An Attempt To Move The Hanging Gardens

STL19BABYLON_343980kAbout the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Greek writers started to offer lists of Seven Wonders that the well-read traveller should see. In the 2nd century BC the Hanging Gardens of Babylon began to show up on such lists. The location of Babylon is well known: on the River Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia. But no ruins of the Hanging Gardens have been convincingly identified there. This is because the gardens were actually in another city in another country, according to Stephanie Dalley’s new book, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon. The Greeks got the city wrong early, says Dalley, and so created a spurious tradition.

The book has a problem with focus and target audience. It is inconsistent in how much familiarity with Dalley’s half-century of earlier work each chapter assumes on the part of the reader. I get a strong impression that during composition and revising the author has not quite been able to remember what she has put into this particular manuscript. She doesn’t introduce her big main thesis until midway through the book, and then in a wording that assumes that the reader already knows and just needs some extra convincing:

It would be satisfactory if we could account for [certain confusions], to strengthen yet further the [not yet made] argument that the Hanging Garden was built by Sennacherib in Nineveh rather than by Nebuchadnezzar or Semiramis in Babylon. (p. 107)

Boo to the editor who hasn’t kept a tighter rein on narrative continuity in this book. In fact, long before the quoted passage Dalley has established that one possible builder of the Gardens of Babylon mentioned in the Greek sources was an Assyrian king (they ruled over Babylon off and on), and she’s spent the interesting chapter 4 arguing that a long inscription of Sennacherib’s actually describes the building of the Gardens. But not once in the entire chapter does she mention the name of the city were she thinks this took place. This is not dishonesty on Dalley’s part, just poor organisation of the book: she simply doesn’t stop to consider that any reader may at this point need to be reminded that “Sennacherib’s South-West Palace” is in Nineveh on the River Tigris in Assyria – not in Babylon.

Dalley, in my opinion, does make a fine solid case for a set of Hanging Gardens in Niniveh, and I would happily follow her there. But does this remove the Gardens in Babylon from the agenda? No. It just transforms the Hanging Gardens from a unique item into an architectural category. Her attempts in Ch. 6 to take Babylon off the table amount only to convoluted special pleading. Dalley is clearly extremely fond of Niniveh and King Sennacherib, as evidenced by choices of expression and subject matter throughout. But to me, a man who is willing to be friends with any Middle Eastern city mound and ancient ruler, such favouritism is rather a weakness in a scholar.

Two thirds into the text the book goes completely off the rails, ending with three chapters that make little pretence at advancing any overarching argument. Ch. 7 comments on Sennacherib’s construction projects in general. “Look, they had multicolour stone flooring! Look, they had portable space heaters!” Ch. 8 offers motley bits and pieces about ancient gardens, which in Dalley’s mind all have an uncanny tendency to be inspired by the garden in Nineveh. Ch. 9 tries to extend Niniveh’s life as a major city past its conventional late-7th century demise, mainly in order to explain why anyone in the 4th century would still remember its garden and call it a Wonder of the World. This matter, though of some general interest in all its kaleidoscopism, must be seen for what it is: padding to fill out the book.

Here’s what I think. The various lists of World Wonders were a staple of Hellenistic tourism writing. Such information tends to get tested a lot. If a list had placed the Mausoleum in Carthage instead of Halicarnassus, then people would have corrected the error immediately. If there were no wondrous gardens in Babylon, then Greek and Roman travellers had several centuries to realise their mistake and write about it. None ever did.

Stephanie Dalley arguably has reason to be pleased with her book, as a sort of legacy. It presents her arguments on what is clearly a long-cherished issue in an accessible and durable format from a high-profile publisher. But the Oxford University Press can’t take much pride in this loosely held-together product. The selection of included images is erratic, partly gratuitous, and chapters 7–9 read like collated odds and ends out of a scholar’s notebook. Frankly, I get the feeling that this book reflects the mind of someone who either never quite had, or has recently begun to lose, the ability to make a sustained and focused argument.