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Identifying the Hanging Gardens of Babylon: The Tamarisk and Date-Palm

August 25, 2011

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon - Assyrian interpretation

In love with all things archaic and ancient, today we turn our attention to the ancient Hanging Gardens of Bablyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and a source of great mystery to historians. This being a botanical kind of blog, we will focus our attention on the plants that populated the Hanging Gardens, but not before a short dose of history.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were like the ancient world’s original tourist destinations. They were listed in various guidebooks, written about constantly (mostly in the 1st and 2nd centuries, B.C.), and visited endlessly. I imagine it would have been possible to get a sketch done with yourself in front of the Pyramid of Giza (the only ancient wonder still standing) or buy a clay miniature replica of the Lighthouse of Alexandria as a souvenir. The last to be completed, The Colossus of Rhodes, was also the first to be destroyed (280-226 BC). Store that away for trivia night.

The one of botanical interest in particular, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, are located, obviously, in ancient Babylon, in the modern entity known as Iraq, nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates River and well within the Fertile Crescent. Ecologically, economically, and historically, the Fertile Crescent has utmost importance as it is a fertile stretch of an otherwise arid area. It is considered a cradle of civilization as many cultural treasures have emerged from it (the Hanging Gardens of Babylon being one), but it draws its strength from its ability to be farmed (in fact, many modern farming techniques were developed in ancient times in this area, irrigation being one).

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were an extension of a Babylonian and Assyrian tradition of planted gardens in cities, palace courtyards, and temples (the fist to “green” their cities and some of the earliest examples of city parks). The Gardens were presumably built by the Assyrian King Sennacherib and were not actually constructed at Babylon (the town), but at Nineveh (modern-day Mosul is built right across the Tigris River from the ancient town) (Reade, 1998) (NOTE: this is contested as some believe the Gardens are indeed at Babylon). There is some debate over who actually built the gardens (Nebuchadnezzar or Queen Semiramis are all in the running) Nineveh was a happening spot with luminaries like Alexander the Great and Cyrus making their way through the town (mostly in conquest). This Sennacherib was  a forward thinking fellow and planted gardens throughout his city and palace and these became the talk of the ancient world. However, they didn’t make much of an impression on Alexander as he only asked about the roads and the military organization of the town (Reade, 1998).

The Greek historians Strabo and Siculus documented the Ardens rather extensively (despite the debate about its location and origins) and it is from them that we take the following description:

“The Garden was 100 feet (30 m) long by 100 ft wide and built up in tiers so that it resembled a theatre. The roofs of the vaults which supported the garden were constructed of stone beams some sixteen feet long, and over these were laid first a layer of reeds set in thick tar, then two courses of baked brick bonded by cement, and finally a covering of lead to prevent the moisture in the soil penetrating the roof. On top of this roof enough topsoil was heaped to allow the biggest trees to take root. The earth was levelled off and thickly planted with every kind of tree. And since the galleries projected one beyond the other, where they were sunlit, they contained conduits for the water which was raised by pumps in great abundance from the river, though no one outside could see it being done.” (Bigwood, 1980)

Every kind of tree. Great pumps. The water was presumably raised by the ingenious Archimedes’ Screw (a kind of water pump used in irrigation (Dalley, Oleson, 2003). But what of the plants, you ask? What kinds of trees were there? Stephanie Dalley gives us some insight to that question and about the Babylonian and Assyrian predilection towards gardens (they built one as long as 4000 years ago). Based on Babylonian literature, tradition, and the environmental characteristics of the area , she concluded that certainly the tamarisk (tamarix, salt-cedar)and the date-palm (Phoenix dactylifera) trees were there. Even Gilgamesh weighs in on this tradition:

“One square mile is city, one square mile is orchards, one square mile is claypits”

And in these orchards grew tamarisk and date-palms. Presumably in the Hanging Gardens as well. Trees were scarce in ancient and modern Iraq and the ones that were able to grow in hostile climates were revered. The tamarisk and date-palms are tough plants, capable of withstanding the heat and aridity of the area. And they have their economic uses as well (dates, palm oil all were, and still are, heavily traded commodities). To learn more about the economic uses of date-pal, see the Use Record on JSTOR Plant Science. Dalley presents a wonderful tradition of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians in building urban parks and gardens and how this culminated in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. A great read on a misunderstood bit of environmental and human history, one of the earliest examples of greening urban environments.

  • Dalley, S. (1993). Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved. Garden History, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Summer, 1993), pp. 1-13. Retrieved from  http://www.jstor.org/stable/1587050
One of my favorite specimens in JSTOR Plant Science is below, the Phoenix dactylifera L. (family PALMAE) collected in Egypt in 1761 and contributed by the GPI partner Museum Botanicum Hauniese, University of Copenhagen (C).

The date-palm. This plant most likely clung to the rooftops of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Click image to go to the specimen.

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