Friday, September 20, 2013
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or Nineveh?
When archaeologists began digging at Babylon in the late 1800s, they naturally hoped to find the remains of the gardens and answer some of these questions. Despite decades of searching, they never did. The Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar has been thoroughly explored as these things go, to no avail. Various structures were sometimes proposed as possible garden foundations, but these notions were not convincing even to those who advanced them. Not only that, but one thing that has been found in abundance from ancient Mesopotamia is inscriptions in which kings boasted about their achievements in two areas: war and building. Every halfway famous king left us a detailed record of all his major construction projects. Nobody has found any record of a great garden built at Babylon. The very long and grand boast of Nebuchadnezzar the Great has survived in two complete versions and many partial ones, none of which mention gardens. In one of my favorite unclassifiable books, The Seven Wonders of the World, John and Elizabeth Romer called the Hanging Gardens the most "insubstantial and elusive" of the wonders, for "there never was such a thing in Babylon."
There is much else in Dalley's book besides. The Seven Wonders were all technically marvelous as well as visually impressive, including the Hanging Gardens, and Dalley gives a long discussion of Assyrian technology. The planting of trees on top of great buildings was part of the marvel, but there was also the watering system. Several authorities mention "screws," and Diodorus Siculus in particular insisted that the mechanisms that drew up the water could not be seen. Dalley interpreted these accounts and some very obscure boasts of Sennacherib to mean that the water employed banks of "Archimedes" screws -- which, by the way, almost certainly existed many centuries before Archimedes. This part is not entirely convincing, but it is certainly possible, and as Dalley shows the Assyrian kings did devote a lot of attention to moving water around.
So, a fascinating book, and I am converted. I am sad to report, though, that reading it was a grim slog. Dalley belongs to what I call the Hiram Bingham school of archaeological writing, after the man who managed to write a dismal, boring book about discovering Machu Picchu. If you are really curious, my advice is to first read the Hanging Gardens chapter in the Romers' wonderful book, then skim through Dalley's text for the key parts of the argument. Trust me, you won't miss much.