(ORDO NEWS) — The mention of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon conjures up the image of an oasis in the midst of a bustling city; a vibrant Eden with lush trees, shrubs and vineyards supported by beautiful columns and architecture. The gardens are believed to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II sometime in the 6th century BC.
Although it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, its actual existence is rather controversial, with three theories prevailing:
(1) that gardens were purely mythical and idealized in the imagination of writers and travelers;
(2) that they did exist, but were destroyed in the first century AD; and
(3) that the “hanging gardens of Babylon” actually refer to the garden built at Nineveh by the Assyrian king Sennacherib.
Like many other wonders of antiquity, our knowledge of the Hanging Gardens has come down to us in written form, and should be taken with a grain of salt afterwards.
Diodorus Siculus wrote that the gardens were square, tiered, and built with brick walls 22 feet thick. He mentions that the terraces themselves resembled a theatre, leaning upwards to a height of 20 meters.
Strabo writes that the gardens were located along the Euphrates River, which flows through Babylon, and used sophisticated irrigation to draw water from the river to water the gardens.
It is likely that any classical writer on the Hanging Gardens must have referred to earlier writings from the 5th and 4th centuries. Unfortunately, the earliest surviving information about the gardens has come down to us in the form of quotes from the Babylonian priest Berossus around 290 BC.
However, these authors give us an idea of what these gardens might have looked like and where they might have been located. Such gardens would have required a lot of resources to create and maintain, so it is likely that they were located in or near Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace, if they existed at all.
Extensive excavations of Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace have unearthed gates, vaults, double walls, tablets, large drains, and possibly a reservoir. However, nothing has been found in archaeological excavations or in written sources that would confirm the Greek description of the gardens of Babylon.
Since the written sources consist of an exhaustive list of Nebuchadnezzar’s accomplishments during his reign, if he had built gardens they would have been listed, but they were not.
What to do with this lack of evidence? Did Greek authors simply fall prey to rumors without even seeing gardens that never existed? Or did they simply exist, perhaps in another time and place?
The fact that gardens are discussed in a wide variety of Greek sources spanning hundreds of years, and the fact that gardens like the legendary Babylonian were quite common and not out of the question, it is difficult to completely deny the existence of gardens.
One possibility is that the gardens were not actually in Babylon, but 350 miles to the north, in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. A recent scholarly work by Stephanie Dalli states that evidence has been found in the Nineveh texts of King Sennacherib describing “an unsurpassed palace” and “a miracle for all nations.”
Extensive systems of aqueducts have been found at Nineveh, as well as water-lifting screws, which no doubt supplied the irrigation needs of such outstanding gardens.
The confusion may be simple: ancient geographers and authors attributed the name “Babylon” to several places, or simply confused the Babylonian and Assyrian kingdoms.
Since all the Greek and Latin texts we have on Hanging Gardens refer to each other using the same basic sources, an error in one of them is unsurprisingly carried over to all the others.
Yet, whether real or not, the very idea of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was prevalent in the minds of the Greeks and Latins. The literary attention that lingered on the subject must have captured the imagination of the Hellenistic Greeks and Romans of the empire, as it still does today.
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