They are the stuff of myth, legend and romance, beloved by artists and writers, irresistible even to historians, who should know better than to trade in fancy. Still, the very name – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – conjures nights under the stars, threading through walled, terraced galleries of grapevine and fragrant, flowering trees.
Who wouldn’t want such a place to be real, if only in memory? Plus, the Hanging Gardens, like the Taj Mahal, have a terrific backstory, one centered in amour. It seems that Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (who ruled from 605 to 562 B.C. in what is now modern-day Iraq) loved his wife, Queen Amytis, so much that he built the fabled gardens so she wouldn’t be homesick for her mountainous native land (Persia or Medes, take your pick, but at any rate, modern Iran).
The idea of a luxuriant garden all wrapped up in sex proved too juicy for those championship tale-spinners, the Greeks, who passed the story on to the Romans and so it wound its way down through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance until our own time with nifty embellishments along the route. Some historians said it was the Assyrian Queen Semiramis – the inspiration for everything from a Rossini opera to a Degas painting to a Rhonda Fleming B-movie – who built Babylon’s famed walls and cultivated its gardens almost two centuries after Nebuchadnezzar.
Even Alexander the Great – who conquered the Persian Empire in 331 B.C., making the by-then somewhat seedy Babylon his capital – figures into the variations on the Hanging Gardens theme. Legend has it that he restored the gardens, much as he was planning to rebuild the equally touristy Ziggurat (the biblical Tower of Babel), as a way to amuse his wives, mistresses and the ladies of the Persian harem. (Oliver Stone’s underrated “Alexander” includes a scene in which Alexander and his lover Hephaestion, played by Colin Farrell and Jared Leto respectively, share a conversation while overlooking a garden and a ziggurat that only Hollywood CGI could imagine.)
It’s all credible – until you start examining the evidence. As noted in “Babylon: Myth and Reality” (The British Museum Press, 2008), edited by I. L. Finkel and M.J. Seymour, the Greek historian Herodotus’ scrupulous 5th century B.C. account of Babylon makes no mention of any gardens. Nebuchadnezzar, who put his stamp on all his building projects, left no written record of such gardens nor are there any archaeological traces. And while the name Queen Amytis appears in the work of the Roman historian Josephus – our main source on the romance behind the Hanging Gardens – virtually nothing is known about Nebuchadnezzar’s wives.
So it appears that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are myth – unless we are willing to consider that they weren’t in Babylon. In the 1990s, Stephanie M. Dalley of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute first suggested that the gardens were actually 300 miles to the north in archrival Nineveh, where they were created by the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib. Last year, Oxford University Press published her book “The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced.” There she based her conclusions on several key factors:
• In the ancient world, there were many Babylons, a name meaning “Gate of the Gods,” including Nineveh, the “New Babylon.”
• The Greek historians who were the primary sources for the story actually camped with Alexander the Great near Nineveh before the Battle of Gaugamela (Oct. 1, 331 B.C.), which sealed the fate of the Persian Empire.
• The geography of Nineveh could’ve supported a water supply for such gardens.
• There was a relief in Sennacherib’s palace that depicted such gardens.
• Sennacherib himself wrote about his adored wife: “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…”
So why all the confusion? Part of the problem is that some of the Greek histories – particularly those written about, for or at the time of Alexander – are lost to us. Then there is Berossus, a Babylonian priest writing in Greek about Nebuchadnezzar two centuries later. So the story of the Hanging Gardens is very much the story of hanging history.
One thing remains clear: The Hanging Gardens remain an ideal and perhaps in some cases a reality. The Mulia Bali, a luxury resort that opened on the Indonesian island in 2012, has a spectacular series of marble terraces graced by lotus-bearing caryatids, palm trees and pools that cascade to the teal waters of the Indian Ocean.
Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib would’ve been pleased.