What more can legendary gardens of Mesopotamia tell us about the Land Between Two Rivers?
In Part 1, we glimpsed public and private oases of beauty and pleasure found in ancient Babylon and Nimrud. These gardens of innovative design and ambitious grandeur were reflections of a people’s desire to partake of and and nurture nature’s gifts. Visualizing them brushes away the dust, revives the rich colors, and breathes new life into the past. Stories and legends can also cast us back so we might hear and understand the character of the people; what they thought and talked about; what they valued.
Seen in this light, a 4,000-year-old debate between a date palm and a tamarisk is more than a whimsical story. It is a window through which we can look, listen, and learn:
This popular piece of Babylonian literature was written in cuneiform on clay tablets as early as 2000 B.C.:
THE DATE PALM AND TAMARISK
“The king plants a date-palm in his palace and fills up the space beside her with a tamarisk. Meals are enjoyed in the shade of the tamarisk, skilled men gather in the shade of the date-palm, the drum is beaten, men give praise, and the king rejoices in his palace.
“The two trees, brother and sister, are quite different; the tamarisk and the palm-tree compete with each other. They argue and quarrel together. The tamarisk says: ‘I am much bigger!’ And the date-palm argues back, saying: ‘I am much better than you! You, O tamarisk, are a useless tree. What good are your branches? There’s no such thing as a tamarisk fruit! Now, my fruits grace the king’s table; the king himself eats them, and people say nice things about me. I make a surplus for the gardener, and he gives it to the queen; she, being a mother, nourishes her child upon the gifts of my strength, and the adults eat them too. My fruits are always in the presence of royalty.’
“The tamarisk makes his voice heard; his speech is even more boastful. ‘My body is superior to yours! It’s much more beautiful than anything of yours. You are like a slave girl who fetches and carries daily needs for her mistress.’ He goes on to point out the king’s table, couch, and eating bowl are made from tamarisk wood, that the king’s clothes are made using tools of tamarisk wood; likewise the temples of the gods are full of objects made from tamarisk.
The date-palm counters by pointing out that her fruits are the central offering in the cult; once they have been taken from the tamarisk dish, the bowl is used to collect up the garbage.”
So, who won that debate? And what does it reveal about the Babylonians?
Like my character Samir, who invites the reader into his garden in Quest for Gryphon Gold, I invite you to take a visual stroll through the cities and gardens of ancient Mesopotamia.
Again, my thanks to Stephanie Dalley for providing the inspiration and stories quoted in this article. She is the author of several books on ancient Mesopotamia and the intriguing article, Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved; Garden History, Vol. 21, No. 1. (Summer, 1993), pp. 1-13.