By Stephanie Dalley (Guest Contributor)
Why could archaeologists not find the site of the fabled Hanging Garden of Babylon beside Nebuchadnezzar’s enormous palace at Babylon? Why did Nebuchadnezzer omit to mention that he had created a world wonder in his complete and detailed inscriptions? Why were the Greek accounts of the Hanging Garden written so many centuries later than the time when it was created?
These are some of the intriguing questions that impelled me to find out how to understand the tradition. Earlier scholars had sometimes despaired of a real historical Wonder, and suggested pure legendary fiction, but that was not satisfactory because all the other ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ were known to have been real monuments – the Egyptian pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Statue of Zeus of Olympia, and the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
While working on an inscription of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who reigned a century earlier than Nebuchadnezzar, I began to realize that details of his palace and garden at Nineveh matched some of the extraordinary details of the Hanging Garden described by the later Greek writers, not least the raising of water up the garden high up on the citadel mound, by means of an Archimedean screw long before the lifetime of Archimedes himself. Sennacherib described his palace with its garden as ‘a wonder for all peoples’.
At the top of the garden, Greek writers described a pillared walkway roofed with layers of matting and soil so that trees grew above it. A drawing made in the mid-nineteenth century, of a panel of sculpture now lost, showed just such a pillared walkway at the top of a garden. The drawing is preserved in the British Museum. The original panel was part of an Assyrian palace at Nineveh.
Water was conducted on to the citadel via canals and aqueducts from a gorge in mountains over 90 km away. This remarkable engineering work was studied between the two World Wars, and in recent times has been enriched by tracking from early satellite photos. Alexander the Great would have admired it when he camped nearby with his army before the Battle of Gaugamela. In 2013 I made a documentary for Channel 4 about that aspect of the World Wonder, which has been shown all over the world.
Sennacherib had inherited from his father rule over the city of Babylon, but after his son as regent was abducted by enemies, in his fury he removed the city’s gods to Assyria, so that Nineveh, his capital city, became as if a new ‘Babylon’. When the Assyrian empire came to an end, around 612 BC, Nineveh was not totally destroyed, as Hebrew prophets described with typical literary exaggeration. It continued to be inhabited, rising again to become the great city that Jonah found, and which was well known to historians of the Roman empire.
Stephanie Dalley is an Honorary Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford, a Member of Wolfson College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. 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. She has written several books on the myths and culture of ancient Mesopotamia, with special reference to their impact on later civilizations, many of which have been translated into Arabic, Italian, and Japanese.