Structures > Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Thinking about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon invokes wonderful images of a time and place long since past. A terraced garden featuring exotic plants and animals from all throughout the world, towering nearly 400 feet off the ground must have been a wondrous site throughout the ancient world. Even to this day the mystery of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon has kept civilization captivated ever since it was first written about. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon existed at the city of Babylon in the civilization of Babylonia.
It was through the Babylonians mastery of water and engineering that they were able to create such a magnificent structure. However, one big problem with discussing the gardens is they have never been found and there is not any evidence for them at Babylon despite much efforts and excavation. So did the Hanging Gardens of Babylon really exist then? The Hanging Gardens are the only one of the ancient wonders that have been discussed but not been found which means they most likely existed. The Gardens themselves were beautiful and written about several times in antiquity.
In fact they were written about by Greeks in the third century BC as a must see spot around the known world for travelers following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great. While the people who wrote the Bible condemned Babylon, all of the Greek and other foreign writers spoke of Babylon in reverence and awe as they were amazed at how successful and old the cities were. The civilizations of Mesopotamia began appearing in history around 6,000 BC had been around for several millennium at the time of the Greeks which would have been considered ancient by their standards.
How could you not revere this civilization for after wandering through the barren desert for miles and miles, suddenly this massive city rises out of the sands, an oasis respite from the harsh conditions. Due to the cities mastery of water, there are canals that run through the city supplied by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and there is enough food and water to support a massive population. Under these conditions a trading hub of the ancient world flourished.
Regardless of the massive Walls of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate, the 300 foot high ziggurat, the Tower of Babel and all of the beautiful architecture and cultural displays that existed at Babylon, every traveler would have been amazed of seeing the Kings palace with all sorts of vegetation spilling out over the sides. Towering over 400 feet above the flat landscape, this would have been a structure seen from miles away.
The flora of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was unique in that it did not contain typical flowers and small plants. Instead the Gardens were full of trees that towered high over the landscape along with all sorts of exotic plants and animals within the structure itself. These trees were most likely indigenous to the areas surrounding the Middle East and were probably collected from throughout the Empire and its vast trading networks.
A fascination with the Gardens brought German researchers to come excavate Babylon in the late 19th century. As part of their research they attempted to locate any evidence of the gardens as something of this magnitude would leave all sorts of archaeological evidence. However, even subsequent modern excavations have failed to yield any evidence of gardens existing at Babylon. So where did this idea of a Hanging Gardens existing in Babylon come from? Is it simply a myth that turned into legend and has no basis in history?
No, there is no myth or legend regarding the Hanging Gardens and they were documented to have existed even by Alexander the Great as late as 331 BC. But first it is important to understand where the misconceptions occurred that obscured this Wonder of the Ancient World for nearly 3 millennium. It is also important to understand the history of Mesopotamia and early civilization. This period of history unlike modern history is very contentious among religion and academia and even within academia itself. We will try to explain the real facts and history of Babylon and Mesopotamia as we discuss the Hanging Gardens. Their existence is directly tied to the gardens as it would have taken a massive organization of people and engineering to maintain something like the Hanging Gardens.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were great terraced gardens that were rumored to have been built in the ancient city of Babylon, about 50 miles south of Baghdad near Hillah in modern day Iraq. Babylon was located right in the center of Mesopotamia and was in the middle of where civilization started. Known throughout antiquity as one of the most sacred and cultural of cities, Babylon holds a special place in the history of humanity. According to the legends and writings, the King of Babylon built the gardens for his Median wife in order to remind her of her homeland. So where does this story that the Babylonians created the gardens come from? Lets look at some of the first recorded documents regarding the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Some competing evidence and theories suggest the Gardens may actually lay north in the city of Nineveh and there was a mix up in antiquity between the Babylonians and the Assyrians. However, this does not reconcile with the Greek writers as Nineveh was already destroyed and abandoned by the time Alexander the Great conquered Babylon. The first recorded document about the gardens comes from the Babylonian/Chaldaean priest Berossus. Writing in his book Babyloniaca around 290-280 BC he suggested the Gardens were built by King Nebuchadnezzar II who ruled from 605 and 562 BC. According to a historian that cited Berossus as we do not have the original works the legend stated Nebuchadnezzar II built the Gardens for his wife Queen Amytis of Media who was nostalgic for the flora and fauna of her homeland in Persia.
This means Berossus was writing about the construction of the gardens nearly 300 years after they were built during the time of Alexander the Great. Berossus was cited by many Greek and other authors as the source of information regarding the Hanging Gardens. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus cited Berossus through the lost works of Alexander Polyhistor and described the gardens third hand as:
"In this palace he [Nebuchadnezzar II] erected very high walks, supported by stone pillars; and by planting what was called a pensile paradise, and replenishing it with all sorts of trees, he rendered the prospect an exact resemblance of a mountainous country. This he did to gratify his queen, because she had been brought up in Media, and was fond of a mountainous situation."
This account is cited many more times as evidence for the Hanging Gardens and is responsible for most of the commonly held views regarding the structure to this date. The problem is this account may have been flawed from the start and researchers have been off because of this. Based on these ancient accounts the gardens are believed to have been close to a palace, besides an acropolis, on a summit of a citadel and near the Euphrates River.
Based on the ancient Greek accounts the structure resembled a man-made mountain that was terraced like an amphitheater. It was made out of stone, brick and bitumen and was 4 plethra (30 m) long on each side. The top level was 50 cubits (25 m) high and was about the same height as the Walls of Babylon. The walls were 6.5 m thick and the gardens were supported by interlocking galleries on top of vaulted rooms. In order to provide the amount of water necessary to maintain this feat, they were believed to have used an early form of Archimedes screw, a major technological achievement.
Lack of Evidence
The modern perspective of archaeologists is that it is hard for the Gardens to have actually existed at Babylon given the current archaeological evidence, yet some believe we may been looking in the wrong place. Based on modern satellite imagery, it is believed that only a fraction of the entire site of Babylon has been excavated. However, despite this according to archaeologists the city is just not geographically suited for this type of structure. There is no natural formation for them to have build this off of as Babylon lies in the middle of a very flat area and it would have been extremely difficult to create a huge terraced garden there.
However, mastery of water along construction of irrigation projects has been a fundamental feature of Babylonian and the even earlier Sumer culture for thousands of years, and essential for their entire way of survival. Building a monument like this would have been a living testament to the mastery over the life-bearing waters of the Euphrates and showcased Babylonian dominance in the ancient world.
For modern archaeologists though there is no archeological evidence found for the Gardens in the excavated Babylon and there is also no mention of any Gardens in the cuneiform text found there. Even Nebuchadnezzar's own texts such as the Stele of Nebuchadnezzar claim his palace was build in 15 days and makes no mention of the gardens.
Other contemporary Babylonian writers do not mention the existence of any gardens within the city however, much of the written ancient history record has been lost due to destruction or looting. This lack of archaeological evidence for the Gardens along with contemporary sources has led some to conclude that they were actually a figment of legend that was passed down into supposed fact over hundreds of years.
The surviving documents about the Gardens we have were written about by the later Greek and Roman writers Strabo, Diodorus Siculus and Quintus Curtius Rufus who according to some historians were simply trying to paint a picture of an ideal world in a foreign land. So does this mean everyone in history is lying and there is a massive conspiracy to cover up the existence of these gardens?
Why did the Hanging Gardens get mentioned in the Seven Wonders of the World if it was the only one to have been a figment of everyones imagination. None of this is starting to make any sense so lets go back in time even further and examine the macro-history of Mesopotamia as well as the history of the city of Babylon to get a better picture.
Destruction of Babylon
Eight years after conquering Babylon, ruler Sennacherib began to experience a series of revolts within the city led by Mushezib-Marduk. When it got too violent he had Babylon destroyed and razed to the ground in 689 BCE. He then scattered the ruins around all over the desert. It is highly unlikely that any Gardens would have existed at Babylon at this time as Old Babylon was completely destroyed. So either they were truly indeed the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh or they existed during a later time period that formed the original theory.
In his razing and utter decimation of Babylon, Sennacherib spelled out his own fate as he was assassinated by his own sons with support from the High Court. His destruction of Babylon was viewed as pretty serious offense within the religious culture of Mesopotamia. He was succeeded in power by his youngest son Esarhaddon who rebuilt Babylon to its former glory under his rule. It was during this time that Babylon became known as a center for learning and culture. Esarhaddon was quick to rebuild relations with Babylon and spent half of the year there along with improving the city.
Esarhaddon also continued the building tradition of his father and built Nineveh as well as Babylon up along with launching military conquests into Egypt. While rebuilding Babylon he actually made sure that nothing related to Sennacherib's earlier destruction was mentioned and claimed he was sent by the gods to restore Babylon to its former status. Esarhaddon died on a military campaign in Egypt and his reign was passed to his son Ashurbanipal in 669 BC.
This event would mark the end of the great Assyrian Kings. Ashurbanipal expanded the empire even further than his father and grandfather did. Under Ashurbanipal the grand empire was built to include Babylonia, Egypt, Persia and Syria. He created a massive library at Nineveh known as the Library of Ashurbanipal during his reign however soon the borders were just too large to properly defend and the empire began to decline in his lifetime.
With the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 BC the Assyrian Empire collapsed completely and the various states fell into chaos and war as his two twin brother heirs fought over who would control the empire. Seizing a moment of chaos as an opportunity, many of the city-states of the Assyrian Empire declared independence and disorder began to swallow the empire.
The feud proved to be the Assyrians downfall and over the course of the following years all of the Assyrian cities would be sacked by those they controlled, the Persians, Medians, Babylonians and Chaldeans took their turns. The end result was that Nineveh was burned, destroyed and abandoned in 612 BC for the rest of history and the Assyrians ran for the hills as Babylon took their turn at controlling the Cradle of Civilization.
Nebuchadnezzar II... Again
In 625 BC a Chaldean man named Nabopolassar took control of Babylon and declared himself master of the realm. Forming a coalition with all the tribes of the soon to be Median Empire, Nabopolassar took advantage of the ineffective rule to launch an aggressive assault on the Assyrian capital cities. After the Siege of Nineveh and the Siege of Ashur, the Assyrians were finally crushed at the Battle of Carchemish. Nabopolassar would rule over Babylonia until 605 BCE when his son Nebuchadnezzar II. Through the creation of several strategic diplomatic alliances, Nabopolassar had united the disparate states, defeated their Assyrian oppressors and established the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
The city of Nineveh was abandoned by 612 BC after it was sieged, sacked and razed. The Assyrians were cut down as they fled by cavalry and any remaining Assyrians fled to nearby Harran. The destruction and abandonment of Nineveh would have meant the end of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon if it truly was at this location. With the Assyrian Empire collapsed and the city destroyed and abandoned it is highly unlikely anyone stayed to maintain the gardens. Yet they are mentioned several centuries later as being a must see attraction in the area by the Greeks. Did no one ever venture to Babylon during this time or was the Hanging Gardens in Babylon all the time?
Nebuchadnezzar II presided over a golden age in Babylonian history between 605 and 562 BC and was responsible for massive renovations and expansions to the city during his rule. According to the Greek historian Herodotus this expanded city occupied 900 hectares, which is about 2,200 acres. Based on his account the city had spread across both sides of the Euphrates River, with great clay walls coated with asphalt (bitumen) to protect against seasonal flood waters. Herodotus also suggested it had the most culturally significant buildings in all of Mesopotamia. However, some historians believe he had also never been to Mesopotamia and these were exaggerations or a mistake of location.
Yet it is impossible he mixed up Assyria and Nineveh at this point because it lay in ruins at time he was writing and was most likely a well documented incident. Nebuchadnezzar II is also given credit for building the famous Ishtar Gate which was one of the inner gates of Babylon and beautifully decorated with blue glazed bricks with images of great animals. Ishtar Gate is also been given credit as being one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. And as discussed throughout this piece, he is also credited with building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a fact which we are trying to figure out.
So then what is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and how do we have evidence for them existing during the time of the Greeks? Apparently there was a massive superstructure containing gardens at the Assyrian city state of Nineveh but this was centuries before the Greeks wrote about them. Yet, Nebuchadnezzar II does not mention any great gardens in any of his tablets, nor does there exist any archaeological evidence for gardens at the excavated city of Babylon. Even archaeologists do not believe they existed there given the present evidence. But we actually know they existed because they were written about during the time of Alexander the Great. So what is going on here? How do we resolve these conflicting accounts and the Hanging Gardens paradox.
Two Garden Theory
There were actually two gardens, one inspired off of another. Since Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar both had a similar culture and lived in the same area except over different time periods they would have been open to the ideas of the past. In fact, maybe Nebuchadnezzar never referred to the gardens because they were in fact part of his palace he built during his reign. He would have no need to mention the palace twice in describing the same collective beauty of a gardens and a massive palace.
This would have led the Greeks to marvel at the Babylonians mastery of water and the construction of the Gardens and describe the structure more so as a garden than a palace. Greece was full of great monuments and grand statues, this would have really intrigued them. They would have looked at a simple stone palace with contempt as they viewed most cultures that did not share Greek culture (not even religion) and sense of artistic taste as being of a lower status.
While there exists archaeological records for the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, there exists no physical record of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon that has been recovered yet. This may be because we have been unable to do modern day excavations on the site due to looting and warfare or it may mean they did not exist.
However, for something that does not exist we even have a general idea of how it was built. According to some, the Gardens were constructed with clay bricks that were then sealed with an ancient type of asphalt or tar called bitumen.
Greek historian Strabo writes:
Babylon, too, lies in a plain; and the circuit of its wall is three hundred and eighty-five stadia. The thickness of its wall is thirty-two feet; the height thereof between the towers is fifty cubits; that of the towers is sixty cubits; and the passage on top of the wall is such that four-horse chariots can easily pass one another; and it is on this account that this and the hanging garden are called one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The garden is quadrangular in shape, and each side is four plethra in length. It consists of arched vaults, which are situated, one after another, on checkered, cube-like foundations. The checkered foundations, which are hollowed out, are covered so deep with earth that they admit of the largest of trees, having been constructed of baked brick and asphalt—the foundations themselves and the vaults and the arches. The ascent to the uppermost terrace-roofs is made by a stairway; and alongside these stairs there were screws, through which the water was continually conducted up into the garden from the Euphrates by those appointed for this purpose. For the river, a stadium in width, flows through the middle of the city; and the garden is on the bank of the river.
The first known excavation of Babylon was done by German archaeologist Robert Koldeway in 1899.
It is not known what really happened to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or if they even existed at all. It is hard to say so many people in history are lying about something, but there really are no primary sources regarding Gardens at Babylon. Some theorize they were destroyed by earthquakes, other by invasion. Others believe they may have been dismantled over time and used in other structures by the surrounding inhabitants. Overall every possibility probable or improbable has been given for the destruction of the Gardens.
They may have also been utterly destroyed in the civil war that occurred after the death of Alexander the Great. There was significant enough strife to cause the residents to flee so maybe the palace, which was the royal seat of power was destroyed violently during this period.
While Dr. Dalley believes she has located the Hanging Gardens of Babylon at Nineveh, some are still skeptical as Nineveh was destroyed completely by the time the Greeks conquered Babylon. Did they get the location of the gardens confused or were they simply recounting a new Gardens built by the King of Babylon after the fall of the Assyrian Empire.
Regardless of what happened to the Hanging Gardens or if they existed, by 141 BC when the Parthian Empire was established Babylon was all but abandoned ruins. By 650 AD and the Muslim conquest of the Middle East the Babylon of the past was all but buried beneath the sands, waiting for archaeologists to come along over one thousand years later.
It is hopeful that more archaeological work can be done at both Babylon and Nineveh to put this case to rest. Given the current circumstances this does not look very promising due to present day regional and religious warfare that is occurring.
Unfortunately their will be no archaeological evidence discovered anytime soon as the Islamic State systematically loots archaeological sites across its territory and controls the city of Mosul. Until the Armed Forces are able to restore peace and order to the Middle East region there will be no excavations and analysis done.
The ruins of the city of Nineveh are located outside of the city of Mosul and the ruins of Babylon lay right outside Baghdad. Despite knowing where both of these two locations are and what secrets may lay within we cannot access them due to the current conflict and risk.
This is sad because it is the last Ancient Wonder to be uncovered and if the current conflict and course persists this structure may be lost forever. It would be nice to get real data from these sites before it is either looted or destroyed. Hopefully since there was no religious affiliation to the structures they will be able to persist past the current crisis and conflict.
It is real world, present conflicts like these that truly limit our study of the past. Most of the present day conflicts are being fought in regions of the world that were once the center of civilization for millennium. The current Middle East and Africa has come along way from its prosperous beginnings in the ancient world.
In the end, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are as mysterious as ever. As we come closer to the truth we actually pull further away from it, proving that maybe ideas like this really are best left to myth and legend. This has not stopped the stories from captivating people for millennia.
Babylon in Popular Culture
Dalley, S. (1994). Nineveh, Babylon and the Hanging Gardens: Cuneiform and Classical Sources Reconciled. Vol. 56, pp. 45-58. Published by: British Institute for the Study of Iraq.
R.J. van der Spek, “Berossus as a Babylonian Chronicler and Greek Historian,” in: R.J. van der Spek (ed.), Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society, Presented to Marten Stol on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (2008) 277-318.
- Old Babylonian Kingdom
- Neo-Babylonian Empire
- Hanging Gardens of Babylon
- Walls of Babylon
- Hanging Gardens of Babylon