ancient Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria developed
the first great horticulture societies. The Mesopotamian grew wheat, barley,
dates, oats, figs, olives and grapes. The first “farmers almanac" dates
back to 1700 B.C., Sumeria. It was the Sumerians who first occupied Mesopotamia,
near 6 000 B.C. and who first constructed the first barrages, created a
perfect irrigation system and made possible the cultivation of a wide range
of plants. Women played an important role, overreached men in many activities,
among which was the art of constructing gardens at that time of tribal
social organization. It is undeniable that they were the pioneers of Mesopotamian
gardening. Probably this is the reason why the vegetation goddess Isthar,
also known as Astart was a passionate woman who followed her lover Tamuz
to the infernal world. Missing her presence, the fields faded away, but
when she returned, the plants raised from among the dead and revived with
their natural greenness, beauty and fertility. Thousands of years later
gardening in Sumer was involved not only with the cultivation of plants
good for the organism, but also with “nourishing” the spirit and satisfying
the first efforts to reach beauty. Once their basic needs were satisfied,
people showed interest towards ornamental garden plants. In the Louvre
Museum one can see a Sumerian piece of argyle featuring gardens from the
city of Ur, dated around 5000 B.C. The king Gudea from Ur was known to
have lived a life of luxury after he brought cedars from the distant Lebanon
Mountains after an adventurous journey. Another Mesopotamian king named
Tiglath Pileser I was known as a great botanic lover and exotic plants
Hanging Gardens of Babylon have been, undoubtedly, the most remarkable
achievement of the Mesopotamian art of gardening. The gardens, built within
the walls of the royal palace at Babylon, were roof gardens laid out on
a series of ziggurat terraces, irrigated by a unique pump system [pictured
on the left] supplying water from the Euphrates River. They were built
either by the famous Queen Sammu-ramat (Greek Semiramis, mother of the
Assyrian king Adad-nirari III about 800 B.C.) or by the King Nebuchadrezzar
(Nabucodonosor) II –reigned 604-562 BC.
The ancient city
Babylon, under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, must have been a wonder
to the traveler's eyes. "In addition to its size," wrote Herodotus,
a historian in 450 BC, "Babylon surpasses in splendor any city in the known
Herodotus claimed that the
outer walls were 56 miles in length, 80 feet thick and 320 feet high. The
walls enclosed fortresses and temples containing immense statues made of
solid gold. Rising above the city was the famous Tower of Babel, a temple
to the god Marduk which seemed to soar high in the heavens.
An interesting observation
is that one of the city's most spectacular sites is not even mentioned
by Herodotus: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders
of the Ancient World.
Accounts indicate that the
garden was built by King Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled the city for 43 years,
beginning in 605 BC (There is another less-reliable story that the gardens
were built by the Assyrian Queen Semiramis during her five year reign starting
in 810 BC). These were years of prime during which King Nebuchadnezzar
constructed an astonishing array of temples, streets, palaces and walls.
According to accounts, the
gardens were built to cheer up Nebuchadnezzar's homesick wife, Amyitis.
Amyitis, daughter of the king of the Medes, was married to Nebuchadnezzar
to create an alliance between the nations. The land she came from, though,
was green, rugged and mountainous, and she found the flat, sun-baked terrain
of Mesopotamia depressing. The king decided to recreate her homeland by
building an artificial mountain with rooftop gardens.
The Hanging Gardens, or The
Seventh Wonder of the world, probably did not really "hang" in the sense
of being attached to cables or ropes. The name comes from an inexact translation
of the Greek word kremastos or the Latin word pensilis, which
mean not just "hanging", but "overhanging" as in the case of a terrace
The Greek geographer Strabo,
who described the gardens in the first century BC, wrote, "It consists
of vaulted terraces raised one above another, and resting upon cube-shaped
pillars. These are hollow and filled with earth to allow trees of the largest
size to be planted. The pillars, the vaults, and terraces are constructed
of baked brick and asphalt."
"The ascent to the highest
story is by stairs, and at their side are water engines, by means of which
persons, appointed expressly for the purpose, are continually employed
in raising water from the Euphrates into the garden."
Strabo touches upon what
was probably the most amazing part of the garden to the ancients. Babylon
rarely received rain and for the garden to survive, it had to be irrigated
by using water from the nearby Euphrates River. This meant to lift up the
water far into the air so that it could flow down through the terraces,
watering the plants at each level. This was probably done by means of a
A chain pump is a device
with two large wheels, one above the other, connected by a chain, on which
buckets are hung. Below the bottom wheel is a pool with water. As the wheel
is turned, the buckets dip into the pool and pick up water. The chain then
lifts them to the upper wheel, where the buckets are tipped and dumped
into an upper pool. The chain then carries the empty ones back down to
The pool at the top of the
gardens could then be released by gates into channels which acted as artificial
streams to water the gardens. The pump wheel below was attached to a shaft
and a handle. By turning the handle slaves provided the power to run the
The construction of the garden
wasn't only made difficult by getting the water up to the top, but also
by trying to avoid having the liquid ruin the foundation once it was released.
Since stone was difficult to get on the Mesopotamian plain, most of the
architecture in Babel utilized brick. The bricks were composed of clay
mixed with chopped straw and baked in the sun. The bricks were then joined
with bitumen, a slimy substance, which acted as a mortar. These bricks
quickly dissolved when soaked with water. Most buildings in Babel didn’t
find this a problem because rain was rare. However, the gardens were continually
exposed to irrigation and the foundation had to be protected.
a Greek historian, stated that the platforms on which the garden stood
consisted of huge slabs of stone (otherwise unheard of in Babel), covered
with layers of reed, asphalt and tiles. Over these layers was "a covering
with sheets of lead, that the wet which drenched through the earth might
not rot the foundation. Upon all these was laid earth of a convenient depth,
sufficient for the growth of the greatest trees. When the soil was laid
even and smooth, it was planted with all sorts of trees, which both for
greatness and beauty might delight the spectators."
BC - 331 BC Ancient Civilizations
3500 - 331 BC: Mesopotamian Art
3500 - 1750 BC: Sumerian/Akkadian
1000 - 539 BC: Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian
539 - 331 BC: Persian
3200 - 1070 BC: Egyptian Art
3200 - 2185 BC: Old Kingdom
2040 - 1650 BC: Middle Kingdom
1550 - 1070 BC: New Kingdom
1370 - 1340 BC: Amarna Art
3000 - 1100 BC: Aegean Art
3000 - 1475 BC: Minoan (Crete)
1650 - 1100 BC: Mycenean (Greece)
BC - 337 AD Classical Civilizations
800 - 323 BC: Greek Art
323 - 150 BC: Hellenistic Art
6th - 5th century BC: Etruscan Art
509 BC - 337 AD: Roman Art
© 1998, Lee Krystek
Some stories indicate the
Hanging Gardens towered hundreds of feet into the air, but archaeological
explorations indicate a more modest, but still impressive, height.
In any case the gardens were
an amazing sight: A green, leafy, artificial mountain rising off the plain.
did it actually exist? After all, Herodotus never mentions it.
This was one of the questions
that occurred to the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1899.
For centuries before that the ancient city of Babel was nothing but a mound
of muddy debris. Though unlike many ancient locations, the city's position
was well-known, nothing visible remained of its architecture. Koldewey
dug on the Babel site for some fourteen years and unearthed many of its
features including the outer walls, inner walls, foundation of the Tower
of Babel, Nebuchadnezzar's palaces and the wide processional roadway which
passed through the heart of the city.
While excavating the Southern
Citadel, Koldewey discovered a basement with fourteen large rooms with
stone arch ceilings. Ancient records indicated that only two locations
in the city had made use of stone, the north wall of the Northern Citadel,
and the Hanging Gardens. The north wall of the Northern Citadel had already
been discovered and had, indeed, contained stone. It seemed like Koldewey
had found the cellar of the gardens.
He continued exploring the
area and discovered many of the features reported by Diodorus. Finally
a room was unearthed with three large odd holes in the floor. Koldewey
concluded that this had been the location of the chain pumps that raised
the water to the garden's roof.
The foundations that Koldewey
discovered measured some 100 by 150 feet (although smaller than the measurements
described by ancient historians, but still impressive).
One can only wonder if Queen
Amyitis was happy with her fantastic present, or if she continued to pine
for the green mountains of her homeland.
with permission by Lee Krystek .