Friday, September 28, 2012

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
By the third century B. C. E., the Hellenistic Greeks controlled the lands of many ancient civilizations, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was an age of cultural, scientific, and philosophical enquiry and technological inventiveness, in which the achievements of the older civilizations were critically compared with those of the Greeks and with contemporary works. Some were singled out as exceptional feats of architecture, craftsmanship, and engineering, a changing list that became known as the Seven Wonders of the World. Among these were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The earliest surviving mention of these gardens is around 270 B. C. E. by the Babylonian author Berossus: He wrote of a palace built by Nebuchadrezzar II in just fifteen days, in which a "hanging garden" was constructed to please the king's Median queen, an edifice resembling a mountain with stone terraces planted with trees. An inscription of the king himself described this palace as being high as a mountain and partially constructed of stone, although he did not mention a garden. Later Greek writers furnish more details of the gardens: They were built on stone foundations with brickwork above and layers of reeds and bitumen, all standard features of Mesopotamian architecture. A hidden mechanism fed the terraces with water to support the trees, and there were pavilions among the vegetation. Pleasure gardens stocked with exotic trees and plants were often part of Babylonian and Assyrian palaces, an extension of the common shade-tree gardens. What made those of Babylon a Wonder of the World was probably their magnificence, their tiered arrangement, and the engineering feat involved in supplying them with water.

Water-lifting devices were well known to the Mesopotamians. The simplest was the shaduf, used for lifting water from canals for irrigation, and for raising water from a lower to a higher watercourse or reservoir. To supply the hanging gardens with water in this way would have required an army of gardeners and, more importantly, would have been visible. The Greek texts refer to a hidden mechanism: This could have been an Archimedes screw, a device that seems to be described in the inscriptions of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, centuries before Archimedes. Can the Hanging Gardens be identified? Babylon has been thoroughly plundered by brick robbers, and only the foundations of its buildings remain. Following the texts, those of the Hanging Gardens should be of stone, massive enough to support a substantial tiered superstructure, and situated close to the river from which the water was raised. A possible candidate for this is the series of structures that lies between the river and the North and South Palaces. The Western Outwork is a walled enclosure built of baked bricks set in bitumen, with walls 20 meters thick. To its north lies an unexcavated area, west of the North Palace. Perhaps here there was once an arrangement of terraces supporting gardens planted with trees and irrigated with water drawn from the Euphrates: Detailed investigation of this area is needed to further this suggestion, which many scholars find unconvincing.

Some doubt that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon ever existed. Herodotus, who may have visited Babylon in the fifth century B. C. E., made no mention of the gardens, although he accurately described many of the city's most impressive features. Coupled with the difficulty of identifying a convincing location for the gardens in Babylon, this seems strong grounds for dismissing the Hanging Gardens as merely a legend.

Another theory, however, has recently been proposed. Herodotus, writing only a century after the fall of the Babylonian Empire, often did not distinguish between the Babylonians and the Assyrians, whose cities had fallen into decay after the Babylonians sacked them in 612 B. C. E. Babylon, however, continued to flourish for many centuries. Suppose the Hanging Gardens had been located not in Babylon, but in the now-ruined Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and the tale of their glories transferred to Babylon, famous for its magnificence? 

There is much to support this view, first suggested in the 1850s, forgotten, and recently proposed anew by Stephanie Dalley. The Assyrians constructed magnificent gardens in their palaces, described in royal inscriptions. Scenes from the palace walls at Nineveh often depict these gardens: One, for example, shows Ashurbanipal and his queen picnicking beneath a grapevine, laden with fruit, among the trees of their garden whose diverse varieties the sculptors have been careful to depict. Significantly, another of Ashurbanipal's palace reliefs shows the gardens of his grandfather Sennacherib's vast "Palace without a Rival:" They rise up over tree-clad slopes to a terrace with a pillared pavilion, and through them run streams fed by an aqueduct. Sennacherib took a keen interest in civil and hydraulic engineering and the creation of artificial landscapes. His inscriptions describe and his reliefs show a nature reserve outside Nineveh, a swamp created for water management, stocked with wild boar, deer, and fish, and attracting heron and other birds. The aqueducts, weirs, dams, and tunnels he constructed to bring water to Nineveh from the Zagros, some of which are still in use today, watered a huge area of arable land and orchards around the city as well as parks and gardens within it, of which the most sumptuous was the royal pleasure park beside his palace. This he described as "A park, the image of Mount Amanus, in which all kinds of spices, fruit trees and timber trees, the sustenance of the mountain and Chaldea, I had collected and I planted them next to my palace" (quoted in Leick 2001: 228).


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