The Hanging Gardens of Babylon


History is always changing.  The kind of history I did at school, kings and queens, great battles and the stories of great men [and occasionally women] has given way to a much more broadly based picture of the past.  We now see things from more than one perspective and look at the stories of more than just a few rich and powerful people.  But some things don’t change. Our fascination with certain events, places and ideas is never-ending and, for example, I suspect most of us are  fascinated by great monuments and how and why they were built.

Who, for example, didn’t learn all about the Seven Wonders of the World at school?  Although it might be hard to  remember them all [answers at the bottom of the post!] I bet that there are at least a couple that everyone recalls because they were so fabulous and almost unbelievable. I’d guess we’d all think immediately of the Great Pyramid of Giza but I wouldn’t be surprised if not far behind came the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

But what do we actually know about them?

You’d think that being the Hanging Gardens of Babylon we’d at least  know where they were, but unfortunately we don’t – indeed we can’t even be sure  they actually existed at all.  So read on to find out if there’s any the evidence  or if the whole idea is just a romantic myth…

As so often in the past I was a bit naive in thinking the research for this post would be relatively straightforward  but I hadn’t realised that the study of the ancient Middle East is even more confusing [if that’s possible] than plant taxonomy.  In particular there are major problems about translations and interpretations as well as the trustworthiness of the surviving sources, many of which are second if not third hand versions of lost originals. As a result it’s very easy to get confused and  lose track of who copied who, or develop any sense of chronology.

If the documentary sources are unreliable you might think that sophisticated modern archaeology would provide some solid answers, you would however be wrong. In fact unlike the  other Wonders of the World, such as the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus or the Temple of Artemis  at Ephesus  [there’s a clue so you’ve only got 3 more to guess]  there is absolutely no archaeological evidence – at least in the surviving remains of Babylon – to prove the garden’s existence.

That hasn’t stopped artists imagining what they looked like, with varying degrees of fantasy. Indeed, as a quick google search will reveal, today Babylon and its gardens continue to inspire those with fertile imaginations and the only problem is separating myth from reality.

The Walls of Babylon, the First Wonder of the World. 1770                                                                              with the Hanging Gardens in the background

Babylon was situated just south of present-day Baghdad, and probably founded around 2300BC. It became the seat of a short-lived empire, and probably the largest city in the world around 1800BC, before being destroyed.  It rose to fame again with the  equally short-lived Neo-Babylonian empire between 609 to 539 BC which was renowned for its wealth and architectural splendour, notably its city walls which were at one point considered to be another one of the Wonders of the World, and of course its Hanging Gardens.   Babylon’s third brief flourishing between 331 and 323BC occurred after it was conquered by Alexander the Great and became  his capital.   But in 275BC following yet more invasions its  inhabitants  were deported and  it dwindled into insignificance, although finally references to it being lived in don’t stop until about 1000AD.


But the city lived on in the imagination. It is the counterpart to Jerusalem in the Book of Revelations  and associated with the worst excesses of paganism. Later still  zealous Protestants used the idea of the Whore of Babylon to describe and denounce the Catholic Church.   A web search will soon show you that this negative imagery lives on with many fundamentalists

In the late 19thc a team of archaeologists led by Robert Koldewey carried out the first excavations on the site. They had descriptions of the city from five classical writers who between them explain the size of the Hanging Gardens, their overall design, the ways they were watered, who built them and and why. It’s important to point out that it’s unlikely the authors of any of these texts had actually been to Babylon, and were themselves relying on the work of earlier, long dead, authors.

The earliest of these accounts is by the great Roman Jewish writer Josephus who lived in the first century AD. He drew his description from the writings of a Babylonian priest named Berossus who wrote some 300 years earlier.  Even that information was second hand since Berossus’ work really only survives in copies or copies of copies, and the ancient Babylonian records that he quotes are now lost as well.

Berossus said the gardens were built by Nebuchadnezzar II [of Biblical fame] who ruled c604-562 BCE,   although he [and so Josephus] is the only source which give this attribution. Josephus describes how    “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.” [Pensile =suspended from above: ie hanging or pendent; OR  set or poised on a declivity – ie overhanging

detail of the above

Next comes an account of the Assyrian Queen Semiramis who with her husband built a new city, in the work of  Diodorus Siculus c60-30BC. Diodorus notes that  a later Syrian king built the gardens next to her palace “to please one of his concubines; for she, they say, being a Persian by race and longing for the meadows of her mountains, asked the king to imitate, through the artifice of a planted garden, the distinctive landscape of Persia.”   So we have some similarities with Josephus and the clear indication from both of the “mountainous” form of the gardens.

Diodorus then goes on to describe the site in much greater detail.  “The park” was square and “extended four plethra on each side.” [A plethra was approx 30m which gives a sense of the grand scale of the site.] “Since the approach to the garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier, the appearance of the whole resembled that of a theatre.”

Underneath the terraces were “galleries which carried the entire weight of the planted garden and rose little by little one above the other along the approach; and the uppermost gallery, which was fifty cubits high, bore the highest surface of the park, which was made level with the circuit wall of the battlements of the city.”

This was clearly a major feat of engineering.

The walls were “twenty-two feet thick, while the passage-way between … was ten feet wide. The roofs of the galleries were covered over with beams of stone sixteen feet long, inclusive of the overlap, and four feet wide. The roof above these beams had first a layer of reeds laid in great quantities of bitumen, over this two courses of baked brick bonded by cement, and as a third layer a covering of lead, to the end that the moisture from the soil might not penetrate beneath.”

Once the structure was in place “earth had been piled [on top] to a depth sufficient for the roots of the largest trees; and the ground, which was levelled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size or any other charm, could give pleasure to beholder. And since the galleries, each projecting beyond another, all received the light, they contained many royal lodgings of every description.”

How did the trees on these terraces get watered? Diodorus tells us that “there was one gallery which contained openings leading from the topmost surface and machines for supplying the garden with water:  the machines raising the water in great abundance from the river, although no one outside could see it being done.”   Unfortunately he doesn’t say what the “machines” were or how they worked.

In the first century AD we have another author,  Quintus Curtius Rufus who because of the similarities in his account probably had access to the same sources as Diodorus.  However he adds there were massive embankments along the Euphrates to stop flooding, that there was a stone bridge over the river with a citadel nearby which rose 80feet above them.  Curtius then adds: “On the top of the citadel are the hanging gardens, a wonder celebrated in the tales of the Greeks, equalling the extreme height of the walls and made charming by the shade of many lofty trees.”

“Columns of stone were set up to sustain the whole work, and on these was laid a floor of squared blocks, strong enough to hold the earth which is thrown upon it to a great depth, as well as the water with which they irrigate the soil; and the structure supports trees of such great size that the thickness of their trunks equals a measure of eight cubits.” They “tower to a height of fifty feet, and they yield as much fruit as if they were growing in their native soil. And although lapse of time gradually undermines and destroys, not only works made by the hand of man, but also those of Nature herself, this huge structure, although worked upon by the roots of so many trees and loaded with the weight of so great a forest, endures unchanged; for it is upheld by cross walls twenty feet wide at intervals of eleven feet, so that to those who look upon them from a distance real woods seem to be over-hanging their native mountains.” Curtius  also repeats the story of the king of Syria,”who ruled in Babylon, [and] undertook this mighty task, induced by love for his wife, who from longing for the woods and groves prevailed upon her husband to imitate in the level country the charm of Nature by a work of this kind.”

Next we have the account of Strabo, a Greek historian and geographer [64BC-24AD].  His bears similarities to the others but he adds a new and important element to the mix.  Having described the walls of Babylon which were so wide at the top “that four-horse chariots can easily pass one another” he adds a short description of the garden which had “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.”

All much the same until we read that “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….  the garden is on the bank of the river.” Traditionally the invention of the screw as a device for lifting water has been attributed to Archimedes. but it seems clear that it was in use there long before he wrote about it in 234BC, and  that Strabo is describing the use of the same device to get water to the gardens.

The final classical source for the gardens is in the much later work of Philo of Byzantium from the 4th to 5th century AD.  He seems to have access to yet more lost texts when compiling his Handbook to the Seven Wonders of the World. This was translated in the mid-19thc using existing copies of the manuscripts, which inevitably vary. Since then more copies have been discovered and it was re-edited in 1992. However since then there been further new discoveries.

Philo wrote: “The so-called Hanging Gardens have plants above ground, and are cultivated in the air, with the roots of trees above the (normal) tilled earth, forming a roof.  Four stone columns are set beneath, so that the entire space through the carved pillars is beneath the (artificial) ground. Palm trees lie in place on top of the pillars, alongside each other as (cross-) beams, leaving very little space in between. …Much deep soil is piled on, and then broad-leaved and especially garden trees of many varieties are planted, and all kinds of flowering plants, everything, in short, that is most joyous and pleasurable to the onlooker.” The result was that “The place is cultivated as if it were (normal) tilled earth” although it “is above the heads of those who stroll along through the pillars.”


Philo reports “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 spiral of the machines. Being discharged into close-packed, large cisterns, altogether they irrigate the whole garden… the roots, suffering no thirst…” The whole site was  “Exuberant and fit for a king [with]  ingenuity… because the cultivator’s hard work is hanging over the heads of the spectators.”

So between the five writers we have a fairly broad picture of how the gardens were constructed, what they continued  and how they were watered. So what did the archaeologists find? Unfortunately despite discovering palaces, temples and the outlines of the city’s infrastructure there was  no sign of the fabled gardens.  Nor, when they deciphered the mountain of clay tablets they uncovered was there any mention of them there either.   So the big question is why not? Were they all a big myth after all?

And to find out I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until next week..

PS I’ve mentioned 4 of the Wonders – the others [as I’m sure you knew] are the Colossus of Rhodes, the Pharos/Lighthouse at Alexandria, and the statue of Zeus at Olympia


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2 Responses to The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

  1. Charles GT-news says:

    Ohhhh – you rotter, fancy leaving it there Mr David.
    (But didn’t I read a book about this and possibly attend a lecture by the author a few years ago?)
    Have a very happy new year David, stay safe and warm, all best wishes, Charles.

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