The History Behind: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Did One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Actually Exist at All?

Michael East
Nov 18, 2020 · 7 min read

There are Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Everyone knows this. From the Lighthouse at Alexandria to the Colossus of Rhodes, these fabulous works of antiquity are now in ruins. Only the Great Pyramid of Giza still stands. So too, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon must lay somewhere under the sands of modern-day Iraq, its ruins waiting to one day be found again by archaeologists. Or must they? While popular history asserts that there were seven genuine wonders of the ancient world, the truth may be that the Hanging Gardens never actually existed at all.

The Hanging Gardens are said to be one of the most incredible feats of engineering in the world at the time. Consisting of a series of walled and tiered gardens, a lush paradise was created in the middle of Babylon itself, drawing water from the Euphrates river to keep trees, shrubs, and vines alive. The construction resembled an artificial mountain and was unlike anything seen in the world again for millennia. The great historian Herodotus wrote in 450 BC that “in addition to its size, Babylon surpasses in splendour any city in the known world.”

A U.S. Marine Corps Humvee vehicle drives down a road at the foot of Saddam Hussein’s former Summer palace with ruins of ancient Babylon in the background | US Navy Photo, Public Domain

Historical accounts state that the Hanging Gardens were the shortest-lived of all the ancient wonders, being build c. 600 BC and destroyed sometime after 1 AD. These accounts come from five primary sources in antiquity, the historians Titus Flavius Josephus, Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Strabo and Philo of Byzantium.

Josephus was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian from Jerusalem and referred in his descriptions of the Hanging Gardens to earlier work by Berossus, a Babylonian priest from Marduk. This reference, originating in 290 BC, is the earliest evidence concerning the Gardens on record. Writing on the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, Berossus is alleged to have attributed the Gardens to him, stating that a palace he constructed held a “resemblance of a mountainous country” and was replenished “with all sorts of trees” “to gratify his queen”, Queen Amytis. Josephus adds that the Gardens were constructed alongside a grand palace known as The Marvel of Mankind and puts a date of construction around 605 BC when the rule of Nebuchadnezzar began.

“In this palace, he erected very high walls, 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.”

Josephus

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, painting by Ferdinand Knab, 1886 | Public Domain

However, this attribution to Nebuchadnezzar II is unique to history, and the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus preferred a Syrian king. The Roman Quintus Curtius Rufus agreed and described the Hanging Gardens as sitting on top of a citadel, 20 stadia in circumference. Like Josephus, Rufus stated that they were built to please a homesick queen, naming Queen Semiramis rather than Amytis. Some even refer to the construction by the alternative name of the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis. Strabo and Philo of Byzantium added that the entire structure was controlled by an Archimedean screw that was utilised in transferring water from the Euphrates river into the gardens.

“It consists of vaulted terraces raised one above another, and resting upon cube-shaped pillars. These are hollow and filled with earth to allow trees of the largest size to be planted. The pillars, the vaults, and terraces are constructed of baked brick and asphalt. The ascent to the highest story is by stairs, and at their side are water engines, by means of which persons, appointed expressly for the purpose, are continually employed in raising water from the Euphrates into the garden.”

Strabo

Babylonia rarely received any rain at all and lifting water high onto the terraces of the Hanging Gardens was one of the incredible feats of the ancient world, Philo praising the feat of engineering as a marvel. However, if the Gardens had indeed been constructed as early as 600 BC, they could not have used a screw pump as Archimedes of Syracuse only invented the device in 250 BC. Historians have suggested that chain pumps were the more likely method utilised by the Babylonians.

The question of the pump is just one controversy surrounding the gardens and with no archaeological evidence of their existence having been found, nor any Babylonian record, archaeologists and historians have questioned whether the structure ever existed at all. Some contend that the entire existence of the Hanging Gardens was created by Greek and Roman historians as a romantic fiction of eastern culture, with others suggesting that the truth of the gardens simply became confused.

Babylon: the city (above); the hanging gardens of Babylon (below) | Wellcome Trust (CC BY 4.0)

There are many accounts of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, yet none mention the existence of his supposed wife, Amytis. Nor do any mention the presence of the Hanging Gardens. Herodotus, possibly the most critical historian of the age, never mentioned them during his descriptions of Babylon in the landmark Histories, despite actually visiting Babylon. That said, other accounts exist from historians who had also made the journey. Alongside the questions over the historical accounts, however, no actual physical evidence for their existence exists, unlike all of the other ruined Seven Wonders. This could be explained away by changes to the Euphrates, with the ruins of the Hanging Gardens now laying underwater.

In 1899, the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey believed he had discovered the ruins of the Gardens at the remains of Babylon. Koldewey’s work at the site is renowned, and over fourteen years of excavations he uncovered the foundations of the ziggurat Marduk and the Ishtar Gate. He also developed new archaeological techniques still in existence today. However, his work at “The Hanging Gardens” is controversial and rejected by most current archaeologists.

A replica of the Ishtar Gate at Berlin Museum | Rictor Norton, Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Working at the Southern Citadel, Koldewey discovered fourteen rooms that had stone arch ceilings and ancient sources said that only two buildings had such roofs, the north wall of the Northern Citadel, and the Hanging Gardens. As the north wall had already been found, the only conclusion that could be drawn was that Koldewey had found the Hanging Gardens. Believing that he was in the cellar of the structure, the archaeologist excavated more of the area and what he saw seemed to confirm the accounts of history, particularly descriptions given by Diodorus.

Despite Koldewey asserting that what he found matched what would be expected of the Gardens, modern historians contend that the location is too far from the Euphrates to be correct. Despite the Hanging Gardens allegedly being a marvel of engineering, the site was not feasible and also contradicted Strabo who had said they were right on the river bank. Cuneiform tablets were later found in the cellars with lists of supplies, and it is believed the structure was, in fact, a storehouse.

Babylon, 1932 | Library of Congress, Public Domain

Stephanie Dalley, an Oxford scholar of the Ancient Near East, believes that the ancient accounts were mistranslated and confused the Hanging Gardens with the existing gardens that had been constructed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib at Nineveh.

Sennacherib left numerous records which describe the gardens that he had built, stating that he had created the “Wonder for all Peoples”. These accounts go into detail on an extensive irrigation system at the site that used screw pumps. This seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Dalley contends that the name “Babylon” was not solely the name of a single city, with the word translating as “Gate of the Gods” and applied to several places, including Nineveh. Nebuchadnezzar II meanwhile left no mention of any gardens existing at his Babylon. These theories are backed by archaeological findings, with traces of a vast system of aqueducts being found to have the name Sennacherib inscribed on the ruins.

“Sennacherib king of the world king of Assyria. Over a great distance, I had a watercourse directed to the environs of Nineveh, joining together the waters… Over steep-sided valleys I spanned an aqueduct of white limestone blocks, I made those waters flow over it.”

Inscription at the headwater of Bavian (Khinnis)

Dalley proposes that this system formed part of a 50 mile series of canals, dams, and aqueducts that were used to funnel water to Nineveh. Such a system would eclipse even the legend of the engineering marvels of Babylon. Sennacherib’s gardens were noted in their time for their beauty, said to be an all year oasis of lush green amongst the dusty landscape.

With no archaeological record of the Hanging Gardens in its traditional location at Babylon, only ancient sources remain as evidence that the most mysterious of all the Seven Wonders actually existed. While some contend that they are real, the ruins eroding away into the mud in the first century, others say they are mere poetry. Yet, evidence is beginning to develop that they may, in fact, be partially true, with the science used to create them perhaps even grander than the myths have suggested. Perhaps one day, Sennacherib will assume his place in history as the creator of the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh.

I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.

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Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

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