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Volume 19, Number 6November/December 1968

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By Their Garden Ye Would Know Them

Written by William A. Ward
Illustrated by Don Thompson

Everyone has heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Some wonder! They didn't hang, they were full of onions and cucumbers and there was rarely a flower to be seen.

This is not to suggest that the gardens were unattractive. Sprawling irregularly around the old walled city in a profusion of palm leaves and grape vines, rich with the fragrance of fruit trees and the sharp scent of herbs underfoot, they were much more than mere vegetable patches. But neither were they the fabulous collections of botanical marvels that Victorian painters and popular historians were so fond of creating. In the ancient world gardens had to pay their way.

As gardens do to this day, the gardens of the ancient world, now usually preserved only as paintings on a wall, offer important clues to the character of the people who planted them, tended them and enjoyed them. As the rigid formality of the French garden suggests the French mind and the exquisite arrangements of the Japanese gardens reflect the delicacy of Japanese thinking, so did the private gardens of Egypt and the palace gardens of Mesopotamia tell us about the ancient societies in which they flourished.

In Egypt, for example, there is no better example of Egyptian precision and optimism than the symmetry that was the most striking feature of Egyptian gardens. Trees and plants were always in rows, equally spaced, forming perfect rectangles or squares. No plant was allowed to violate this absolute balance and it is tempting to imagine the aristocrats on their evening strolls uprooting, with mild Egyptian curses, the hapless plants that dared to grow outside the carefully measured rows.

Some gardens contained hundreds of trees in large variety (a painting of one Egyptian garden shows 90 sycamores, 170 date palms, 120 dum palms and 17 other species such as pomegranate, olive, carob, apple, tamarisk, acacia, almond and peach). But whatever the size of the garden or the number of trees, the fig, palm and sycamore formed the core and they were always planted in perfect symmetry.

In the exact center, usually, there would be a rectangular pool filled with fish and ducks and fringed with plants that needed lots of water. Then there would be a rectangle or square of fig trees in neat rows. These in turn would be enclosed on four sides by straight rows of dum palms and date palms, with the outer border formed by rows of large sycamore trees, the whole complex surrounded by a wall—rectangular, naturally.

The form of the gardens was dictated by two factors: the demand for symmetry, and the almost exclusive use of vertical and horizontal planes.

Classical Egyptian buildings, it should be remembered, did not have arches or vaulted roofs. With the exception of the pyramids, all architectural forms consisted primarily of vertical walls and columns and horizontal floors and roofs. Even Egyptian sculptors followed such principles—with the result that there is a kind of cubism in statuary and an almost unvarying stiffness and inflexibility in reliefs and paintings.

In the Egyptian villa and its garden, these canons were followed explicitly. The private house, just like the temple or palace, was built in vertical and horizontal planes. The ground plan of the estate was rectangular or square, as was the plan of the house and all its rooms. The estate was divided by straight walls into areas of the same shape, one of which was the garden. Following the horizontal-vertical principle, the trees and plants formed the vertical planes; the flat ground and even rows formed the horizontal planes. It would have been unthinkable to have a round pool in the center, a rock garden at one end, or a single tree or bush growing anywhere but in the designated rows.

In spite of this quality of rigid discipline, the Egyptian garden was still a cool and shaded area which offered a welcome respite from the heat of the sun. It even inspired love-poetry with themes that are traditional in the world's literature. One poem tells of a young girl who wanders through a garden in the cool evening breeze. She stops at each flowering tree or plant and speaks to it, for each reminds her of some quality of her beloved. In another poem, a young man and woman wander about a garden while the trees speak softly to them through the rustling of their leaves. They speak of the shade they offer, of the good fruit which is ripe for eating. "One is drunk without drinking," say the trees, "from the aroma of countless blossoms."

Not so drunk, please note, that they ever forgot that the primary purpose of their gardens was economic. If gardens were beautiful and inspired poetry, fine, but whether they belonged to villas, temples or even palaces, they still had to produce more than cool shade and pleasant fragrances. Grape vines produced wine, trees produced fruit, oil, timber—and every plant had its use, from a wide variety of herbs (practically every kind of herb used in the Middle East today was grown then in Egyptian gardens) to vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers, onions, leeks and radishes.

This didn't leave much space for flowers. This does not mean that when young men wanted to present bouquets to their beloved that they had to settle for a bunch of onions garnished with lettuce leaves. For if there were only a few specimens available—fruit blossoms, water lilies and papyrus—they were very lovely.

There were other, more specialized gardens too. In the 15th century B. C. the Egyptians marched as conquerors into Palestine, Syria and up the Nile to the Sudan, and the fruits of these conquests were enormous—land, gold, slaves and power. But there were literal fruits as well: botanical specimens that Thutmosis III planted in the temple of Amon at Karnak. The garden itself has long since disappeared, but it is reproduced on the temple walls, along with inscriptions suggesting that Thutmosis was more interested in boasting than in botanical research. Even the reproductions in stone, the inscriptions say, were put there as an "eternal remembrance" of the king's glories. Far from being an amateur botanist, Thutmosis was simply reminding the gods that he was really quite a fellow.

Imperial botanical gardens of this kind were not restricted to Egypt. Assyrian kings also built them, and on a far grander scale. In the seventh century B. C, King Sennacherib rebuilt the city of Nineveh, the crowning glory of which was the palace and its gardens. He imported trees and plants from all his conquered territories, which then stretched from Persia to the Mediterranean. This garden was devoted exclusively to showing off his international conquests. Yet the Assyrians seem to have been scientific-minded as well. Assyrian relief carvings often portray tribute-bearers bringing gifts to the king from the far corners of the empire. Among these gifts are small trees and plants, certainly not the kind of thing we expect in the midst of tribute and taxes, suggesting that the scientific value of foreign trees and plants in some ways outweighed their commercial value.

Because of the Assyrians' general tendency toward cruelty, it is perhaps difficult to see them as collectors of flowers and rare birds. Yet they were precisely that. Part of the royal gardens were turned into a zoological park in which were kept animals from all over the known world. One Assyrian king even built a library in which he collected all the literature his agents could find. It seems that to stay on the good side of these kings one had only to give them a rare plant, a strange animal or a new book.

The royal gardens of Mesopotamia were huge by any standard. Sennacherib, for example, had to build almost six miles of major irrigation canals to water the royal gardens of Nineveh. Unlike Egypt, space was not a problem in Assyria and Babylonia, which might account for one major difference in their gardens: the lack of extreme orderliness. In Mesopotamia, the land was used as it was found, with hillsides, depressions, streams, paths and canals incorporated into the garden's plan. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was just such a garden. Built on what were probably man-made terraces on the slopes surrounding the city, the gardens caught the eye of an ancient poet who, seeing the greenery spilling down the hill, described them as "hanging." The description has stuck ever since.

In most of these palace gardens the palm was probably the most prominent tree, though imported trees like fig, olive and peach and others like pomegranate, pistachio, pear, carob and almond were unquestionably popular too. As in Egypt, the gardens also included many varieties of herbs used for spices and medicines. The vegetables included onions, lettuce, watercress, turnips, beets and cucumbers.

It is difficult to go into much detail about gardens in Mesopotamia since reliefs portraying gardens there are quite rare. In their art as in their lives, Babylonians and Assyrians much preferred the entertainments of the battlefield to the peace and quiet of a garden. Yet what little we have in the way of pictorial representation suggests that gardens were actually what we would call parks—wooded areas with streams and paths, often filled with animals. One of the rare relief-carvings shows a king in his garden, comfortably relaxed on a couch while servants give him food and drink. In this scene the absence of flowers is noticeable, and the severed head of an enemy king dangles from a nearby tree.

There are also some clues in Mesopotamian literature. A popular type of story in Babylonia was the fable, one of which is called "The Tamarisk and the Palm," in which two trees carry on an animated discussion, each listing its own attributes and the other's failings. It is an interesting fable less for its story value than for the long list it offers of the uses to which these two trees were put in ancient times. But it also illustrates again that the value of gardens was inevitably economic and not esthetic.

The same theme appears again and again. When references to gardens appear, they are mostly in economic texts in connection with orchards or vegetable gardens. Even an informative private letter of the 18th century B. C, stating the writer's pious intention of planting a garden of juniper trees at a temple, turns out to be economic, since other texts tell us juniper oil was a valuable ingredient in medicines.

In general terms, then, the gardens of the ancient Near East expressed the needs of the societies in which they grew. But in addition they expressed the values of those societies: the Egyptians' optimistic view of an orderly universe, for example, with eternal balance as the measuring rod of existence, as contrasted with the haphazard Assyrians and Babylonians, much less sure about eternity. It is the difference between the Egyptian noble quietly uprooting a plant which grew outside the designated row and the Assyrian king lunching beneath the head of an enemy chief. Neither would have enjoyed the other's garden.

William A. Ward, a teacher of ancient history at the American University of Beirut, contributes regularly to Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 28-31 of the November/December 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1968 images.