Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh

Sennacherib’s garden without a rival

“In this palace he erected very high walks, supported by stone pillars; and by planting what was called a pensile paradise, and replenishing it with all sorts of trees, he rendered the prospect an exact resemblance of a mountainous country.”
Josephus, Contra Appion, lib.1. c.19-20 (quoting Berossus).

This Assyrian relief from Nineveh (now housed at the British Museum) shows trees hanging in the air on terraces and plants suspended on stone arches that resemble those from Sennacherib’s waterways, supporting the idea that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually located at Nineveh.

This Assyrian relief from Nineveh (now housed at the British Museum) shows trees hanging in the air on terraces and plants suspended on stone arches that resemble those from Sennacherib’s waterways, supporting the idea of a hanging garden at Nineveh.

At the start of the seventh century B.C.E., the Assyrian king Sennacherib called his new palace at Nineveh a “palace without a rival.” The Hebrew Bible is less kind, describing Nineveh as “that great city with more than 120,000 people who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” (Jonah 4:11). Located by modern Mosul in Iraq, Nineveh was undoubtedly the metropolis of its day. Was the construction so extensive as to include one of the Seven Wonders of the World?

Okay, I know what you are thinking. We know where the Seven Wonders were, because the locations are included in their names. The Great Pyramid of Giza. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Let’s stop at that last one. In the third century B.C.E., Berossus wrote that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens almost three hundred years earlier, and his statement was copied by later historians, including Josephus. However, there is no archaeological evidence indicating the presence of massive gardens at Babylon, and while we have hundreds of documents by Nebuchadnezzer describing his building activities, none mention his horticultural pursuits. Who else may have built the legendary gardens?

Imagine a gardener, and a tranquil picture probably comes to mind. When Biblical Archaeology Review readers think of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, tranquility is probably the last thing that comes to mind. Sennacherib rampaged through Judah, laying waste to Lachish (immortalized in his extensive reliefs on the siege—click here for seven seminal articles on the city) and besieging Jerusalem until he had King Hezekiah “locked up like a bird in a cage.”

Oxford scholar Stephanie M. Dalley presents a different side of Sennacherib in The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder, in which she presents Nineveh as the actual location of the Hanging Gardens. Dalley entertainingly presented the theory in a recent episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead entitled “The Lost Gardens of Babylon” (PBS has the entire episode online for free here).
 


 
From Babylon to Baghdad: Ancient Iraq and the Modern West examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the origins of modern Western society. This free eBook details the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture.
 

 
Swinging Assyrians. A drawing by Layard's draughtsman of a bas-relief found at Nineveh shows Assyrians enjoying the Hanging Gardens by playing sports, boating and even enjoying what appears to be a swing-set.

Swinging Assyrians. A drawing by Layard's draughtsman of a bas-relief found at Nineveh shows Assyrians enjoying the Hanging Gardens by playing sports, boating and even enjoying what appears to be a swing-set.

Sennacherib’s construction of a new capital at Nineveh was a massive endeavor, and the city and its garden were supplied with a water management project unparalleled at the time. Sennacherib’s canal system, which was some 50 miles long and as wide as the Panama Canal in some sections, featured advanced sluice gates, aqueducts, millions of dressed stones and waterproof cement. His construction paid off as the city quickly flourished, and the site caught the eye of famed 19th-century archaeologist Austin Henry Layard. Much of the canal system has been buried under recent construction, so archaeologists are using Cold War-era Corona spy satellites to identify the canals and other landscape patterns before the construction (click here to view Nineveh in the late 1960s and early 70s via the University of Arkansas’ new Corona Atlas of the Middle East). The PBS episode features conversations with Harvard University’s Jason Ur, a pioneer in the adaptation of Corona photography for archaeological purposes.

Assyrian records support the idea that the Hanging Gardens were actually built at Nineveh. The British Museum’s Garden Relief (see the image at the top of this article) from Nineveh shows trees hanging in the air on terraces and plants suspended on stone arches that resemble stones uncovered by archaeologists along from Sennacherib’s waterways. A bas-relief from Sennacherib’s palace, copied in a drawing by Layard’s draughtsman, shows sporting events at the garden (including an Assyrian swinging on a swing–above, right). The garden includes a roofed pillared walkway with the roots of trees growing out of the roofing. Sennacherib himself compares his hanging terraced garden to mountain growth:

I planted a great park beside the palace, like that of the Amanus Mountain, with all kinds of herbs and fruit trees which came from the mountains and from Babylonia

But how did the water reach these high terraces? Canal building was a feat of labor, but Sennacherib needed an equal feat of engineering to raise the water. I imagine that when Dalley noticed that Sennacherib’s language describing a date palm tree–which features screw-like bark patterning–matches the shape of an an Archimedes screw, she must have had a ‘eureka!’ moment to match that of the Greek mathematician himself. This water-raising screw is traditionally attributed to Archimedes, who lived hundreds of years after Sennacherib, but it has long been assumed that the invention was older than its eponymous “inventor.” A clip from the PBS series shows how the Archimedes screw would have been used to carry a steady supply of water against gravity.

 
This is just a brief clip from the Secrets of the Dead’s “The Lost Gardens of Babylon,” which is available for free online. The program explores Assyrian texts and art, ancient water systems, satellite photography and even sends an Iraqi film crew to explore the site itself, located in a turbulent region of the war-torn country.

 


 

Related Content in the BAS Library

Mordechai Cogan, “Sennacherib’s Siege of Jerusalem: Once or Twice?Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2001.

Deborah A. Thomas, “Uncovering Nineveh,” Archaeology Odyssey, September/October 2004.

David Ussishkin, “Answers at Lachish,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1979.

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  1. alex says

    I coulda thought of that

  2. Varghese says

    Yes, there is a good possibility for hanging gardens to have existed in Nineveh. Part of the reason when Babylonians could sack the city was the Khosr river which flowed right through the centre of city of Nineveh flooded seriously damaging the city walls made of mud bricks. Interestingly, famed walls of Babylon too were indeed impenetrable, with the only way into the city through one of its many gates or through the Euphrates, which ebbed beneath its thick walls, enabling the Persians take over. Also Hebrew bible says in Isa 23:13 ” Behold, the land of the Chaldeans (Babylon): this people was not; the Assyrian (Nimrod) founded it for them that dwell in the wilderness; they set up their towers; they overthrew the palaces thereof; they made it a ruin.” That means that Assyrian empire existed before the Egyptian and there was no “pre-Assyrian-Babylon” and also was in existence for much longer than many people realise.

  3. Zheng says

    I do not believe that people of that region of the world were biologically capable of this kind of development due to their lower intelligence and adaptability.

    Has any archaeologist explored the likely possibility that Chinese or other Asian humans provided technology transfer to achieve the results.

  4. nabih says

    Zheng you are ideat racist

  5. Paul says

    These articles tha BAS posts are like those rains that arrive in the desert that bring with their coolness an intoxicating aroma of the the vegetation that grows wild (and act at times, as a hallucinogen in your sleep). Thank you for that reference from Sennacherib about obtaining plant species from Babylonia like the Genesis 2:8 reference to the garden in the east and judging by how many allusions there are to Sumerian mythology in Genesis 2-4, I would venture to say that the “garden” in question represents the literary works of Sumeria (Philo the Alexandrian philosopher interprates the garden as a place of intellectual delights, thus the official interpetation of Eden as “delight, luxuriance”). that pre-monarchic Israelites inherited from their cousins the Hurrians (mountain people) who were integrated into the tribe of Judah, and mentioned as Kharu in the annals of Pharaoh Set I.
    Personally I think that this portion of Genesis was written about the beginning of the first millenium B.C.E., so that the reference to Eden is possibly Bit Adini mentioned in Neo-Assyrian annals of the 9th century B.C.E. The site of Til Barsip also had collossal statues of two bulls, each with a ruler’s inscription who are thought to have been Hittites who were established by the Neo-Hittite city-state Carchemesh about the same time (1000 B.C.E.) the Cherubim are mentioned in Genesis 3:24. Also significant is the site of Til Barsip (Beth Aden, Amos 1:5) as a strategic objective of the Assyrians for access to trade goods and the traditional fetishes like collecting a botanic representation of the mountains of Amanus in northeastern Canaan. Then you have the interpretation of Josephus, though he was refering to a Babylonian, not Assyrian king who built an elaborite palace:
    “Now in this palace he erected very high walks, supported by stone pillars, and by planting what he called pensile paradise, and replenishing it with all sorts of trees, he rendered the prospect of an exact resemblance of of a mountainous country. This he did to please his queen, because she had been brought up in Media, and was fond of a mountainous situation.”
    Note the use of the Persian loanword “pardes” refering to an enclosed park, not inconsistant with the above photo os someone having a good time at the theme park. The refernce to Nabolassar’s queen being from Media might also hint at a variant interpretation of Eden to mean “steppe.”
    In response to Zheng it would likely be through this region that interaction with cultures in Asia through what would become the Silk Road and the Medes are also mentioned in Neo-Assyrian annals in the early 9th century B.C.E., at a time of significant expansion with their capitol city of Calah (Genesis 10:11-12).
    As for the issue of race I can only cite a Sumerian reference to a hairy creature form the Gilgamesh saga who was known as Enkidu, possibly based on accounts of a legendary orangetang-like humanoid, possibly from China, that was driven out of his habitat by the successful Asian cultures. Perhaps he was a remnant of the race of Denisovians, named after the place they were discovered in Siberia. From my understanding of the latest theory of human evolution, Asians more closely resemble Homo-Erectus who migrated out of Africa and became the prototype of a variety of species that ultimately became assimilated in modern humans with the people from Europe to Southeast Asia assimilated with Neanderthals. Of course this is where people err with assumptions of superiority as in the case of the qualities of Enkidu who lived among the wildlife and empathized with the animals he associated with and freed them from traps, but when he became assimilated into society the animals avoided him. Though uncultured he exhibited traits that were noble, certainly when contrasted with the excess of power exhibited by Gilgamesh, and at the end of his life , a goddess told Enkidu, “You are innocence.”
    The Nazis cooked the books on the theory of evolution and apparently they burned the works of the 19th century C.E. German philosopher Hegel whose interpretation of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil pertained to scientific inquiry as being in a perpetual state of growth like the buds and leaves and branches of trees that is representative of our limited and often undeveloped knowledge that is exasperated by regimes that promote distortions of truth, becoming a “proverb in the mouth of a fool” (Proverbs 26:7).

  6. Chavoux says

    What is not explained, is how the hanging gardens of Nineveh became confused or associated with Babylon? Otherwise it is possible that both cities had similar gardens, one later than the other?

  7. Varghese says

    The idea of river flowing though a great city is also found in the Hebrew bible in Eze 47:7-12 future Jerusalem on earth as well as in new testament in Rev 22:1-3 describing Heaven.

  8. miki says

    Zheng — Ah, if true then, you must be from that part of the world.

  9. amobi says

    Thanks for the post,please can you send to me how archaeology shed more light on the reign of king Saul.

  10. Paul says

    We seem to have a variety of commentators with exotic names. In response to Chavoux; like Sennacherib, the last king of the Babylonian empire, Nabonidus, in his third year led an expedition “to the Amananus, the mountains of … fruit trees, all kinds of fruits … [he sent] from them to Babylon” (ANET, p.306). According to the dissafected Babylonian priests who were appalled at Nabonidus with his obsession with the god Sin over all other gods, especially since he regarded Sin as supreme after acquiring the building materials to construct a temple dedicated to Nana the moon god (and in my opinion, a variety of exotic plant life):
    “After he had obtained what he desired, a work of utter deceit, he built (this) abomination, a work of unholiness – when the third year was about to begin – he entrusted the ‘camp’ to his oldest (son), the first-born, the troops everywhere in the country he ordered under his (command)” (ANET, p.313).
    Thus began history’s second attempt at monotheism and like the Pharaoah Akhenaton before him, Nabonidus would be regared as a heretic.
    The Epic of Gilgamesh also evolved over time and in the earlier versions Enkidu was subserviant to Gilgamesh like a slave:
    “To acheive such equality for him, the author apparently made use of a tale that had its origins in Indo-China but spread to India and Europe. In its original form it dealt with the orangutan, thought of as wild man shunning human society, who was lured into human society like a woman. This story, as given form for the epic, endowed Enkidu with supernatural origin, and dreams presaging his coming to Gilgamesh made his status as equal and lover clear” (“The Epic of Gilgamesh; Romantic and Tragic Vision” by Thorkild Jacobsen).

  11. Paul says

    “lured into human society by a woman”…
    The 1st tablet of Gilgamesh describes Enkidu:
    “His whole body was covered thickly with hair, his head covered with hair like a woman’s; the locks of his hair grew abundantly, like those of the grain god Nisaba.”

  12. Gerrisimov says

    The hanging garden myth is no more than a cult centred around the hanging of pot plants from the rafters in the homes of these people.

  13. Varghese says

    Mr. Gerrisimov, prove your point giving the citations combined with some intelligent reasoning…. people will appreciate that better especially as to think all these are bogus stuff.

  14. Paul says

    Thank you for that, Gerrisimov, it is not impossible you’ are correct. The story of Adam includes a reference to Enkidu living among the wild animals and that “none proved to be a suitable partner for the man” (Genesis 2:20). According to the book of Daniel, the Most High sentenced Nebuchadnezer to dwell among the beasts; “…until you know that the Most High rules over the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:22). This enables the king to be redeemed as in the account of Nabonidis in the Dead Sea Scrolls. As for him eating grass like an ox, the Assyrians already documented the existance of “kunnubis” that had apparently attracted the notice of those who regarded it as tribute and a taxable commodity.
    In the city of Gezer to the west of Jerusalem were discovered seals with impressions of mythical creatures and dated to the late 8th century B.C.E., and there is one that is black with a fine-detailed depiction of the national Assyrian god of Asshur as a solar disk with outstretched wings and tail, and below him an Assyrian with a helmet and coat of mail who might be Sargon II, His hands are lifted up to the crescent moon, below which is a mythical griffon and in this particular variation, it is all eagle eccept it has two pair of bird legs (again recalling the eagle in Daniel 4:30). These griffons have been found among the Skythian nomads north of the Black Sea region (and according to Herodotus, were known to “inhale.”), and about the era that Nabonidis lived in the 6th century B.C.E., there was another culture that shared the same animistic beliefs of the Skythians and were known as the Pazyryk people.
    In the October 2004 issue of National Geographic there is the story of a princess found frozen in a tomb and her skin was intact so that her tatoos of a deer and a mythical creature (?) was visible and the items left with her gave her the status of a priestess. I couldn’t help notice the designs on a horse’s bridle made of wood and iron that give the impression that they are in motion: the ram heads are living. In the same manner as the wavy lines of the eagle feathers and the coat of mail and helmet of the Assyrian seal (it’s alive). Perhaps that is a connection with the biblical Eve, which means” life” and was the Hurrian goddess Hepa. In the 14th century B.C.E. there was a king in Jerusalem named Abdu Hepa that lends credence to the notion that there was a literary tradition of Hurrians in Jerusalem who borrowed extensively from ancient Sumerian mythology and included the cherubim of which the griffin was a member.

  15. Varghese says

    Paul, don’t you think there was a people who left these evidences behind?

  16. Paul says

    As far as I know, Varghese, nobody seems to know who the Sumerians were but it has been suggested they were from India due to the references of them as “the black-headed people.” The Hebrews preserved the Sumerian tradition of a sacred tree that is thought to be the tree of life in Genesis 3:24, as did other people like the Hurrians who comprised the kingdom of Mitanni in the upper Euphrates region and whose seal impressions depict a sacred tree flanked by two wild animals which only adds to the mysterious nature of this tree because this same motif is found all over the ancient Near East..

  17. Paul says

    I would also add that the tree of life survives in the iconic Jewish image of the Torah flanked on either side with lions.

  18. Paul says

    We have a rabbinical tradition from the book “Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer” that cites the verse from Genesis 2:15:
    “‘And the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep (samar) it,’ is interpreted in light of Genesis 3:24, ‘to keep (samar) the way of the tree of life,’ to mean that God instructed Adam to keep the way of Torah, which as wisdom is designated as a ‘tree of life’ in Proverbs 3:18″ (“Veda and Torah” by Barbara A. Holdrege, p.193).
    The Canaanite “asherah” pole that was a sacred tree and was associated with the goddess Asherah/Astarte was eventually replaced with “Wisdom” in the book of Proverbs.

  19. Eric says

    I find it remarkable that archaeologists are amazed that cities other than Babylon had incredible gardens. In all likelihood all the major cities of the time had competing gardens. Ninevah had her gardens and so did Babylon. We have amazing gardens in our cities today. Berossus mentioned Babylon’s in his writings but only as third person of a past garden because by his time the salts in the soil drawn up by evaporation poisoned the soil’s growing ability in the city eventually leading to the failure of the city over time.
    http://faculty.bennington.edu/~kwoods/classes/enviro-hist/salt%20and%20silt%20in%20mesopotamia.pdf

  20. Paul says

    Thanks for that reference, Eric, which highlights how the salinity in the stagnant irrigation systems were exasperated by centuries of drier climate with less precipitation and culminating in the third dynasty of Ur being overun with invaders from the desert. A century later (2100 B.C.E.), a great literary tradition flourished at Ur and in one work, “Lugalbanda and the Anzud,” mention is made of the barrier wall that was built to prevent further incursions of Amorites.(who became assimilated anyway and gave rise to the Amorite dynasty of Babylon under Hamurabi who is probably Amraphel the king of Shinar in Genesis 14:1). Somewhere in what is modern Iran, the would-be king Lugalbanda encountered the Anzu, a mythical lion-faced eagle whose wings were the cause of thunderstorms. After helping the Anzu-bird’s chicks, Lugalbanda was given a plant that acted like a performance inhancement drug enabling him to run fast, on the condition he not reveal who had given it to him. While this doesn’t pass for a “tree of life,” it did give Lugalbanda an advantage over his rival siblings for the throne.
    “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to plumb a matter” (Proverbs 25:1). The word for proverb in Hebrew is ‘masal’ and is the same Aramaic term used in the time of Jesus that means ‘parable.’ Interestingly, the early Christians compared the four canonical Gospels with the four faces of the cherubim (Ezekiel 1:10) and like the cherubim, each of the Gospels shares with the other Gospels. In ancient Mesopotamia the cherubim are interchangable like the four faces of the living creatures who each have four variant forms mixed with the other creatures (Ezekiel 10:14).
    If the gospels are the cherubim, then the tree of life would be Coptic Gospel of Thomas which was written before the Gospels:
    “The book records 114 ‘secret teachings’ of Jesus. It includes no other material, no miracles, no passion narrative, no stories of any kind. What ultimately mattered for the author of Thomas was not Jesus’ death and ressurection, which he does not narrate or dicuss, but the mysterious teachings that he delivered. Indeed, the Gospel begins by stating that anyone who learns the interpretation of these words will have eternal life (saying 1)” (“Lost Scriptures” by Bart Ehrman, p.19).
    In another work, “The Acts of Thomas,” the good news is brought to India, which as I’ve hinted at in a previous comment, is likely where this concept of the tree of life originated.
    It was along the Silk Road in Central Asia that saw a thriving literary movement during the Middle Ages, and among the Persian poets was Farid Ud-Din Attar who wrote about the mythical bird known as the Simorgh, the successor to Anzu:
    “It was in China, late one moonless night, the Simorgh first appeared to mortal sight. He let a feather float down through the air, and rumors of its fame spread everywhere. Throughout the world men separately concieved an image of its shape, and all believed their private fantasies iniquely true! (In China still this feather is on view, whence comes the saying you have heard, no doubt, ‘Seek knowledge, unto China seek it out’)” (“The Conference of the Birds” by Farrid Ud-Din Attar, Penguin Classics, p.34).
    http://japanesemythology.wordpress.com/horse-and-griffon-iconography-of-the-saka-scythians-in-altai-mongolia/

  21. Paul says

    In an excerpt from Jeremy Black’s “Reading Sumerian Poetry,” mention is made of the poem “Lugalbanda and the Anzud” as being in two parts with the first half dominated by the Anzu bird up to the point where it says, “The bird hurried to its nest. Lugalbanda set out for the place where his brothers were.” Then the poem describes Lugalbanda using bird metaphor of unknown species; “…like a man set from heaven upon the earth…” According to Black: “Although the Anzu is technically absent from the narrative of the second half of the poem, the effect of Lugalbanda’s encounter with it is still present when he returns from the supernatural world into the normal world …If this interpretation of the significance of recurrent bird imagery, especially in the second half of ‘Lugalbanda,’ is allowed, then the meaning of the recurrent undertone will be mainly structural, to affirm the continuing influence of the Anzu’s supernatural gifts in that part of the narrative in which it does not actively participate.”.”

  22. Paul says

    Jeremy Black also mentioned that “Lugalbanda” was written during the Third Dynasty of Ur, which means that I was incorrect when I suggested that the “Wall of Martu” that stretched from the Tigris to the Euphrates was built prior to 2100 B.C.E. That reference appears in another poem, “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” although this other poem from the Enmerkar epic cycle “Lugalbanda and the Anzud” does mention a wall built during the time of Enmerkar king of Uruk; “The city wall of Uruk lies stretched like a bird snare in the desert.” No wonder the land of Shinar is mentioned as the place of confusion (Genesis 11:9).

  23. Paul says

    Is there a connection between between Lugalbanda and the prophet Elijah in their encounter with the Thunderbird/?

    “Meanwhile the sky grew black with clouds, there was wind, and a heavy downpour fell; Ahab mounted his chariot and drove off to Jezreel. The hand of the Lord had come upon Elijah. He tied up his ‘kilt’ and ran in front of Ahab” (1:Kings 18:45-46).

    “As they kept on walking and talking, a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw it,, and he cried out, “Oh, father, father! Israel’s chariots and horsemen!” (2 Kings 2:11-12).

    In a book of Jewish mysticism known as Sepher Yetzirah (Book of Formation) that was first documented in the 6th century C.E., there is the doctrine of the Sephirot which means numbers but in the Sepher Yetzirah they are said to be not numbers but directions. Using terminology from the first chapter of Ezekiel, the ten Sefirot represent the ten sayings the universe was created with and it is the Kaballistic tree of life:
    “Ten Sefirot of nothingness. Their vision is like the ‘appearance of lightning.’ Their limit has no end. And his Word in them is ‘running and returning.’ They rush to His saying like a whirlwind. And before His throne they prostrate themselves” (Sepher Yetzirah 1:6).
    The Maaseh Merkava (Workings of the Chariot) was deemed unsuited for teaching to the general public and it may be what Jesus was refering to when he said, “The pharisees and the scribes have taken the keys of knowledge (gnosis) and hidden them” (Gospel of Thomas, saying # 39).
    “The vehicle through which one rises and enters the mystical realm is called a Markava (Chariot), and the art of engaging in this practice is called ‘working in the Chariot’ (Ma’aseh Markava). It is therefore highly significant that the scripture states, ‘His chariot (markava) is like a whirlwind (sufah)’ (Isaiah 66:15). This indicates that the sufah wind acts like a Chariot, conveying one into the mystical realm. It is a force that carries one beyond the normal limit (sof) into the transcendental.”
    “Saadia Gaon interprates Sufah to denote the dust devils that one sees in small whirlwinds, where dust assumes many shapes and forms. These forms constantly change, and a distinct form lasts only for a moment. Similarly, when one visualizes the Sefirot, one can see them in many forms, but like sand devils, they last only for an instant, and then dissolve” ((Sepher Yetzirah; The Book of Creation, by Aryeh Kaplan, p.55-56).

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