the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Some stories 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 ancient city of Babylon, under King
Nebuchadnezzar II, must have been a wonder to the traveller's eyes. "In
addition to its size," wrote Herodotus, a historian in 450 BC,
"Babylon surpasses in splendour 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 a four-horse chariot to turn. The inner walls were "not so thick
as the first, but hardly less strong." Inside the 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.
While archaeological examination has
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 that visited it.
Interestingly enough, though, 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
Accounts indicate that the garden was
built by King Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled the city for 43 years starting in
605 BC (There is a less-reliable, 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 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 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 recreate her homeland by
building an artificial mountain with rooftop gardens.
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 mean 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 touchs 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 probably done by means of a "chain pump."
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 ones back down to be
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
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 ruin the foundation 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. The bricks were then joined
with bitumen, a slimy substance, which acted as a mortar. These 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.
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 it was 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. But did
it actually exist? After all, Herodotus never mentions it.
This was one of the questions that
occurred to German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1899. For
centuries before that the ancient city of Babel was nothing but a mound of
muddy debris. 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 it seem likely that
Koldewey 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
The foundations that Koldewey discovered
measured some 100 by 150 feet. Smaller than the measurements described by
ancient historians, but still impressive.
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 be 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/or storage purposes, not as a pleasure garden.
Wherever the location 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