The Not-So-Secret Garden (Review)

Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library then you have everything you need.” But what if you have the best, most famous garden ever? Do you still need the library?

Few things fire up the mind of the historian like the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Much like today, the literature of classic world was dominated by list-based features. While we have lists of five or ten, seven was the key number for many old societies of the Mediterranean and Near-East. Many Greek and Roman authors developed their own bucket lists of places to see before you die.

Seven of the most common places listed have been passed down to us as the essential World Wonders. Two tombs, a lighthouse, a big statue made of wood, another statue made from bronze, a temple to a fertility goddess, and an elusive garden, all built over a thousand years ago, are still just as captivating as any of our modern wonders.

Damn Pyramids are still cooler than my iPhone.

Perhaps the most interesting of all the ancient wonders is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In her book, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: A World Wonder Traced, Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley tracks down the origins of the verdant World Wonder.

Assyriologist basically means she can read this.

In the process, she shows us that classical authors are far from infallible. All stories, whether beloved or scoffed at, deserve a second look. Or a third…or a fourth. It depends on how long the story has been around.

I. Ancient Mesopotamia

Anyone who has read a fifth grade survey-of-history book, the kind with glossy pages and discussion questions at the ends of chapters, has surely seen the word Mesopotamia. It means, roughly, “the land between rivers,” and is often called the cradle of civilization. In truth, there are at least five distinct cradles of civilization, but Mesoamerica does sport some of the oldest evidence of advanced human society, so we will let that slide.

The ancient Mesopotamians themselves knew their civilization was very old, and possibly among the first. They claimed to have invented many of the staples of civilization, including agriculture, brick-baking, and politely holding doors open for people.

Other trades and inventions were said to have come from seven wise teachers, or sages, or aliens, depending on how many History Channel documentaries you watch.

The Clear Authority on Antiquity.

It makes perfect sense for the ancient Mesopotamians to claim an immortal, all knowing being taught them how to make shoes. Some of their other ideas, though, get a little weird. For example, they believed Kingship was not an abstract idea, but an actual thing that was passed down from the sages, and could be physically taken away.

Got your Kingship!

Later civilizations, like the Greeks and the Romans, adopted some of these Mesopotamian traits. They too liked to take credit for things. Of course, they had a more difficult time of it, because by their time there existed records of those things already being invented and widely used. But there were easy enough ways around that problem.

Thats a nice Great Library at Alexandria. It’d be a shame if someone were too…set fire to it.

There is a fascinating chapter in the book about the water-raising screw, often called the Archimedes screw, even though it was fully employed in Assyrian gardens long before Archimedes’ grandfather was born.

So Greek historians and their students were liars. Remember that for later.

II. The Mystery of the Hanging Gardens

Of all the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens are the only one with no really credible records or extant archaeological evidence. At least, not in Babylon.

The story of the Hanging Gardens is a tale of conquest and love. Great King Nebuchadnezzar, famous for sacking holy cities and making hippie prophets fight lions, built the wonderful gardens for his wife who was from Persia and missed the tree-covered mountainsides of her homeland.

But there are problems with this story. The main problem is that the first authors we know of who wrote about the Garden could not have possibly lived at the time when it existed. By the time these authors were writing, Nebuchadnezzar was a distant memory, and Babylon had already seen its glory days.

The authors, though, do all describe the same thing. A great garden with advanced water management, including the previously mentioned screws to lift water to successively higher terraces. There was a row of trees on top, and though the great stone and brick structure endured the punishment of weather and the strain of tree roots, it stood unchanged as a monument to the King’s accomplishment. A “wonder for all peoples.”

Still, there is no physical evidence of such a place existing in Babylon. Such a large structure would surely leave traces of it behind. So, was the story made up? Or, at some point, did we get part of it wrong?

Through extensive discussion of ancient sculpted panels, old irrigation ditches, and the differences between the two main Mesopotamian groups, the Babylonians and the Assyrians, Stephanie Dalley provides a possible answer.

The difference between Babylonians and Assyrians is like that between Mike and Ike. Only a real expert can tell.

According to her research, the Hanging Garden was actually built in the Assyrian city Nineveh by the King Sennacherib. And it was more like an amphitheater with its successive levels than a ziggurat as it is usually described.


These revelations do not diminish the grandeur, and the royal gardens built in Nineveh are certainly deserving of World Wonder status. In fact, that’s what Sennacherib explicitly built them for.

“I raised the height of the surroundings of the palace, to be a Wonder for all peoples. I gave it the name: “Incomparable Palace. A park imitating the Amanus mountains I laid out next to it, with all kinds of aromatic plants, orchard fruit trees, trees that sustain the mountains and Chaldaea, as well as trees that bear wool, planted within it.” – Translation of Sennacherib’s prism, page 212 of Mystery of the Hanging Gardens

But how did we get from the Terraced Gardens of Nineveh to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?

III. Causes for Confusion.

According to Dalley, there were two main contributions to our misleading knowledge of the nature of the Garden. One was the way Mesopotamians, Babylonian and Assyrian alike, tended to think and write about things. The other was the previously mentioned less-than-trustworthy scholarship of classical authors.

Ancient Mesopotamians loved three things: Mud bricks, archetypes, and ambiguity.

Not that kind of ambiguity.

The Mesopotamians believed concepts like Kingship and Cityhood and Greatness were physical things that could exist in the world in their ideal forms. For example, Babylon was acknowledged as a very great city. If someone else founded a city and wanted to call it the center of the universe, for publicity, he would call his city Babylon. So it was possible for a place to be a Babylon, but not the Babylon. It was much the same with Kings. A ruler who wanted to be seen as a good king would call himself Nebuchadnezzar, even though that wasn’t his actual name.

Sort of like calling generic soda, “Coke.”

All of the Mesopotamians got this. Foreigners from later times did not. When Greek and later Roman historians were gallivanting around in Mesopotamia, there was no one around who could still read cuneiform. They had to rely completely on ambiguous oral accounts and pictures carved in stone.

Oh yeah, we can totally tell the difference between Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib.

Plus, these historians operated before plagiarism and academic integrity were something to worry about. Classical writing, in both Greek and Latin, has no quotation marks. As modern historians, we have a tough time determining what they copied from someone else, and what they made up. And there are plenty of examples in the book of classical historians simply making stuff up, either to cover up their own ignorance or simply because they didn’t think anyone would care.

IV. Conclusion

The physical and textual evidence for a Terraced Garden of Nineveh greatly outweighs the anecdotal accounts for a Hanging Garden of Babylon. Because of the behavior of ancient Mesopotamians, and the unreliability of later historians, we have been fed a fairy tale about one of the World Wonders. But according to Stephanie Dalley, a wondrous garden did in fact exist in Nineveh, and it was everything and more than as it was described.

To Sennacherib, King of Assyria, belongs the credit of creating one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.” –pg. 208

In The Mystery of the Hanging Garden Stephanie Dalley’s research shows that the study of even the oldest history is always revealing new things. It is far more rewarding and dynamic than most elementary textbooks would have us believe. The status of a famous construction, known and talked about for thousands of years, is only now beginning to be understood. Lets hope we do a better job recording our findings than those jerks in antiquity.

We’re looking at you, Herodotus!

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden is a wonder of academic-yet-accessible scholarship. It would be a great starting point for a history student’s thesis. It would also appeal to those with any interest in history, people who question what they have been told, and anyone who has ever looked at an old building and wondered how it got there. You should read the book, even if it means facing hordes of smelly homeless people at your local library.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.