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Looking for the Hanging Gardens

Private Collection, Paris
Georges Antoine Rochegrosse: The End of Babylon, circa 1890

Before the mid-nineteenth century, when the British explorer Austen Henry Layard unearthed the spectacular Assyrian palaces of Nineveh (modern Mosul), the ancient empires of Mesopotamia could be glimpsed only through the lens of classical and biblical writings. These were almost uniformly hostile and understandably so, for the Assyrians and Babylonians (occupying roughly northern and southern Iraq, respectively) had brought only grief to ancient Israel, culminating in Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. In this as in much else, the Old Testament is history written by the losers—probably by Judean refugees living in Babylon itself—and it shows in the portrayal of that city as a cesspit of idolatry and sin, and of King Nebuchadnezzar in particular as a despotic, cruel, and ultimately mad ruler.

As for the Greeks, they too had faced eastern invaders: Persians, who they reviled as oriental despots, epitomizing the arbitrary rule of kings and a servitude fundamentally corrupting of man’s character. The Babylonians and Assyrians were known to be no better, and stories of their cruelty and unmanly luxury were commonplace from Herodotus on.

The New Testament takes things further, transforming Babylon from a geographical particular into a place and state of mind, a general image for imperial corruption, idolatry, and decadence—and even a code name for Rome, the oppressor of the new religion of Christ:

I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman was drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of those who bore witness to Jesus.
(Revelation 17:3–6)

Our image of Babylon has never fully recovered from these early indictments, as we hear still today in Bob Marley’s lyrics reviling the generic Babylon as the paragon of exploitative, establishment power. In pre-Christian times, however, there was another myth that put Babylon at the center of everyone’s world and the language they spoke: the Tower of Babel. As Genesis has it, Babel was so called “because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world” and scattered peoples over the face of the earth. Josephus, writing in the first century AD, is more explicit:

The place where they built the tower is now called Babylon from the confusion of that primitive speech once intelligible to all, for the Hebrews call confusion “Babel.”1

The truth of course is the reverse: the city-name Babel (Babylonian bab-ili, “gateway of the gods”) came first. God’s foiling of its “tower that reaches to heaven”—now known to have been the city’s great ziggurat or stepped tower—and his linguistic divide-and-conquer of its builders followed after. But the facts have not really mattered: the Bible’s dubbing of polyglot confusion as “babel” has proved Babylon’s most potent myth.

The account in Genesis was almost certainly fashioned during the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews would have seen firsthand the city’s giant ziggurat being rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar. Its name, Etemenanki, “foundation platform of heaven and earth,” and huge scale (300 x 300 feet in plan and approximately the same height) certainly had all of the hubris to offend Yahweh. The temple of Babylon’s chief god, Marduk, on the topmost of its seven levels, “suspended between heaven and earth,” was clad in blue-glazed bricks and Herodotus reports that a sacred marriage rite took place there each year in which the great god (his chief priest?) lay with one of his priestesses. Babylonian texts describe two beds in the temple, so this may not be idle gossip.

Genesis does not explicitly refer to the tower’s destruction, though this certainly would have suited the Old Testament’s narrative. Josephus does add this detail and indeed by his time the tower was no more—destroyed not by any apocalypse but as punishment by the Persians for an attempted revolt. Alexander the Great—always keen to play the local hero—intended to rebuild it but got only as far as clearing away most of the old ruins; by the third century BC his successors had razed it to the ground. But the rebuilding never came and today one of the most monumental buildings of the ancient world (some fifty miles south of modern Baghdad) is marked by a void of brackish water.

The Neo-Babylonian empire was born of Assyria’s demise in the late seventh century BC.2 As rivals and neighbors these two peoples spoke dialects of the same language, worshiped versions of the same pantheon, and were in almost all other respects close cousins. But there was never any doubt that in cultural matters—especially the ancient scholarly-literary tradition going back to the Sumerians—Babylon was the source and mother lode of Mesopotamian civilization.3

Politics was another matter. For much of the previous three hundred years Assyria’s military machine had dominated the Near East, including their southern neighbor. Not unnaturally, Babylon was a restive and resentful vassal, and its attempts to break loose led in 689 BC to a brutal sacking of the city by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. So the temperature was very high when Babylon saw its chance to form an alliance with the Medes of western Iran and strike back, which it did between 615 and 612 BC. Torching the Assyrian palaces and shattering its empire, Babylon was quick to fill the vacuum and soon became the new superpower of the Near East.

By far the most important figure in this regime change and the cultural revival that followed was the second king of the dynasty, Nebuchadnezzar—or, as he was known to his subjects, Nabu-kudurri-usur, “(God) Nabu, protect my child!”—who ruled from 604 to 562 BC, more than half of the empire’s mere sixty-six years. It was to be Babylon’s short but splendid golden age, a last great indigenous hurrah before a succession of foreign powers absorbed it into even larger empires.

Nebuchadnezzar spent his early reign reasserting sovereignty over Babylon’s vassals, including the rebellious kingdom of Judah—a minor event to the king, but one that has haunted his reputation through the ages. Jerusalem was captured and a first wave of exiles deported in 597 BC. Despite the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings, a decade later Judah revolted again, with even more dire results. After an eighteen-month siege, in 587 BC the Babylonians sacked the city, bringing the Davidic royal line to an end, and—even more devastating—destroying Solomon’s temple.

Much more of Judean society was now deported to Babylon, swelling what has come to be known as the Babylonian Captivity. Painful as it was, this episode of exile and longing stimulated a profound soul-searching about the divine and worldly causes of the Jews’ plight, and a heightened sense of their identity generally, which bore fruit in the writing down of significant parts of their chronicle—the Hebrew Bible. It is no accident that this took place while the Jews were immersed in what was the most historically literate court of the ancient world.4

Having secured his throne, Nebuchadnezzar began a campaign of rebuilding and civic glorification that made Babylon the most spectacular city of its day. The city walls were extended and redoubled (including the famous Ishtar Gate, lined with colorful, glazed images of dragons, bulls, and lions, now in Berlin); the ziggurat and temples were refurbished; and, if the classical accounts are to be believed, the famous Hanging Gardens were built for one of Nebuchadnezzar’s wives.

Babylon was, then, full of architectural marvels and no less than three of them were included in early lists of the seven wonders of the world. (No other city boasted more than one.)5 Two of these are not quite what we might expect: the massive city walls (more bulk than artistry) and an otherwise unknown obelisk said to have been erected by the semi-mythical ninth-century Assyrian queen Semiramis.6 The third and only one to become a fixture on the list was the now most famous, exotic, and enigmatic of all—the Hanging Gardens. All three are long since destroyed (except for remnants of the walls) but this has only enhanced their fascination to later generations.

Almost all that we know of the seven wonders comes from Roman-period writers (mostly still writing in Greek) of the first centuries BC and AD, between the lifetimes of Julius Caesar and the Emperor Nero. It is no accident that this was the period when Rome was master of the entire Mediterranean littoral, within which all but one of the extant wonders were to be found and could be visited.7 The exception was Babylon, which had been lost to the Parthians a century earlier. It was therefore the one host city that lay outside Roman rule and for which authors had to rely upon the testimony of earlier writers. If they were going to make mistakes, this is where we would expect them to do so.

The Roman sources are a very mixed bag and much of what one believes about the gardens depends on vexed questions of authorial credibility and textual transmission. Their descriptions of the gardens are based in turn on Greek writers who lived three or four hundred years earlier, roughly a century either side of Alexander.8 We can only guess at how much these primary accounts may have been corrupted by overzealous editors and encyclopedists before ending up in the hands of the Romans. And it is virtually impossible to know whether the latter are quoting what they read directly (Greek knows no quotation marks) or paraphrasing or adapting the text to their own purposes.

This crisis of credibility becomes very real as soon as we ask who built the gardens. Some ancients apparently attributed them to the Assyrian queen Semiramis, already a magnet for all manner of epic-romantic deeds. Others credited them to an unspecified “later Assyrian (‘Syrian’) king.”9 But it is the attribution to Nebuchadnezzar by one source that is traditionally given precedence because of his unique credentials: this writer is Berossus (circa 350 to after 281 BC), who was himself a Babylonian and indeed a scholar-priest of Marduk in Babylon under the Greek Seleucid regime that followed Alexander. Berossus clearly had direct access to original Babylonian records and was deeply versed in the history and culture of his homeland, on which he wrote a treatise in Greek, the Babyloniaca. If the gardens still existed in Berossus’ day there is no doubt that he would have known about them and probably have seen them. Even if they had been destroyed, he would have had access to any contemporary or later accounts of them that survived in temple or palace archives. As quoted by Josephus (the author’s own text is not preserved), Berossus’ account of the gardens is frustratingly brief, but contains the critical (and sole ancient) attribution to Nebuchadnezzar:

  1. 1

    Jewish Antiquities I, 118. 

  2. 2

    The label “Neo-Babylonian” distinguishes this empire from earlier periods of Babylonian greatness under Hammurabi and others. 

  3. 3

    This is clearly manifested in the huge library of clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) scripts found in the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh, which was largely stocked with Babylonian compositions. 

  4. 4

    The exiled Judean king Jehoiachin himself resided in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, as cuneiform records from there have shown, and other Judeans, including the prophet Daniel, are said in the Old Testament (Daniel 1) to have been trained in Babylonian court culture. 

  5. 5

    The tradition of seven spectacular “sights”—later “wonders”—of the world emerges in the wake of Alexander the Great, whose conquest of the Near East in 334–323 BC extended the knowable world enormously and made travel to its more exotic reaches feasible. Among the earliest evidence of this tradition is the title of a now lost Collection of Wonders in Lands Throughout the World Ordered According to Places by the Alexandrian scholar Callimachus of Cyrene (circa 305–240 BC ). A poet, Antipater, writing about 140 BC, provides the first known listing of precisely seven monuments (the same as our wonders except for having Babylon’s walls instead of the Pharos), so we may take it that the concept of a septet was then in place. (This poet is usually identified as Antipater of Sidon; Dalley accepts an alternative identification of him as the late-first-century- BC Antipater of Thessalonica.) The selection of wonders by different authors remained fluid throughout antiquity—there was no Guinness Book of Wonders —and later eras tried, but ultimately failed, to add their own to the canon, such as Santa Sophia in Constantinople. Today’s list—the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria—was not fully fixed until the Renaissance. 

  6. 6

    Semiramis was almost certainly based on a real individual (Sammu-ramat, wife of the ninth-century- BC king Shamsh-Adad V) but by Greek times had become a mytho-heroic compilation of misattribution and fabrication. On her celebrated afterlife as a warrior-princess see Babylon, Myth and Reality, edited by I.L. Finkel and M.J. Seymour (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 118–123. 

  7. 7

    The Colossus of Rhodes had collapsed in an earthquake around 226 BC

  8. 8

    For the Hanging Gardens the main accounts from the Roman period are by Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Josephus, and Philo of Byzantium. The primary Greek sources quoted by them are Ctesias of Cnidus (court physician to Persian king Artaxerxes II), Callisthenes and Onesicritus (both fellow travelers and chroniclers of Alexander), Cleitarchus (a slightly later historian of Alexander), and Berossus (discussed below). 

  9. 9

    Diodorus Siculus II,10,1; Q. Curtius Rufus V.1.31–35. 

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