Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

In search of the Gardens of Babylon

Stephanie Dalley, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp279, Reviewed by David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

Only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still exists today in the shape of the Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau in Egypt. But Egypt used to figure twice on this informal list of sights drawn up for ancient Greek and Roman tourists, since the Lighthouse at Alexandria, built during the Ptolemaic period, was also an ancient Wonder and survived until it was brought down by an earthquake in the Middle Ages.

None of the other ancient Wonders – the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and Statue of Zeus at Olympia – survives today, having been either deliberately destroyed by human agency or brought down by fire and earthquakes. One of the Seven Wonders, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, reportedly located in what is now southern Iraq, may not have existed at all and may have been based on confusion among ancient writers.  

UK historian Stephanie Dalley, an authority on ancient Mesopotamia, thinks that the Hanging Gardens did exist, but she does not deny that they have caused a good deal of confusion. As she explains in her book The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, which has just appeared in a new edition, the Gardens were probably not in Babylon at all but instead were located in Nineveh several hundred miles to the north and built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib and not the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar.

Dalley says that for many years she avoided the subject of the Hanging Gardens since there seemed to be so little that could usefully be said about them. However, study of ancient cuneiform inscriptions together with a careful review of the rest of the evidence persuaded her to frame a new hypothesis about the location, design and possible fate of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. This is presented in her book, and while the hypothesis perhaps does not quite convince her careful presentation and analysis of the evidence is a fascinating introduction to contemporary Assyriology.

Now that many of the sites mentioned in Dalley’s book are under threat of destruction by Islamic State (IS) forces, with at least one of them, the north-west palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, being blown up earlier this year, her subject matter has also acquired a new urgency. As she says at the end of her book, when the Assyrian sites were excavated in the second half of the 19th century it was thought that the ancient Greeks had been responsible for many inventions now known to have been made by the Mesopotamians. There is a real danger that discoveries of great importance today could be lost as a result of IS-led destruction.

NINEVEH NOT BABYLON: Dalley begins by reviewing the ancient evidence for the existence of the Hanging Gardens, finding this to be problematic.

When the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey excavated the site of ancient Babylon in what is now southern Iraq before the First World War he was disappointed not to find evidence of the famous Hanging Gardens. Moreover, while later accounts assign the building of the Gardens to the 6th century BCE Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, the Nebuchadnezzar mentioned in the Bible, the king himself never mentioned building a garden.

“We have reached the point where there is so much negative evidence that the absence is significant,” Dalley comments. “If only there were the slightest evidence from cuneiform inscriptions or archaeology that the Hanging Gardens were built in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, there would be no need to search for a solution, for there would be no mystery.”

Ancient Greek and Roman writers are also unanimous in describing the Hanging Gardens as built to resemble a natural hillside with artificial terraces and forest trees, the water being raised by a hidden mechanism like an Archimedean screw and the whole looking something like an ancient Greek amphitheatre. This is enough to rule out Koldewey’s theory that the Gardens were on rooftops reached by long flights of stairs, or the theory of the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, excavator of the royal cemeteries at Ur, that the Gardens consisted of planted terraces on the sides of a ziggurat.

Neither theory is satisfactory in the light of the written evidence, even if there are questions as to whether any of the ancient writers actually visited the Gardens. As Dalley points out, they were at a significant distance from the other ancient Wonders, which could be easily reached on a tour of the Mediterranean. The description of the Gardens as looking like a natural hillside also does not fit well with the terrain in southern Iraq, and therefore ancient Babylon, which is flat and crisscrossed by a network of canals and resembles that of the Egyptian Delta.

Babylonian gardens “were set in flat alluvium, where networks of little irrigation ditches favour rectangular parcels of land” like parterres, Dalley writes. Water was raised by shadufs, a kind of sling, and there is no evidence that the ancient Babylonians had either water wheels or Archimedean screws, since the latter were conventionally invented centuries later, as their name suggests, by the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes.

The descriptions that have come down to us of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in fact seem far more likely to be of Gardens built in Assyria in northern Mesopotamia where the terrain is hilly or mountainous and water was directed using aqueducts and artificial canals. The ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul was a likely location, Dalley says.

INVENTING THE ARCHIMEDEAN SCREW:  Dalley includes some highly charged pages in her book on the evidence for advanced hydraulic technology among the ancient Assyrians.

European writers on the ancient Middle East have tended to see it as static, she says, encouraged by a romantic view of the region that considered it to be essentially unchanged since biblical times. In the case of ancient agricultural and slave-owning societies, including ancient Greece, historians influenced by Marxist theory also saw no stimulus for technological change. “They envisaged a society in which the prestige of the elite was the sole motivation for great works and the accumulation of wealth, so that efficiency and productivity were alien concepts. Agriculture and irrigation occupied the efforts of the workforce, which had no incentive for improving technical skills,” she says.

However, recent research has shown that ancient Assyria was notable for innovation. Not only did Archimedes not invent the water-raising screw that bears his name, with even ancient Greek writers admitting that the idea was borrowed from irrigation works seen in Egypt, but new translations of Assyrian texts suggest that such screws, cast in bronze, were in use in Assyria around 700 BCE, enabling them to be used to supply water to raised gardens.  

Dalley retranslates a vital passage from a 7th-century BCE inscription recording how the Assyrian king Sennacherib created palace gardens in Nineveh, identified by Dalley as the real Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Properly translated, this comes out as “I created clay moulds as if by divine intelligence for cylinders and screws, trees of riches… In order to draw water up all day, I had ropes, bronze wire and bronze chains made. And instead of a shaduf I set up cylinders and screws of copper over cisterns,” Dalley says.

Here is the evidence that Sennacherib not only built a lavish palace garden, never at issue even in earlier translations, but that he also installed early versions of Archimedean screws to raise the water needed to irrigate it. The argument is highly technical, turning on the translation of various terms in ancient Assyrian, but Dalley says it is supported by her attempts to build an Archimedean screw following the Assyrian king’s instructions as part of a BBC television programme.

“After the television documentary was shown, various people wrote in with suggestions for the method of rotation [of the screw], but all of them involved cogs or pumps” that were not available in ancient Assyria. “Despite several ingenious speculations the mechanism for rotating the water-raising screw remains unknown,” she adds.

CLEARING CONFUSION: The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon contains a chapter on the hydraulic technology of the ancient Assyrians that should convince most readers of their ability to transport the water required to irrigate a raised or “hanging” garden.

However, the awkward question remains of why the ancient writers unanimously claimed that the Gardens were in Babylon. It would be “satisfactory if we could account for [the confusion],” Dalley comments, “in order to strengthen further the argument that the Hanging Garden was built by Sennacherib in Nineveh rather than by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.”

One way of accounting for the confusion is by saying that it was a result of muddle. The ancient Greek writer Xenophon seems to have made the mistake of thinking Babylon was the capital of Assyria, for example, and there may well have been others. Dalley’s view is that Sennacherib wanted his city to excel or replace the city of Babylon, becoming a “new Babylon” and thus giving rise to the confusion. “Taking each one of the confusions in turn,” she writes, “ it is possible to explain why Sennacherib was mistaken for Nebuchanezzar, why Nineveh became known as Babylon, [and] why the Euphrates was mistaken for the Tigris.”

Dalley’s book contains fascinating pages on the design of Assyrian palaces and the technology used to build them. There is also a chapter on Assyrian gardens that differentiates them in important ways from those built by other civilisations. Whereas gardens have traditionally been seen as akin to paradise in the Abrahamic religions, for example, where the word paradise in fact means garden, in ancient Assyria this was not necessarily the case.

“No ancient Mesopotamian myths describe a paradise-garden in which mortals lived happily before their condition changed for the worse,” she says. “Mesopotamian accounts of man’s creation by the gods make it clear that their genesis was intended from the beginning to provide a labour force, expressly to relieve the gods of hard work.”

However, this did not mean that the ancient Assyrians did not appreciate the aesthetic and other qualities of gardens. According to Dalley, Ashurnasipal II (883-859 BCE), whose north-west palace at Nimrud has recently been blown up by Islamic State, included 39 species of tree in his palace garden, inviting, if the inscriptions are to be believed, 47,074 guests to a celebration to help him open it. Such gardens would have been used for outdoor parties, quiet strolls, and the contemplation of nature.

A final problem dealt with towards the end of Dalley’s book is why the ancient Greek and Roman writers describe the Hanging Gardens as being an extant Wonder of the Ancient World when Nineveh itself was destroyed by the invading Babylonians in 612 BCE. Writing several centuries after this event, it seems odd that these writers did not mention the destruction of the Gardens, if they were indeed in Nineveh and not Babylon as Dalley argues, even if they had not themselves visited them.

Perhaps the city was not as comprehensively destroyed as has hitherto been believed, Dalley says. “So little is known about the circumstances of Nineveh’s sack in 612 that we are not even sure who kept control of the heartland of Assyria afterwards.” It seems at least possible that “Nineveh remained impoverished throughout the Neo-Babylonian period (612-539 BCE) and through much or all of the Achaemenid period (539-333 BCE), lying more or less dormant for some two centuries until a revival took place under Seleucid rule.”

During this time it is possible that visitors were still able to visit the city’s functioning Hanging Gardens, falsely confusing these with non-existent ones in Babylon.

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