Did the Hanging Gardens of Babylon really exist?

Rick Donnan

Reader Inquiries columnist Rick Donnan.

There have always been doubts as to whether the Hanging Gardens actually existed, as explained in my column of September 2006. New evidence shows that it was real, but the story had the wrong place and the wrong king.

The following is  an extract of what I wrote about the Hanging Gardens (that is, elevated gardens)  in my column of September 2006.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was listed in most of the major lists of the Seven Wonders of the (ancient) World.

There have been some doubts as to whether they actually existed, although archaeological digs done in the early 1900s [found some large stone slabs, which they thought may have been the foundations for the gardens]. The uncertainties arose because there is no mention of them in any of the many known Babylonian writings or carvings of the time. They are only described in a number of Greek texts, and none of these writers actually saw them. The reports were all second-hand, based upon stories told by returning travellers and soldiers [and written over 300 years later, by writers known to be not much concerned about ‘truth’].

A typical description was that given by Diodorus Siculus (60 AD):

The approach to the Garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier… On all this, the earth had been piled… and was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size and other charm, gave pleasure to the beholder… The water machines [raised] the water in great abundance from the river, although no one outside could see it…

Of the stories of the Hanging Gardens, the most commonly accepted version is that they were built by Nebuchadnezzar II [he is actually named in only one account—the others all refer to ‘an Assyrian king].

The story is that the gardens were built for Nebuchadnezzar’s queen, Amytis. She was the daughter of the king of the Medes, married to Nebuchadnezzar to create an alliance between the nations. The land she came from was green, rugged and mountainous in contrast to the flat, sun-baked landscape around Babylon. The king decided to make her feel more at home by building a small mountain with rooftop gardens.

Here are other descriptions from Greek writers:

The Hanging Garden has plants cultivated above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in an upper terrace rather than in the earth. The whole mass is supported on stone columns… Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow down sloping channels… These waters irrigate the whole garden saturating the roots of plants and keeping the whole area moist.

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.

Was this hydroponics?
From the basic definition of hydroponics as ‘soilless culture’, the Hanging Gardens obviously couldn’t be considered to be strictly hydroponics as they were soil-based. However, they did use the technique of having soil as a growing medium in containers separated from the general soil. They also used relatively sophisticated irrigation techniques. Both of these indicate to me that this is an admirable predecessor of hydroponics, and worth its place in the history of hydroponics.

(end of Sept 06 quote)

The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh
Dr Stephanie Dalley, an archaeologist from Oxford University, has come up with a theory backed by strong physical evidence that the Greek writers had the story right, but the details wrong. She claims that the Hanging Gardens did exist, but that they were actually built by King Sennacherib at Nineveh, near the modern-day Iraqi city of Mosul.

Sennacherib (704–681 BC) succeeded his father Sargon II on the throne of Assyria.

Sennacherib (705–681 BC) succeeded his father Sargon II on the throne of Assyria.

Sennacherib was king of a large Assyrian empire with his capital at the ancient city of Nineveh, more than 400 km (250 miles) north of Babylon. He reigned between 705 and 681 BC, which was about 100 years earlier than Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon.

He had many conquests and an amazing building program, including the rebuilding and  beautification of Nineveh as well as major canal and irrigation works. He built an enormous “palace without rival”, using an estimated 160 million bricks. The result was that Nineveh was probably the largest and most advanced city in the world at that time.

Sennacherib was assassinated by two unnamed sons in 681 BC. The large Assyrian empire was often at war and eventually a combined force of its conquered peoples rebelled and captured Nineveh in 612 BC. The city was sacked, most of its inhabitants massacred, and the city razed to the ground and covered in dirt.

I feel that Sennacherib embodies the theme of Shelly’s famous poem Ozymandias.

… Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, …
And on the pedestal these words appear—
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Archaeological discoveries
The first archaeological digs at Nineveh started in the 1840s (2450 years after its destruction) and first uncovered much of the remnants of the 12 km (7 mile) long fortified city inner wall, followed by the palace of Sennacherib’s father, Sargon II.

In 1849, the palace of Sennacherib was found by British adventurer Sir Austen Layard and most of the artefacts he uncovered were sent to the British Museum. Many artefacts also went to other major museums including the Louvre. These artefacts included cuneiform inscribed prisms from the palace foundations (it was common practice for records of a king’s achievements to be included in the foundations so they would remain if the building fell down). There were also many alabaster bas-relief carvings, which had adorned the palace walls.

One of these prisms contained detailed references to a wonderful garden, including:

Sennacherib, King of Assyria, King of the World …

… I raised the height of the surroundings of the palace, to be a Wonder for all Peoples… A high garden imitating the Amanus mountains I laid out next to it, with all kinds of aromatic plants, orchard fruit trees, trees that enrich not only mountain country but also Chaldea [Babylonia], as well as trees that bear wool [cotton], planted within it …

I, Sennacherib, leader of all princes, knowledgeable in all kinds of work, took much advice and deep thought over doing that kind of work … I created clay moulds as if by divine intelligence for cylinders and screws…In order to draw up water all day long, I had ropes, bronze wires and bronze chains made. And instead of a shaduf I set up the cylinders and screws of copper over cisterns.

In the British museum there is a bas-relief carved panel and a drawing of a panel (lost in the 1840s) showing an elevated garden, which was taken from Nineveh. The details show terraces and large trees above arches. They also show water channels. This evidence was ignored until recently, because the hanging gardens were known (!) to be in Babylon, not Nineveh.

Jerwan aqueduct
There were a number of canals supplying water to Nineveh, but by far the most impressive was the 95 km (60 mile) canal built by Sennacherib. This took water from Khinis, on the edge of the Amanus Mountains to Nineveh. It had a fall of only one metre per kilometre, uniform over its entire circuitous length. Part-way along its route it needed to cross another river at Jerwan, so he had an aqueduct built. It consisted of over two million large dressed limestone blocks, average size about a 50 cm (20 inches) cube and, hence, weighing over 300 kg (700lb) each.

Much of the aqueduct remains in place today. There are many inscribed blocks obviously placed within the structure so that they would only be found once it was ruined. Their inscription reads:

Belonging to Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria.

Inscriptions on the outside blocks add:

I caused a canal to be dug to the meadows of Nineveh. Over ravines I spanned a bridge of stone blocks. Those waters I caused to flow over upon it.

Part of the arches to let the river water under the aqueduct still survive. Interestingly, their shape is the same as those on the bas-relief of the Hanging Gardens.

This was an engineering masterpiece for any age, let alone 2600 years ago and 500 years before the Romans built their aqueducts. The planning and building of the canal and aqueduct clearly shows that Sennacherib and his engineers had the skills needed to build hanging (elevated) gardens. The canal would also have provided the extra water needed to irrigate the gardens.

Other historical records
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian  (c. 484–425 BC), who has been called ‘The Father of History’, but also ‘The Father of Lies’. He was the first to collect information systematically, and put this into an organised dramatised story.

Herodotus claimed to have visited Babylon around 450 BC, however, his writings make no mention of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, resulting in further attacks on his credibility. Of course, this omission could also have been because they weren’t actually there.

The water screws described by Sennacherib are a form of Archimedes Screw, however, Archimedes lived centuries later. This does not appear to be a problem because contemporary accounts from the time of Archimedes tell that the screw was already known outside of Greece.

Diodorus Siculus  quotes that the garden looked like an amphitheatre and gave its size:

The park extended four plethra (= 123 m = 400 ft) on each side, and since the approach to the garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier, the appearance of the whole resembled that of a theatre.

An important aspect of the legend concerns Nebuchadnezzar’s love for his wife Amytis, but there is no mention of her anywhere in his records. However, there is a romantic quote in Sennacherib’s inscriptions:

And for Tashmetu-sharrat the palace woman, my beloved wife, whose features the Mistress of the Gods has made perfect above all other women, I had a palace of loveliness, delight and joy built …

[The palace was built before the gardens]

Nineveh—Sennacherib palace archealogy site, near the present-day city of Mosul, Iraq.

Nineveh—Sennacherib palace archealogy site, near the present-day city of Mosul, Iraq.

Modern archaeology
To prove whether there were hanging gardens at Nineveh, surely it is only a matter of doing more digging.

Unfortunately, Nineveh is on the edge of the modern city of Mosul, which is the most dangerous place in Iraq. Sectarian violence results in an average of four terrorist attacks per day and 100 deaths per month. It is especially dangerous for Westerners. Some archaeological work is being done by the Iraqis, but concentrates on the critical task of protecting the remnants of the palaces.

Apart from the original destruction, a mixture of weather damage, looting and urban encroachment has put Nineveh on the Global Heritage Fund’s list of 12 sites most “on the verge” of irreparable destruction and loss.

Physically searching for the Hanging Gardens will have to wait for peace at Nineveh, if that ever comes.

Dr Dalley has produced a most compelling case that the Hanging Gardens actually existed, but they were built by Sennacherib at Nineveh, rather than by Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon.

Both these kings were proud and arrogant and had made countless cuneiform tablets and carvings to boast of their conquests and building works. The Babylonian kings concentrated on proclaiming their great building works rather than conquests, and there are many complete tablets written for Nebuchadnezzar. It seems extremely unlikely that he would have neglected to include his Hanging Gardens if he had built something so unusual and magnificent that it would be labelled a ‘wonder of the world’.

On the other hand, Sennacherib and his engineers had the skills to build the gardens and he left written tablets and carvings to boast of his achievement.

‘History’ in those ancient times was largely passed down in spoken form and liberally mixed with myths and legends. There would have been more than 10 generations between the destruction of Nineveh and the first written record of the Hanging Gardens. This gave plenty of opportunity for the story to change, especially as the city of Nineveh no longer existed.


Dalley (2013)—‘The mystery of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’, Oxford University Press.

Jacobsen & Lloyd (1935)—‘Sennacherib’s aqueduct at Jerwan’, University of Chicago Press.

PH&  May 2014 / Issue 143