One of the great fascinations of studying the ancient past is the possibility of combining diverse, and apparently unrelated, artistic or archaeological evidence in order to unlock the secrets of long-known but baffling ancient tales and texts. This reviewer has done as much, in a small way, with Herodotus, but finding the Hanging Garden of Babylon – famous since the Renaissance from the rediscovered works of classical writers such as Ctesias, Berossus and Strabo – is a far greater prize. This is the daunting task attempted here by Stephanie Dalley, who tackles her quest with great style and perseverance.
Royal gardens in ancient Mesopotamia are known from several sources and were evidently cultivated for a variety of purposes: from humble kitchen gardens to dazzling parks, used to parade their owners’ possession of the rare and exotic in the service of indicating imperial success and status. This book expands on the author’s earlier suggestions that the elaborate gardens described for Babylon were actually at the Assyrian city of Nineveh to the north (now in the suburbs of modern Mosul) and that they are illustrated in a surviving stone relief at the British Museum.
It is certainly a tantalising idea. The colossal expansion of Nineveh overseen by Assyrian ruler Sennacherib required the construction of a series of impressive irrigation works and canals, including a tremendous stone aqueduct bringing fresh water to his favoured capital. These were indeed marvels deserving of ‘wonder’ status, although the Babylonians were more than capable of such work, and of course Nebuchadnezzar’s own engineering projects at Babylon are no less impressive than Sennacherib’s mighty Nineveh. It is also very difficult to believe that classical authors (and even some far later Sasanian Persian reliefs) were directly inspired by the cited artworks and remains from Assyria.
There are a few small errors: the relief illustrated on page 62 of the book is, for instance, not a work of Sennacherib but is stylistically (and in representation of battle equipment) from the time of Ashurbanipal, and the helmets cited later are not Roman but Partho-Sasanian.
These are all relatively minor oversights, however, and the book remains an enjoyable read throughout. Although, on balance, the reader may well feel that the central idea remains unproven, there is much on offer in Dalley’s work about which to argue and speculate.
Nigel Tallis is curator of Assyrian and Babylonian artefacts at the British Museum