Imagine that you are a traveler in the Near East of… 600 BC, let us say. You have been tramping along for many days on a road beside the great river known as the Euphrates, which flows swiftly now under the scorching mid-summer sun. The only sign that you are getting closer to your destination has been the gradually increasing traffic on both the river and the road. For your destination is Babylon, the city where all roads lead, the largest, richest, most glamorous metropolis in the world.
You catch your first glimpse of the city as a glittering pinpoint sparkling high up on the southern horizon in front of you, so indistinct that you initially suspect it to be a mirage. But you soon glean from the conversation of your fellow travelers, not to mention the way they quicken their tempo in excitement, that they see it as well. This far-off glint, you realize, must be Babylon’s crowning glory: the ziggurat known as Etemenanki, which scrapes the sky in honor of the city’s patron god Marduk.
The land beyond the road and river becomes marshy as you continue your journey; it is in fact a man-made marsh, meant to serve as the city’s first line of defense, slowing any enemy army that dares to approach. Soon the city’s walls come into view, ringed by a wide moat diverted from the Euphrates. These walls are the tallest and widest to be found anywhere in the world — so wide that a four-horse chariot can be comfortably driven along their ramparts, with plenty of space left over on either side for observation towers and barracks for the garrison that mans them day and night.
You pass through one of the largest of the city’s sturdy gates; it is made entirely of finest bronze, including even the pillars and lintels. You know that each gate is dedicated to a different deity; this one is that of Urash, the god of the earth.
Beyond it is a teeming, sun-baked warren of streets and alleys running every which way, echoing with the shouts of merchants hawking every form of good and service imaginable, redolent of roasting meat and sweating humanity, spices and garbage, flowers and feces. It would be trivially easy to get lost forever in this maze, but you are fortunate enough to have an unfailing guide: you continue to stick close to the river, which runs under the walls and, you know, right through the center of the city. It provides a haven of relative peace and shade along its length, what with the bronze flood gates that separate it from the city streets and the towering palm trees that have been planted along its banks. The river, you know, is the lifeblood of the great city; its water is carried to every corner of Babylon by an elaborate network of aqueducts and canals. It is the only reason so many people are able to live packed so tightly together in this land that sees almost no rainfall at all for over half of every year.
You follow your faithful guide the Euphrates for quite some distance more. Whenever a gap in the trees and buildings permits an unobstructed view of the horizon, you can see that Etemenanki has drawn still closer to you. At last you arrive at a second ring of walls, and the colossal Ishtar Gate which allows you to pass through them. Soaring above the buildings in front of it to a height of more than ten times that of a man, the gate is enameled, from its base to the crenelated bastions at its top, in a striking deep blue, its surface covered with ochre-hued bas-reliefs of bulls and dragons and lions, bordered by floral designs in striking white. The goddess it honors is one of the oldest of all the deities of this part of the world — far older than the city’s patron Marduk, although you are in no position to realize this. She is the goddess of the most essential things in life: sex and love, war and power.
Passing through the gate, whose thick cedar portals stand open in this time of peace, you find yourself on the grandest street in the world, the fabled Processional Way. Its surface of limestone and red-hued breccia is as smooth as glass and meticulously clean, making a marked contrast to the dust and squalor on the other side of the gate. Indeed, to pass through the Ishtar Gate is to pass into another realm entirely. Here all of the streets run straight, forming an orderly grid, while the buildings as well are tall, stately, and uniform. Most of all, though, you feel yourself to have surfaced within an explosion of color after many long days of being submerged in an arid ocean of dull browns. Brilliant blues, yellows, and whites are enameled everywhere, sometimes forming pictures, sometimes decorative patterns, sometimes ceremonial inscriptions, sometimes merely solid blocks of color for its own sake.
The Processional Way runs alongside the foot of Etemenanki. Said monument is, you can now see, a stepped pyramid of six stages, its sides a riot of colors, its dizzying peak seeming to merge with the sun itself. You have heard many stories of this, the world’s highest ziggurat. You know, for example, that it takes so long to ascend it that there is a shelter at the midway point with water and benches for the weary. You know that a shrine stands at the very top for the suppliants who come there to look down upon the awe-inspiring sprawl of the city while they pray. And you know that a single bed is also perched up there. Every night, so you have been told, one Babylonian woman of exceptional character and grace is allowed to sleep there at the top of this ladder to heaven, where the god Marduk himself visits her and has intercourse with her — some say spiritual intercourse, some say sexual.
On the other side of the Processional Way, you see another splash of color: a piercing botanical green this time. Here stands another terraced ziggurat, covered at every level with greenery that has no business growing in this land at this parched season of the year. The king of Babylon ordered it built for his favorite queen, who hails from a far-off land of dripping forests and babbling brooks, where water is plentiful rather than the scarce resource it is here. On its terraces can be found exotic trees and flowers the likes of which almost no Babylonian will ever see in their native habitats. The hydraulic engineering that brings the water of the Euphrates up to the thirsty greenery is a tribute to the sheer know-how of Babylon’s most accomplished men. Up at the botanical ziggurat’s top, which is lower but also much broader than that of Etemenanki, the king’s wives and his royal harem wander without their veils — wearing no clothing at all, some say — through a shady, fragrant paradise that rings with melodious birdsong. These are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Such, at any rate, is one version of the ancient legend of Babylon and its Hanging Gardens. But when we wake from our daydream, we find that the real history is, as is so often the case, a thornier matter than the legend. In fact, the questions of when the Hanging Gardens were built, who built them, where they stood, what form they took, and whether they ever really existed at all have been vexing historians and archaeologists for centuries. Join me now as we look into the mystery that continues to surround an ancient vision of paradise so tempting, so evocative as to feel almost primal.
You’re probably familiar with a certain species of travel book which only seems to grow more popular as time goes on: the pre-crafted traveler’s bucket list, offering up some absurd number of sights which everyone supposedly needs to see before she dies. These are aspirational, imaginative exercises at least as much as practical ones. After all, how many people have the time and money in the course of a single lifetime to visit — to pick a popular number among the list-makers — 1001 tourist traps scattered all over the world? Undoubtedly fewer than the number who enjoy dreaming about it.
It may surprise you to realize that such books are heirs to a long tradition. It turns out that the ancients had their bucket lists as well, albeit with a more modest number of entries. Anyone irritated by the widespread urge to list and rank every darn thing in modern times, anyone tempted to blame the short attention spans of our Internet-addled brains for the phenomenon, can perhaps take some comfort in knowing that the compulsion to make lists of things isn’t really so new at all. How else to explain the Seven Wonders of the World?
We can trace the Seven Wonders back to Herodotus, an Athenian scholar who set out circa 450 BC to write a history of the then-recently concluded Greco-Persian Wars; such, that is, was his ostensible purpose. But Herodotus was, bless his heart, a curious sort, and as he traveled all over the ancient world in the course of his research he just couldn’t resist writing down all of the interesting things he saw and heard about. Thus, in addition to being a massively important historical text, the only source we have describing countless pivotal events, Herodotus’s Histories can also be seen as the world’s first travel memoir. We know that he distilled from his longer work a list of Wonders of the World, presumably the first ever of its kind, but it exists today only as a passing reference in other works; the last extant copies of it were likely burned along with the Library of Alexandria during the early centuries after Christ. His bucket list would, needless to say, make for fascinating reading today.
After Herodotus, our investigation is stymied by yet more works which once existed but are now lost to us. We know, for example, that one Callimachus of Cyrene compiled an intriguing-sounding “collection of Wonders in lands throughout the world” in around 250 BC. Unfortunately, that is all we know of it; we know neither how many nor which Wonders he chose to include, nor how he framed the discussion, only that a work by that title once existed.
But then, probably only a decade or two after Callimachus’s list, along came Philo of Byzantium, an engineer and natural philosopher who lived most of his life in Alexandria. He provides us with the first list of Seven Wonders that has survived, although only five and a half of the more detailed descriptions of the Wonders that originally followed his enumeration of the list remain to us. Among other things, Philos’s list illustrates that the Seven Wonders, like any good tourist guidebook, was a living, changing document; three of the Wonders included on it didn’t yet exist during the time of Herodotus. Indeed, all of the Wonders on Philo’s list existed simultaneously for only about fifty to sixty years. Future listers of Wonders would continue to mix and match a bit to suit circumstances, politics, and personal preferences.
References to the Seven Wonders positively abound in ancient writings after Philo. Sometimes they are carefully delineated, more often mentioned only casually. Indeed, many ancient writers toss out the phrase without any further explanation whatsoever, just as we tend to do today.
There’s a linguistic quirk here that’s worth noting, not least for the way it connects the ancient idea of Seven Wonders still more firmly to our modern notion of the touristic bucket list. “Theamata,” the Greek word originally used for the Wonders, doesn’t actually mean “wonders” at all. It’s a more grounded word, one that’s difficult to translate pithily into English, but that can be described as meaning “things that are worth seeing.” As usual, German has the more precise word which we poor English speakers lack: “Sehenswürdigkeiten,” things that are “see-worthy.” Or, as my German dictionary describes it: “A building, monument, etc., that is interesting for tourists.” Thus at least the early Greek writers on the “Wonders” were literally telling their readers that these were things they should go out and see for themselves. Only gradually did the word “theamata” shift to the more high-toned “thaumata,” which does indeed mean “wonders” when directly translated to English. Whether this happened through conscious authorial choice or as a mistake in transcription which took root and was never corrected — or some combination of both — is impossible to say.
The choice of exactly seven Wonders is also worth pondering. That number was invested with all sorts of positive intimations long before gamblers started talking about “lucky sevens.” It’s the only one of the first ten numbers which is neither a product nor a factor of any of the others. The ancients, most of whom considered numerology as legitimate as any other field of natural philosophy, were predestined to read metaphysical meaning into this simple mathematical fact. But the choice of seven Wonders had some entirely practical advantages as well, as described by the historian Peter A. Clayton: “[Seven Wonders] allow an equality which prevents the one [Wonder] from being given precedence. A greater number would invite subdivision, encouraging, even demanding, that the objects on the list should be placed in order of importance. A lesser number would certainly force objects of equal merit to be excluded, creating a controversy of choice that might never be resolved.” If seven is a much smaller number of Wonders than the 1001 we’ve become accustomed to seeing listed today, it’s also true that seeing all seven would require just about as much effort in ancient times as visiting 1001 separate tourist sites would today. As we’ll see, it’s highly unlikely that anyone who wrote about — much less read about! — the Seven Wonders of the World during ancient times had actually seen all of them; in fact, that very lack of first-hand knowledge will become key to our story of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Still, travel did become, relatively speaking, easier and safer after the era of Roman hegemony began, resulting in the world’s first tourists — i.e., leisured classes who could realistically afford to travel abroad simply for the purpose of edification and pleasure. By the first centuries after Christ, tourists were mobbing some of the more accessible wondrous sites, such as the Giza Plateau in Egypt, almost to the same degree that they do today. (You can still find their graffiti and other leavings all over the pyramids and the Sphinx — vandalism of history which has become history in itself, in that way that all things eventually must if they stick around long enough.) But other, more far-flung Wonders — most notably of all the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — still required long, uncomfortable, dangerous journeys to reach, and thus remained strictly in the realm of the aspirational even among the vast majority of the rich.
All of which is to say that the lists of Seven Wonders were always treading a fine line between the practical and the aspirational, just like our bucket lists of today. Philo of Byzantium, that first explicator of Wonders whose text has come down to us, acknowledged this reality in his introduction with a candor that would be less pronounced among many of those who followed him.
Everyone has heard of each of the Seven Wonders of the World, but few have seen all of them for themselves. To do so, one has to go abroad to Persia, cross the Euphrates River, travel to Egypt, spend some time among the Elians in Greece, go to Helicarnassus in Caria, sail to Rhodes, and see Ephesus in Ionia. Only if you travel the world and get worn out by the effort of the journey will the desire to see all of the Seven Wonders of the World be satisfied, and by the time you have done that you will be old and practically dead.
Because of this, education can perform a remarkable and valuable task: it removes the necessity to travel, displays the beautiful and amazing things in one’s very own home, and allows one to see those things with one’s mind if not with one’s eyes. If a man goes to the different locations, sees them once, and goes away, he immediately forgets: the details of the works are not recalled, and memories of the individual features fail. But if a man investigates in verbal form the things to wonder at and the execution of their construction, and if he contemplates, as though looking at a mirror image, the whole skillful work, he keeps impressions of each picture indelible in his mind. The reason for this is that he has seen amazing things with his mind.
What I say will be shown to be reliable if my words make a clear description of each of the Seven Wonders, and persuade the listener to acknowledge that he has got an idea of the spectacle.
It seems that, had Philo only had access to photography, he could have invented the modern coffee-table book alongside the bucket list.
Before we move along to our main subject of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, let’s take a moment to review the other entries in Philo’s list, just to get the flavor. Modern readers are often surprised to discover that several of the Wonders strike no chord of recognition whatsoever. The fact is that the idea of Seven Wonders of the World resonates far more than most of the individual Wonders themselves.
The Pyramids of Giza in Egypt are of course the most famous Wonder of them all. (While Philo chose to list them as a group, many other ancient writers included only the Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the three great pyramids at Giza.) Dating from approximately 2500 BC, they are by a wide margin the oldest of the Seven Wonders, regarded as impossibly aged even in Philo’s time. And yet they are the only Wonder which remains substantially intact today, thus securing for themselves an inevitable place on modern bucket lists as well as ancient ones.
The statue of Zeus at Olympia proudly greeted the athletes and spectators who arrived there every four years for the ancient incarnation of the Olympic Games. Constructed at the height of classical Greece’s glory in 435 BC, it was reportedly of flabbergasting size, and encrusted with a gob-smacking variety of jewels and precious metals. (“Those were the good old days for Greece!” exclaims Philo with an almost audible sigh.) It survived for many centuries after Philo, but was destroyed like many other pagan monuments during the final fading decades of the now-Christianized Roman Empire, when it was likely chopped into pieces to be melted down for its raw materials.
The Colossus of Rhodes, on the Greek island of the same name, is another Wonder about which very little is definitely known. A truly colossal statue of the sun god Helios, 120 feet (36.5 meters) high according to Philo, it is described as standing in the main harbor of the island — but whether that description means that it stood on the quayside or, as some have speculated, with its base emerging from the water itself remains an open question. Erected in approximately 280 BC, it was the shortest-lived of all the Wonders; an earthquake destroyed it in 226 BC, ironically at just about the same time that Philo was compiling his list. Despite this fact, the Colossus would continue to be mentioned as a Wonder for centuries to come. The image of a stony giant standing there to greet ships as they sailed into the harbor was, it seems, impossible to resist. Its absence in tedious reality only served to make possible still grander flights of fancy.
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was located in modern-day Turkey. First constructed around 550 BC, destroyed and then rebuilt at least once, it met its final end at the hands of Goth invaders in AD 262. Antipater of Sidon, another important ancient chronicler of the Seven Wonders, departed from the tradition of calling all of the Wonders equally wondrous to elevate this one over its peers: “But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the Sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.” Unlike the previous two Wonders, the remains of this one have been located by archaelogists, although the ruins they have uncovered can only give us a glimpse of the beauty that so impressed Antipater.
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was built for Mausolus, the Persian ruler of a region of modern-day Turkey, in about 350 BC. A splendid building with even more splendid statuary in and around it, it survived for more than 1500 years before succumbing to earthquakes. Archaeologists have thoroughly investigated its remains, and some of its statues have made their way to the British Museum.
Philo and other early writers included the walls and gates of Babylon — the same ones which I described in my introduction — alongside the Hanging Gardens on their lists of Wonders. But having two Wonders from the same city didn’t seem to sit well with later authors; many of them chose to trade the walls of Babylon for the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was built at roughly the same time as the Colossus of Rhodes but outlived it by twenty-fold. Severely damaged by earthquakes in AD 956 and 1323, the last remnants of it were finally torn down to build a harbor citadel around 1480. (This Citadel of Qaitbay still stands in Alexandria today, and has become a tourist attraction and bucket-list perennial in its own right.)
And so we are left with only the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to consider. The very name is mysterious on the face of it. Hanging gardens… what does that actually mean? Philo, for his part, took the adjective literally. In fact, his description of the Hanging Gardens — or the singular Garden, as he prefers — is so outlandish that it’s worth quoting in full.
The so-called Hanging Garden with its plants above the ground grows in the air. The roots of trees above form a roof over the ground. Stone pillars stand under the garden to support it, and the whole area beneath the garden is occupied with engraved bases of pillars.
Individual beams of palm trees are in position, and the space separating them is very narrow. The wood from palm trees is the only kind of wood which does not rot. When they are saturated and under great pressure, they arch upwards and nourish the capillaries of the roots [of the vegetation], and admit into their own crevices roots that are not their own.
On top of these beams a great amount of earth is poured to quite a depth. On top grow broad-leaved trees and garden trees, and there are varied flowers of all kinds — in short, everything that is most pleasing to the eye and most enjoyable. The area is cultivated just as happens on ground level. In much the same way as on normal ground, it sees the work of people who plant shoots: plowing goes on above those wandering through the supporting colonnade.
While people walk along the top, the land on top of the roof is motionless and, as in most fertile regions, remains pure. From above aqueducts carry in running water: along one way the stream follows a downhill course, along the other way the water runs up, under pressure, in a screw; the necessary mechanisms of the contraption make the water run round and round in a spiral. The water goes up into many large receptacles and irrigates the whole garden. It dampens the roots of the plants deep in the earth and keeps the earth moist. This is why the grass is always green and the leaves of the trees grow permanently, nourished by the dew, on tender boughs.
For, free from thirst, the roots suck up the permeating water and form roaming entanglements among themselves below the ground and, as a unit, preserve the developed trees safe and sound. The masterpiece is luxurious and regal and it breaks the laws of nature to hang the work of cultivation over the heads of spectators.
Whatever one can say for the other Wonders, none of them sounds quite as wondrous as this. Static monuments and mausoleums, temples and statues, find it hard to compete with trees growing in mid-air.
What kind of culture could possibly have imagined such a thing? What kind of culture could possibly have brought it to fruition? Did the Hanging Gardens of Babylon ever really exist at all? Before we turn to the last two, far more vexing of these questions, we should do our best to answer the first. We should understand where these Babylonians came from and who they actually were.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)