Were the Hanging Gardens Actually Built in Babylon?
Were these reputed Hanging Gardens located in Babylon, another place - or no place at all?
All of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have a definite home, except the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. That’s right, there’s no conclusive proof that the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon were located in Babylon!
Maybe these marvelous Gardens have no home because they never existed. But let’s assume for the sake of scholarly argument they did exist and try to discover exactly where, if possible.
The major problem with this search is that if the Gardens existed they were almost certainly constructed in what is now the modern nation of Iraq, a dark and bloody ground where scores of people are murdered nearly every day. Detonated secretive bombs planted by terrorists provide the usual mode of mass death.
Conducting modern archaeology in such a terrible place is a dangerous endeavor. Simply digging in the ground or taking photographs at archaeological sites can make one an easy target. Yet the answers we seek could be there, under the ground, waiting for people with the patience, perseverance and bravery to dig them out.
Please keep reading and let’s see if we can find the answer to the true nature and location of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Was Babylon the Location of These Beautiful Gardens?
About two thousand years ago several writers, Greek and otherwise, describe the existence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. About 290 B.C.E. Berossus, a Babylonian priest of Marduk, the patron deity of the city of Babylon, wrote about the Gardens, though none of his original work still exists.
But Josephus, a Romano Jewish writer in the first century before Christ, quoted from the works of Berossus, which claim that King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon built the Gardens, as shown in the following text:
In this palace he 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.
Interestingly, Berossus was the only ancient source to state that Nebuchadnezzar II built the Gardens in Babylon. (King Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned in the Bible, of course.) Other writers simply label the builder of the Gardens as a Syrian king who built them to please his wife.
Quoting various ancient sources, several other writers, including Diodorus Siculus and Strabo of Byzantium (whose list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World we use today), mentioned the existence of the Gardens in some detail, though none of these erudite writers actually viewed the Gardens firsthand. Nevertheless, they claim they were located in Babylon, along the Euphrates River, and as part of a fabulous palatial complex.
Enter Herodotus, the Father of History
The Greek historian Herodotus, perhaps the most famous of the ancient historians, wrote about Babylon around 450 B.C.E. But, curiously, he doesn’t mention anything about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in his impressive collection of books, The Histories. If the Gardens were such wondrous creations, you’d think the Father of History would have written something about them!
Could Nineveh Have Been the Home of These Lovely Gardens?
Some scholars and archaeologists believe the Gardens were located at Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which covered a very large area in the Middle East about 700 B.C.E. (Actually at this point in history scholars refer to it as the Neo-Assyrian Empire.)
King Sennacherib, who ruled Assyria from 705 to 681 B.C.E., liked building on a monumental scale, and it has been suggested that his engineers and laborers constructed some Hanging Gardens of great beauty in Nineveh. Keep in mind that Nineveh was located only 250 miles north of Babylon and, because it was very impressive in its own right, was sometimes called another Babylon.
Over the years and centuries the attributes of the two great cities could have become conflated, particularly among later historians who had never visited either city at any time. But at least one scholar presents some compelling evidence suggesting that Nineveh is indeed the place where the Gardens were located.
Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Gardens of Babylon
PBS presented a TV program called Secrets of the Dead, one episode of which dealt with the location of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Dr. Stephanie M. Dalley, author of the book, The Mystery of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, thinks the Gardens were certainly built at Nineveh and she had the determination and bravery to actually visit ruins in violence-filled Iraq, as presented on the program.
Dalley tells us that Sennacherib left a written description of the Gardens on a cuneiform tablet - the one shown in the photograph with this article, in fact. Also Sennacherib’s grandson, Assurbanipal, showed a bas relief of the Gardens on a wall panel in his palace. Sennacherib also had a foreign-born wife he wanted to please as well.
Sennacherib also built the Abundance Canal, which brought water from the Zagros Mountains to his palace at Nineveh. He also built an aqueduct near the city that required the use of over two million masonry blocks. Both of these waterworks were wonders of a kind as well, and would have provided a constant source of water for the Gardens. Incidentally, only the Romans built such aqueducts in antiquity and not until hundreds of years later.
Moreover, Dalley suggests that Sennacherib’s engineers used the Archimedes’ screw to lift water from ground level to the upper terraces of the Gardens many feet above the ground. Archimedes is credited with inventing the screw about 300 B.C.E., which is still in use today in countries such as Egypt, but nobody knows for certain when it was first invented. Many experts believe Sennacherib could have used such simple but ingenious devices for the upward movement of water at the Gardens.
Although Dalley never made it to Nineveh, because it was simply too dangerous to go there, she had two men secretly video the ruins at Nineveh and showed the results on the PBS program. But Dalley did visit other ruins attributed to Sennacherib, particularly the great aqueduct at Jerwan. About traveling in modern Iraq, she said in an interview:
It was very moving to visit the sites of the canal and of the aqueduct, to see the sculptures of Sennacherib on the rock at Bavian, and the inscription at Jerwan. It was not at all frightening. If I had gone in person to Nineveh by Mosul, outside Kurdistan, however, I would have been scared, and I was glad that we found a very satisfactory alternative.
Assuming the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually built in some fashion around 700 B.C.E., where in fact were they built? Were Hanging Gardens of note built in both Babylon and Nineveh? We may never know for certain what happened unless further archaeological proof is provided. Unfortunately, these days there isn’t much digging one can do at the current site of Babylon, some 30 miles south of Baghdad, because of the ever-present danger in Iraq.
Nevertheless, further excavation could be revealing since the course of the Euphrates River has changed over the centuries. Perhaps the ruins of the Gardens lie under the current course of the river, a very difficult place to venture under any circumstance.
But one may wager that Dr. Stephanie Dalley would rather do some digging at Nineveh. What do you think?
Please note that in some versions of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Walls of Babylon are included or the Ishtar Gate, also built in Babylon.
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© 2014 Kelley