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Tom Holland

By the Rivers of Nineveh

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced
By Stephanie Dalley (Oxford University Press 279pp 25)

In the early, heroic days of archaeology, it was invariably the ambition of those who headed out to the Levant, armed with pick and shovel, to track down wonders that they had read about in classical literature or the Bible. We tend to remember the successes. To this day the paradigm remains Heinrich Schliemann, whose faith in the historicity of the Trojan War led him to identify the walls of Troy and to gaze on what he described as the face of Agamemnon. Less well remembered are the failures. In 1898, when a German archaeologist named Robert Koldewey arrived in Babylon, he was keen to emulate Schliemann and secure further funding for his excavations by bringing to light the city's long-lost landmarks. Of these, the most famous and romantic proved the most elusive as well. Despite almost two decades of searching, Koldewey and his team never succeeded in identifying the location of any hanging garden in Babylon. Nor has anyone since.

The disappointment has never quite lifted. The Hanging Garden was perhaps the most wondrous of all the seven wonders identified by classical writers as global must-sees. Shimmering on the easterly extremity of Greek and Roman horizons, it was a marvel fashioned as much out of flowers and foliage as stone, and was cultivated - so tradition had it - as a monument to uxorious affection.

Within the palace the king erected lofty stone terraces, in which he closely reproduced mountain scenery, completing the resemblance by planting them with all manner of trees and constructing the so-called Hanging Garden; because his wife, having been brought up in Media, had a passion for mountain surroundings.

So wrote Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century AD. He identified 'the king' as Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon's greatest ruler, who had reigned some seven centuries previously and sacked Jerusalem, among a host of other feats. No wonder, then, that Koldewey should have looked for the Hanging Garden where he did.

Except that just as there turned out to be a lack of archaeological evidence, so also was there an awkward lacuna in the sources. As Stephanie Dalley points out, in her learned and never less than gripping study of the Hanging Garden, Josephus was the sole classical writer to name Nebuchadnezzar as the king responsible for its construction. Although he was quoting an earlier, Babylonian writer by the name of Berossus, Dalley convincingly demonstrates that much in Josephus's version - including the namechecking of Nebuchadnezzar and the tradition that his wife suffered from homesickness - was inserted by Greek writers in the transmission of Berossus. Not only that, but among Nebuchadnezzar's own building inscriptions - of which more than two hundred survive - there is not a single mention of any garden. Nor, setting the seal on the puzzle, does it feature in the works of Greek writers such as Herodotus, who provided otherwise comprehensive surveys of Babylon. 'We have reached the point', as Dalley puts it, 'when there is so much negative evidence that the absence is significant.'

Meanwhile, in Assyria, Babylon's great rival as the superpower of ancient Mesopotamia, evidence for the existence of hanging gardens is everywhere. From Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian kings, comes a boast that could hardly be more explicit. 'I raised the height of the surroundings of the palace, to be a Wonder for all peoples. I gave it the name: "Unrivalled Palace". A high garden imitating the Amanus mountains I laid out next to it, with all kinds of aromatic plants.' So proclaimed Sennacherib, who lived a century before Nebuchadnezzar, and who dealt with Babylon much as Babylon would go on to deal with Jerusalem. Like other Assyrian kings, he combined his career abroad as a brutal warlord with a taste for domestic grands projets. The sacking of foreign cities enabled him to fund the beautifying of his own. Nineveh, under Sennacherib's rule, became 'a clever place where hidden knowledge resides for every kind of skilful work'. Spectacular palaces were combined with vast canals and aqueducts. Particularly impressive was Sennacherib's development of a massive turning screw, 'in order to draw water up all day long'. Aromatic plants, hydraulic management and technical innovation: Nineveh is as obvious a fit with the Hanging Garden as Babylon is not.

For decades now, Dalley has been puzzling away at this discrepancy between the tradition and the available evidence, and The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon is the summation of her research. In truth, the title is a bit of a misnomer, since everything within the book is directed towards the crowning of Sennacherib as the builder of what, Dalley argues, should properly be known as the Hanging Garden of Nineveh. There remain plenty of scholars who still stick by the traditional attribution of the wonder to Nebuchadnezzar, but I suspect that, with the publication of this book, Dalley will be adding to her already heavyweight roster of supporters. The shifting of an entrenched orthodoxy is never simple, and to attempt it can seem, as Dalley ruefully acknowledges, 'the height of arrogance, revisionist scholarship at its worst'. Nevertheless, when the inadequacies of a received tradition are as glaring as they clearly are in the case of the Hanging Garden, it is a cause for celebration that there are scholars of the calibre of Stephanie Dalley to propose a convincing alternative. 'Assyriology', she says, 'is a relatively recent discipline, and a new understanding is necessary in this instance.' Such an understanding is precisely what this book provides.


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Tom Holland is the author of Persian Fire. His new translation of Herodotus will be published by Penguin this autumn.


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray