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Illustration of the Hanging Garden of Babylon (top right) by Maerten van Heemskerck (via Wikimedia)

Of all the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the location of the Hanging Garden of Babylon remains the most elusive, even with its believed home right there in its name. However, new research suggests it wasn’t in Babylon at all, but in another city over 300 miles away.

View of the Hanging Garden by Alain Manesson Mallet (1683) (via Wikimedia)

Stephanie Dalley’s The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, published last month by Oxford University Press, culls together her two decades of research on the famous gardens that had layered tiers covered with exotic trees and other flora rising into the 7th century BCE sky. Out of all the Seven Wonders, the Hanging Garden is arguably the most well-known just after the Great Pyramid of Giza (which has the advantage of still being in existence), but Dalley’s book aims to reverse just about all the lore about it, including that it was built by King Nebuchadnezzar II as part of his empire.

Dalley, part of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, instead confidently places the Hanging Garden in Nineveh in the Assyrian empire. In his positive review of her book for the Financial Times historian Robin Lane Fox writes:

Dalley deals death blows to the Babylonian orthodoxy among previous archaeologists. The Germans’ suggested site for the Hanging Garden, she shows, is impossible. Woolley’s idea of a garden ziggurat is untenable too. A recently-suggested site, by the South Palace’s western outwork, has no link through to the palace, is not by the river’s likely course and “the walls would have denied the plants any sunshine for most of the daylight hours”. The Greek Herodotus certainly went to Babylon but he never says a word about a hanging garden in his description of the city. For Dalley it was never there. It was up at Nineveh and was later mislocated by legend and by a loose use of the name “Babylon”.

Hanging Garden of Babylon built in Second Life (via Inara Pey)

Fox concludes that he’s still “on the fence, undecided” about the true location of the garden, and it has spurred some sizzling summer controversy in the classical archaeological world. However, Dalley’s evidence is sound, including such concrete items as a bas-relief of the Nineveh palace showing a rooftop garden not dissimilar from what is described of the Hanging Garden. And even the descriptions of visitors to the garden itself plotted down in our classical history, she states, are by people who visited the Assyrian city, including the most famous from Alexander the Great. The terrain of Babylon is also not hospitable for a towering green wonderland with the transportation of water to so many trees being rather impossible.

But why the Babylon name? It’s possible, according to Dalley, that Nineveh was called New Babylon after the Assyrians took over Babylon in 689 BCE. (Why not name Babylon instead New Nineveh, one wonders? Perhaps even then the famed city had a better image to attach to an empire.)

View of the reconstructed Babylon in 2010 (photograph by James Gordon)

Babylon itself is currently a curious place, now in present-day Iraq, rebuilt by Saddam Hussein based on his own idea of the ancient city into a place of unreal perfection. Looking at what it has become, it is hard to imagine the garden of legends rising up with a flourish of green, or really any real person at all residing in those bricks meticulously stacked into a history constructed by a dictatorship. And perhaps the Hanging Garden never existed at all, or at least not in as epic a way as described, but was an elaborated myth to promote an early empire in the long history of the leaders that have ruled over this terrain and transformed it into an image for their personal glory.

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced by Stephanie Dalley is available from Oxford University Press and Amazon.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...