The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are a group of gardens located in the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. Their beauties made them inscribed on the ancient lists of the wonders of the world, and nowadays they appear on the canonical list. But despite their descriptions by various authoritative persons, this wonder of the world is the most questionable. Some even wonder whether they really existed, for while there are archaeological traces of most of the other wonders of the world, or at least tangible evidence of their existence, for the Gardens of Babylon, it is much more difficult to have proof of their existence.
The main difficulty encountered when talking about documentary sources concerning the Gardens of Babylon is that these sources are indirect, i.e. they are testimonies based on other testimonies. Of the quantity of documents available, only two are worthy of interest:
1- Flavius Josephus
Flavius Josephus was a Roman historiographer of the first century, he made a short description of the Gardens of Babylon in a work based on a writing by Berossus, a Chaldean Babylonian priest who lived in the fourth century BC and wrote “Babyloniaca”, a book telling the history of the city up to Nebuchadnezzar. This ancient book is lost, it has only come down to us through quotations from more recent authors.
2- Diodorus of Sicily
Diodorus of Sicily is a historian of the first century BC who, in a biography of Alexander the Great, took up the description of the Gardens of Babylon that Ctesias of Cnidus wrote in his book “Persica”. But recent studies seem to indicate that this description is a later addition to the text of Ctesias, and that the source that allowed him to write it was the same as that of Quinte Curce, the two descriptions being quite similar.
There are a few other texts on which to base it: That of the geographer Strabo (in the 1st century BC) in his book “Geography” in which he describes the gardens from Greek authors, that of Quinte Curce, a Roman historian of the 1st century, who also wrote a description of the gardens of Babylon in his book “History of Alexander” (Description from earlier Greek texts), and finally Philo of Bysance, who listed the 7 wonders of the World in his book “De septem orbis spectaculis”. He lived in the 3rd century BC.
With such ancient texts it seems impossible to doubt the existence of these gardens, but a closer look reveals that these authors added passages on the gardens of Babylon while the authors on which they were based made no mention of them. This is plausible for several reasons: Clitarque, the author of the biography of Alexander the Great having served as a basis for Diodorus of Sicily could have invented them on the basis of royal gardens actually existing. Greek authors prior to Quinte Curce have little credibility.
Did the gardens really exist?
If we still ask ourselves this question nowadays, it is because there are big doubts about their existence. The first reason why it is possible that they never existed is that the archaeological research undertaken has not brought any report, whereas other buildings of Babylon, such as the ramparts or the great palace have been perfectly identified. Moreover, these excavations have covered a large area of the ancient city and there are few places left where these gardens could have been. Another argument is the testimony of Herodotus: This high figure lived in the 5th century BC and is considered the first historian of humanity, in the sense that he was the first to take an interest in the history of civilizations the previous one. He wrote a few books on history but also on geography, without limiting himself to the world around him. A great traveller, he knew Babylon well, having lived there for a time. If anyone could describe the gardens, it would have been him, but strangely enough, his account of his visit to the city does not at any time describe these gardens, which should have been among the main monuments to be mentioned.
Another argument is the ancient Greek authors. It was on the basis of their texts that Quinte Curce and Strabo wrote their descriptions. However, these authors are questionable because they lived in ancient times when written descriptions, which were rare, were made on the basis of oral descriptions that could easily be misappropriated. Moreover, as every civilization wants to highlight its power, it is normal that descriptions are always exaggerated. This is the case of the ramparts of Babylon for example, whose height Herodotus estimates at 100m, which is architecturally impossible.
No archaeological traces, the main historian of the time who does not talk about it, ancient Greek authors doubtful: Did the Gardens of Babylon really exist?
Arguments proving their existence
First of all, it is important to know that archaeological research in Babylon has not yet been completed. Although a large part of the land has been identified, there are still areas (albeit increasingly restricted) in which the remains of the hanging gardens may be hidden. Then the city of Babylon was not only famous for its hanging gardens but also for its ramparts. It is curious that the gardens replaced the ramparts, as they were obviously much more impressive, still according to the documents of the time. It was only Philo of Bysance who put the gardens in his list (which has since become canonical) but at the time visitors to the city were mostly surprised by the ramparts. It is therefore not so surprising that the gardens are not mentioned that often in the documents of the time.
What if the gardens were somewhere else?
Rather than believing in their non-existence, one may wonder if the gardens were not in another city. This is the thesis of Stéphanie Dalley, an Assyriologist, who supposes that the gardens were in fact in Nineveh, a city further south, the former capital of Assyria. It is based on the confusion found in some ancient texts between Nineveh and Babylon, two close and rival capitals. Nebuchadnezzar II attacked and defeated the Assyrians and formed a much larger kingdom. Now the Assyrians knew irrigation techniques and had the ability to make gardens on high ground. They had already made some, they knew how to make the water rise thanks to endless screws for example. There is an engraving of an elevated garden in Nineveh (engraving preserved in the British Museum) which could be the real gardens. But as nothing is simple for this movement, a careful study of this engraving shows that although some trees seem to grow well above a terrace, it is probable that the Assyrian artist wanted to give an impression of perspective and to represent the trees beyond the terrace.
The thesis of mistaken location is quite possible, and is supported by the supposition that the hanging gardens were located in Babylon because of the city’s special status in ancient literature as a symbol of the Orient and as the residence of legendary figures. Therefore, because of the distortion in the transmission of the memory of the Assyrian royal gardens, they would have been “implanted” in Babylon, a prestigious city whose memory has been kept rather than in a completely forgotten city.
Stephanie Dalley was preceded by some authors who considered during the 20th century that these gardens were elsewhere. The first time was in 1979 by the German W. Nagel in his book “Where were then ‘Hanging gardens’ located in Babylon?”. He hypothesizes that there were two gardens in two different locations, a neo-Babylonian and a Persian, which is in line with Koldewey’s representation, expressed below. Let us also mention M.S. Damerji who, in a work written in Arabic whose French title could be “Where were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon”, imagines another place for the location of the gardens.
And it is precisely their locations that have been the source of recent controversy. What if the archaeological traces have not yet been found because they are simply not where we are looking for them? What if the Gardens of Babylon are not in Babylon? This is the thesis of Oxford assyriologist Stephanie Dalley, who studied the problem and located the gardens in Nineveh, further south.
However, if they did exist, and we will assume that they did, they are supposed to have been in the city of Babylon, an ancient city whose ruins are now in Iraq, 100 km south of Baghdad, near the city of Hilla. We are here in the heart of Mesopotamia, along the Euphrates River. It is the easternmost of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the only one that is neither Egyptian nor Greek. Its presence in the list is due to its great beauty as well as to the technical feat that made it possible to raise the water necessary for gardens to high ground, while for the other wonders, it is mostly simply their majestic features that allow them to be on the list.
Since archaeologists have not found any traces of the Gardens of Babylon it is impossible to locate them exactly, but archaeological excavations undertaken on the site of ancient Babylon have shown that they could be on the two sites indicated in green on this map. Unfortunately, nothing is simple with this wonder of the world, and these two suppositions are thrown into doubt by the fact that if the small area was well built with vaulted columns, it is too small to have been the location of these gardens. As for the second assumption it is tempting but would correspond more to a classic palatial garden.
Here too it is rather difficult to reconstruct the gardens. To do so, we must rely on Philon de Bysance and Diodore, two ancient authors who described them. Alas, their testimonies do not really agree. Other documents also describe these gardens, they help to improve the idea we have of them, but as not all of them say the same thing it is likely that the truth is a bit of a mixture of all this.
Philo gives more of an image of the Gardens of Babylon than a real description in his book, “De septem orbis spectaculis”. He speaks of a garden floating in the air, and it is this image that has spread through the ages to reach our days. On the contrary, Diodorus rather makes an analytical, albeit partial, description of the building.
Let’s start with what everyone agrees on: Everyone speaks of a garden in height based on a square plan of about 120m on each side. Diodore speaks of stepped platforms. The gardens were high up, that seems obvious from the different descriptions. All speak of stone columns supporting a vegetal ceiling on which soil was spread. Quinte-Curce describes a stone ceiling over which the earth was spread. The material used is brick for Strabon, which is in keeping with the building habits of the time in this region. The other authors indicate that it was stone, which is rather surprising, since stone was rarely used at that time. Strabon also indicates that the pillars formed a vault at their junction points; he is the only one to write this. However, the presence of a vault seems so obvious because the earth on the terraces is supposed to be so heavy, a vault is therefore the best solution to distribute the impressive loads of the ceiling on the columns. There is no doubt that a flat ceiling would not have held the load of the gardens, regardless of the methods used to support them (columns or walls).
The upper part seems to have had several storeys, like superimposed terraces, hence the representations below, almost all of them made with a succession of terraces. In Ancient Greek we distinguish by the grammar the uniqueness, the duality of the multiplicity. However, these texts use multiplicity to give the number of terraces, which proves that there were at least three. As for the height of the gardens, we simply ignore it because the notion of size is difficult to grasp, there are too many differences between our units of measurement and those of the time. Quinte Curce compares the height of the gardens with that of the ramparts, but the description of the ramparts of the time varies between 22m and 100m, which is, let us admit it, of a great imprecision. (The estimate at 100m is unanimously rejected, of course, it comes from Herodotus, the one at 22m from Strabon and Diodorus).
The garden probably needed a lot of water. This water was brought by a mechanical system (always to be taken from the conditional, it is not sure). According to Strabon it was a man-operated auger. The water came from the Euphrates through an ingenious system of pipes.
Of the gardens themselves we don’t know; we don’t know the different species that were planted there and how they were structured. What can be said is that a garden in this region was a luxury that mortals could not afford, as water resources were too scarce to be wasted. Moreover, centuries later, when Islam spread to the arid territories, gardens were seen as paradisiacal spaces. (See the Symbolism of the Taj Mahal.
This is how Strabo, the first-century Greek geographer, described them in his book Geography, Volume XVI.
This garden, a huge square of 4 plethres on each side, is composed of several floors of terraces supported by arcades whose vaults fall on cubic pillars. These pillars are hollow and filled with earth, which made it possible to bring the largest trees there. Pillars, arches and vaults were built using only fired bricks and asphalt. The upper terrace is reached by the steps of a huge staircase, along which slugs or hydraulic screws have been placed to bring the water from the Euphrates up into the garden, and which function without interruption by the efforts of men committed to this care.
The origins of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon can be traced back to Nebuchadnezzar II, according to Berossus’ thesis. He was king of Babylon in the sixth century BC and it was under his reign that his kingdom was the largest, it was at its height. Nebuchadnezzar II had many monuments and temples built in his capital Babylon. Legend has it that he built the gardens for his wife who came from Medina, a mountainous region of western Iran where the vegetation was denser than in the Babylonian desert. Another – tenacious – legend tells that these gardens were created long before under Semiramis, the name that this legend attributed to the Assyrian queen Sammuramat who lived in the 8th century BC, but this hypothesis is not credible, as the techniques for building such a garden are not compatible with the knowledge of the time.
It is also not known why and when these gardens were destroyed. That is very little information, and this is one of the reasons why we have little doubt about their existence.
Why do we say they were suspended?
Why are they called the “hanging gardens” of Babylon? Were they really suspended?
In fact this is completely false, this word probably appeared late and did not correspond to the reality of gardens that could never have been suspended, being much too heavy. It was in fact a succession of terraces (according to several descriptions) that gave it an airy air, and it is this impression of lightness that made later authors say that they were suspended. Philon de Byzance, one of the first people to describe them, focused on the aerial side of the gardens, and it is his account that prevails today, which explains why some people still imagine that these gardens were really suspended, which is of course false.
According to several descriptions the gardens were positioned in the air by colonnades forming a vault, above which a layer of earth had been placed, then the trees and plants. One can imagine the weight of the whole… It is, moreover, because they must have been extremely heavy that the description of Strabon’s vaults seems the most plausible, the other people talking about this monument indicating rather a flat ceiling, little in accordance with the laws of physics.
Why is it one of the seven wonders of the world?
The list of the 7 Wonders of the World has highlighted outstanding monuments by their beauty, their technical feats, their peculiarities in the ancient world. The hanging gardens of Babylon have characteristics identical to those of the great Assyrian and Persian landscape parks, but their singularity lies in the architectural infrastructure that supports them. There is nothing of this kind in the Near Eastern sources, which puts forward two hypotheses:
Either this infrastructure is an invention of the classical authors, who based themselves on modest buildings and, for their own reasons, transformed them into the monument we know today,
Or it is proven is in this case it is a unique case, a specificity that deserved to be in the list of the 7 Wonders of the World.
During the 19th century : Rondelet
The first serious attempt at reconstructing the Gardens of Babylon dates back to 1814, thanks to J. Rondelet. The latter represents them in his book “L’art de bâtir” (Paris, 1814). This reconstruction allows us to verify that the ancient testimonies are of a correct, albeit partial, reliability and that they are sufficient to sketch the monument. In 1899 Koldewey carried out a series of excavation campaigns on the site of Babylon and discovered the location of the gardens. Unfortunately for him it is denied a little later, the ruins being indeed those of Babylon but not those of the hanging gardens. The hope that was aroused during this short period of time allowed the archaeologists of the world to believe that it is possible to find vestiges even if they are hypothetical, this was confirmed by the discoveries – shortly before – for the temple of Artemis or the mausoleum of Halicarnassus, both unearthed by British archaeologists.
The representation of Koldewey
In 1918, the German archaeologist reconstructed the hanging gardens based on his knowledge from excavations carried out after several campaigns in the field. He imagined a garden above the central part of a building adjoining the Babylonian palace. Underneath there were 14 vaulted rooms serving as a reserve because they were obscure, and above he hypothesized that – perhaps – a building would have been interposed between the ground and the gardens, a kind of additional floor that would have allowed the gardens to be at the same level as the ground floor of the palace. He supposes that the peripheral corridor of supporting columns could have formed a sort of peristyle around the garden.
The other representations
The representations of the twentieth century are essentially based on Koldewey’s authoritative representation. It must be said that he was a specialist of the monument. Most of them are therefore similar and add a few new features here and there, including, for example, the water supply system, which was not represented in the 19th century. Moreover, this addition highlights the inadequacy between this water supply and the actual possibilities of doing so, and this has partly discredited Koldewey’s work. But in the absence of proof, he continued to be a reference in this area. All of these – rare – changes reflect, above all, the lack of documentation to support new hypotheses.
It must therefore be admitted that in every representation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon there is an element of subjectivity due to the shortcomings of the ancient texts. Computer graphic designers and other draftsmen can only speculate on what they were. The representations below are therefore essentially the result of their imaginations.