indicate the Hanging Gardens towered hundreds of feet into the
air, but archaeological explorations indicate a more modest, but
still impressive, height. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 1998)
The city of Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar II,
must have been a wonder to the ancient traveler's eyes. "In addition
to its size," wrote Herodotus, a Greek historian in 450 BC, "Babylon
surpasses in splendor any city in the known world."
Herodotus claimed the outer walls were 56 miles
in length, 80 feet thick and 320 feet high. Wide enough, he said,
to allow two four-horse chariots to pass each other. The city
also had inner walls which were "not so thick as the first, but
hardly less strong." Inside these double walls were fortresses
and temples containing immense statues of solid gold. Rising above
the city was the famous Tower of Babel, a temple to the god Marduk,
that seemed to reach to the heavens.
City State of Babylon (Modern Iraq)
Around 600 BC
Earthquake, 2nd Century BC
Height probably 80 ft. (24m)
of: Mud brick waterproofed with lead.
Some archeologists suggest that the actual location was
not in Babylon, but 350 miles to the north in the city of
While archaeological excavations have disputed some
of Herodotus's claims (the outer walls seem to be only 10 miles
long and not nearly as high) his narrative does give us a sense
of how awesome the features of the city appeared to those ancients
that visited it. Strangely, however, one of the city's most spectacular
sites is not even mentioned by Herodotus: The Hanging Gardens
of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
for A Homesick Wife
Accounts indicate that the garden was built by King
Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled the city for 43 years starting in 605
BC (There is an alternative story that the gardens were built
by the Assyrian Queen Semiramis during her five year reign starting
in 810 BC). This was the height of the city's power and influence
and King Nebuchadnezzar is known to have constructed an astonishing
array of temples, streets, palaces and walls.
According to accounts, the gardens were built to
cheer up Nebuchadnezzar's homesick wife, Amyitis. Amyitis, daughter
of the king of the Medes, was married to Nebuchadnezzar to create
an alliance between the two nations. The land she came from, though,
was green, rugged and mountainous, and she found the flat, sun-baked
terrain of Mesopotamia depressing. The king decided to relieve
her depression by recreating her homeland through the building
of an artificial mountain with rooftop gardens.
Hanging Gardens were said to have been built to please King
Nebuchadnezzar's wife, Amyitis. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2010)
The Hanging Gardens probably did not really "hang"
in the sense of being suspended from cables or ropes. The name
comes from an inexact translation of the Greek word kremastos,
or the Latin word pensilis, which means not just "hanging",
but "overhanging" as in the case of a terrace or balcony.
The Greek geographer Strabo, who described the gardens
in first century BC, wrote, "It consists of vaulted terraces raised
one above another, and resting upon cube-shaped pillars. These
are hollow and filled with earth to allow trees of the largest
size to be planted. The pillars, the vaults, and terraces are
constructed of baked brick and asphalt."
"The ascent to the highest story is by stairs, and
at their side are water engines, by means of which persons, appointed
expressly for the purpose, are continually employed in raising
water from the Euphrates into the garden."
Strabo touches on what, to the ancients, was probably
the most amazing part of the garden. Babylon rarely received rain
and for the garden to survive, it would have had to been irrigated
by using water from the nearby Euphrates River. That meant lifting
the water far into the air so it could flow down through the terraces,
watering the plants at each level. This was an immense task given
the lack of modern engines and pressure pumps in the fifth century
B.C.. One of the solutions the designers of the garden may have
used to move the water, however, was a "chain pump."
A Gift Fit for A Queen: The Hanging Gardens
A chain pump is two large wheels, one above the
other, connected by a chain. On the chain are hung buckets. Below
the bottom wheel is a pool with the water source. As the wheel
is turned, the buckets dip into the pool and pick up water. The
chain then lifts them to the upper wheel, where the buckets are
tipped and dumped into an upper pool. The chain then carries the
empty buckets back down to be refilled.
The pool at the top of the gardens could then be
released by gates into channels which acted as artificial streams
to water the gardens. The pump wheel below was attached to a shaft
and a handle. By turning the handle, slaves provided the power
to run the contraption.
An alternate method of getting the water to the
top of the gardens might have been a screw pump. This device looks
like a trough with one end in the lower pool from which the water
is taken with the other end overhanging an upper pool to which
the water is being lifted. Fitting tightly into the trough is
a long screw. As the screw is turned, water is caught between
the blades of the screw and forced upwards. When it reaches the
top, it falls into the upper pool.
Turning the screw can be done by a hand crank. A
different design of screw pump mounts the screw inside a tube,
which takes the place of the trough. In this case the tube and
screw turn together to carry the water upward.
Screw pumps are very efficient ways of moving water
and a number of engineers have speculated that they were used
in the Hanging Gardens. Strabo even makes a reference in his narrative
of the garden that might be taken as a description of such a pump.
One problem with this theory, however, is that there seems to
be little evidence that the screw pump was around before the Greek
engineer Archimedes of Syracuse supposedly invented it around
250 B.C., more than 300 years later.
Screw pump vs. chain pump. Copyright Lee
Construction of the garden wasn't only complicated
by getting the water up to the top, but also by having to avoid
having the liquid ruining the foundations once it was released.
Since stone was difficult to get on the Mesopotamian plain, most
of the architecture in Babel utilized brick. The bricks were composed
of clay mixed with chopped straw and baked in the sun. These were
then joined with bitumen, a slimy substance, which acted as a
mortar. Unfortunately, because of the materials they were made
of, the bricks quickly dissolved when soaked with water. For most
buildings in Babel this wasn't a problem because rain was so rare.
However, the gardens were continually exposed to irrigation and
the foundation had to be protected.
Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, stated that
the platforms on which the garden stood consisted of huge slabs
of stone (otherwise unheard of in Babel), covered with layers
of reed, asphalt and tiles. Over this was put "a covering with
sheets of lead, that the wet which drenched through the earth
might not rot the foundation. Upon all these was laid earth of
a convenient depth, sufficient for the growth of the greatest
trees. When the soil was laid even and smooth, it was planted
with all sorts of trees, which both for greatness and beauty might
delight the spectators."
How big were the gardens? Diodorus tells us they
were about 400 feet wide by 400 feet long and more than 80 feet
high. Other accounts indicate the height was equal to the outer
city walls, walls that Herodotus said were 320 feet high. In any
case the gardens were an amazing sight: A green, leafy, artificial
mountain rising off the plain.
the Hanging Gardens Actually in Nineveh?
But did they actually exist? Some historians argue
that the gardens were only a fictional creation because they do
not appear in a list of Babylonian monuments composed during that
period. It is also a possibility they were mixed up with another
set of gardens built by King Sennacherib in the city of Nineveh
around 700 B.C..
interpretation of the gardens by the 16th century Dutch
artist Martin Heemskerck.
Stephanie Dalley, an Oxford University Assyriologist,
thinks that earlier sources were translated incorrectly putting
the gardens about 350 miles south of their actual location at
Nineveh. King Sennacherib left a number of records describing
a luxurious set of gardens he'd built there in conjunction with
an extensive irrigation system. In contrast Nebuchadrezzar makes
no mention of gardens in his list of accomplishments at Babylon.
Dalley also argues that the name "Babylon" which means "Gate of
the Gods" was a title that could be applied to several Mesopotamian
cities. Sennacherib apparently renamed his city gates after gods
suggesting that he wished Nineveh to be considered "a Babylon"
too, creating confusion.
Is it possible that Greek scholars who wrote the
accounts about the Babylon site several centuries later confused
these two different locations? If the gardens really were in Babylon,
can the remains be found to prove their existance?
These were probably some of the questions that
occurred to German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1899. For
centuries the ancient city of Babel had been nothing but a mound
of muddy debris never explored by scientists. Though unlike many
ancient locations, the city's position was well-known, nothing
visible remained of its architecture. Koldewey dug on the Babel
site for some fourteen years and unearthed many of its features
including the outer walls, inner walls, foundation of the Tower
of Babel, Nebuchadnezzar's palaces and the wide processional roadway
which passed through the heart of the city.
While excavating the Southern Citadel, Koldewey
discovered a basement with fourteen large rooms with stone arch
ceilings. Ancient records indicated that only two locations in
the city had made use of stone, the north wall of the Northern
Citadel, and the Hanging Gardens. The north wall of the Northern
Citadel had already been found and had, indeed, contained stone.
This made Koldewey think that he had found the cellar of the gardens.
He continued exploring the area and discovered many
of the features reported by Diodorus. Finally, a room was unearthed
with three large, strange holes in the floor. Koldewey concluded
this had been the location of the chain pumps that raised the
water to the garden's roof.
While Koldewey was convinced he'd found the gardens,
some modern archaeologists call his discovery into question, arguing
that this location is too far from the river to have been irrigated
with the amount of water that would have been required. Also,
tablets recently found at the site suggest that the location was
used for administrative and storage purposes, not as a pleasure
ruins of the city of Babylon in 1932.
If they did exist, what happened to the gardens?
There is a report that they were destroyed by an earthquake in
the second century B.C.. If so, the jumbled remains, mostly made
of mud-brick, probably slowly eroded away with the infrequent
Whatever the fate of the gardens were, we can only
wonder if Queen Amyitis was happy with her fantastic present,
or if she continued to pine for the green mountains of her distant