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The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The ancient Greeks were the ones who first came up with the concept of the Seven Wonders of the World.  These Wonders translated from the Greek word θεάματα, meaning sights.  To call them Wonders sounds more impressive than calling them sights.  (Sometimes something is actually gained in translation.)  Since it was a Greek list, it’s no wonder that everything on it is either in Greece proper or somewhere in the Greek world at the time.  Since the list dates from about the 3rd century BCE, that was a pretty big world; it included what’s now Egypt, Persia, and even part of Afghanistan.  Of the Seven Wonders, five have been recorded as destroyed by some kind of disaster, either natural or manmade.  The only one that still exists is the Great Pyramid of Giza, and even it has been worn down some by time.

That accounts for six Wonders.  There’s one more on the list that doesn’t currently exist, nor does it have a date of destruction: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  The Hanging Gardens were said to have been a massive structure, a wonder of engineering, filled with plants and trees and layers of foliage supported by pillars, and water running through to keep everything blooming.  They were said to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the 7th century BCE.  The historian Josephus claims that the Hanging Gardens were built for the queen, who came from the lush, hilly country of Media, so she would feel at home in the city of Babylon.

The thing is, although we know where the city of Babylon stood, and when it fell, we still don’t know just where the Hanging Gardens were.  Some accounts put them in the city of Babylon itself, but this theory is controversial, since there are no extant Babylonian texts that even mention the Hanging Gardens.  This would be like if you read up on everything written about New York City throughout its history and found not even a passing mention of Central Park.  Mentions of the gardens come from the Greek conquerors, who arrived nearly 300 years after the Hanging Gardens were supposed to have been built.  Even the Greek historian Herodotus, who describes Babylon in great detail in his Histories, doesn’t mention the gardens.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, weren’t in Babylon at all – but were instead located 300 miles to the north in Babylon’s greatest rival Nineveh.
Artist’s idea of what the Hanging Gardens might have looked like.
Some have suggested that the Hanging Gardens were built not in Babylon but somewhere else.  One theory holds that they were perhaps built near the Euphrates River, which makes sense, since that would give them access to the massive amount of water they needed to thrive.  Another theory suggests that they were actually built by the Assyrians, in the city of Nineveh.  The ancient descriptions of them do match contemporary descriptions of gardens there, of which the city and its king were very proud.  There was also a long series of canals and aqueducts that brought water to Nineveh, which would have made it possible to support such a project.  Also, the name Babylon translates as Gates of the Gods, and there were several ancient cities that went by this proud, yet common, name.  King Sennacherib of Nineveh named the gates of his city after gods, which suggested that he wanted it to be known as a “gate of the gods”.  Because of this, it’s possible that the ancients got Nineveh and Babylon confused, and the Hanging Gardens were, in historians’ minds, moved.

There is still no definitive proof that the Hanging Gardens ever existed.  If they weren’t actually the gardens in Nineveh, then they were either an elaborate myth, or they were constructed outside of Babylon, and archaeologists have yet to dig them up.  Since ancient Babylon is now Iraq, it’s unlikely anyone is going to be conducting any archaeological digs there in the near future.  Once the political situation in Iraq calms down, maybe someone will find something.  Until then, we’ll have to accept that the Hanging Gardens remain buried in controversy, if not under ancient dust, no matter how historians babbled on about them.


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