The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: History, Legends, and More

Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one has so far eluded archaeologists. Read on to discover the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Jan 3, 2023By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
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The Ancient Greek world was full of wanderers. From Odysseus’ epic tradition to mercenaries, merchants, travelers, and writers, people set out from the Greek mainland to venture to the far corners of the Mediterranean and beyond. These wanderers were all captivated by the wonders (theamata, or sights) they encountered. Tall tales abounded of natural splendor and fantastic creatures, including Herodotus’ tales of giant gold-digging ants from India (which later found their way into Pliny’s Natural History, too).

 

Alongside these wondrous accounts of the world around them, man-made marvels also captivated ancient attention. The most famous of these are the so-called Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The traditional list includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympus,  the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria. Many of these ancient wonders were clustered around the Greek world in the eastern Mediterranean, recalling Socrates’ assertion that the Mediterranean was simply the pond around which the Greek “frogs” all lived. One wonder was an outlier, however. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the second oldest of all the wonders on the traditional list, was distant from the Mediterranean basin and the other ancient wonders. It remains the most mysterious of the wonders to this day.

 

The Hanging Gardens: A Classical Wonder

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Entry of Alexander into Babylon, or the Triumph of Alexander, by Charles Le Brun, 1665, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are the only one of the traditional lists of Seven Ancient Wonders that have so far eluded archaeologists and historians. No conclusive archaeological evidence has ever been discovered to provide an indication as to their location or appearance. Instead, we are forced to rely on a series of short references to them in a variety of different textual sources. Reflecting the very Hellenic character of the wonders that was noted above, many of these references are recorded by Greek writers from the Classical or Roman world.

 

Even the earliest known written reference to the Gardens is preserved only by a Roman source. Berossus, a priest of Marduk from Babylon, described the Gardens in an account that is preserved by the Jewish historian Josephus, active during the reign of Vespasian and the later Flavian emperors. Dating to the early years of the 3rd century BCE (c. 290), Berossus’ account is the oldest description of the Gardens. Other accounts are presented by the ancient geographer, Strabo, and Quintus Curtius Rufus. The latter author, a Roman historian, is most famous for his Histories of Alexander the Great — the Macedonian King who conquered Babylon in 331 BCE.

 

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In fact, the continued fascination with Alexander in the Hellenistic and Roman world appears to have been the basis for many of the surviving texts that provide descriptions of the Hanging Gardens. This includes Diodorus Siculus. A Greek historian writing in the 1st century BCE, Diodorus produced a universal history, known in English as the Historical Library. Historians have noted that his account of the Hanging Gardens likely drew on the history produced by Cleitarchus, one of Alexander’s historians. Although the Hanging Gardens were a monument of Babylonian engineering and architectural mastery, our image of them is shaped by a distinctly Classical (Hellenistic) lens.

 

Imperial Contexts: Ancient Babylon 

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The Tower of Babel, by Philip Galle, 1569, via Royal Library of Belgium

 

Because so many of the written sources present the scattered testimony of the Hanging Gardens, it is important to contextualize the environment in which they once existed. If the Gardens are to be dated to roughly 600 BCE, then they would be a product of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Emerging in the aftermath of the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, this Babylonian empire would be brief but bright, giving way to the Persian Achaemenids in 539 BCE (the empire from which Cyrus the Great, Xerxes, and Darius would all emerge).

 

From 626 to 539 BCE, Babylon was the center of a great empire once more, as it had been under Hammurabi’s Old Babylonian Empire. It was a city steeped in history and the past and former glories were treated with a respect that sometimes bordered on reverence. Tradition became important, which is why the Akkadian language was retained in the empire as the language of power (i.e. of administration and culture). This was despite Aramaic being the more common tongue used in day-to-day life. Archaeological and other source material seems to suggest a high degree of cultural continuity between the Babylonian empires, including in terms of religion.

 

Marduk, the chief creator god in Mesopotamian religion, remained the most prominent deity and the patron deity of the city of Babylon itself. The wealth of clay tablets that have been recovered by archaeologists also shows the continuing importance of local assemblies (puhru) which dispensed justice throughout the vast empire.

 

Empire Builder: Nebuchadnezzar II and Babylon

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The Three Jews Brought Before Nebuchadnezzar, by Philips Galle, 1565, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

Nebuchadnezzar II was the second king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and according to several legends, he was the man responsible for building the Hanging Gardens. Coming to power in 605 BCE following the death of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar would reign for 43 years, an extraordinarily long reign in the ancient world. His reign is famous, in particular, for two themes: building and conquest. He was a warrior king, and he was perhaps named after Nebuchadnezzar I (ca. 1125-1104 BCE), another ruler of that ilk. Infamously, Nebuchadnezzar was responsible for the sack of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the Jewish people in Babylon in the aftermath.

 

The Book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible paints the portrait of a cruel leader but also of an instrument of divine punishment. His representation in religious scripture has provided inspiration to artists throughout the centuries that followed. Along with Jerusalem, the Phoenician city of Tyre also fell to Nebuchadnezzar as part of a series of dazzling conquests in the Levant.

 

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Clay tablet presenting a historical chronicle of Nebuchadnezzar II’s campaign against Jerusalem in 597 BCE, via British Museum

 

As well as an instrument of divine wrath, Nebuchadnezzar II is also remembered as a great builder king. As would be the case for rulers time and again throughout the ancient world, investing in the material fabric of cities would provide invaluable legitimacy, either as a display of beneficence or of reverence for the past and tradition. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, most of his attention was focused on the imperial capital, Babylon (although other cities did benefit, too).

 

The modern image that many have of the city, of the rich blue glazed bricks that adorned monumental edifices in the city such as on the Ishtar Gate, belong to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, funded by his conquests. Numerous temples were restored throughout the city, including the Esagila, the principle temple of Marduk, and the Etemenanki, a ziggurat dedicated to the same god. For some, the towering edifice of the Etemenanki has been equated with the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel.  Whether or not Nebuchadnezzar II was responsible for the Hanging Gardens themselves remains open to debate thanks in part to the conflicting accounts preserved in the Classical sources…

 

Created as a Token of Love: Nebuchadnezzar and Amytis

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Nebuchadnezzar Ordering the Construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to Please his Consort Amyitis, by René-Antoine Houasse, 1676, via Palace of Versailles

 

We noted above that the legend of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was very much a product of Classical literary sources. Material evidence continues to elude archaeologists. Of these scattered textual references, only one specifically identifies the Hanging Gardens as the work of Nebuchadnezzar II, despite his reputation as a great builder. This is the account presented by Berossus that is preserved by Josephus (and, coincidentally, is the oldest source known). According to the priest of Marduk, Nebuchadnezzar’s grand project was not an act of megalomania nor of reverence for the past. Rather, it was a gesture of love.

 

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Detail of the south façade of the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 6th century BCE with details of palm trees, via Pergamonmuseum, Berlin

 

The only reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s wife is that which is recorded by Berossus. He names her as Amytis, the daughter of Astyages, the King of the Medes. The marriage, which was orchestrated by Nabopolassar, between Nebuchadnezzar and the princess was a way of solidifying an alliance between the two peoples. The Medes controlled territory in the northwest of modern Iran. Reputedly, after arriving in Babylon, Amytis fell homesick for the greenery and mountainous terrain of her homeland. To help his queen acclimatize, Berossus describes how Nebuchadnezzar ordered the construction of the Hanging Gardens. In their height and verdant greenery, they were meant to recall Amytis’ homeland.

 

Oases: Gardens in Ancient Mesopotamia

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The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, by Valentin Foulquier, 1840-1878, via British Museum

 

Whether or not the Hanging Gardens existed, or were built for Amytis to replicate her homeland, it is clear from a variety of evidence that vast green spaces were highly prized in the civilizations that called Mesopotamia home. It is widely held that the modern word ‘Paradise’ stems from the languages in this region, whereby a pairi-daeza in Eastern Old Iranian (literally a walled enclosure — pairi — and to make or build — from diz), came to be associated with the vast walled gardens constructed across the territory.

 

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Relief of the Banquet of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh N. Palace, 645-635 BCE, via British Museum

 

In our modern world, we may lose sight of the sheer logistical capacities involved in the movement of natural materials, such as plants and trees. Throughout history, however, these resources have been recognized as precious. The importation of trees and other shrubs into new territories and into display settings such as gardens could be used to symbolize the strength and reach of an empire, much as it could and often did in ancient Rome. There, palm trees featured on the reverse of coins to symbolize the Flavian conquest of Judaea.

 

As technological advancements, such as irrigation, facilitated the creation of these gardens, it seems likely that exotic vegetation from the far corners of the empires would have been brought to impress upon visitors the strength of the kings. This was certainly the case in the Gardens of Ashurbanipal, the Neo-Assyrian King. The use of these gardens as extravagant showcases of imperial reach also lends itself well to Berossus’ description of Amytis’ homesickness.

 

Controversy: The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh?

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A hexagonal clay prism recording the campaigns of Sennacherib, known as the ‘Annals of Sennacherib’ or the ‘Sennacherib Prism’, 691 BCE, British Museum

 

Given the absence of archaeological evidence for the existence of the wondrous Hanging Gardens at Babylon, could it be that this lush oasis has actually been wrongly attributed? This is the argument of some scholars, who suggest that the gardens that were featured on the list of wonders were actually those built by the Assyrian King Sennacherib (reigned 704-681, almost a century prior to Nebuchadnezzar II). The son of Sargon II, Sennacherib — like Nebuchadnezzar — is infamous for the details of his life, reign, and campaigns as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, although he spared Jerusalem.

 

Notably, Sennacherib was also responsible for destroying Babylon in 689 BCE. It was from this ruin that Nebuchadnezzar would look to restore his imperial capital in the decades that followed. The accounts of Sennacherib’s campaigns in the Levant, including the sack of Babylon, are recorded on the Prism of Sennacherib.

 

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The Defeat of Sennacherib, by Pieter Claesz Soutman and Peter Paul Rubens, 1618-1620, via National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

 

Again, like Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib was a prolific builder king. After transferring the capital of the Assyrian Empire to the city of Nineveh (on the outskirts of modern Mosul in northern Iraq), he set about ensuring the city was a suitable residence for the King. His ambitious building project included an expansive palace (the Southwest Palace, which he called his ‘Palace without Rival’). Fantastic reliefs were recovered from this palace, showcasing the beauty and narrative punch of Assyrian art. Sennacherib had also ordered the construction of vast gardens adjacent to this palace at Nineveh.

 

Given that only Berrosus (via Josephus) presents the gardens as a work of Nebuchadnezzar, there is a compelling case to be made for these being the actual gardens that were a wonder of the ancient world. Certainly, the archaeological evidence of a vast system of aqueducts, for which inscriptions attribute the agency of Sennacherib’s builders, have been suggested as the mass-irrigation network — including water-raising screws — which fed a Hanging Gardens.

 

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The Fall of Babylon, by John Martin, 1831, via British Museum

 

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon remain one of the most captivating mysteries of the ancient world. Their location, their patron, their purpose, and their fate remain ultimately unknowable.

 

The distinctly Hellenistic lens upon which we rely for our accounts of this lost wonder, coupled with the absence of archaeological evidence, ensures that the secrets of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — the second oldest of all 7 wonders of the traditional ancient world — remain tantalizingly just out of reach.



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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK based contributing writer with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explored the representation and status of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the past with as many people as possible. Away from his research, Kieren is also interested in arts, literature, and travel.