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It is to the ancient Greeks to whom we owe the list of the Seven Wonders of the World, ancient historical monuments that bear witness to all the power of these great vanished civilizations. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only wonder that can still be admired to this day.
Another five fall into ruins or simply no longer exist: the Alexandria lighthouse, the colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum of Halicarnasse, the temple of Artemis and then the statue of Zeus in Olympia. All these monuments have been formally located and their secrets handed over after archaeological excavations. The last of the list, Babylon’s hanging gardens, is the least known of them all. Very little is known and reliable documentary sources are virtually non-existent. Among the mysteries to be elucidated are their exact location, their description and even if they really existed.
The first descriptions of the hanging gardens in Babylon date from classical times and are attributed to a Babylonian priest and several other authors, including Ctésias de Cnide, who lived at that time. These ancient writings published under the title “Babyloniaca” and “Persica” have long since disappeared and there is no trace of them today. If we know part of its content, it is thanks to the narratives of Greek and Roman writers of the 1st century BC who quoted these works. The geographer Strabon, in his book “Geography”, leaves us the following description made up of Greek authors and that leaves a lot of room for imagination:
The garden has a quadrangular shape and 4 pleterias on each side. It consists of vaulted arches placed one behind the other on cubic checkerboard bases. These hollowed-out basements are covered with so much land that they can house most of the trees, as the basements, vaults and arches themselves are made of raw brick and bitumen. The ascent to the roof of the highest terrace is made through a staircase; and along this staircase there were Archimedes screws, through which water was carried continuously upwards, in the garden of the Euphrates, by those who worked in this task, because the river, wide of a stadium, flows in the middle of the city; and the garden is on the banks of the river.
There are also other descriptions of famous historians such as Flavio Josefo or Diodoro de Sicilia who leave vague images in his biography of Alexander the Great. These more recent documents largely attribute the creation of the hanging gardens to the king of the neo-Babylonian empire Nebuchadnezzar, who lived a few decades before the classical epoch. The Babylonian empire would have been marked at that time by a great period of prosperity that allowed the construction of many monuments such as the walls and hanging gardens of Babylon.
The story tells that the king’s wife, Amyitis, who grew up in the mountainous regions, suffered from nostalgia for her arrival in the hot, arid desert of Mesopotamia. King Nebuchadnezzar would have built huge gardens to calm his evil and remind him of the plants and landscape of his childhood. However, it is impossible to tell whether this beautiful romantic story is true or simply a colorful anecdote to complete the puzzle.
HAS THERE REALLY BEEN?
Many things seem to indicate that these gardens probably never existed. First of all, modern archaeology gives no answer. The excavation campaigns around the palaces of Babylon are counted for ten and there is still no trace of the gardens. In addition, access to the site of ancient Babylon, located in Iraq, is very limited and difficult due to war and limits the possibilities of excavation. In addition, it is possible that the river Euphrates, which once flowed in the middle of the city, has flooded the ruins and that the remains of them are now found at the bottom of the water. Research on a vast area of the ancient city has uncovered the walls and the grand palace, but the location of the hanging gardens remains a mystery. However, it should be borne in mind that archaeological research, although covering a large area, is far from complete.
Another argument against the existence of such gardens in the Babylonian region is that no text of time mentions them. Numerous inscriptions have been found on the foundations of King Nebuchadnezzar’s monuments and about a hundred of these documents have been studied and none of them speak of hanging gardens. Moreover, Herodotus, a 5th-century BC historian considered the oldest of mankind, does not mention it even though he knew the city of Babylon very well for having lived there. The ancient Greek authors must also be taken with a grain of salt, since the latter were based on oral descriptions that are often unfounded. It is possible that the walls, much more impressive at that time, have supplanted the existence of suspended gardens. This suggests that either stories and legends are wind-based, or the famous hanging gardens of Babylon are found in other parts of the country. This is the opinion of Stéphanie Dalley, an Oxford scholar, who was very interested in the subject and believes that the last wonder of the ancient world was in Nineveh.
It is also possible to read a description of the King himself:
“I have built an elevated garden next to the palace that mimics the Manus chains. It is planted with all kinds of aromatic essences, fruit trees, trees that make up the richness of the mountains of Babylon, and trees that give breath”.
The researcher also studied a bas-relief as is commonly found in the palaces of the time. It is possible to see trees that seem to float in the air and plants hanging arches. You can also see the Jerwan aqueduct, built by King Sennacherib to carry water from the Kinis Mountains, 100 km across the desert to the capital of Nineveh, which at its top was the largest city in the world. The engravings preserved at the British Museum also show a tall garden in Nineveh. It is possible to see an Assyrian king surrounded by trellises, whose lush vineyards hang around him.
Sennacherib seemed to be fascinated by plants and nature. It’s easy to imagine retiring in the tranquility of a pleasure garden, surrounded by plants and leaking water, to escape the scorching heat and relax to forget the daily worries of your yard. This reminds Aladdin and the Thousand and One Night. But while it is well known that the conqueror had a weakness for gardens and possessed irrigation techniques and capacity, there is still no tangible evidence that he was the creator of the suspended gardens of Babylon.
The idea of an exuberant palace where trees seem to hang in the air and water flows defying gravity can be a metaphor for people escaping the cruelty of the mesopotamian desert. Are the hanging gardens of Babylon the work of a king who wants to show his dominion over nature? Who knows, history can prove that the Oxford University researcher is right…
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