That great Babylon [is] where the diversity of languages was first made for vengeance by the miracle of God, when the great Tower of Babel was begun to be made; of the which the walls were sixty-four furlongs [8 miles, or 13 kilometers] of height; that is in the great desert of Arabia, upon the way as men go toward the kingdom of Chaldea. But it is full long since that any man durst nigh to the tower; for it is all desert and full of dragons and great serpents, and full of diverse venomous beasts all about. That tower, with the city, was of twenty-five miles [40 kilometers] in circuit of the walls, as they of the country say, and as men may deem by estimation, after that men tell of the country.
And though it be clept the Tower of Babylon, yet nevertheless there were ordained within many mansions and many great dwelling-places, in length and breadth. And that tower contained great country in circuit, for the tower alone contained ten mile square [26 square kilometers]. That tower founded King Nimrod that was king of that country; and he was the first king of the world.
The quotation above is taken from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a memoir which constituted late-Medieval Europe’s closest equivalent to a modern bestseller; more than 300 copies of it have survived, a large number indeed from an era when each individual example of a book still had to be written out by hand with pen and ink. It purports to be the journal of an English knight who in 1322 began a 34-year journey around the Near and Far East. The memoir, the oldest surviving example of which dates from 1371, is almost certainly fraudulent; no other record of any person by the name of John Mandeville has ever been unearthed. Our best evidence would suggest the hoax’s perpetrator to have been a Flemish monk named Jean le Long, who never traveled widely himself but was well-known as a collector of the travelogues of others.
Despite or perhaps because of its patent fraudulence, Mandeville’s purported journal provides a fine summary of European attitudes toward Babylon as that continent was beginning to grope toward the reawakening to its humanistic heritage that history would label the Renaissance. For our fictional Mandeville, the Near East was the land of the Bible — first, foremost, and very nearly exclusively. Thus there’s more than a whiff of the Book of Revelation in Mandeville’s description of Babylon as a place guarded by “dragons,” “great serpents,” and “venomous beasts.”
The reality was somewhat less intimidating. The ruins of Babylon lay a relatively short distance south of Baghdad, one of the cultural centers of the Muslim world, with a population that exceeded 1 million. (The hold the Bible had on European imaginations was such that Baghdad was referred to by Mandeville and many others as “New Babylon,” a confused transcription of the Arabic name of the city. ) Babylon was thus quite accessible to anyone who could manage to reach Baghdad, admittedly no small feat in itself for a European of the fourteenth century. The people of Baghdad knew the ruins all too well; they often used them as a handy source of brick for their own building projects.
Even after coming to recognize that there was no cordon of monsters guarding the place, Europeans continued for hundreds of years after Mandeville to use Babylon and the areas surrounding it as a canvas for their Bible-fueled imaginations to paint upon. Every semi-prominent pile of rocks was deemed the Tower of Babel at one time or another, even as the forbidding landscape of the region — the climate of Mesopotamia has been growing steadily hotter and less hospitable ever since the end of the last ice age in 10,000 BC — was cited as evidence of God’s ongoing displeasure with the great Other of the Bible.
These earliest European visitors did not have the Hanging Gardens on their agendas, for that Worldly Wonder made no appearance in their Bibles; in fact, it was completely absent from the cultural memory of the West during the gulf of almost 1000 years between classical times and the Renaissance. But by the sixteenth century, Europeans were again reading a wealth of ancient Greek and Latin texts which had been preserved by the Muslim world. If the Hanging Gardens which those texts mentioned weren’t Biblical in a strict literal sense, there was still something vaguely Biblical about this picture of an earthly paradise elevated above the petty concerns of the mortal world; an implicit, perhaps subconscious connection with the Garden of Eden can be sensed in the writings of many an early European visitor to Babylon. So, these souls were soon searching for the Hanging Gardens as zealously as they were the Tower of Babel, and “discovering” them with almost as much frequency. The early eighteenth-century Swedish traveler Jonas Otter, for example, concluded that a copse of trees he stumbled upon near Babylon might very well be the remains of the Hanging Gardens.
The first European to conduct a reasonably methodical survey of the site of Babylon that was reasonably free from Bible-inspired preconceptions was the Briton Claudius Rich, a rather extraordinary young polyglot who was serving as His Majesty’s government’s resident in Baghdad when he visited the ruins in December of 1811. He published his findings the following year, limiting himself to relatively grounded speculation, drawing only from secular ancient sources and the facts on the ground all around him.
But Rich was able to truly clarify very little at all. In comparison to the splendors of ancient Egypt, which were being rediscovered by swashbuckling adventurers with much public fanfare at the very same time, Babylon was a frustrating, underwhelming site. It stood on marshland rather than the stable desert bedrock of Egypt, even as the Babylonians had built their city out of fragile mud-brick rather than the durable limestone employed by the Egyptians. The vast majority of the city had thus been swallowed up and digested by the soft, damp earth. All that remained on the surface were scattered piles of unidentifiable rubble. Many of the fragments bore the distinctive chicken scratch of cuneiform writing, but Rich had no idea how to read it. All he could do was document the ruin as he found it, engaging as he did so in some laudably cautious conjecturing here and there: here may have stood the central palace, there could be the boundary of the outer walls. Firm evidence for any of it was impossible to find with the tools at his disposal.
Unsurprisingly, then, Claudius Rich could say nothing whatsoever about the existence of any Hanging Gardens. One Reverend Thomas Maurice, a “learned gentleman” of the sort typical of this heyday of the Royal Society, summed up the situation in a commentary upon Rich’s journal: “On the far-famed hanging gardens, there is no necessity to dilate, as every trace of them except what the idle fancy of travellers has surmised, must long since have disappeared.”
Over the following decades, linguists in Britain and Germany gradually cracked the code of Mesopotamian cuneiform — a remarkable intellectual achievement by any standard, one exceeding in sheer difficulty even the more celebrated deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs which had occurred slightly earlier. So, it was eventually learned that many of the bricks lying about in Babylon were stamped with the name of Nebuchadnezzar II. This Babylon, then, was largely that monarch’s version of the city, a Babylon that had been reconstructed on a grander scale than ever following its last razing in 689 BC. Any traces that might still exist of the earlier incarnations of the city presumably lay hidden beneath this one.
But even these most recent, most easily accessible ruins still refused to yield up any coherent plan. European attempts to find one were stymied not only by the inherent challenges of the task but by the notoriously corrupt bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, in whose territory both the current metropolis of Baghdad and the ruins of Babylon stood. Diggers in Babylon found themselves having to pay off the pashas in and around Baghdad by the day, in addition to all the other costs of mounting an expedition to that far-flung region of the world. So, even as discoveries at many other ancient sites were forcing the world to revise its history books, Babylon remained a baffling enigma.
The modern science of archaeology was slowly invented over the course of the nineteenth century in tandem with a new spirit of nationalism in Europe. Countries competed furiously to be the first to explore ancient sites and send their treasures streaming back to their capitals. During the first two thirds of the century, the principal rivals were Britain and France. But after Germany was finally unified into a single nation-state in 1871, it too came on strong. The Germans comprehensively rejected the old treasure-hunting ethic in favor of a scientific approach that built upon the work of the Briton William Flinders Petrie, whose excavations in Egypt during the 1880s could be said to mark the true genesis of archaeology as we know it today. The British archaeologist Seton Lloyd, writing just after the Second World War and thus having less motivation than ever to be generous to his own country’s rivals in the field, nevertheless had to acknowledge the Germans’ “patience and mechanical ingenuity, which set an entirely new standard for the conduct of archaeological excavations in all parts of the world.”
Having gotten such a a late start in the archaeological game, Germany was forced to pick through the leavings of other nations in search of places where it could make its mark. Babylon, being such a storied name whose physical remains were still so poorly understood, was an obvious target. And Germany was on better terms with the Ottomans than was either Britain or France, opening up the possibility of negotiating a long-term excavation lease that bypassed the corrupt local leadership in Baghdad. The Germans first arrived at Babylon in force in 1899. They would return every year through 1917, conducting in the course of that nearly two decades what is by far the most thorough archaeological investigation of Babylon ever undertaken, before or since.
The man in charge of the German excavations at Babylon was named Robert Koldewey. By most accounts a warm and humorous man in his off hours, he was a dogged stickler for detail on the job. His first and most important book on his work at Babylon is the farthest thing from a page-turner. (“The gradual progress of the excavations, important and stimulating as it is for the explorers, appears of less interest to those who take little share in it,” he wryly acknowledges in the introduction.) He started from scratch, as if he and his team of fellow Germans and locals were the first people ever to visit the ruins, and then proceeded to deduce only from the physical evidence around him. “The labours of our predecessors are superseded in almost every detail by the results of our many years of excavations,” he would later write with just a hint of Teutonic self-satisfaction. “Thus it would hardly be worth while to controvert expressly their numerous errors.”
Excavating Babylon was a strange, counter-intuitive endeavor. There were not and never would be any remotely intact ancient buildings to gaze upon here; the mud-brick architecture of yore had long since become simply mud once again. Divining the plan of the city became an exercise in studying the texture of the soil under the surface of the ground, looking for the telltale signs that marked the walls of the ancient structures. Showing a respect for the intelligence of the native Arabs who worked for him which was rare among his contemporaries, Koldewey trained them on exactly what to look for and what to do when they found it, and then trusted them to take on this delicate precision work, where a single ill-struck spade could mean the irrevocable loss of precious evidence before it could be recorded. Archeological historian Brian M. Fagan describes the process they had to go through; to call it “methodical” hardly begins to do it justice.
Eventually, the Germans found that the best technique was to scrape the ground with hoes while looking for wall faces or changes in soil texture that indicated the junction between a mud-brick wall and the filling behind it. Sometimes a clear line of mud plaster came to light on the face of the wall or the pattern of the brickwork could be discerned. Then the expert wall tracer dug carefully into the filling until he had dug a hole large enough to squat in. Then he faced the wall and picked away delicately at the filling until the gentle strokes caused the soil to fall away from the plaster on the wall face. Once the wall face was exposed, the digger simply worked his way round the four walls of the chamber, leaving a layer of filling in the floor and in the center of the room to be removed very carefully later. Thus, the contents of the room could be recorded in place, and evidence for multiple reoccupations of the same structure could be recovered.
To collect evidence in this way meant inevitably to destroy it; once uncovered and exposed to the elements, the fragile traces of ancient structures had no hope of surviving for long. Thus posterity’s understanding of Babylon was entirely dependent on the workers’ skill at precision digging and Koldewey’s skill at record-keeping. Said posterity was lucky that both parties rose to the occasion.
In places, Koldewey dug down to slightly below the current water table, where he discovered flint tools and implements which he believed stemmed from as far back as the fifth millennium BC. (This dating has since been revised, with Babylon now believed to have first arisen around 2300 BC, as I noted in previous chapters.) Above these earliest remains, he found traces of the Babylon of Hammurabi and of the thousand years of Assyrian dominance. But he spent most of his time closer to the surface, tracing the walls of that most storied Babylon of all, the one of Nebuchadnezzar II and the Book of Daniel. The monarch’s habit of stamping his kingly signature onto each and every brick that was used in his construction projects made their dating blessedly easy.
Because of the nature of the site, Koldewey’s revelation of the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar II lived on paper rather than physical reality, but it remained no less compelling and informative a vision for all that. He pinpointed the locations of palaces and temples, walls and monuments. He traced the course of the Processional Way, whilst recovering and piecing together at least 120 enameled friezes of animals that had adorned its length, each of them about six and a half feet (2 meters) long. And he traced the square base of Etemenanki which lay next to the Processional Way; he found it to measure no less than 295 feet (90 meters) on a side. He deduced from this and other clues that Etemenanki must have reached to somewhere between 165 and 245 feet (50 to 75 meters) in height, making it one of the tallest structures ever built during ancient times. He was moved enough by it to indulge in an unusual poetic outburst: “The colossal mass of the tower, which the Jews of the Old Testament regarded as the essence of human presumption, amidst the proud palaces of the priests, the spacious treasuries, the innumerable lodgings for strangers — white walls, bronze doors, mighty fortification walls set round with lofty portals and forests of 1000 towers — the whole must have conveyed an overwhelming sense of greatness, power, and wealth, such as could rarely have been found elsewhere in the great Babylonian kingdom.”
Koldewey turned up his most famous find of all fairly early in his endeavors, in 1902, when he uncovered the remnants of the Ishtar Gate at one end of the Processional Way. He found that the majority of the bulls and dragons and lions that had covered its surface were still intact, as was a lengthy cuneiform inscription in the voice of Nebuchadnezzar II. (I quoted some of these words in my previous chapter). Koldewey determined every last detail of the gate’s appearance and construction over the course of the next decade. Its bas-relief animals and inscription would be shipped back to Germany after extended negotiations with the government of the new country of Iraq in 1926, where they would be combined with Koldewey’s careful notes in order to reconstruct the Ishtar Gate inside the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. It can still be seen there today, the most tangible single result of Koldewey’s long labor in Babylon.
As that prestige project demonstrates, Koldewey was not completely insulated from external pressures to produce spectacular finds that would impress the public of his own and rival nations alike. We should keep this in mind as we turn to his hunt for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which became a rare example of this usually sober scientist giving in to flights of fancy that were unwarranted by the facts on the ground.
Beginning in December of 1902 and continuing for fourteen months thereafter, Koldewey excavated a “vaulted building” at the northeast corner of Babylon’s largest palace. He later wrote of it that “from every point of view [it] occupies an exceptional place among the buildings of the whole city — one might almost say of the entire country.” First of all, the vaults that he named it after were, so Koldewey believed, circular load-bearing arches for the structure, demonstrating an architectural sophistication not to be found anywhere else in Babylon, even as they “show[ed] clear signs of tentative and inexperienced work in the vaulting,” presumably the result of applying a new building technique for perhaps the first time ever. Just as significantly, stone, a rare and precious resource in ancient Babylon, was used in the building’s construction instead of mud-brick in some places — or so Koldewey judged from the “numerous [stone] fragments, shapeless though they now are, that are found in the ruins. In excavating this makes a far deeper impression than the mere report can do.” He envisioned the intact building thusly:
Fourteen cells, similar in size and shape, balance each other on the two sides of a central passage, and are surrounded by a strong wall. Round this slightly irregular quadrangle runs a narrow corridor, of which the far side to the north and east is in large measure formed of the outer wall of the Citadel [i.e., the palace], while other ranges of similar cells abut on it to the west and south. In one of these western cells there is a well which differs from all other wells known either in Babylon or elsewhere in the ancient world. It has three shafts placed close to each other, a square one in the centre and oblong ones on either side, an arrangement for which I can see no other explanation than that a mechanical hydraulic machine stood here, which worked on the same principle as our chain pump, where buckets attached to a chain work on a wheel placed over the well. A whim works the wheel in endless rotation. This contrivance, which in this neighbourhood is called a “dolab” (water bucket), would provide a continuous flow of water.
So, Koldewey had what he believed to be evidence of a pump circulating a large quantity of water from a well bored deep underground up to an elevated location; I trust that the implication is obvious. And he had a building made at least partially from stone; this he judged to be important in light of the descriptions of the Hanging Gardens found in the ancient sources. Diodorus had said that “the roofs of the galleries were covered over with beams of stone”; Quintus Curtius Rufus had said that “this bulky work is supported by pillars, over which there runs a pavement of square stone”; Josephus had described “very high walks, supported by stone pillars.” And finally, he had a building with an unusual and quite likely ornate style of construction, as befit a showplace like the Hanging Gardens. And so Koldewey announced to the world that he had found just that Worldly Wonder.
The problems with Koldewey’s alleged discovery weren’t hard for a sober observer to identify, even at the time. For one thing, the vaulted building was only one quarter as long on a side as the Hanging Gardens described by Diodorus and Strabo. For another, it was set well back from the ancient course of the Euphrates, thus again contradicting most of the ancient descriptions. Still more tellingly, nothing unearthed by Koldewey supported the ancients’ description of terraced gardens, built upon the tiers of a tall ziggurat-like structure. “I would attach little importance to any of these details,” Koldewey wrote dismissively. He imagined the Hanging Gardens as a simple rooftop garden, which had the welcome side-effect of cooling the beautiful building which it crowned. (“Possibly the palace officials did a great part of their business in these cool chambers during the heat of the summer.”) In a classic example of the sort of motivated reasoning that can sometimes lead even the most disciplined human mind astray, he waved away a wealth of contradictory details whilst accepting as gospel truth — as veritable proof of his discovery of the Hanging Gardens — another passing detail from the ancient texts, about the use of stone in their construction; it’s hard to understand why said texts should be so much more reliable on this one detail than the others. As we’ll see again before we finish our inquiry, it’s tempting indeed to pick and choose “proofs” for one’s favored position from the ancient texts when the object they purport to describe is as vague and amorphous as this one. “The reason why the hanging gardens were ranked among the seven wonders of the world was that they were laid out on the roof of an occupied building,” Koldewey inexplicably concluded. Just what is so wondrous about that, especially in comparison to a terraced ziggurat of greenery stretching toward the heavens?
One senses that Koldewey himself realized at some level that his selective application of woefully insufficient supporting evidence, not to mention his willful rejection of contradictory evidence, was problematic. “The identification when studied bristles with difficulties,” he admitted. Yet such was his reputation as an archaeologist — a well-founded reputation in all other respects — that it was widely accepted for a time that he really had definitively discovered the remains of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Certainly he never repudiated his claim personally. When he was finally forced to leave Babylon in 1917 by an advancing British army — he estimated at the time that he was barely half finished with his excavations — he returned to Germany to write and lecture on his discoveries, the Hanging Gardens among them, until his death in 1926. Given his other contributions to our understanding of Babylon, we can perhaps see fit to forgive his methodical mind its one major lapse in objective judgment.
Koldewey’s claim was knocked down slowly, piece by piece in the decades after his death. The great archaeologist had himself discovered and partially translated what he described as a “large number” of cuneiform tablets inside the vaulted building, which held inscriptions that “relate to grain”; he claimed they were there because the basement of the building had been used as a storage area. But later, more complete translations revealed that a huge variety of goods seemed to have passed through the place (including oil earmarked for the exiled Hebrews, thus providing one of the few corroborations of the Book of Daniel to be found in the archaeological record). It seemed more and more that the building was just an everyday warehouse, making its roof a strange location for a royal garden of any stripe.
Construction engineers did more to knock down Koldewey’s house of cards. The vaulted arches he found so fascinating, they said, had probably been used to support an elevated section of the Processional Way rather than the building itself. And they noted that the roots of the trees and plants on the roof would have burrowed right through the structure that Koldewey described in very little time at all. (Diodorus had actually accounted for this reality, mentioning a layer of lead that was employed “to the end that the moisture from the soil might not penetrate beneath” — but Koldewey discovered no lead whatsoever in or around the vaulted building.) Meanwhile hydraulic engineers said that extracting enough water to support the rooftop garden from a mere well dug into the ground would have been impossible; the Hanging Gardens needed to be close to the river in order to be properly irrigated. And as for the stone which Koldewey had found inside the building… who knew where it really came from? Perhaps it had just been another material stored in what looked to be a thoroughly plebeian warehouse.
Archaeology in Babylon since Robert Koldewey’s time has been a patchy, intermittent affair, thanks to the near-constant political instability in that part of the world since Baghdad became the capital of the new nation known as Iraq at the end of the First World War. Corruption, dysfunction, and war have prevented any more digs on the scale of Koldewey’s. What archaeology has been done in Babylon has been subject to the whims of Iraq’s leaders, who have tended to see the ruins more as a political prop than a part of our shared human heritage. The country’s longstanding dictator Saddam Hussein was a particular offender, funding an appalling “reconstruction” effort on the site, using bricks stamped with his own name instead of that of Nebuchadnezzar II; the whole endeavor was described by one expert as “poor quality pastiche and frequently wrong in scale and detail.” No one since Koldewey has unearthed the slightest trace of any Hanging Gardens in Babylon.
And so, if I was writing as few as ten years ago, there would be very little left to say at this point. Recently, however, another scholar has come forward claiming to have solved the riddle at long last — not by uncovering yet more ancient texts in some dimly lit archive, much less by unearthing physical traces from the soil of Babylon, but rather by picking the Hanging Gardens up and moving them bodily to a different, more congenial city of Mesopotamia. Could it be that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon never actually hung in Babylon at all?
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)