The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Babylon, in what is now Iraq, was founded over 5,500 years ago in the rich land of Mesopotamia, the Land Between the Rivers. Herodotus says

The city stands on a broad plain, and is an exact square, a hundred and twenty furlongs in length each way, so that the entire circuit is four hundred and eighty furlongs. While such is its size, in magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it. It is surrounded, in the first place, by a broad and deep moat, full of water, behind which rises a wall fifty royal cubits in width, and two hundred in height. (The royal cubit is longer by three fingers’ breadth than the common cubit.)

Accounts indicate that construction on the Gardens started in 605BC, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, although some say they were build much earlier, in 810BC by by Queen Semiramis.

Nebuchadnezzar was married to Amyitis, the daughter of the king of the Medes. She didn’t much like the flat, sunbaked plaines of Mesopotamia and much preferred the rugged, green land where she was raised. To please her the King build her a garden, shaped like a mountain. Strabo described the Gardens in the 1st Century BC as

“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”

This watering of the garden was a feat not only because of getting the water on top of the garden, but also because the whole hill was made out of sundried clay and reed bricks that would ‘rot’ if they got wet.

Diodorus Siculus, another Greek historian, tells us the platforms were covered with slabs of stone and lead sheets to keep the water from reaching the building’s foundations. He also tells us the gardens were some 120 meters on the side and more than 25 meters high.

Early last century a German archeologist discovered the foundations from what might have been the Gardens, the place measured some 30 by 50 meters. Smaller than Diodorus claimed, but still impressive.

The Tower of Babylon

According to Herodotus, a famous traveller and historian back in 450BC, Babylon surpassed in splendour any city in the world. Its outer walls were wide and tall and the inner walls only slightly less impressive. Rising above all temples and fortresses within the city was the Temple of Marduk, known as the Tower of Babel. This mountain like temple was said to almost touch the Heavens.

This temple is likely to be the one that was mentioned in the Bible, Genesis II, where Man wants to build a temple into the sky and God confuses the single language and gives each his own tongue.

The temples in Babylon, also known as ziggurats were build in a stepped pyramidal shape. Each ziggurat seems to have been dedicated to a single god which means there were a lot of ziggurats in a city like Babylon. The one dedicated to Marduk, one of the most important gods was to be the biggest ziggurat of all.

Archeologists have found the remains of a ziggurat nearly a hundred meters wide at each of its four sides. King Nebuchadnezzer II had the tower raised to its largest height of almost a hundred meters and covered in blue tiles. The terraces may have been planted with trees and other plants, giving the Temple, known to the Bayloneans as Etemenanki a place in the Hanging Gardens.

Building ziggurats was a big job. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the Babyloneans did not have access to stone to build these structures, but used mud bricks, for nearly everything they built. Bitumen a pitch like substance was used to ‘glue’ the bricks together and provide a waterproof coating.

It is assumed that after Xerxes conquered the city around 478BC the tower started to deteriorate. The mud brick ziggurats were prone to damage from rain and earthquakes and if not maintained would waste away rather quickly.

In 460 BC, some twenty years after being abandoned, Herodotus writes:

“It has a solid central tower, one furlong square, with a second erected on top of it and then a third, and so on up to eight. All eight towers can be climbed by a spiral way running around the outside, and about halfway up there are seats for those who make the journey to rest on.”

The Gates of Ishtar

One of the gates in to ancient Bablyon, covered with blue tiles and motives of winged bulls, parts of which can be seen in the Pergamum museum in Berlin.

Isthar is the Babylonean goddess of love, procreation, and war. She is armed with a quiver and bow. Her temples have special prostitutes of both genders. She is often accompanied by a lion, and sometimes rides it. In one story she crosses the Gates to the Underworld.

Here’s an inscription translated from a dedication stone in the gate:

“Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the faithful prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest of princely princes, beloved of Nabu, of prudent counsel, who has learned to embrace wisdom, who fathomed their divine being and reveres their majesty, the untiring governor, who always takes to heart the care of the cult of Esagila and Ezida and is constantly concerned with the well-being of Babylon and Borsippa, the wise, the humble, the caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, the firstborn son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon. Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil -following the filling of the street from Babylon-had become increasingly lower. Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water-table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder I let the temple of Esiskursiskur (the highest festival house of Markduk, the Lord of the Gods-a place of joy and celebration for the major and minor gods) be built firm like a mountain in the precinct of Babylon of asphalt and fired bricks.”
(Translation adapted from Joachim Marzahn)