The mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon

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By Stephanie Dalley
I once gave a general talk about ancient Mesopotamian gardens, and was astonished, when I prepared for it, to find
that there was really no hard evidence for the Hanging Garden at Babylon, although all the other wonders of the ancient world certainly did exist. A member of the audience stood up and said how disappointed she was that I had not mentioned it. All the stories of the garden were written by Greek writers many centuries after the garden was supposedly built, so some scholars thought the accounts were fairy-tale fiction. That meant that the Hanging Garden didn’t fit the category of marvellous places you could visit. I could see that my audience was disappointed, and the problem lingered irritatingly in the back of my mind.

Some years later I was working on an inscription of the Assyrian king Sennacherib who ruled around 700 BC, at Nineveh not Babylon. It was edited in the 1920s, and one passage made nonsense in the translation.

With a further 70 years of scholarly work now available, including vastly better dictionaries, I have been able to show that the passage relates how Sennacherib cast screws in bronze for watering his terraced garden, some centuries before the time of Archimedes whose name is usually quoted as the inventor. The castings were huge. Sennacherib’s own inscriptions show that he was personally proud of his technical achievements in metal-casting, water management, and collecting exotic foreign plants. Sennacherib called his work a wonder for all peoples.

Because this was all so unusual and unexpected, I re-read the Greek accounts of the Hanging Garden. Strabo mentioned the use of the screw, and must have known that Archimedes lived long after the garden was supposedly made. Herodotus described Babylon, but did not mention the garden. Only one author, Josephus, actually named Nebuchadnezzar as the builder. Another wrote that an Assyrian king built it. Could it be that there were so many confusions, especially Nebuchadnezzar for Sennacherib, Babylon for Nineveh?

In the British Museum a panel of sculpture found at Nineveh had long been understood as a likely prototype for the Hanging Garden at Babylon. It was carved in the reign of Sennacherib’s grandson, and was thought to show Sennacherib’s garden when it had matured. It shows an aqueduct supplying water just as the Greek accounts said. The British Museum also has a 19th century drawing of a sculpture from Nineveh, now lost, which matched the most original detail in the Greek texts: there was a pillared walkway on the top terrace of the garden, thickly roofed, and trees were planted on top of that roof.

The aqueduct shown in the British Museum’s sculpture could not be traced by archaeologists at Nineveh, but could be traced further away in a watercourse that stretched back 80km into the mountains. Wonderful rock-cut panels with huge sculptures of the king Sennacherib and the gods of Assyria, as well as an inscription, revealed that the palace garden at Nineveh was only the end result of a staggering work of water engineering.

More than 300 years later, when Alexander the Great was preparing for the battle of Gaugamela in which he defeated the Persian king, he camped in the vicinity of a central part of Sennacherib’s watercourse where over two million dressed stones were used in an aqueduct crossing a valley. His scouts would have seen inscriptions and sculptures, and heard about the garden. Later Greek writers extracted their accounts of the Hanging Garden from Alexander’s companions whose writings no longer survive.

There may be much confusion surrounding the Hanging Garden, but it is clear that amazing technology created a magnificent garden and justifies its place among the original seven wonders of the world.

Stephanie Dalley is an Honorary Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford, and a member of the Oriental Institute at Wolfson College, Oxford. With degrees in Assyriology from the Universities of Cambridge and London, her academic career has specialized in the study of ancient cuneiform texts and she has worked on archaeological excavations in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. Her most recent book, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, was published by OUP in 2013.

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