Millennia after its destruction, the city of Babylon remains a symbol of extravagance and wealth. Its most celebrated feature was one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’.The so-called ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ astounded and perplexed observers. In the first century BC Diodorus Siculus described them as ‘gardens suspended in the air’. From a distance they were described as looking like a terraced hillside, or the rows of seats in a Greek theatre.They are said to have been built for a favoured wife of Nebuchadnezzar who came from the mountainous country in the North. Some experts even believe that the ancient chroniclers got the location wrong and that the gardens were not at Babylon at all, rather that they were built centuries earlier by King Sennacherib of Nineveh.
But wherever they were located the mystery remains - how could such elaborate gardens possibly have been irrigated? Ancient sources describe a mysterious, hidden system of irrigation which carried water to the summit. So what was this system and how did it work? Without any archaeological evidence for the gardens surviving this question becomes even more difficult to answer.The experts are divided. John Oleson, an expert on ancient water-lifting devices, believes that a whole series of Shadufs may have been used. Commonly used to this day in the Near East, shadufs are basic levers with buckets at one end and a counterweight at the other. But Stephanie Dalley thinks not. Reading his ancient writings, she believes Sennacherib employed screws mounted within tubes to lift water. If this is true, then Sennacherib’s engineers invented the Archimedes Screw centuries before Archimedes was born.Water engineer Jo Parker attempts to test both theories by reconstructing each method to see if they were feasible using the technology of the time.
However, there is one final challenge to face. Stephanie Dalley insists that the sources say that Sennacherib made his screw out of bronze. Experimental bronze caster Andrew Lacey attempts to cast a bronze screw using only the technology of ancient Mesopotamia. It is the largest object he has ever cast in the field and a highly
dangerous process. But will it work?
Exotica in Mesopotamia
The most famous Mesopotamian gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. According to later sources, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (ca. 600 BCE) ordered artificial knolls, hills, and watercourses planted with exotic trees, shrubs, and trailing vines, all this effort so that his Median queen might be less homesick for her native mountains (Finkel 1988). Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence for these wondrous gardens. Many reconstructions at various locations in Babylon have been proposed, entailing such elements as vaulted supports, water wheels, terraces, and aqueducts. A recent study suggests that the Hanging Gardens may not have been at Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon at all, but at Sennacherib’s Nineveh, ca. 700 BCE, where ingenious devices, forerunners of the Archimedes screw, raised water to several garden levels (Dalley 1994).
The Sumerian hero-king Gilgamesh is associated in symbolically important ways with indigenous and exotic flora and fauna. At the beginning and end of The Epic of Gilgamesh, he stands on the walls of his city Uruk, looking down at its rich gardens, part of his enduring legacy (Kovacs 1989). One of the epic’s incidents involves cutting rare giant cedars and the dire consequences of that action. In a later episode, Gilgamesh travels in despair through darkness, searching for answers to his questions about death. He emerges into sunlight to find a garden of immortal jewels, with lapis lazuli foliage, carnelian fruit, and flowering clusters of semiprecious stones. A fictional letter composed centuries later as a school exercise has Gilgamesh request a shipment of rarities from an unnamed foreign king: thousands of black horses with white stripes, thousands of white horses with black stripes, and “anything precious, exotic, which I have never seen” (B. R. Foster 1995).
The Neo-Assyrian kings of the ninth to seventh centuries BCE elevated exotic flora and fauna to their greatest positions in the Mesopotamian imperialistic program (Aynard 1972; Curtis and Reade 1995; Reade 1983). During this period, relentless military campaigns extended Assyrian power from the Mediterranean to beyond the
Zagros Mountains. Much of Assyrian art, especially palace wall reliefs, was propagandistic, intended to describe and commemorate events in distant places. In addition, the reliefs often served to depict plant and animal tribute from foreign lands, as well as their installation in botanical and zoological gardens that were the pride of kings. With Assurnasirpal II’s building of a new palace and administrative center at Nimrud in 879 BCE, the acquisition of exotica escalated. Living tribute came to Nimrud from every quarter: monkeys, elephants, bears, rare deer, sea creatures. A major group of reliefs shows foreigners carrying luxury goods and prestige items, including a pair of leashed monkeys. The king himself actively sought out unusual specimens in the course of his military campaigns. As Assurnasirpal proudly writes, “I collected their herds, and caused them to bring forth their increase. From lands I traveled and hills I traversed, the trees and seeds I noticed and collected” (Wiseman 1983). No archaeological traces remain of what must have been extensive gardens,
parklands, and animal enclosures at Nimrud.
Shalmaneser III, successor to Assurbanipal II, continued these patterns of acquisition and display, but sought to use exotica in art to greater narrative effect (Curtis and Reade 1995). Foreign topography, people, plants, and animals appear in more pictorially unified compositions, which visually confirmed their forcible integration into the Assyrian world. The embossed bronze bands made ca. 845 BCE for the massive wooden gates of a royal building at Balawat present Assyrian military and other enterprises, among them the royal visit to the source of the Tigris, or perhaps the Tigris Tunnel. The explorers wade through naturalistic grottoes, flares held high above the stream.
The four sides of the ca. 825 BCE Black Obelisk bear register blocks showing tribute brought before Shalmaneser, including “camels whose backs are doubled,” elephants, simians, and a single-horned creature, possibly a hippotamus. As on the Balawat Gate bands, exotica receive more sculpturally coherent treatment than they did in the essentially linear reliefs of Assurbanipal II. A century later, Sargon II (721–705 BCE) founded a new capital city at Khorsabad, on the Khosr River north of Nineveh. According to his inscriptions, Sargon brought in skilled artists from Assyrianheld territories to embellish his palace (Curtis and Reade 1995). Perhaps due to their influence, the Khorsabad reliefs reflect a more sophisticated use of space, in which the Assyrians move with stylistic and personal assurance through landscapes rich in exotic flora and fauna. On panels depicting timber being transported by water, for example, wave and ripple patterns fill entire slabs, with exotic marine creatures swimming among the boats. Other scenes show Sargon’s royal parks, complete with rare trees, elegant kiosks, and pleasure lakes. Assyrian hunting parties form overlapping friezes against a dense, controlled background of plants and animals.
Sargon II’s son and successor was Sennacherib (704–681 BCE), a king of exceptional vision. Early in his reign, he established a new capital at Nineveh. His “Palace Without Rival” featured rooms and courts decorated with sculptured panels unprecedented in their quantity and innovative quality (Russell 1991). For the narrative
scenes, Sennacherib’s artists filled whole slabs, as begun at Khorsabad, but here the layered divisions between foreground figures and background landscapes often disappear, resulting in more complex spatial and temporal relationships. Sennacherib’s reliefs are the first internally consistent representations in Mesopo-tamian art, with exotica playing major roles in this development. In many instances, as in the marshland conquest scenes, they expand the pictorial field, while in others they afford cinemagraphically changing vistas undulating above and below the central narrative sequence, as in the throne room program of colossal winged bulls being quarried and transported. Not only are exotica rendered highly naturalistically, from the reeds bending in the current to the gnarled conifers clinging to wind-swept hills, but they also have become indispensible signifiers of Assyrian prowess. Like his ancestors, Sennacherib used botanical and zoological gardens as important components of his reign’s propagandistic message.
To complement the “Palace Without Rival,” Sennacherib’s gardens were novel creations, inspired by the king’s personal interest in hydraulics, botany, and animal breeding. As noted above, forerunners of the Archimedes screw brought water to intricately terraced gardens. Near Nineveh, Sennacherib reports that he “had a swamp made to control the flow of water, planted reeds there, and released herons, wild pigs, and other animals...the plantations were most successful; the herons which came from far away nested, and the pigs and others produced young in great numbers” (Wiseman 1983). Among the exotic trees in his orchards were ones “bearing wool,” apparently a reference to cotton. Some of Sennacherib’s gardens still flourished in the reign of his grandson, Assurbanipal (668–ca. 631 BCE), whose reliefs at Nineveh include views of terraces with vaulted aqueducts, elaborate plantings, and pillared kiosks. If the Hanging Gardens were indeed Sennacherib’s, these reliefs may afford an idea of their appearance. Other panels show Assurbanipal’s own gardens and zoos, as well as foreign battles and lion hunts. Assurbanipal’s sculptors seem to have been particularly interested in seeking fresh narrative possibilities.
One is their increasing use of internal sequences as linking devices among multi-register panels. We follow, for example, a caged lion as it is released, springs forward, and is shot by archers. Another device is their insertion of cuneiform captions or epigraphs, especially into complex combat scenes filling huge slabs. A third involves their expanded understanding of the crucial importance of negative space in
creating boundless potential for narrative statements. With these artistic means at their disposal, artists could rely less on exotica to provide the necessary temporal and spatial frameworks. Granted, Assurbanipal’s botanical and zoological scenes contain exotica rendered with careful precision—vines twisting about trees, stems bending under the weight of lilies, deer trapped in taut nets. Yet the sense of situational, propagandistic immediacy is gone, replaced by confidence in the greater power of text and compositional manipulation. Historical events brought these developments to an end: fifteen years after Assurbanipal, Nineveh fell to the Medes, and the Assyrian empire was finished.
Source: Foster, Karen Polinger (1998). "Gardens of Eden: Flora and Fauna in the Ancient Near East, p.322-325
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The gardens that Nebuchadnezzar made for his wife have been accounted in many lists as one of the seven wonders of the world. The other part of ancient Bablyon that made it on the list were its incredible walls.
The ancient ruins of this famous city lie about 50 miles to the south west of Bagdad in Iraq. The hanging gardens of Babylon were a present to Nebuchadnezzar's wife that contained exotic plants and animals which were imported from all over the world. Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered and controlled virtually all of the then known world and he made use of these conquests in furnishing his garden with decor which made it become one of the seven wonders of the world.
Ancient Greek historians, Strabo and Philo, gave us these description of the hanging gardens of Babylon:
"The Garden is quadrangular, and each side is four plethra long. It consists of arched vaults which are located on checkered cube-like foundations.. The ascent of the uppermost terrace-roofs is made by a stairway..."
"The Hanging Garden has plants cultivated above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in an upper terrace rather than in the earth. The whole mass is supported on stone columns... Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow down sloping channels... These waters irrigate the whole garden saturating the roots of plants and keeping the whole area moist. Hence the grass is permanently green and the leaves of trees grow firmly attached to supple branches... This is a work of art of royal luxury and its most striking feature is that the labor of cultivation is suspended above the heads of the spectators."