New theory argues there was a Hanging Garden – but not in Babylon

Image of Robin Lane Fox

I bet none of you can reel off the Seven Wonders of the World without looking them up. The numbering of seven goes back at least to the 3rd century BC and even the ancient lists varied. The one you can all remember is the Hanging Garden of Babylon. According to one of our greatest experts on Assyria and Babylon, we all have to think again. The garden was actually hanging in Nineveh, not Babylon.

At first sight the idea is preposterous. An ancient source names the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar as the garden’s founder. German archaeologists dug and dug at the site of Babylon from 1898 onwards. They published maps of the palaces and although they never found tree roots on a platform, they proposed a precise site for the garden. Did not the great Leonard Woolley, too, have something to say about gardens hanging on Babylon’s undisputed ziggurat, a holy tower of Babel slap in the middle of the city? Greek sources give a detailed account of the Hanging Garden, which surely goes back to authors with Alexander the Great who certainly knew the city from two major visits.

The Garden is said to have been on the Euphrates, whereas Nineveh, in the northwest of Iraq, is on the river Tigris. Nineveh was ruined in 612BC, whereas Alexander and his historians arrived in 331BC and they, or their near contemporaries, describe the Garden in its full leafy glory. It had nothing to do with our modern hanging baskets. It was hanging because it rose wondrously up a terraced slope to a great height above ground and its main plants were trees, not municipal petunias. It is said by Greek authors to have been commissioned by the King to console his wife, a lady from a wooded homeland who pined for the forests she loved back home. Despite Central Park, many females marooned in Manhattan will sympathise.

In her bold, clear and immensely interesting new book, Stephanie Dalley is not in the least deterred by all this back story. She knows the necessary languages and can read the Assyrians’ and Babylonians’ own tablets. Her distinguished career has been spent in Oxford, teaching and studying the texts and monuments of these amazing civilisations. When she studied Assyriology in Cambridge in 1962-1966, the Hanging Garden, she recalls, was never even mentioned. For some 20 years she has been filling the gap. Her impulse, she charmingly recalls, was a response to a lecture she once gave for a weekend extramural course on gardens. She said much about Assyrian gardens but omitted Babylon’s Hanging Garden because she could find no solid evidence about it. A lady in the audience then complained. She had been wanting to hear about the Hanging Garden and she was “disappointed”. Dalley recalls that she herself was “embarrassed”. She returned to study the subject and found it riddled with guesses, errors and implausibility.

I admire her clarity and audacity and her brilliant engagement with evidence that looks, when first cited, only too likely to rule her new theory out of court. She turns Nebuchadnezzar out to grass again by observing that we have his own building inscription for his palace in Babylon and that it says not one word about any garden, let alone a wondrous garden to please a wife. She explains away the late ascription of the garden to him, in texts of the Jewish writer Josephus, as an elaboration of the underlying source.

Having disposed of Nebuchadnezzar, Dalley focuses on the well-attested gardens of two earlier Assyrian kings, Sargon and Sennacherib. Historians will revel in her presentation of their garden works, backed by new readings of great importance in some of the tablet. Sargon’s officials were kept very busy. One of them even claims that he collected 2,800 “bundles of cuttings off fruit trees” from a single town in Syria and is sending them east to Khorsabad for the new royal garden. Both kings claim to have grown cotton in their gardens. Wondrously, wisps of cotton textile have now been found in the tomb of Sargon’s queen. At Nineveh, Sennacherib had a garden pavilion that Dalley suggests was more than just a place for quiet reflection. It may have allowed him to “escape among the butterflies from quarrelsome wives, like Solomon in Rudyard Kipling’s story The Butterfly That Stamped”.

Half of you may be warming to these henpecked Assyrian garden owners. They worked in a long tradition. Memorably, a ninth-century king, Ashurnasirpal, describes how “streams of water as numerous as the stars of heaven” flow among the many fruit trees in his “pleasure garden” at Nimrud. “Like a squirrel,” he tells us, “I pick fruit in the garden.” I try to think of him when squirrels otherwise enrage me by picking off my garden’s walnuts.

Dalley goes on some magnificent detours through Assyrian pleasures and technologies. She makes a fascinating case for the Assyrians’ interest in sports, long before the Olympics. She shows that they had certainly mastered the art of solid bronze-casting, whose absence has been cited to explain why the ancient Greeks and Romans never had an “industrial revolution”. Above all, she sets out her understanding of the sort of “screw” by which Assyrians lifted water up to higher levels against its natural flow. She has profited here from her memorable involvement in a BBC television programme in which a reconstruction of her first suggestion was attempted. Undergraduates named it, typically, “Stephanie’s screw”, but she presents her case for it again with even better practical underpinning.

The Assyrian kings at Nimrud and Nineveh were certainly masters of public works. If we want to escape austerity by spending heavily on infrastructure, we really need to study Sennacherib for ideas on how to do it. Did he, though, build the real Hanging Garden at Nineveh, helped by his queen Naqia, who was not so much a homesick moaner as a patron of public works in her own right?

Crisply, Dalley deals death blows to the Babylonian orthodoxy among previous archaeologists. The Germans’ suggested site for the Hanging Garden, she shows, is impossible. Woolley’s idea of a garden ziggurat is untenable too. A recently-suggested site, by the South Palace’s western outwork, has no link through to the palace, is not by the river’s likely course and “the walls would have denied the plants any sunshine for most of the daylight hours”. The Greek Herodotus certainly went to Babylon but he never says a word about a hanging garden in his description of the city. For Dalley it was never there. It was up at Nineveh and was later mislocated by legend and by a loose use of the name “Babylon”.

I do not know Babylon’s sources or primary archaeology. I cannot give you “the answer” just because I love gardening and teach Greek and Roman history. My sticking points are openly confronted by Dalley but, as of now, I am not sure I believe her ways round them are sufficient. Alexander’s historians do give a detailed account of gardens hanging in Babylon and I cannot believe it is all a fictional fantasy, whereas the Garden had really been somewhere else. In 612 Nineveh “fell” but Dalley argues that Nineveh continued to be inhabited for many more years. But would a Hanging Garden and its screw-system of watering really have gone on after such a sack? We are talking of something much more elaborate than Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. It needed scores of workers to maintain it. I continue to sit on the fence, undecided.

Every good summer needs a controversy and Dalley’s high-class book and sheer likeability have now given us an excellent one. So much more is in it, from the Garden of Eden to a possible influence of the Hanging Garden on Milton’s Paradise Lost. For me the mystery persists but it is immensely enjoyable. The 6th-century BC Greek poet Phocylides once wrote that a single Greek polis or city state on a rock is superior to the “folly” of Nineveh. I have lived my life as a Greek historian in dialogue with that comment. If the Hanging Garden is in Nineveh, the “folly” included a world wonder of a garden but I will not be changing my devotional choice of subject.

‘The Mystery of The Hanging Garden of Babylon’ by Stephanie Dalley is published by Oxford University Press, priced £25

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