Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Gardens of Babylon

A review of the PBS video

Bas-Relief of the Hanging Gardens
Bas-Relief of what Dalley believes may be the Hanging Gardens in Nineveh, from the Assyrian Display at the British Museum. Bedlam Productions

The latest video from the PBS series Secrets of the Dead visits the fairly controversial theory of Stephanie Dalley, an Assyriologist at Oxford University, who for last twenty years or so, has argued the Greek historian Diodorus had it wrong: the seventh ancient Wonder of the World shouldn't be called the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, because it wasn't in Babylon, it was in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

Where are the Hanging Gardens?

Archaeological remnants of all of the remaining ancient seven wonders--the colossus of Rhodes, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Mausoleum at Halicamassus, the statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus--have been discovered over the centuries: but not the Gardens at Babylon.

Dalley points out that neither Nebuchadnezzar nor Semiramis, the two Babylonian rulers often credited with building the Hanging Gardens, were known for gardens: Nebuchadnezzar in particularly left hundreds of cuneiform documents, full of descriptions of his architectural works but not a word about gardens. No physical evidence to date has been found in Babylon at all, leading some scholars to wonder if the garden ever existed. Not so, says Dalley, there is documentary evidence for the Hanging Gardens--and some archaeological evidence as well--for them, but in Nineveh, 300 miles north of Babylon.

Sennacherib of Nineveh

Dalley's research points to Sennacherib, the son of Sargon the Great, who ruled Assyria between 705-681 BC. He was one of ​several Assyrian leaders who ​were known for engineering feats around water control: and he left many cuneiform documents in which he described his construction projects. One is the Taylor prism, an octagonal fired clay object that one of three known such objects in the world. It was discovered in the walls of the elevated palace of Kuyunjik, at Nineveh, and it describes an extravagant garden with orchards of fruit trees and cotton plants, watered daily.

Further information comes from the decorative panels that were on the palace walls when it was excavated, now stored in the Assyrian Room of the British Museum, which illustrate a lush garden.

Archaeological Evidence

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon includes the research of Jason Ur, who has used satellite imagery and detailed spy maps made of the Iraqi countryside back in the 1970s and are now declassified, to trace Sennacherib's amazing canal system. It included one of the earliest known aqueducts, the Aqueduct at Jerwan, part of a 95 kilometer (~59 mile) long canal system that led from the Zagros Mountains to Nineveh. One of the bas-reliefs from Lachish now at the British Museum contains images of a vast garden, with arches of similar construction of those used at Jerwan.

More archaeological evidence is hard to come by: the ruins of Nineveh are in Mosul, about as dangerous a place on the planet today as you can get to. Nevertheless, some local guards from Mosul were able to get to the site for Dalley and take video of the remnants of Sennacherib's palace and the place where Dalley believes they might find evidence of the garden.

Archimedes' Screw

A fascinating part of this film discusses Dalley's theory about how Sennacherib got water into his elevated garden. No doubt, there are canals that would have brought water into Nineveh, and there was a lagoon as well. Scholars have thought he might ​have used a shadoof, a wooden lever contraption that was used by ancient Egyptians to lift buckets of water out of the Nile and onto their fields. Shadoofs are slow and cumbersome, and Dalley suggests that some version of a water screw was used. The water screw is thought to have been invented by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, some 400 years later, but, as Dalley describes in this video, there is a strong possibility that it had been known for centuries before Archimedes described it. And might indeed have been used at Nineveh.

Bottom Line

The Secrets of the Dead The Lost Gardens of Babylon is a terrific example of the entertaining glimpses into the ancient past, covering controversial ideas "where history and science collide", and a great addition to the Secrets of the Dead collection. 

Video Details

Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Gardens of Babylon. 2014. Featuring Stephanie Dalley (Oxford); Paul Collins (Ashmolean Museum); Jason Ur (Harvard). Narrated by Jay O. Sanders; writer and director by Nick Green; director of photography, Paul Jenkins, director of production Olwyn Silvester. Executive producer for Bedlam Productions, Simon Eagan. Executive in charge for WNET, Stephen Segaller. Executive producer for WNET, Steve Burns. Coordinating producer for WNET, Stephanie Carter. Bedlam Production for Channel 4 in association with ARTE, THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET and SBS Australia.

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Disclosure: A review copy (link to a screener) was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.