🧿 The legendary gardens of Mesopotamia: What can they tell us about the Land Between Two Rivers?
In Quest for Gryphon Gold—a 6th century BC odyssey—my hero’s adventure begins and ends in his private garden in the Queen of Cities, Babylon. So come along and I’ll paint for you a picture of the all-important gardens of Mesopotamia.
In this ancient realm, the walled garden was an urban innovation, creating by artificial means a natural landscape safely inside the city fortifications. It was a thing of beauty and usefulness; a public or private oasis of pleasure.
There were palace courtyards where a king and his entourage often ate their meals; city parks and orchards, temple gardens, and hunting gardens containing all manner of zoological specimens. Many gardens were enhanced with artificial lakes and fishponds. The most famous of all, of course, was ancient Babylon’s Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
WHAT MORE CAN THE GARDENS TELL US?
The past—as seen through history books—can be colorless and a bit dusty, like an old black and white film, but not nearly as interesting.
Question: So, what can colorize the past; restore its sense of life and make it breathe?
Answer: “Way-back windows.” Stories and legends; personal accounts; letters between friends and lovers, and all such glimpses of everyday life. They help us see “back then” through the eyes of the people who lived it.
It’s like channeling the past, only through clay tablets instead of a medium. Incredible!
Let’s dive into the ancient world and look through a “way-back window” to a garden thousands of years old.
One day “back then,” a scribe took a tablet of clean-washed, smooth clay and, while it was wet, imprinted it with thoughts and ideas via wedge-shaped letters (cuneiform) cut with a stylus. Transcribing the words of his king, Assurnasirpal 11 (883-859 B.C.), he preserved a written snapshot of a royal garden planted close to 2,900 years ago.
This is a glimpse of his lost world in the Assyrian capital of Nimrud. Today, those words and, more importantly, the thoughts behind them, live on. Here they are, translated, for you to read today:
“I dug out a canal from the Upper Zab, cutting through a mountain peak, and called it Abundance Canal. I watered the meadows of the Tigris and planted orchards with all kinds of fruit trees in the vicinity. I planted seeds and plants that I had found in the countries through which I had marched and in the highlands which I had crossed: pines of different kinds, cypresses and junipers of different kinds, almonds, dates, ebony, rosewood, olive, oak, tamarisk, walnut, terebinth and ash, fir, pomegranate, pear, quince, fig, grapevine … The canal-water gushes from above into the gardens; fragrance pervades the walkways, streams of water as numerous as the stars of heaven flow in the pleasure garden… Like a squirrel I pick fruit in the garden of delights.”
Sounds very much like a perfect place for wandering; perhaps to sit and read or doze for a while, your senses immersed in the sights, sounds, and fragrances of life around you.
Next time, I’ll take you through a 4,00or year old “way back window” for a whimsical peek into another king’s garden and a legendary debate between the date palm and the tamarisk.
My thanks to Stephanie Dalley 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.
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