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A man writes standing near the massive walls of Nineveh.

A man stands near the massive walls of Nineveh.

Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic

Elizabeth Snodgrass

National Geographic

Published May 31, 2013

The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon are exactly that: legendary. And they may not have been located in Babylon.

The gardens, famous as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, were, according to Stephanie Dalley, an Oxford University Assyriologist, located some 340 miles north of ancient Babylon in Nineveh, on the Tigris River by Mosul in modern Iraq.

Dalley, whose book The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon will be published later this summer, writes that earlier sources were translated incorrectly, leading to the confusion. The misinterpretation also explains why years of excavations never yielded any credible evidence of the fabled gardens in Babylon, the capital city of Babylonia on the Euphrates River. Historians have questioned their existence for some time.

 

An illustration of the hanging gardens of Babylon.
An illustration of the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of many renderings of the popular ancient site.

Illustration from Corbis

 

"It must be admitted at the outset that the hanging gardens of Babylon ... have never been conclusively identified, nor, indeed, has their existence been proved," wrote Irving Finkel, the British Museum's curator of cuneiform in 1988.

Dalley credits the hanging gardens to Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.), the Assyrian king who made Nineveh his capital and created a massive system of waterworks, including an aqueduct that carried water to the city from hills 40 miles away. Sennacherib also left a number of inscriptions trumpeting his irrigation and garden-building prowess. "The inscriptions of Sennacherib in particular refer proudly to his great network of canals, and often describe them in the context of luxurious gardens and parks," says Jason Ur, an anthropological archeologist at Harvard University.

On the other hand, Nebuchadrezzar—the ruler traditionally associated with Babylon's hanging gardens—never mentions gardens, despite many extant inscriptions boasting of his accomplishments in Babylon.

Gardens May Remain Buried

Not all Mesopotamian academics believe in the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, however, contending that a lack of evidence so far doesn't necessarily mean the gardens weren't in Babylon.

McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, says that there is a location in Babylon that would have been suitable for raised gardens—the Southern Citadel, "a massive group of walls that are right on the river. This is the only place that would have made it easy to gain access to the water." The royal family's living quarters were convenient to any gardens there, he says, and "the technology, even then, would have allowed the raising of the water in stages."

 

An Iraqi family that is living atop the remnants of Nineveh.
Archeologists and the Iraqi government are trying to remove thousands of people living in historical sites, like this family living atop the remnants of Nineveh, in an attempt to prevent irreparable destruction.

Photograph by Adam Ferguson, New York Times/Redux

 

For the time being, Dalley says, it's unlikely that anyone will excavate at Nineveh, or even that excavation would end the debate. Its location, next to Mosul, the site of continuing violence between the Sunni minority and the Shiite-led government of Iraq, means it is too unsafe for archaeological work. Because the site has been subject to pillaging over the years and was used as a military base by Saddam Hussein's army, excavators may never find traces of a hanging garden.

7 comments
Ramon Michael
Ramon Michael

It's time that the name of this, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world should be changed. Dr. Dalley has done a great job showing where the Hanging Garden should be, in Nineveh, and by which Assyrian king it was built, Sennacherib. I'm reading the professor's book now and it's extremely interesting to me. The Hanging Garden sounds like it truly deserves to be in the list of wonders of the world. The innovation that went into achieving it is amazing for the time. The only thing left is for excavations to be done in Nineveh to find its ruins, when it's safe to do so.  Let's give credit where credit is due when it comes to our ancient ancestors.

Robin Knauth
Robin Knauth

I am convinced that the reason no one has found any archaeological evidence for the "Hanging Gardens" of Babylon is that everyone is assuming that "Hanging Gardens" means a *raised* garden, whereas they are more likely to have been subterranean - just as noted here for Nineveh - connected with the canal system. Like that in Austin TX, a canal system below the level of the normal city traffic is naturally lush, quiet, protected, shady, cool. Canal-fed subterranean gardens would explain so much, and could easily fit the description of "hanging" in the ancient texts, as well as better fitting their legendary purpose of providing comfort for someone used to living "in the mountains" (meaning in the lush and protected *valleys* of a mountainous area).  I heard a wonderful talk to this effect a few years back at a convention of the Archaeological Institute of America by a woman scholar titled "The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh" - I think she had published an article as well.  Why shouldn't it be both?

Joseph Kristian Marikit
Joseph Kristian Marikit

Well, what if it's meant not to be found for now? I would surely like to see it in the future but if finding it would mean destroying it, I would rather have it hidden.

Ken Albertsen
Ken Albertsen

Make your own 'hanging garden,' I do. Ok, I should add mini- to my hanging gardens, but it you have patience, a green thumb and an innovative spirit, there are all sorts of places where you can place plants on high.... nooks, tree branches, old shoes, rock walls, ......you name it.

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