The ancient city of Babylon stood on the east bank of the Euphrates River about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of modern Baghdad. Philo of Byzantium, writing in the third century b.c., listed so-called Hanging Gardens among the seven wonders of the world. Tradition has it that the gardens were built by King Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled ca. 605–561 b.c.) for his wife Amytis, because she missed the mountainous landscape of her native Media. They may have been commissioned by the half-legendary Queen Sammu-ramut (known as Semiramis) some 200 years earlier. Contemporary Babylonian clay tablets intriguingly ignore them amid lucid descriptions of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and the city and defenses. Neither the Babylonian priest Berossus nor Philo and other Greek writers—the geographer Strabo and the historian Diodorus Siculus—who centuries later described the gardens ever saw them, and no certain traces survive. Some historians suggest they were merely romantic constructs upon accounts of Mesopotamia carried to Greece after the Macedonian conquest in 330 b.c.
The German archeologist Robert Koldewey believed he had found the substructure of Nebuchadnezzar’s gardens around 1899 when he uncovered several unusual vaulted foundation chambers, atypically built of stone, and a well in the northeast corner of the palace. From more recent excavations concentrated on the southern palace, archeologists surmise that they were in another building, hundreds of meters from the river. Because Strabo’s description had placed them close to the Euphrates, other scholars disagreed. There is another possibility.
More recently, the suggestion has been made that the classical writers were confused, and that the gardens were not in Babylon at all, but in the Assyrian city of Sennacherib, Nineveh, which stood on the Tigris 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the north. Nineveh was about 1,800 acres (700 hectares) in area, enclosed by 10 miles (16 kilometers) of 50-foot-high (15-meter) walls. Within and outside its defenses, Sennacherib created lush parks and gardens, full of exotic plants and watered from a complex, system of aqueducts and canals. They are described on a clay prism dating from about 690 b.c. So is the way in which the huge volume of water needed for irrigation was raised to the highest terrace to flow to lower levels through sloping channels. The king had great brass archimedean screws cast (four centuries before Archimedes!) to lift the water from the ample supply. His description matches those of the later writers. For example, Diodorus Siculus portrays a garden (supposedly in Babylon), whose approach “sloped like a hillside” and whose structure rose “tier on tier,” adding that “water machines [raised] the water in great abundance from the river, although no one outside could see it.” Whether the Hanging Gardens existed or not, or whether they were in Babylon or Nineveh, the descriptions were evocative.