The Landscape Guide

Hanging Gardens in Babylon

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
A fanciful painting of the 'Hanging Gardens of 

Another fragment of a tablet was found that has to do with a garden: on it is depicted a row of pillars, supporting a very solid roof, on which there are several trees, planted regularly, probably indicating a terrace with a thick stratum of earth under it: in fact, part of a hanging garden (Fig. 32). Literary sources teach us that the Babylonians and Assyrians were the inventors of the hanging garden; but, however that may be, this tiny piece of a garden gives no suggestion of the astounding size of the so-called Gardens of Semiramis, of which Greek authors have so much to tell. 

The erection of large buildings has always been connected with the name of Semiramis, whose actual life on earth (for those who do not share the belief that she was entirely mythical) belongs to the ninth century, but even in ancient days her invention of the hanging garden was argued and denied. Diodorus Siculus, whose account of Babylon is founded on Ctesias and Clitarchus, says emphatically that they were not due to her, but to an Assyrian king, who devised them for one of the palace ladies who came from Persia as a reminder of her old home. Berosus is more precise, and ascribes them to Nebuchadnezzar, and says he made them for the love of his Median wife. Here the initial questions are so confusing that we cannot make out anything certain. One fact seems to be pretty sure, and that is that the two historians, Strabo and Diodorus, are drawing their information from different sources, and this seems to make good the assumption that the custom of having hanging gardens was general and widespread. In one point alone the two writers agree - namely, that the length of the side of the substructure was four plethra (480 metres), and that it was rectangular. Diodorus says that terraces like steps ascend from this floor, and get smaller as they get higher, “like a theatre,” but that the way round the circumference is in the open air. Under the terraces the arches that support the whole are set up as fine royal chambers, getting their light from a skylight on the terrace above. There is a way through on each terrace by gaps ten feet broad which pierce the enormous supporting walls.

The top terrace of all, which according to Diodorus was above a hollow arch fifty yards in height, wasIllustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see the chief garden. Its flat floor was made of a very elaborate stratum, to protect from damp below, and to regulate it above; first there was a stone balcony, then a layer of reeds and asphalt mixed with brick and gypsum; next over this came a leaden roof, which was intended to support earth, of which there had to be a thick stratum to sustain the large trees planted in it. The whole construction, Diodorus says, is like a mountain. We may assume—and this Berosus supports— that the walks round the terraces were each planted; so no doubt the whole thing looked like a green mountain.

The architectural idea was not really foreign to Babylonian art; the towers in tiers, which were also square, and often were as many as seven in all, must have come about in imitation of similar designs in architecture. No ancient picture has been discovered which confirms the descriptions of  Diodorus; it is found, however, in this part of the world, where tradition has mastered every change of fact and fashion for thousands of years, that in Persia there exist similar garden arrangements even to this day.


In the fortunate lands of Shiraz there is a terrace-garden on one of the steep acclivities, the Bagh-i-Takht (Garden of the Throne) (Fig. 33), which, though it does not stand unattached, does give an idea of what Diodorus calls the Mountain, because its terraces are formed in steps, and get smaller at the top.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


More accessible to our sight—and perhaps partly affected by the description of Diodorus—is the artificial terraced hill of Isola Bella in Lake Maggiore. About the ascent Diodorus says nothing, but there were probably steps inside as at a theatre, and just as we find them in the garden at Shiraz.

Strabo’s description differs from that of Diodorus in essential features. He says that the floor of the upper garden is supported on a series of arches that  stand upon hollow cubes. These cubes are filled in with soil, so that they may hold the roots of the largest trees; accordingly it is possible to have a thinner  layer of earth for the roof, as it will only have to nourish the roots of the smaller plants. This system is really the same in principle as in the garden of Sennacherib, where the pits for the plants are dug deep into the rock, to relieve the stratum of earth from the worst of the weight.

Strabo’s account scarcely admits steps in the building, whereas Diodorus lays great stress on this feature. Strabo, however, may be describing briefly a relief from Kuyundjik, which dates from Sennacherib’s time. In this there stands a wall on the top of pointed arches, and on the wall are lofty trees planted at regular distances, close beside one of the little temples such as we know, and an altar set on an artificial mound that is planted with trees (Fig. 34). 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

However that may be, the arches seem also to have supported a water conduit, for a stream runs out and crosses the mound, branching off in several directions; and one may suppose that it passes over the terrace, and is distributed about the rest of the garden.

In any case, hanging gardens require special contrivances for irrigation, but in this matter also Strabo and Diodorus are at variance. Diodorus says that in the uppermost cavity there is a water arrangement, which is fed from the Euphrates, and cannot be seen from outside; whereas Strabo affirms that the water is brought up by spiral pumps at the side of the winding stairs, and that special men are always there to draw the water up from the river. The writers both say the Euphrates is close beside the garden, and Diodorus goes on to assert that the Acropolis is close by: by this it is thought that he meant the palace on the right side of the Euphrates, in whose park Alexander the Great died: no trace remains of any building that suggests a hanging garden.

In all these elaborate accounts of hanging gardens we are not told one word about the way they were planted, nor do the park inscriptions give any clue to their plan or arrangement. On the whole we may take it that these people felt a greater interest, and at an earlier date, in the care and cultivation of trees than of flowers. Just as in the dim past the heroes of the Gilgamesh Epic had stood in amazement before the magnificent growth of the cedars, so did Xerxes, as later authorities tell, stand before a wonderful plane tree which he came upon on his way to Sardis in Lydia. The beauty of this tree so affected him that he gave it presents, as a lover might to his beloved, winding gold chains and armlets round the branches, and setting a guard to stay behind and watch it. In all the inscriptions there is talk of trees, of different woods—cedar, plane, box—and of all sorts of fruit-trees (unfortunately not often identified), but we scarcely ever hear of flowers.