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The Hanging Garden of Babylon: a mystery resolved

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Joan Morgan reviews The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon by Stephanie Dalley.

The ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’, the tourist attractions of Antiquity, had entered history from the second century BC onwards. These marvelous places, the sights that every traveller should see, included the ‘Hanging Garden of Babylon’ in Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq. According to the accounts written by Greek and Roman authors, Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562BC) made the garden for his Queen, Semiramis, who longed for the tree-clad mountains of her homeland far to the north. To satisfy her yearnings he created a garden of terraces rising up tier upon tier planted with fruit and other trees, which gave the impression to visitors of a ‘Hanging Garden’. Yet in spite of the garden’s renown, no archaeological excavations have succeeded in finding any evidence of its existence at Babylon.

Solving the puzzle, identifying the site of the ‘Hanging Garden’ and who built it is the aim of this fascinating book by Dr. Stephanie Dalley, a distinguished scholar, specialising in the study of Babylon and Assyria at the University of Oxford. Dalley discovered that a fabulous garden did indeed exist in Mesopotamia and she believes it to be the so-called ‘Hanging Garden of Babylon’. However, the garden was not at Babylon but Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire some 350 miles to the north, and constructed by King Sennacherib (705-681BC). Dalley eruditely marshals the evidence in support of her claim for Nineveh as the site of the world wonder. She sets out the facts and arguments, fleshed out with plenty of context and background and weaves it all into an absorbing narrative, while wearing her learning lightly. This is not a dry academic tome. On the contrary, she tells an engaging story of her search for the location of the elusive garden, which took many years of in depth study of written records and archaeological remains. Dalley’s great skill is not only her ability to read the seemingly impossibly difficult cuneiform script inscribed on clay tablet texts, but also to bring this world alive for the general reader. Her detective work makes compelling reading. Little surprise then, that it has already been the subject of no less than two television programmes.

The first piece of evidence favouring Nineveh over Babylon as the site of the ‘Hanging Garden‘ comes from a comparison of the geography of the two places. A flat and featureless plain surrounded Babylon on the Euphrates River, to the south west of present Baghdad. Networks of channels crossed the land irrigating the crops and plantations, resulting in plots set in a flat rectangular pattern: an unlikely inspiration for a tall, stepped garden, which was not a style found in Babylon. In contrast, Nineveh and the other Assyrian capitals, located on the Tigris River or its tributaries in the region of the present city of Mosul, looked out over undulating valleys, terraced hillsides and to the foothills of mountains. And such a landscape served as a model for gardens made by King Sennacherib, his father King Sargon II and an earlier monarch. Each of them made a ‘high’ garden, or in other words a mounded slope beside their new palaces. These amounted to pleasure gardens, beautifully cultivated, with probably some rare plants, which were also places to enjoy quiet walks and refreshments as well as statements of wealth and prestige. Sargon wrote that he was ‘imitating the Amanus mountains in which are planted all the aromatic trees of northern Syria, all the mountain fruits’. Sennacherib used a similar analogy to describe his new garden, made in the same tradition.

Assyrian kings stocked their gardens with a range of fruit bearing trees, evergreen and aromatic trees and shrubs. They expanded their collections, gathering seeds and saplings from wherever their military campaigns and trading expeditions took them. Among the new plants acclimatised, no doubt a number showed potential as profitable crops and also, like the fruit trees, proved ornamental as well as useful, suitable for productive orchards and pleasure gardens. Dalley found proof of the existence of an extraordinary pleasure ground built by Sennacherib in the scenes carved on stone panels unearthed at Nineveh, which originally probably decorated one of the palace rooms, although carved after his death. Altogether, the panels depict a treed hillside with a pavilion in the centre and a lake at the bottom. An aqueduct, supported on arched pillars, entered the garden at the same level as the pavilion, half way down the slope; thence the stream of water flowed to the side of the pavilion and ran down in between the trees to the lake. Above the aqueduct were at least two vaulted artificial terraces planted with rows of trees and terraces of trees lay also on the other side of the pavilion.

Constructing this garden must have been a colossal undertaking and for which a guaranteed supply of water was a fundamental requirement if the trees were to survive. Both written records and the remains, even today, of Assyrian technology testify to Sennacherib’s masterly management of the city’s water resources. With innovative engineers, numerous craftsmen and a massive labour force at his command, he captured distant mountain streams and directed them along canals, an aqueduct and dams to provide not only the citizens of Nineveh with fresh water but extensive orchards, gardens and crops around the city. In the pleasure garden the lower half received water via its aqueduct, but to irrigate the terraces in the upper section water needed to be raised to a considerable height.

A ‘machine‘ for watering the ‘Hanging Garden’ had been mentioned by some Classical authors and a ‘screw’ by others. The invention of a water-raising, Archimedes screw, which by spiraling round lifts water from one level to another, was believed to be a much later invention. But fresh translations and ingenious interpretations of Sennacherib’s proclamations by Dalley revealed that the King’s engineers used a new method of casting to make bronze water-raising screws in around 700BC. With these devices sending water up to the terraces, the trees remained lush and green, even through the long hot summers, shading and cooling his pleasure ground, which Sennacherib claimed ‘a wonder for all peoples’.

Sennacherib’s garden could hardly have failed to be a miraculous wonder at the time and its features closely matched those described for the celebrated ‘Hanging Garden’. But if Nineveh was the site of the ancient landmark, then there remains the problem of understanding why the Greek and Roman authors muddled up the places and names. Dalley supplies some answers. She furnishes convincing explanations for the mix-up between Babylon and Nineveh and the two kings, as well as the added embellishment of the legend of Queen Semiramis. Of course, not the least of the sources of confusion could have been the centuries that elapsed between the heyday of the ‘Hanging Garden’ and the written accounts, giving time enough for errors and literary license to creep into the histories.

All in all this is a splendid book. I highly recommended it to anyone who enjoys exploring the early history of tree and plant cultivation and of learning more about the amazing achievements made so long ago. No one can fail to be caught up in Dalley’s love of her subject and of her hero Sennacherib. I imagine his pleasure garden mass of fruit blossom in spring, the air filled with the scents of cedar trees and the sounds of running water. Even during the scorching summers, the garden would have remained a green oasis, soon decked with wonderful fruits. Undoubtedly a breathtaking sight, which I am persuaded was the ‘Hanging Garden’ of the ancient world.

Joan Morgan

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon; An Elusive World Wonder Traced by Stephanie Dalley, published by Oxford Univerity Press, 2013; 279pp; many line drawings, black & white photographs, some colour photographs; £25.00; also available as e-Book.