The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh?

Last week’s post looked at the evidence for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and ended with archaeologists excavating Babylon in the late 19th/early 20thc  unable to find any real sign of them.

Today’s is going to continue the story and end by suggesting that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon probably ought to be renamed following a complete re-examination of the sources and finds by Stephanie Dalley, formerly of the Oriental Institute in Oxford,  whose book The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced published in 2013 I finally read over the Christmas holidays and which inspired me to write about – and reassess -the fabled gardens.

Robert Koldewey and his team from the German Oriental Society (Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft) must have been very disappointed they didn’t locate the site of the gardens. However they did  find a series of baked brick arches in one of the palaces where there was also evidence of bitumen. These they  decided could be  the foundations, and suggested  the gardens were on the roof over this  area.  There was, however, no evidence of tree roots, and the site was well away from any source of water.  You’ll also have noticed  the suggestion of a roof-top garden did not match the descriptions of any of the classical authors I discussed last week.   Later a series of clay tablets which contained inventories of goods  were found and clearly implied the area around the arches  was simply for storage, so was unlikely to be underneath a well-watered garden.

There have been other alternative suggestions for sites  within the palace complex and grounds, including the idea that the gardens were in a part of the city now under the Euphrates or rendered inaccessible because of a raised water-table.  None seem that convincing.   One more  initially plausible alternative came from  the great archaeologist Leonard Woolley [1880-1960] who in 1922, just as Howard Carter was discovering the tomb of Tutankhamen, started to excavate the ancient city of Ur in what is now southern Iraq.

The ziggurat at Ur and a suggested reconstruction from Ur of the Chaldees,

At Ur there was a large ziggurat or stepped pyramid constructed of mud-bricks covered with a surface layer of baked brick. Each of the stepped levels  had a series of regular holes across it. Although Wooley originally ascribed these as being ‘weeper holes’  to help the mass of solid mud brickwork dry out properly, he later changed his mind. Helped by the discovery of a later inscription that mentioned clearing fallen branches from  a lower level adjacent building he decided  the  branches must have come from trees  in  the Hanging Gardens and that the holes were for drainage.

Woolley  suggested in Ur of the Chaldees, which became a best selling Pelican book in the 1950s that we had to “imagine trees clothing every terrace with greenery, hanging gardens which bought more vividly to mind the original conception of the Ziggurat as the Mountain of God.”

There was a similar ziggurat at Babylon and Woolley’s ideas of it being covered with trees immediately seized the popular imagination and allowed artists licence to create lush exotic images.  Woolley’s ziggurat  gardens would, according to Stephanie Dalley have looked  like “a fancifully decorated wedding cake made of superimposed squares that decrease in size the higher they go, [with] the foliage hung over from each terrace on the side of the building, rather like gigantic hanging baskets.”

Unfortunately Woolley’s idea doesn’t hold water – literally – since the ziggurat’s  underlying structure  of dried mud bricks would quickly have turned to mud  if much water had penetrated. Nor as you probably spotted straightaway does the idea of gardens on a ziggurat  bear any relationship to the surviving descriptions. These are clear that the gardens were on terraces over vaults and would presumably have seemed to be suspended.

At this point maybe I should point out the derivation of the name Hanging Gardens  which is from the Greek  κρεμαστός, kremastós  which literally means ‘overhanging’ or sometimes suspended. Other uses are for hammocks, ships rigging and grapes as well as describing someone hung.  So subtly different and broader meaning than the modern English word “hanging”.

Given all that what else might help us understand and locate the gardens?


Babylon was a highly organized bureaucratic state. There are large numbers of contemporary  inscriptions and an almost innumerable number of clay tablets and cylinders which record not just major events but everyday details of life. Nebuchadnezzar, who was named as the builder by Josephus was, like all powerful monarchs, a great recorder of his own achievements but you might be surprised to learn that there are no mentions anywhere of any garden, or any structure that might have housed one. Nor incidentally are there any references to them in the writings of other classical writers including  Xenophon or Pliny who all describes Babylon in some detail, or Herodotus who is known to have visited Babylon with Alexander the Great.

So with no archaeological or documentary evidence what are we to assume? Were the gardens mythical? Have they been utterly destroyed? Or is there perhaps another explanation?  That’s certainly the view of  Stephanie Dalley, who in 1994 published an article “Nineveh, Babylon and the Hanging Gardens: Cuneiform and Classical Sources Reconciled” which posited the idea that the gardens weren’t actually in Babylon at all, but 300km north west of the city at Nineveh where the great Assyrian King Sennacherib who ruled  between 704 – 681 BC, laid out magnificent and, crucially, well-recorded gardens in the grounds of his palace. [The article is available free on JSTOR although you do have to register for an account]

Dalley returned to the many  inscriptions and, in the light of recent advances in linguistic understandings of cuneiform  and/or Akkadian scripts,  rethought the way they had been translated and understood.  As a result she was able to show there were examples where the two cities were confused, partly because  “Babylon”, can be translated as   “Gate of the Gods”  and it is known that  Sennacherib renamed Nineveh’s  gates  after various gods implying perhaps that the city was a “Babylon”.  The two cities were often rivals but following the Assyrian conquest of Babylon in 689BC its importance continued to be recognised and Nineveh was sometimes  referred to as the “New Babylon.”

This is backed up by another passage in Diodorus Siculus, one of the classical writers cited last week, who wrote  that Nineveh “lay on a plain along the Euphrates” which it doesn’t. However Babylon does. Diodorus goes on to describe the building work of Semiramis, the widowed queen of Assyria, at “Babylon” which in fact matches the archeological discoveries found at Nineveh the capital of  her late husband’s kingdom. Both Diodorus and another classical source, Curtius,  say the gardens were built by a Syrian king.  By their time Assyria and Syria were if not interchangeable terms then at least easily confusable.

So linguistic and documentary evidence, which Dalley goes into in much greater detail than we have space for here,  might point to Nineveh as at least a plausible alternative site for the Hanging Gardens.

Does the archaeology give any further clues?

Mesopotamia was the object of many archaeological missions in the mid-19thc, including one to Nineveh, where exploration began in 1845 under the direction of Austen Layard, and was later continued by Henry Rawlinson  the so-called Father of Assyriology.  Rawlinson was in large part responsible for the decipherment of cuneiform text and in particular that discovery that  each individual sign could be read with multiple meanings dependent on their context.  It was that understanding that Dalley used to reassess previous interpretation of inscriptions. She convincingly explains several of these at length.


Formal terraces of trees on what appears to be a mountain, with water below and a stream on one side

It was in 1854 while  working on the  palace of Sennacherib’s grandson Ashurbanipal that a carved relief panel showing a garden was discovered.   Rawlinson immediately recognised the mountainous features described by the classical sources, which are supposed to have  resembled the mountains of the queen’s homeland in modern Iran.  He suggested it represented the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, although  he later decided the relief was merely a forerunner of the Babylon gardens.

Men in boats and swimming /using lilos [probably inflated animal hides]

As it turns out this panel was not exceptional. At least 3 other palaces  had garden scenes as part of the decoration of state rooms and they are complemented by cuneiform descriptions.  What is interesting however is that this panel came from a room which showed off  the various peacetime achievements of Sennacherib.

If you were lucky enough to see the recent British Museum exhibition about Assyria you would have seen the relief below  cleverly lit to show  these stone panels as they were originally colourfully painted.

Dalley spends several pages analysing the surviving panels comparing the details with the classical descriptions before concluding that they are an extremely good match. Further she argues that  Layard’s now historic plans and descriptions  show “contours which would be consistent with Sennacherib’s gardens”.

Like Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon Sennacherib  left plenty of other inscriptions recording his work but unlike Nebuchadnezzar he does claim the creation of gardens. This  clay prism records how he “raised the height of the surroundings of the palace, to be a Wonder for All Peoples. I gave it the name ‘Incomparable Palace’. A high garden imitating the Amanus mountains I laid out next to it, with all kinds of aromatic plants, orchard fruit trees, trees that enrich not only mountain country but also Chaldaea (Babylonia), as well as trees that bear wool, [almost certainly cotton] planted within it.”

There was precedent for such large scale projects in Assyria. Sennacherib’s father Sarghon had carried out  landscape engineering at his own citadel at Khorsabad, and in collecting exotic plants  Sennacherib was following in the footsteps of other earlier  Assyrian kings going back  to the time of  Tiglath-Pileser I. [See this earlier post for more about that]

from Dalley’s article showing how a series of linked screws and cisterns could have been used to raise water to the height of the gardens.

Crucially too Sennacherib’s inscriptions  record the use of  screws to raise water – a technique traditionally associated with Archimedes –  and explains at length how he had them cast out of bronze using new techniques.  Dalley tested the likelihood of this claim since it was several hundred years before the earliest known bronze casting of this kind, as part of  a BBC television programme in 1999.  The Secrets of the Ancients, set out to verify Sennacherib’s claim that  he “created clay moulds as if by divine intelligence for ‘cylinders’ and ‘screws’ …In order to draw water up all day long.”  Working with a practicing bronze caster, and using unsophisticated technology they proved Sennacherib’s ideas were perfectly feasible even on the scale implied and this was supported by fitted with the written descriptions.

Diodorus had said ‘There were machines raising the water in great abundance … although no-one outside could see it being done”.  Strabo said there were stairs up the slopes of the garden and alongside them “screws through which the water was continually conducted up into the garden’.  Finally  Philo  described how water  was  forced up ” running backwards, by means of a screw; through mechanical pressure they force it round and round the spiral of the machines.”

This bronze casting was a first, and would have meant that water could be raised up, almost invisibly, to a high level as the screw was housed inside bronze tubing. Had there been a system of  water wheels, paternosters or even  shad’ufs and cisterns  then it would seem likely that one of the classical sources might have mentioned them.   This making water run uphill must have been an extraordinary sight and one of the reasons the gardens were considered a world wonder.

To ensure a constant water supply Sennacherib,  also records the ordering of the construction of an extensive  system of aqueducts, canals and dams which stretches about 50km  to bring  water down from the mountains. It bears the inscription : “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.”   These waterworks, the remains of which still exist,  were well known to the Greeks because Alexander the Great spent time near them while he was conquering the area in 331BC.  The aqueduct appears on the stone relief above and they fit the account of Philo of Byzantium who, as we saw last week, was the last of the classical writers to describe the Hanging Gardens.

There has been little  excavation  since the 1920s since the area was in a military zone and both Saddam’s regime and the problems in Iraq since have prevented further investigations.  However the slow process of the  transcription of more of the cuneiform texts from the Assyrian and Babylonian libraries has started.   Who knows what will turned up?   Until then my money is on Dalley being right and this one of the Wonders of the Ancient World should be known as the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh.

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2 Responses to The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh?

  1. leafshade says:

    There is a BBC documentary illustrating the Dalley theory available on YouTube: Secret History : Finding Babylon’s Hanging Garden

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