze wires and bronze chains made and I set up the great cylinders and date palm trees over cisterns.

Dalley has suggested that 'date palm trees' is an early reference to the Archimedes screw, as the trunk of date palms often grow with spiralling protrusions similar in shape to an Archimedes screw, but utilised almost 500 years before Archimedes is believed to have invented it.

Despite all this, due to Nineveh's location and political situation, Dalley has not been able to gather definitive evidence to prove that there was a garden where she considers to be the likely site. In any case, the possible existence of an incredibly impressive garden at Nineveh does not conclusively prove that there was not a hanging garden at Babylon, nor that the garden at Nineveh was the fabled Hanging Gardens.

Conflicting Conclusion

Unfortunately, Nineveh currently lies in territory in the possession of So-Called Islamic State7 who are, according to various reports, criminally destroying sites of historic significance there and elsewhere.

And so archaeologists are likely to carry on debating and gather evidence about the location of the Hanging Gardens, their irrigation system and their true appearance, for the foreseeable future at least.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

1The gardens are not guilty for Boney M's 'Rivers of Babylon', the words for which come from Psalm 137.2Also known as Amuhia.3Or, in some accounts, his concubine.4One plethron is about 30 metres or 100 feet.5Jehoiachin is mentioned in 2 Kings 24 v8-17 and 25 v27-30 as well as 2 Chronicles, 36 v9-10. He is also mentioned as being one of the ancestors of Joseph, husband of Mary.6According to unsubstantiated Greek legend, Nineveh was founded (or restored) by King Ninus while Babylon was later founded (or restored) by his widow and successor, Queen Semiramis. Semiramis may have been based on the real Queen Shammuramat (believed to have ruled for five years circa 811-792 BC), the earliest known Empress.7So-Called Islamic State is also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham (Da'ish) and even occasionally simply 'Islamic State' (IS).

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