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:


British Museum, London/Paul Goodhead

A hillside landscape watered by an aqueduct that was probably built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who Stephanie Dalley argues built the Hanging Garden in Nineveh; reconstructed coloring of a sculptured relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh, circa 645–635 BC

In this palace [a new one erected by Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon] he built high stone terraces and made them appear very similar to mountains, planting them with all kinds of trees, thus constructing and arranging the so-called Hanging Garden, because his wife, who had been raised in the region of Media, longed for a mountainous scenery.10

Despite disagreeing on their builder, all sources give the gardens’ location as Babylon.11 They are also broadly consistent in describing the structure itself, a number of them in much more detail than Berossus: a gravity-defying series of terraces rising to the height of the city walls, planted with exotic trees up to fifty feet high, and watered from the Euphrates by a system of mechanized screw pumps. Here is Diodorus Siculus (first century BC):

The park extended four plethra [about four hundred feet] 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 theater. When the ascending terraces had been built, there had been constructed beneath them galleries which carried the entire weight of the planted garden and rose little by little one above the other along the approach; and the uppermost gallery, which was fifty cubits high, bore the highest surface of the park…. And the ground, when leveled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size or any other charm, could give pleasure to the beholder. And since the galleries, each projecting beyond another, all received light, they contained many royal lodgings of every description; and there was one gallery which contained openings leading from the topmost surface and machines for supplying the garden with water, the machines raising the water in great abundance from the river, although no-one outside could see it being done.

Strabo gives more detail on the water-raising mechanism, clearly one of the gardens’ most remarkable features, which has been convincingly reconstructed as a rotatable cylinder containing an integral screw (presumably turned by animal or manual traction): “alongside these stairs there were screws, through which the water was continually drawn up into the garden from the Euphrates”12 Many have thought that these screws must be an anachronism inserted by a later editor, but like a number of inventions traditionally credited to the Greeks (this one to Archimedes) there is now good evidence for them being Mesopotamian.

As Berossus reports, the motive for this gigantic folly—over-the-top even by Babylonian standards—was apparently to make Nebuchadnezzar’s Median wife feel more at home in the pancake-flat Babylonian plain. Romantic anecdotes of this kind are often bogus (and this one has often been questioned) but the story is no more implausible than the gardens themselves.13

Archaeological proof of the gardens has been much more elusive. Early visitors to Babylon assumed that some remnants of so huge an edifice must surely be visible on the ground, but all they found was a lone tamarisk tree. Archaeological excavations undertaken at the site by the Germans in 1899–1917 paid close attention to the classical sources, which describe the gardens as lying alongside the Euphrates River, in or beside the palace. But none of the excavated architectural remains so far proposed can today be endorsed with any degree of confidence.14

Not surprisingly, some archaeologists have thrown up their hands and declared the whole thing a romantic fiction, pointing out that, in addition to drawing an archaeological blank, there is no mention of the Hanging Gardens in any of Nebuchadnezzar’s numerous cuneiform inscriptions. Nor do they feature in Herodotus, the earliest Greek writer to describe the city (mid-fifth century BC), though he spends pages on the city’s massive defensive walls. It is far from certain that he visited the city himself but the absence from his account of such an exotic curiosity—just to Herodotus’ taste!—remains striking.

This is where Stephanie Dalley comes in. Over the past twenty years, in a series of articles, she has proposed the radical view that the Hanging Gardens were not built by Nebuchadnezzar or any other Babylonian king, nor even were they in Babylon. Rather, they were the work of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (the same who destroyed Babylon) at his capital Nineveh, far to the north. Her book is a much-expanded and extremely thorough statement of this theory that aims both to persuade scholars and to reposition the gardens in public awareness—and in the process to rehabilitate the Assyrians, who are too often typecast as militaristic and uncultured: the Sparta to Babylon’s Athens.

But how is it possible that the ancients could make such a glaring mistake—assigning the gardens to the wrong city, the wrong century, and the wrong builder? And how could all of them, writing over nearly a millennium, fall into the very same trap? In a nutshell her answer is that there is an alternative to Nebuchadnezzar that gets around the lack of evidence in Babylon itself and that can explain how and why the classical writers were duped. The first part of this story—that Sennacherib a century earlier built a magnificent garden that resembles in much of its design and engineering what we are told of the Hanging Gardens—takes up most of the book, but is for the most part not in dispute and is not the nub of the problem. The second part—explaining how the sources could have erred in the ways they did—is much more problematic.

Although not famous today, Sennacherib’s garden certainly existed and is well known to scholars from his own inscriptions describing the “palace without rival” that he built at Nineveh in the years after 700 BC. The section on the garden starts with how it was watered:

In order to draw water up all day long, I had ropes, bronze wire, and bronze chains made. And instead of a shaduf [bucket attached to a pole atop a pivot] I set up the great cylinders and alamittu-screws over cisterns. I made those royal pavilions look just right. I raised the height of the surroundings of the palace to be a wonder for all peoples. I gave it the name “Incomparable Palace.” A park imitating the Amanus mountains I laid out next to it with all kinds of aromatic plants, orchard fruit trees, trees that sustain the mountains and Chaldaea [southern Babylonia], as well as trees that bear wool [i.e., cotton], planted within it.

Two relief sculptures from Nineveh, one each from Sennacherib’s palace and that of his grandson Ashurbanipal, preserve what are almost certainly views of this garden. One shows a wooded hillside fronting onto a large pond and, high up on the adjacent panel, two or three columns bearing an architrave upon which stands a row of trees. The other shows a stone-built aqueduct with pointed arches debouching water into a wooded landscape in which stands a porticoed pavilion (see illustration on page 78).

Remarkably, extensive archaeological evidence of the network of rock-cut canals, sluices, reservoirs, and aqueducts constructed by Sennacherib to water Nineveh have been found, together with rock-cut reliefs and inscriptions of the king near their headwaters. Most spectacular of all are the remains of an aqueduct that crossed a stream at Jerwan. Nine meters high and twenty-two meters wide, just this short 280-meter stretch of aqueduct required over two million blocks of squared limestone, which were assembled into massive piers forming corbeled arches. The longest canal delivered water ninety kilometers from its headwaters in the mountains.

Details of Dalley’s interpretation of Sennacherib’s text (the reading of the key words for “screws” and “cylinders” are new)15 and of the images on his reliefs may be disputed. But she is clearly right that Sennacherib’s elevated plantings of trees, columned walkways and porticoes, and complex feats of hydraulic engineering bear close comparison to what we are told of the Hanging Gardens.

Having established this key point, Dalley trawls widely for every possible piece of further evidence. The Assyrians called their royal gardens the equivalent of “wonders”16; and for them also the number seven had a magical significance. After destroying Babylon itself, Sennacherib saw his city of Nineveh, in some sense, as a new “Babylon,” a center of the universe where kingship and godhead connected; this is reflected in his naming of Nineveh’s gates (as were Babylon’s) after major gods. In one inscription he dedicates his new palace (presumably including the garden) to his beloved first wife, Tashmetu-sharrat, thus paralleling Nebuchadnezzar’s construction of the Hanging Gardens for his Median wife. As for the tradition that the gardens were built by Semiramis, rather than seeing this as pure muddle she cites historical evidence that Sennacherib’s second wife, Naqia, imitated and associated herself with the legacy of the real Semiramis (Sammu-ramat)—which could explain why the latter was mistakenly credited with the palace built by Naqia’s husband.

Pulling together the evidence of scattered occupation at Nineveh between its destruction by the Babylonians in 612 BC and its revival under the Seleucids more than three centuries later, Dalley argues that there is enough continuity for memory of its gardens to have survived in local folklore till the Greeks passed by in the fourth century BC.17 Add to all this a heavy dose of Greek confusion over the difference between Assyrians and Babylonians and the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and you begin to see how they might have transferred Sennacherib’s garden from the Assyrian “Babylon” (Nineveh) to the real one.

The combined effect of all this (and I have left a lot out) is close to overwhelming, and may well shift the onus of proof onto the traditionalists. Has Dalley, then, “uncovered at last the reality behind the legend of the Hanging Garden of Babylon,” as her introduction claims? Possibly, but it is far from proven.

First there is a point of logic. Dalley writes as if all evidence for Sennacherib’s garden in Nineveh is evidence against Nebuchadnezzar’s in Babylon. It is not: both Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar can have built wondrous “hanging gardens,” and the many similarities between the two can equally be taken as showing that Nebuchadnezzar emulated the Assyrian’s achievement even more closely than we thought. A Hanging Garden in Babylon would not be an anomaly: previous Babylonian kings had boasted of other splendid gardens. Dalley rightly points out that these are not mountain-style wooded affairs, but then none of those kings had Median queens to mollify.

These are quibbles compared to Dalley’s real problem: her account of how the fourth- and third-century BC Greeks could have transferred the site of the gardens from Nineveh to Babylon. Confusion over the location of an Assyrian capital that had been destroyed centuries before Greeks started traveling to Mesopotamia is one thing. Getting muddled over the location of Babylon, still in Alexander’s day the bustling megacity of the East, or attributing to it a famous monument that simply was not there, is quite another.

The Babylon that Alexander the Great captured in 331 BC, to which he returned seven years later for Hephaestion’s funeral and where he himself died soon after in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace (in June 323 BC), was one of the principal capitals of the Persian empire and probably still the most spectacular city in the world.18 Alexander, his court (including a number of chroniclers), and the many thousands in his army had ample time to take in Babylon’s glories and to marvel at its incomparable city walls, ziggurat, temples, and other monuments. The king’s inner circle saw all this for themselves, and the Alexandrian writers who followed would have had no shortage of eyewitnesses. There can be little doubt therefore that to the Greeks of the early Hellenistic period there was only one Babylon that mattered and that in situating the Hanging Gardens there these authors can only have intended that city.19 How, if Dalley is right and the gardens were really in Nineveh, are we to account for all of them making the same glaring error?

Dalley addresses this issue for Berossus, her most explicit and authoritative obstacle, by adopting a recent view that his description of the gardens is all later interpolation and not to be trusted. The experts are divided, but she is not alone in this view.20 Otherwise, however, for the many other Greek sources she only gestures at an explanation and it is difficult to see the details falling into place. She points to cuneiform texts in which other Babylonian (not Assyrian) cities receive the epithet “another/second Babylon”: but this goes no way to proving an awareness of this esoteric trope in classical times.

Neither do Sennacherib’s vague allusions to Nineveh being a new “Babylon-like” capital in texts that no classical author could have read or probably even known aboutt.21 So how might the confusion have arisen? “One might posit,” she says,

that all the details of the construction and appearance [of Nineveh’s gardens] became known to Alexander’s men in 331 BC by local knowledge at Jerwan [Sennacherib’s aqueduct] and Gaugamela [the nearby site of Alexander’s famous battle], but with legends already proliferating over whether an Assyrian king, or Semiramis, or Nebuchadnezzar, was the builder.

Even granting this scenario, it is hardly possible to imagine that these same Greeks, who were soon to march into Babylon itself, would later have recorded what they learned about Jerwan/Nineveh by saying that there once was a spectacular ancient garden in Babylon.

If this is discounted, there seem to be only two options. Either we may suppose that in recording what they learned of Nineveh’s gardens these writers made reference to the Assyrian remains (or perhaps gave no suggestion of location) but that their texts were somehow later edited to read “Babylon.” The problem with this is that it requires all the Greek sources to have been corrupted in exactly the same way, which is hardly credible; or that one such corruption acquired canonical status and infected all the others, for which there is no evidence.

Alternatively, avoiding speculation on textual tampering, we can draw the commonsense if unspectacular conclusion that the Hellenistic writers knew the Hanging Gardens were in Babylon and said so in their accounts, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there had been a remarkable precedent at Nineveh. Dalley has done a magnificent job of bringing that precedent into focus.