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The Hanging Gardens of Babylon at Ninevah

World of Antiquity lecture chaired by Martin Sturge

Dr Stephanie Dalley

University of Oxford

14 April 2005

After many years working on Assyrian history, Dr Dalley felt that numerous classical references to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as a World Wonder, yet about which little was known, deserved investigation. Her quest is now into its twelfth year.

Were the Gardens planted on a Ziggurat, perhaps like hanging gardens now? Unlikely, since a Mesopotamian mud-brick construction would not have survived watering as a sight to see for several hundred years. Were the Gardens, for which Babylonian archaeology could find no clear trace, just a myth? With all the classical references, that seemed unlikely. The question could be not whether, but where?Careful German excavations at Babylon (1899-1917), south of modern Baghdad, clearly revealed the ancient city, traversed by the Euphrates, and standing above it the great palaces of Nebuchadnezzar II, (604-562BC). Some researchers imagined there an ancient rooftop* garden, but that implied numerous problems: with irrigation (which before the invention of the water wheel would have been a noisy, sweaty and unsightly enterprise from the river far below, and severely exacerbated by the river changing course in 6th century BC after capture by the Persians); with dank, mosquito-ridden conditions in the lower storeys; and finally problems with an awkward site claiming architectural credibility as a World Wonder.Nebuchadnezzar II left detailed, surviving inscriptions of his building works in Babylon, but they mention no gardens.. A Mesopotamian king would not build a Wondrous Garden and record nothing, so the builder was unlikely to be this king. Several other writers mention Babylon, but no gardens.

They are not mentioned by Herodotus (484-ca425BC), nor by Xenophon (ca444-ca357BC, who described the education of Cyrus of Persia, partly in Babylon), nor by Pliny, nor in the Alexander Romance, strange when we remember that Alexander the Great (356-323BC) died in Babylon. Who then were these other classical writers, and what did they report?

Some confusion arose from the report by Flavius Josephus (37-ca100AD) that the Gardens were built (like a picnic spot for a hot day) by Nebuchadnezzar for his queen, homesick for her native mountains of Media, but stronger clues are given by Quintus Curtius Rufus (d53AD) of gardens built by a king of Assyria who reigned in Babylon, but not stating that they were built in Babylon.

Ancient Mesopotamia (roughly modern Iraq) lay between the river Euphrates to the west, and the Tigris to the east. Geographical conditions vary greatly over its length, lying

roughly north to south, and, at the times we are considering, it encompassed two major civilisations: Assyria to the north, centred on Nineveh; and Babylonia to the south. Much confusion arose between the two in biblical and classical writings. The Old Testament book of Judith tells us that Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, lived in Nineveh (when in fact he lived in Babylon), and Arab writers place Sennacherib in Babylon (whereas he ruled from Nineveh). Nineveh stands on the Tigris, Babylon on the Euphrates, and many confusing canals lie between them. Even Diodorus Siculus (ca90-30BC), writing just before the time of Christ (nearly 600 years after the end of the Assyrians), mentions details of a hunting theme in a Babylonian sculpture resembling one which we know to be in Nineveh. Much confusion.So what distinguishes Nineveh from Babylon, and what do these clearer accounts tell us of the Gardens? The Euphrates around Babylon flows through a level plain, suitable for flat, squared gardens of no particular significance, and is without tributaries or higher ground from which aqueducts might supply the city. In Assyria to the north, however, the Tigris is fed by two tributaries bringing clear fresh water from mountains to the east; ideal for watering a city if you can (and as indeed Sennacherib did in Nineveh, as his inscriptions clearly tell us).

Before we consider the detailed accounts of the Gardens, we must attend to one great objection as to the credibility of (much later) classical references to the Gardens as being in Nineveh: namely the supposed total destruction of Nineveh in 612BC by fire and flood and enemy action all at once, attested by a Babylonian text, and also by the biblical minor prophet Nahum. Fortunately that snag is resolved by the discovery that such exaggerated allusions and lamentations, previously taken at face value, should rather be seen as a ritual to accompany restoration, and encourage revival and the return of a god even to a repaired temple. The survival of Nineveh as a thriving city is indeed well attested by Greek inscriptions and Parthian (Roman) sculpture found there.

Diodorus Siculus describes the Gardens as having been built by the king to imitate the homeland scenery of his wife, rising up like a hillside, level by level, to resemble a theatre, and measuring 400′ from side to side. Expensively built terrace walls were 22′ thick, separated by passageways of 10′, and arched galleries, rising successively to the level of the city’s battlements, supported a roofed, pillared walkway upon which soil was heaped and flattened to sufficient depth for densely planting trees of all kinds ‘that by height or other loveliness could give pleasure to the beholder’. This account dovetails with one by Strabo (ca64BC-ca24BC) giving additional measurements, and referring to a stairway to the uppermost level alongside which ‘were screws through which water was continually led up into the Garden from the Euphrates’. Philo of Byzantium (4th centuryAD) refers also to the different levels, and to ‘water from elevated sources flowing, partly down straight channels and partly being impelled upwards through the twists of mechanical devices’, which could not be seen.

A sculpture by Sennacherib’s grandson Ashurbanipal (668-627BC), now in the British Museum, (see 1) shows an aqueduct with arches, water trickling down a slope, trees, and just a glimpse of the edge of Sennacherib’s palace. Indeed a sculpture showing a garden of Sargon II (reigned 721-705BC) at Khorsabad near Nineveh also shows imitation of the natural environment, as described by Diodorus Siculus. A plan of Nineveh shows the river Khosr flowing through the citadel, past Sennacherib’s palace and into the Tigris at a short distance. Thus the Hanging Gardens were absolutely adjacent to the palace, as on the sculpture. We must enquire however as to how the water reached the Gardens at the right height, and was raised within them.

Some 50 km to the east of Nineveh, near Bavian, run seven or eight mountain streams, whose waters Sennacherib collected and brought to Nineveh. This enterprise is excitingly evidenced by Sennacherib’s imposing sculptures on the rocks at Bavian where deities stand upon mythological animals that symbolise their control over chaos and the wild, and is attested by his detailed inscriptions, of which one was written on a six-column prism (of which there is a duplicate in Chicago). It was a huge feat of building and engineering by a man who studied and consulted widely, and who already had other inventions to his credit, such as an unmanned, automatic sluice gate. To achieve and maintain water at the right levels, channels had to be cut along the mountains, and at one point the water and its aqueduct had to cross the valley or wadi at Jirwan, where can be seen a construction which originally consisted of some two million dressed stones, to keep the water at the right level, and included the remains of the aqueduct arches (traced by British and Danish scholars in the 1920s).

The traditional mechanism for raising modest quantities of water in those times, over modest elevations, was the shaduf. Sennacherib’s palace inscription refers ‘instead of the shaduf’ to setting up ‘great cylinders and Alamittu palms over tallow that were wasted by ‘the kings my forefathers’, he devised ‘great clay moulds… and poured copper into them again and again,and made castings as perfectly as if they only weighed half a shekel each’.

Palms come in male and female, and the Alamittu palm is the wild, male palm (whose pollen is used to this day to fertilise the dates on the female trees). The trunk of the male tree, once the leaf fronds break off, reveals a clear spiral pattern, which was a decorative feature of Assyrian temple facades and also appeared in their religious sculptures. Therefore one may infer that Sennacherib’s spiral castings, based upon the male palm pattern, and set within cast copper cylinders, provided the lifting mechanism so widely attributed to Archimedes (who lived some four centuries later). It is possible that this casting technique came from China (as opposed to the Mesopotamian lost wax method), and that Sennacherib learned of it from Iran, (just to the east) as suggested by the discovery of a huge cylindrical barrier in Susa (now in the Louvre Museum), cast in bronze. After initial setbacks, experiments in Jordan under Dr Dalley’s supervision showed the casting method to work, and with a wooden screw; the lifting method also worked, although the method of rotation is still unresolved. The inscription in Greek concerning Archimedes may mean either that he ‘invented’, or that he ‘found’ the screw, while in Egypt. Perhaps he saw it being used there, as it is today. Archimedes certainly didn’t invent, or wasn’t the first to invent, the water-raising screw.From her researches, Dr Dalley has satisfied herself that the Hanging Gardens did exist, that they were in Nineveh, and were built by Sennacherib. Her colleague Terry Ball has drawn a reconstruction [2], which, taking account of all the works and inventions, shows the Hanging Gardens indeed to have been worthily described as a World Wonder.

Summary by Martin Sturge

* Where Saddam Hussein even believed that he had commenced their intended rebuilding. MS.

Questions & discussion

During questions, it transpired that Sennacherib’s mountain tunnels were among the earliest. The great Siloam tunnel in Jerusalem, built by his vassal Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:20, 2 Chron. 32:30), was probably in compliment to Sennacherib, the inscription sharing as it did Sennacherib’s interest in workers’ difficulties (in others unusual at that time). Other tunnels in Samos, in Urartu in eastern Turkey, in Palestine, in Nimrud, and the qanaats in Persia appear later or are not properly comparable.

As to timings of the project, Sennacherib probably started in 697BC, and claimed to have taken fifteen months with just 70 men, though he probably meant just the overseers. With the participation of the audience, the Seven Wonders were listed: Colossus of Rhodes; Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; Lighthouse at Alexandria; Statue of Zeus at Olympia; Mausoleum of Halikarnassus; The Pyramids; The Hanging Gardens. (Today one would list Machu Pichu, not Nineveh.) What plants were in the Gardens? Were there flowers or just trees? There were some flowers, probably lotuses and lilies grown for their perfume, also vines brought back from Sennacherib’s campaigns, olive trees, cotton trees (as they then grew), some experimental, some more traditional. They loved aromatic trees for their fragrance in a breeze on a hot day.