We tend to have a juxtaposed view of the ancient past: that people were simultaneously less advanced than us, with archaic views on women, people of different races, and little technology, but also great forefathers in maths, science, democracy, and capable of creating wondrous feats of engineering that even today we’re not quite sure how they were built – the pyramids, huge Roman systems of aqueducts, stone henges. It is an interesting hypocrisy that exists within our knowledge of the past, and probably due in part to the discrete learning of different places and times that we get taught at school.
Most people are aware of the variety of the “Seven Wonders of the World” lists, and the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” were the first of this kind of list created. The idea of the seven wonders of the world began back in the 1st-2nd century BC, as authors or poets created guidebooks for Hellenic tourists of locations they thought everyone should see. Tourism isn’t as modern a concept as you may believe!
As the Ancient world doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for the wondrous structures various civilizations built, I thought I would start a new series that explores some of these creations. It won’t just be confined to the Seven Ancient Wonders, but it’s a good place to start!
A painting by Maerten van Heemskerck, 1535, where the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are depicted as a background for the abduction of Helen by Paris. The Walters Art Museum.
One of the most intriguing Ancient Wonders is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and this is largely because we are not even sure if the gardens actually existed or not. The other 6 Ancient Wonders we know for certain existed – the Great Pyramid of Giza still exist today, whilst records and archaeology confirm the other 5 wonders. The Hanging Gardens is the only one that still eludes us (although I will come back to this later).
The Hanging Gardens were said to have existed in Babylon, and are usually attributed to the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled between 605 and 562 BC. According to legend, Nebuchadnezzar’s beloved Queen Amytis was feeling very homesick; their marriage was a political alliance between the Babylonians and Medians, but Nebuchadnezzar loved his wife dearly. Queen Amytis came from a land of forested mountains and greenery, but Babylon was flat and sunbaked, thus causing her homesickness and depression. As Nebuchadnezzar loved his wife so dearly, he set out to build the most extraordinary gardens to make her feel at home. Thus, the Hanging Gardens were conceived.
Artistic imagining of the Gardens.
According to description, the Hanging Gardens were certainly magnificent. One description by Diodorus Siculus (active c.60–30 BC) says that the gardens extended for 400 feet on each side. There were numerous tiers rising up into the sky so that it had the appearance of a hillside. Underneath the terraces were galleries which carried the weight of the planted gardens, whilst the walls were 22 feet thick with a 10 feet wide passageway between the walls. The roofs were made out of a layer of reeds laid in bitumen, with baked bricks bound by cement on top, and finally a third layer made of lead so that the moisture from the soil wouldn’t drip into the passageway. Layers of earth had then been piled on top, deep enough for roots of trees to take hold. A plethora of trees and plants were planted, “of every kind that, by their great size or other charm, could give pleasure to the beholder”. The galleries all received light, due to the tiered nature of the terraces, and so royal lodgings were built in them. Another source, Quintus Curtius Rufus (1st century AD) describes the Gardens in a similar vein. He says that the gardens were 80 feet high, and that the trees were so stout that their trunks were 80 cubits thick and 50 feet tall, and all bore abundant fruit.
Just as impressive as the gardens themselves is the feat of engineering required to support it, namely, the irrigation system. A 4th-5th century source, Philo of Byzantium, who is thought to have drawn his sources independent of the earlier Greek sources, describes the method of distributing water:
“Aqueducts contain water running from higher places; partly they allow the flow to run straight downhill, and partly they force it up, running backwards, by means of a screw; through mechanical pressure they force it round and round the spirals of the machines. Being discharged into close-packed, large cisterns, altogether they irrigate the whole garden, inebriating the roots of the plants to their depths, and maintaining the wet arable land, so that it is just like an evergreen meadow, and the leaves of the trees, on the tender new growth, feed upon dew and have a wind-swept appearance.”
Ruins of the North Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II , Babylon.
It is easy to see how the Hanging Gardens of Babylon made it to the list of the Seven Ancient Wonders. They would be stunning and impressive even today. However, to return to the earlier issue, we still aren’t certain if the Gardens were real or poetic creation. There is no mention in records of Nebuchadnezzar having a wife named Amytis (although a political marriage between Medians and Babylonians wouldn’t have been unusual) and no contemporary Babylonian sources mention the gardens. Nebuchadnezzar did construct many wondrous buildings, including an array of temples, streets, palaces and walls, and many long and complete inscriptions exist listing his work, yet no mention of a garden has been found. Moreover, no archaeological evidence has ever been found at Babylon for the existence of the Hanging Gardens, although it is possible that evidence exists under the Euphrates River which is not safe to excavate. During the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the river flowed east of its current position, and so it is possible that the river now hides evidence of the garden.
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However, it is now mostly agreed that the Gardens were attributed to Nebuchadnezzar for political reasons, adopting the legend from elsewhere. Many of the early sources that do not name Nebuchadnezzar say the Gardens were built by a Syrian king, and so recent theories say that the Gardens were actually constructed by King Sennacherib who reigned 704-681 BC for his palace at Nineveh. In 2013, an academic from Oxford University, Dr Stephanie Dalley, published research that suggested she had found the Gardens. Footage from a local film crew under her direction showed a vast mound of dirt and rubble which sloped down to an area of greenery next to the ruins of Sennacherib’s palace at Ninevah. However, the political climate in the area (which is in modern-day Iraq) means that no excavations can take place, and without archaeological evidence, many do not take much substance from Dalley’s claims. There is, however, a bas-relief from Nineveh which shows Sennacherib’s palace complex and a garden which features trees hanging in the air on terraces, as well as plants suspended on arches. Further evidence that Dalley draws upon includes the fact that the name “Babylon” wasn’t confined to that one city, but instead was applied to several Mesopotamian cities – Babylon meant “Gate of the Gods” and Sennacherib renamed the city gates of Nineveh after gods, meaning it could have been referred to as a Babylon, leading to the confusion of time and place of the Gardens.
The bas-relief of Sennacherib’s gardens, and line copy for ease of viewing. The relief came from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (669–631 BC) at Nineveh.
Moreover, recent excavation of a vast system of aqueducts which were inscribed to Sennacherib had been proposed by Dalley to be part of an 80km long series of canals and aqueducts used to provide Nineveh’s Gardens with water, as in the descriptions. Furthermore, Sennacherib fits into the legend of a King deeply in love with his wife: “And for Tashmetu-sharrat the palace woman, my beloved wife, whose features the Mistress of the Gods has made perfect above all other women, I had a palace of loveliness, delight and joy built”.
Image from Pinterest.
So, whilst various pieces of evidence float around, we are still not sure whether the Gardens ever existed or not – and due to the political climate in the area, it is unlikely we will know in our lifetime whether Nineveh did indeed hold the fabled Gardens. Perhaps the Hanging Gardens were a mixture of reality and poetic licence that evolved into a legend, as many legends do. Perhaps Nineveh did have impressive gardens that visitors embellished, with the location being muddled up over time, and became the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Real or not, it is easy to see how the Gardens have captured imaginations across millennia – the story of a homesick wife and loving husband creating a beautiful marvel to share with the world.
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