Ancient gardens weren’t in Babylon?

iol scitech may 6 Hanging Gardens of Babylon
An Iraqi armed soldier walks in front of Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon.
London – The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, weren’t in Babylon at all – but were instead located 300 miles to the north in the rival city of Nineveh, according to a leading historian.

After more than 20 years of research, Dr Stephanie Dalley, of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, has finally pieced together enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the famed gardens were built in Nineveh by the great Assyrian ruler Sennacherib – and not, as historians have always thought, by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Nineveh is in the far north of what is now Iraq, just 40 miles from the border with the Kurdish autonomous region.

Dr Dalley first proposed her idea that Nineveh, not Babylon, was the site of the gardens back in 1992, when her claim was reported in The Independent – but it has taken a further two decades to find enough evidence to prove it.

Her detective work – which is due to be published as a book by Oxford University Press later this month – has yielded four key pieces of evidence.

First, after studying later historical descriptions of the Hanging Gardens, she realised that a bas-relief from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh actually portrayed trees growing on a roofed colonnade exactly as described in classical accounts of the “Babylon” gardens.

That crucial original bas-relief appears to have been lost in the mid 19th century. When it was discovered by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in the 1840s, it seems to have already been in such poor condition that its surface was, in all probability, rapidly crumbling away. Alternatively, it may have been amongst a group of Layard’s UK-bound Nineveh carvings which were lost when the boat carrying them sank in the River Tigris. Luckily, however, an artist employed by Layard had already drawn the bas-relief – and it was this image that Dr Dalley uncovered and recognised as the ancient gardens.

Further research by Dr Dalley then suggested that, after Assyria had sacked and conquered Babylon in 689 BC, the Assyrian capital Nineveh may well have been regarded as the “New Babylon” – thus creating the later belief that the Hanging Gardens were in fact in Babylon itself. Her research revealed that at least one other town in Mesopotamia – a city called Borsippa – was being described as “another Babylon” as early as the 13th century BC, thus implying that in antiquity the name could be used to describe places other than the real Babylon. A breakthrough occurred when she noticed from earlier research that, after Sennacherib had sacked and conquered Babylon, he had renamed all the gates of Nineveh after the names used for Babylon’s city gates. Nineveh was in effect becoming a “New Babylon”.

Dr Dalley then looked at the comparative topography of Babylon and Nineveh and realised that the totally flat countryside around Babylon would have made it impossible to deliver sufficient water to maintain the sort of raised gardens described in the classical sources. Her research began to suggest that the original classical descriptions of the Hanging Gardens had been written by historians who had actually visited the Nineveh area.

Researching the post-Assyrian history of Nineveh, she realised that Alexander the Great had camped near the city in 331BC – just before he defeated the Persians at the famous battle of Gaugamela. It’s known that Alexander’s army camped by the side of one of the aqueducts that carried water to what Dr Dalley now believes was the site of the Hanging Gardens.

“It has taken many years to find the evidence to demonstrate that the gardens and associated system of aqueducts and canals were built by Sennacherib at Nineveh and not by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. For the first time it can be shown that the Hanging Gardens really did exist” said Dr Dalley.

Both these Mesopotamian rulers were famous for their aggressive military activities against biblical Jerusalem. Sennacherib’s campaign was immortalised about 2 500 years later in a poem by Lord Byron describing how “the Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold”, his cohorts “gleaming in purple and gold”.

Both were also notorious for destroying iconic religious buildings. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and, according to one much later tradition, was temporarily turned into a beast for his sins against God. Sennacherib of Assyria destroyed the great temples of Babylon, an act which was said to have shocked the Mesopotamian world.

The Mystery Of The Hanging Garden Of Babylon by Stephanie Dalley is published by Oxford University Press this month


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