The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Atlas Obscura UNAM Botanical Garden – Mexico City

There is something about it. Gardening is a very human passion. Wherever there is nature, there is the urge to improve on it, removing the thorns, thistles and weeds, and replacing them with colour and fruit, adding beauty and harmony, a taming of the wild world, an artifice of flowers and pleasing shapes, where every tree knows its allotted space, where all plants earn their keep, where the grass massages our feet and where birdsong announces peace and tranquility to the world, a homecoming, an oasis, a haven which silences any threats, which obeys our commands and becomes our foil, our personal savannah, a green enclosure which nurtures and feeds, keeps and guards against the outside – that is, a garden. Every culture shapes it in its own image, from the outside garden rooms of the Italians to the strict regimented shapes of the French, from the spacious, stylistic harmony of the Japanese to the controlled chaos of the English cottage, and the sweeping made-up vistas of Capability Brown. It is a human passion with ancient roots. The image of paradise is that of a garden (in fact it is what the word means). Our modern Christmas, with its tree, holly and mistletoe, turns a mid-winter house into an indoor garden.

Volcanoes and gardens make an uneasy combination. Volcanoes create waste lands, blighted by ash and sulfur, where for many years nothing may grow. A volcano-themed garden would be a forbidding and unwelcoming place, the opposite of a paradise. But volcanoes also give what they take away. The best gardens are found in the shadows of volcanoes. The ash is a fiery fertilizer, which breaks down to a light, easily worked andisol. Given enough time, volcanoes can become a welcome addition to any paradise, at least to those with fearless patience. Here lies the challenge to the green-fingered volcanoholic. But what plants would one grow in a volcano-themed garden?

Ignoring pesky details such as climate, there are some good plants available. Top of the list should be Coffea Arabica, an attractive if picky bush which as a bonus provides the best coffee beans around. And it really needs volcanic soils: grow it anywhere else, and a poor coffee results. Beating around the bush can be a grape vine, again a plant that thrives on volcanic fertilization. After celebrating a home-grown  coffee, you will be able to enjoy your own home-grown wine as well. Every volcano garden will need an area of grey ash and dark rocks. Here you can grow a Silversword, from the wetter parts of the high slopes of Mauna Loa. There will of course be an area of copper moss, and some ferns will represent the early soil-less colonizers of the post-eruption garden. Low on the ground, Kilimanjaro Impatiens will provide the essential red-flowing colour, whilst Indian Paintbrush will add some red fountaining. Pocketbook flower can add an exotic touch of sulphurous yellow. For the adventurous, you could consider adding a hot pool surrounded by geyser grass. And towering above it all should be a Pacaya palm, the only plant that has a volcano named after it — and it even has edible fruit. The palm completes your garden and can play the structural part of the volcano if you lack one in your front garden. Red-flashing Christmas lights can be added during the season of good-will eruptions. Et voila, the neighbourhood will come out in force to admire your volcano garden. You will be listed in the local tourist brochures, soon after are added to the list of the world’s famous gardens, have throngs of admirers outside your gates, and eventually receive the ultimate accolade, a feature in the BBC’s Gardeners World.

Fuji Shibazakura Matsuri: the pink-moss festival, Fuji Five Lakes area, Japan. At it best in early May.

And so it was with the most famous garden in the world. Build on volcanic sediments, it became an international sensation. There was only one problem: no one could ever find it. Wasn’t it always thus? Where one person would build something really impressive, the tourist brochure would quickly pick it up. If the brochure outlasted the attraction itself, hordes of people could end up wandering around trying to find something that wasn’t there any more. Such was the fate of the most famous tourist brochure of all,  the 4th century booklet that listed the Seven Wonders of the World.  The garden it contains is so famous, it is written in plural, a true award of royalty. But like almost all of its attractions, the gardens have long since disappeared, leaving only a memory. This is our tribute to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The seven wonders

Nowadays it would be called ‘seven sights to see before you die’.  But the idea has been around for a long time. The oldest document listing seven wondrous sights dates to  around 200 BC, and was found in Egypt, as  a papyrus included at a mummy burial.  It lists, in fragmented text, ‘the seven sights’ and goes on to specifically mention four, including the pyramids. The other three are lost – the document is sadly incomplete.

Over the next few centuries, this idea of ‘seven sights’ came back in several other known documents. Clearly the idea had caught on. The lists are about buildings rather than cities or natural marvels: these were marvels of engineering. All but one of the locations are around the eastern Mediterranean. Stonehenge was never included! But there was one distant place on the list, 1500 km away. Much too far for any tourist to visit, this location was known mainly from rumours and stories: Babylon.

Previous documents had agreed on the number seven, but with some disagreement on which ones. Taken together, they list nine rather than seven wonders. The list of world wonders was finalized by Philo of Byzantium in the 4th century AD, when he wrote A Handbook to the Seven Wonders of the World. His book really was meant to be a tourist guide. From the original nine he excluded Rome’s Colosseum and the Santa Sophia. The seven wonders were now comprised of Egypt’s pyramid, the lighthouse of Alexandria, the Colossus of Rhodes, the mausoleum of King Mausolus in Turkey, the Artemisium in Ephesus, the statue of Zeus in Greece, and the city of Babylon with its three buildings: the Walls, the Obelisk of Semimares, and the Hanging Gardens. We don’t know why Babylon was included, but the suspicion is that it goes back to the campaigns of Alexander the Great, who had conquered Babylon on the way to India, and some years later on his return journey died there.


The lion of Babylon. Photo courtesy Anita Richards, taken 2019.

Southern Iraq is a desert. The climate is hot beyond believe (Basra, closest to the Gulf, is worst). There is  little rain, but there is water. In the southern plains south of Baghdad the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates flow almost side by side. The southern plains consists of the sediments carried by the rivers. This fertile delta starts just south of Baghdad and runs half the length of Iraq. The sediments come from the Anatolia-Zagros mountains, where there are volcanoes over 5 km tall.  Nowadays, much of the sediment ends up in the Mosul reservoir, and this may now be the most dangerous reservoir in the world. But in the past, this volcanic sediment build up the alluvial plains which from 3000 BC became the cradle of western civilization.

Even the stories of the bible begin in this delta. Here ruled Gilgamesh, king of Ur, and Hammurabi, king of Babylon. In this region, in over 2000 years of games of thrones, Babylon was rarely on top. During the reign of Hammurabi, around 1900 BC, Babylon may briefly have been the largest city in the world. But after him the city lost its independence. Only after 612 BC did it again become a major power, when it briefly ruled a large empire under Nebuchadnezzar II. But soon it  lost out again in the perpetual wars, and it declined into little more than a village. After 900 AD, it disappears from the records. And still those wars continue.

Ruins of the summer place in Babylon. In the background is the palace of Saddam Hussein, build overlooking Babylon. Photo courtesy Anita Richards, taken 2019.

Modern Baghdad is 80 km to the north of Babylon. As capital of the ancient islamic Caliphate it became the new centre of the world, and its first demise was the end of the Islamic golden century. The Mongols hordes ruled here, as did Turkic and Iranian empires. This deeply damaged city, at one time named ‘City of Peace’, is listed as the worst place to live in the world.

Baghdad’s ancient precursor cities have left their signs in the region. The mud-brick buildings would not last long – the frequent sieges and battles did not help. Rebuilding was done on top of the ruins of the previous ones, and the cycle repeated. Eventually, each city would become a hill in the landscape, rising many meters above the surrounding plains. When the city was lost, the hill would remain. These are the ‘tells’; the highest tell is over 40 meters tall. Sometimes the razing and raising was even done by the own inhabitants, to remain above the level of the annual flooding.

So it was with Babylon. Its ruins are now a tourist site, although for understandable reasons the number of tourists remains limited. Since this year it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The wonders of Babylon

The famous landmarks of Babylon date from the era of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-561 BC).  Before his time, the region had been part of the Assyrian empire, sometimes willingly so, sometimes not. In 689 BC, the Assyrian king Sennacherib had ransacked the city leaving little but ruins.  80 years later aft this assault Assyria itself fell, and Nebuchadnezzar II and his father stepped into the vacuum and conquered an enormous empire. Tribute and treasure from the newly conquered territory, including the treasures from the temple of Jerusalem, were used to fund a massive rebuilding project of Babylon. The wealth allowed the building of outsized monuments. In a way, this was a pyramid scheme which was dependent on capturing more and more out-of-state money: Babylon could only be maintained by continuously conquering new territories, but it worked while it lasted.  These massive buildings that later became known as a world wonder. Babylon was described as ‘a city the size of a nation’ (Aristotle) and in area was overtaken only centuries later, by Rome in its heyday.

The city of Babylon was build on both banks of the river Euphrates. Nowadays the ruins are on the east side, a little away from the river but this is because the river has changed course. It used to run roughly where in recent years Saddam’s palace was build. The inner city measured 2.5 by 1.5 km and was surrounded by a wall and a moat. The outer city was twice as large and was also surrounded by a wall. Huge embankments kept the Euphrates in place, with a magnificent bridge linking the east and west bank.

A reconstruction of the ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil in Iran. Less than half of the structure remains.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Southern Palace contained the throne room, decorated with lions and stylized trees. The central temple complex contained the Etemenanki, a large ziggurat, which is listed as among Babylon’s wonders. A ziggurat is a layered pyramid; we don’t know the size but it could have been 50 meters tall. Nothing of it remains: being build from mud bricks, ziggurats did not age as well as the pyramids did. The remains of the Etemenanki was demolished by Alexander, in order to facilitate a rebuild that never happened: when Philo included the Etemenanki in his list of things-to-see-before-you-die, it hadn’t existed for over 600 years. One wonders whether he knew.

The second part of the wonder were the Walls of Babylon. They stretched for over 60 km, They stood 20 meters tall with many towers  reaching 25 meters, and at 10 meters wide were broad enough for two chariots to pass each other on top.  Even the bible mentions the broad walls of Babylon, such was their fame. There were actually two outer walls, one encircling the city and a lower wall much further out encircling the farm land around Babylon. The gates too were Mordor-sized. The most famous of the 8 known gates was the Ishtar gate. It was excavated by archeologists, taken to Berlin, and rebuild there. The Ishtar gate can now be admired not in Babylon (where a smaller replica exists) but in the Pergamon museum in Berlin. Even in a modern environment the gate is enormous.

Model of the full Ishtar gate, at the end of a 200-meter long road lined with stone lions.

The front of the Ishtar gate, rebuild from the original lapuli-blue stones in the Pergamon museum in Berlin.

The housing estate at Babylon. Photo from 1932.


The Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus describes the city as it was when Alexander entered the city. This was written centuries later but based on older Greek manuscripts. The numbers he gives may have become inflated over time:

It was the city itself, with its beauty and antiquity, that commanded the attention not only of the king, but of all the Macedonians. And with justification. Founded by Semiramis (not, as most have believed, Belus, whose palace is still to be seen there), its wall is constructed of small baked bricks and is cemented together with bitumen. The wall is ten meters wide and it is said that two chariots meeting on it can safely pass each other. Its height is twenty-five meters and its towers stand three meters higher again. The circumference of the whole work is 365 stades, each stade, according to the traditional account, being completed in a single day. The buildings of the city are not contiguous to the walls but are about thirty meter’s width from them, and even the city area is not completely built up – the inhabited sector covers only 275 hectares – nor do the buildings form a continuous mass, presumably because scattering them in different locations seemed safer. The rest of the land is sown and cultivated so that, in the event of attack from outside, the besieged could be supplied with produce from the soil of the city itself.

The Euphrates passes through the city, its flow confined by great embankments. Large as these structures are, behind all of them are huge pits sunk deep in the ground to take water of the river when in spate, for when its level has exceeded the top of the embankment, the flood would sweep away city buildings if there were no drain shafts and cisterns to siphon it off. These are constructed of baked brick, the entire work cemented with bitumen.

The two parts of the city are connected by a stone bridge over the river, and this is also reckoned among the wonders of the East. For the Euphrates carries along with it a thick layer of mud and, even after digging this out to a great depth to lay the foundations, one can hardly find a solid base for a supporting structure. Moreover, there is a continuous build-up of sand which gathers around the piles supporting the bridge, impeding the flow of water, and this constriction makes the river smash against the bridge with greater violence than if it had an unimpeded passage.

The Babylonians also have a citadel 3.7 kilometers in circumference. The foundations of its turrets are sunk ten meters into the ground and the fortifications rise 24 meters above it at the highest point. On its summit are the Hanging Gardens, a wonder celebrated by the fables of the Greeks. They are as high as the top of the walls and owe their charm to the shade of many trees. The columns supporting the whole edifice are built of rock, and on top of them is a flat surface of squared stones strong enough to bear the deep layer of earth placed upon it and the water used for irrigating it.

The Hanging Gardens

But those architectural wonders are now forgotten. Only one left a lasting memory: the Hanging Gardens. According to the story, the gardens were built for princess Amyitis, the wife of Nebuchaddnezzar. She came from the mountains of southwestern Iran and pined for the hills of her youth, feeling lost in the flat featureless plains of Babylon. The Hanging Gardens were designed for her to resemble those hills – true landscape gardening in the mould of Capability Brown. But apart from these stories, we know remarkably little about the Gardens. There are no first-hand descriptions of them. We know of no one who actually visited them. We also have no ruins, perhaps not surprising as gardens tend to leave little behind. Nebuchadnezzar left us many writings boasting about his achievements, including his many buildings. But he never mentioned any gardens. Neither does the bible. People accompanying Alexander the Great into Babylon do not describe gardens. Greek and Roman writers who later visited the city likewise fail to mention them. The descriptions we have are later, second-hand reports, from people who themselves never went to Babylon. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon have become both a wonder and a mystery. Of the nine buildings designated by different ancients as among the seven wonders, this is the only one of which the very existence remains in doubt. How did something so famous becomes so elusive?

Our views of the gardens come from second-hand  accounts. The two oldest are from Berossus of Chaldea, a priest who lived in the late fourth century BC and who wrote a history of Mesopotamia, and  from Ctesias of Cnidus, in his book Persica. Neither document has survived: we only know about them from other writers who used them as source material, making our knowledge third-hand. One of these was Diodorus Siculus:

There was also, beside the acropolis, the Hanging Garden, as it is called, which was built, not by Semiramis, but by a later Syrian king 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. The park extended 4 plethora on each side, and 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. When the ascending terraces had been built, there had been constructed beneath them 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 50 cubits high, bore the highest surface of the park, which was made level with the circuit wall of the battlements of the city. Furthermore, the walls, which had been constructed at great expense, were 22 feet thick, while the passage-way between each two walls was 10 feet wide. The roofs of the galleries were covered over with beams of stone 16 feet long, inclusive of the overlap, and 4 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. On all this again earth had been piled to a depth sufficient for the roots of the largest trees; and the ground, when levelled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size or any other charm, could give pleasure to the beholder. And since the galleries, each projecting beyond another, all received the light, they contained many royal lodgings of every description; and 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.

(Diodorus Siculus, Library of History II.10. Translation of C. H. Oldfather, Loeb edition (1933). Text from Stephanie Dalley)

A plethron was probably around 30 meters, so the garden was 120 meters long. The hanging gardens were build on terraces which seemed to be hanging from the sky. The English name may invoke an image of plants cascading down walls, but this is not what it was. The Hanging Gardens were not a collection of hanging baskets! It was a tiered garden, and a marvel of engineering and building, made to resemble a landscape. The highest level was 50 ‘cubits’ high. This cubit was probably about 40 cm (the value differed between different cultures) making the entire structure (excluding trees) 20 meters high. But the trees rooted on the higher levels needed water (especially so in the climate of southern Iraq where 45 degrees is a normal summer’s day), and thus the water needed to be raised. This would have been laborious work even for a slave, and thus the water was brought up mechanically. Strabo provides more detail:

It (the garden) is quadrangular in shape, and each side is 4 plethra in length. It consists of arched vaults which are set, one over the next, on a chequer-board of cube-like foundations. The hollow chequerboard foundations are covered with earth so deep that they sustain the largest of trees, for they were constructed of baked brick and bitumen—they (the foundations) and the vaults and the arches. The ascent to the uppermost terrace is made by a stairway, and alongside these stairs there were screws, through which the water was continually drawn up into the garden from the Euphrates by those appointed for the purpose. For the river, a stadium in width, flows through the middle of the city, and the garden is on the bank of the river.

(Strabo, Geography XVI.1.5, translation adapted from H. L. Jones, Loeb edn. (1961).Source: Stephanie Dalley)

The water was brought up using rotating screws. The invention of this system is normally attributed to Archimedes, but apparently it was known much earlier.

Quintus Curfius Rufus, 1st century AD, describes how the top level of the garden is the same height as the walls:

On the top of the citadel are the Hanging Gardens, a wonder (miraculum) 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 overhanging their native mountains. There is a tradition that a king of Syria, who ruled in Babylon, 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.

Finally, we should turn to the 4th century tourist guide. In A Handbook to the Seven Wonders of the World, Philo of Byzantium writes:

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. This timber does not rot, unlike others; when it is soaked and put under pressure it swells up and nourishes the growth from roots, since it incorporates into its own interstices what is planted with it from outside. 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 place is cultivated as if it were (normal) tilled earth, and the growth of new shoots has to be pruned almost as much as on normal land. This (artificial) arable land is above the heads of those who stroll along through the pillars. When the uppermost surface is walked on, the earth on the roofing stays firm and undisturbed just like a (normal) place with deep soil. 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, inebriating the roots of the plants to their depths, and maintaining the wet arable land, so that it is just like an ever-green meadow, and the leaves of the trees, on the tender new growth, feed upon dew and have a wind-swept appearance. For the roots, suffering no thirst, sprout anew, benefiting from the moisture of the water that runs past, flowing at random, interweaving along the lower ground to the collecting point, and reliably protects the growing of trees that have become established. Exuberant and fit for a king is the ingenuity, and most of all, forced, because the cultivator’s hard work is hanging over the heads of the spectators.

All writers agree on the ingenuity and engineering ability of the designers and builders of the gardens. This was the reason it became world wonder, as this was effectively an engineering award. The system that brought the water up from the river was especially note-worthy. It was a covered system of rotating screws, invisible to visitor. The garden was meant to be beautiful, with many trees whose shade would have been a haven during the heat of the day. It was shaped like a Greek theatre, 120 meters on the side, with layered terraces resembling the side of the hill. Trees were planted on top of the terraces, and there was flowing water on the top terrace, raised by mechanical means. The top terrace had a pillared walkway, with trees planted on top. The structure was next to the palace.

Various reconstructions have been proposed, not always consistent with the available texts. It has been suggested that the gardens were build on the ziggurat, with the terraces corresponding to the planted areas. This view has been abandoned, as it disagrees too much with the available descriptions, would have been very hard to water, and the irrigation would quickly have ruined the mud bricks.

A popular view is shown here, dating from the 19th century. The structure in the background depicts the mythical tower of Babel. The curve of the terrace seems inconsistent with the text, which compare it to a theatre, i.e partially enclosing the central area.

The Hanging Gardens have become an enigma, problematic regarding archaeology, reconstructions, and historical descriptions. To start with the archaeology, the descriptions associate the gardens with the palace, the walls and the river. That leaves only a few possible locations within Babylon, and it should be easy to find. But no evidence of any such structure has been uncovered. The southern palace was too far from the river. A location between the palace and the river has been suggested, but it would have been hidden invisibly behind the thick walls. Also, when the Euphrates changed course (possibly shortly after Nebuchadnezzar), the gardens would have lost all access to water. It is hard to see how a dead garden could have made it into the later list of wonders. And the historical descriptions seem a-typical for the area, including the fact that the watering system required water coming downhill, something that does not happen in the flat Babylonian countryside. The association with Nebuchadnezzar is stated by only one source, Josephus: all others either give no source or state that it was build by a ‘Syrian’ king.

The discrepancies are so significant that some have argued that the Hanging Gardens never existed. They were a myth, perhaps grown out of a real garden but with little resemblance to reality. This Wonder of the World was a mirage.

But what if the mention of a ‘Syrian’ king is correct? The Assyrian empire had indeed ruled Babylon: Babylonian kings were subservient to the Neo-Assyrian empire for centuries. An Assyrian ruler  took the kingship in Babylon in 729 BC, albeit only for a few years before a puppet ruler was installed. Babylon became independent again in 625 BC, and in 609 BC the Assyrian empire ended, after a sudden collapse at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s father. Is it possible that the Hanging Gardens aren’t from Nebuchadnezzar’s time, but are older, dating to the Neo-Assyrian period 100 years before? In fact, the truth may be even more surprising.


Before Babylon was Assyria. The empire of Assyria was based in the hilly, more rainy country along the upper Tigris river. Originally it was centred on Ashur and Nimrod, two of the oldest cities in the region. Assyria quite suddenly became a world power under Sargon II, 722-705 BC.  He build a new capital at Khorsabad, and his son Sennacherib moved the capital to Nineveh. During the peak of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh was the largest city in the world. It had a population of more than 100,000, within a 12-km long wall with 15 gates. Ashurbanipal was the last great king of Assyria. Under his successors, the empire rapidly declined and around 610 BC, just 25 years after his death, it collapsed. Nineveh was razed to the ground by the invading armies, and for all its might, Assyria became a footnote in history.

The city became largely forgotten, surviving only in local memory and in the biblical story of Jonah. That changed when locals pointed archaeologists at the location, which was where the rivers Tigris and the Khosr come together. Their excavations found unexpected marvels, evidence of a far more advanced culture than had been expected. This included 100-km long aquaducts, of which parts still exist. In some ways, this had been the unrecognized centre of the world. The world of Nineveh put Babylon to shame. But nothing remained: the buried ruins told the story of an ancient Ozymandias.

The ruins of Nineveh are located within a large open area within the suburbs of Mosul. The tell corresponding to the northern citadel lies along the Khosr. Sennacherib build his magnificent southwestern palace here (so-called by archeologist even though it is part of the northern citadel). The palace measured 500 by 250 meters and had 80 rooms, richly decorated with detailed carved stone panels. Many of those panels were removed by archaeologists and are now on display in various museums across the world. One wonders whether this counts as safekeeping or as robbery! The British Museum has a large collection of these panels, some with a weight of 30 tons.

The many panels that were found give a comprehensive description of the empire, and depict military campaigns in great, artistic detail. One of the early people to excavate them, Henry Layard, created a portfolio with detailed drawings of the stone reliefs. Many of those panels are now too badly damaged to show much detail, but we still have those drawings.

A stone relief showing Sargon’s garden

And perhaps surprising for an empire which seemed to revel in cruelty, the rulers frequently mentioned their gardens among their major achievements. This started with Sargon II who created a garden in Khorsabad, and who described it in his stone tablets as “a high garden imitating the Amanus mountains in which are planted all the aromatic trees of northern Syria”. This echoes two aspects of the Hanging Gardens! Of course, both the cooler, wetter climate and the hills of northern Iraq are much better suited to gardening than the flat hot deserts of the south! The Assyrian style of landscape gardens was very different from the regimented rows of palm trees of Babylonia. Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, for all his reputation of ruthlessness and cruelty, was also a gardener. Among the reliefs decorating his palace are ones showing his army on boats in the marshes of southern Iraq. After this, his recreated the scene by planting thickets of reeds on the flood plain around Nineveh, and putting birds, swine and other animals in them. He also writes about a technical innovation which could be the water-raising screws. His grandson, Ashurbanipal, also write about the gardens. We have some stone reliefs depicting the Assyrian gardens. They show the pillared passages with trees planted on top.

Drawing of a now lost relief depicting gardens. The top right part of the relief appears to show trees growing on a roofed colonnade.

Sennacharib describes the building of his ‘unrivalled palace’ in Nineveh on an engraved prism which was found during excavations. Two copies exist: he took care to record his work for prosperity! On these prims, in words copied from his father’s palace in Khorsabad, he writes: “A high garden (kirimāhu) 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, planted within it.” Gardens like those of Khorsabad thus also existed in Nineveh. Elsewhere he writes about his invention of water-raising screws (if the translation is correct!), which would have ensured a far more successful system of raised gardens than those of his father.

The similarity between the Hanging Gardens of the tourist brochure and the Assyrian descriptions are notable. This has led to two suggestions. The first one poses that the Gardens were a Babylonian copy of an Assyrian original. The second one poses that the gardens never were in Babylon but that the Hanging Gardens always were of, and in, Nineveh. The best known Wonder of the World was a mirage, an echo from a forgotten empire.

Relief showing orchards and gardens watered by an aqueduct. Nineveh, Iraq.

Death of a garden

If the gardens were in Nineveh, they would not have survived Assyria’s collapse. The stories about the Hanging Gardens in that case were posthumous, and kept alive an ancient memory rather than a reality. Whilst the empire was forgotten, the gardens remained – but without a recognized host, they were relocated to the one Mesopotamian city everyone knew and which still existed: Babylon.

Both the sudden rise and the dramatic collapse of the Assyrian empire have been subject of discussions. Why did the empire suddenly become so much stronger than their neighbours, including even Egypt? And why was the collapse so sudden, only a few decades after it reached the peak of its powers? There had been a period of civil war, and the collapse was therefore attributed to internal divisions. But recently, a different theory has appeared. This invoked the local climate.

A study of historical rainfall in the area (obtained from isotope studies) showed that the rise of Assyria coincided with a period of high rainfall. Agriculture in this region is very much dependent on the winter rains, and so the theory goes that the nation became well fed during these two centuries. Well-fed subjects are always a boost to any ambitious dictator. The generous rains ended around 750 BC, but by this time the empire was well established. Now followed a period of normal weather, but around 700 BC the climate strongly deteriorated. This climate excursion for the worse is known from other sites as well, and is known as the 2.7- or 2.8-ka event. In northern Iraq it developed into a 125-year mega-drought. After the wettest 200 years over 4000 years, now the region suffered the driest period until the 1980’s. Food production plummeted, and Assyria’s expansion came to a sudden halt. This was the time when the large aquaducts were build, bringing in water from the mountains. The drought peaked in the period 670-630 BC. The collapse began around 635 BC, and by 612 BC two relatively small invading armies brought the Assyrian empire to an end. Was it a climate collapse? This is not yet proven, but it appears a plausible suggestion. Assyria never recovered. 200 years later, the region was still largely depopulated.

Sinha et al. Science Advances, 13 Nov 2019, Vol. 5, no. 11, Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

Every nation has its own gardens. Gardens work in their own climate: move them to a different place and time, and failure follows. A volcano garden cannot work without volcanic soil. Similarly, the gardens of Nineveh could not have worked in the desert climate of Babylon. And when the drought hit Assyria, the gardens were not spared. Ingenuity has solved the problem of irrigating raised gardens. But the worsening climate had to last word, attacking both the gardens and the gardeners. After the fall, the gardens may have been rebuild in Babylon but it would have been a pale copy of the vibrant original. Babylon’s desert delta supported neither the range of plants nor the undulations. And perhaps Babylon never did try.

And this ends the story of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Like lost tourists, we wander between vague descriptions and unclear directions. The gardens were a marvel of engineering which amazed anyone who saw them, whose rumours spread far and wide, and deep into the future. When Babylon was given the Wonder accolade, the stories pointed us at the wrong city, the wrong king, and even the wrong century. Nineveh remains an enigma and a mystery. But the volcanoes of the Zagros remain ready to provide fertilizer to any would-be gardener in the area. Perhaps one day there will be a rebirth of the wonder of the Hanging Gardens.

A reconstruction of what the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh might have looked like (Stephanie Dalley)

Albert Zijlstra, 25 December 2019


VC wishes all you readers a Merry Christmas, and a Volcanoholic 2020! From all of Us to all of You:

31 thoughts on “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

  1. Excellent article, I always wondered about the hanging gardens and if they had been found in the archaeological record.

  2. I visited Iraq in 1989, before the first Gulf War. In Mosul Museum were some amazing long obsidian blades, dating back to the late Palaeolithic or Epipalaeolithic. They were stunning, such a tribute to the skill of the knappers – parallel-sided and about 25 cm long. The cores they were struck off were in the display too. All destroyed or looted in the wars, I think. How sad. So another volcanism link – volcanic glass knapping in prehistoric Iraq.

    • Fascinating! Obsidian fragments in northern Iraq have been found to come from Nemrut Dağ volcano in Turkey, the largest caldera in Turkey.

  3. Found a photo. Here they are:

    Oh, wait, those are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon 5.

    • Curious. If I understand them correctly, their model would predict a peak sometime in 2021. If that happens, their case will grow stronger. The fact that the predicted peak did not happen in 2015 is a problem, even if they try to explain it away after the fact.

  4. Supposition: Maybe the hanging gardens were nothing more than an overly elaborate and misunderstood macramé display… “The hanging Gardenias of Babylon”

  5. There was quite a good article about it in new scientist or sciam. Very likely an irrigated garden supplied by simple pumps. Mind you with unlimited slaves, men with buckets could do a pretty decent job.

    • All old descriptions agree that it was irrigated. The problem was getting the water up to the top, 20 meters above, in sufficient quantities for trees to grow there. At 45C, you need a lot of water and slaves would become short-lived! The descriptions state that the water came up invisibly. A rotating screw inside a tube could do this, if there was enough water pressure at the bottom. That system was supposedly invented by the Greeks but may well have been known long before.

      All of Nineveh was irrigated during the Sargon dynasty. The aquaducts still exist: they run almost 100 km from the mountains. The inscriptions on the buildings also mention this.

      And remember that the ‘wonders of the world’ was an engineering award. Just an irrigated garden would not qualify.

  6. And a happy 2020 to all our readers! May all your eruptions be safe ones.

  7. With the crater lake evaporated,
    Anak Krakatau eruptions can now become fully dry magmatic again.
    Same very viscous strombolian and mild vulcanian and high viscosity fountaining that we seen before.

    • Except the crater lake is still there in yesterday’s sentinel images. The tip of the cone is surfacing though.

  8. Happy New Year everyone! Now that the fireworks are over, let us hope we have some volcanic fireworks this year.
    Preferably a display with full health and safety precautions in place…

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