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Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia (meso – between, potamia – rivers; the Tigris and Euphrates) was one of four major river-valley civilizations where settled agricultural communities developed into city-states and from which modern societies have been built, the others being the Nile valley of Egypt, the Indus Valley of the Indian subcontinent, and the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys of China.

Within the ancient Bronze Age cities of Egypt and Mesopotamia the West’s first parks and gardens emerged, associated with royal palaces and temples. It was urban spaces like these that inspired later grand gardens and civic parks in Persia, Hellenistic Greece, and Rome. With the Romans garden art and technology reached an unprecedented sophistication and it was on display throughout the Roman Empire, its influence passing on to Britain and subsequently the countries of the British Empire.

But it was in Sumerian Mesopotamia that the first city states arose along with the first written language, sophisticated art, science, astronomy, mathematics and many of the garden traditions we recognise today in a culture that reached its height from about 3,000-2,000 BCE, later passing from the southern regions of Sumer and Akkad to the Assyrian culture in the north and Babylonian culture in the west.

 

Neo-Babylonian Empire

Mesopotamia
Mesopotamian influence reached its peak with the Neo-Babylonian empire from 626 to 539 BCE after the defeat of Assyria in the Akkadian-speaking lands to the north during which trade, agriculture, the sciences and arts, especially architecture, flourished with Babylon the centre of Empire, before the Empire fell to Persian king Cyrus the Great (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Historical context

Mesopotamian ancient history is divided into several periods extending from prehistory into the 7th century CE. Prehistory is marked by the Ubaid and Uruk periods (c. 5900-2900 BCE) followed by the Bronze Age lasting from c. 2900 BCE to c. 1100 BCE (Early Bronze Age including Akkadian Empire, Ur and Early Assyrian Kingdom (c. 2900-1900 BCE), Middle Bronze Age of Early Babylonia (c. 1900-1620 BCE), Late Bronze Age of Assyrian Empire (c. 1620-1100 BCE)). The Iron Age (1100-500 BCE) was marked by the Neo-Hittite, Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, the later period of Classical Antiquity including first Persian then Roman occupation.

Mesopotamia was part of the Fertile Crescent (sometimes referred to as the ‘Cradle of the Western World’), an arc of rich sedimentary soils extending from the Nile delta in Egypt along the Levantine corridor (the eastern Mediterranean, a coastal trading region) then down the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, in the region we now know as Iraq (but including northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and parts of SW Iran) arose these first Mesopotamian city states.

Already by the seventh millennium BCE there were mud-brick farming villages scattered through the Fertile Crescent, the villagers growing wheat, barley and pulses and herding sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. Even then, copper and obsidian from the uplands of Anatolia and Iran was being traded and there were distinctive regional pottery styles. When new irrigation technology was developed facilitating the large-scale irrigation of crops the population grew rapidly and social dvevelopment associated with city-scale social organisation appeared. During the Uruk period (4200-3100 BCE) the first cities with populations of over 1000 people were built in southern Sumer flourishing in the Early Dynastic Period c. 2900-2350 BCE. From the earliest urban communities of the Ubaid period (c. 5300 BCE)[16] emerged, in about 3,000 BCE, the great Mesopotamian city states who, built canals and irrigation systems, harnessing the water for the agriculture that provided the means of providing sufficient food to feed their large populations that were housed in mudbrick buildings alongside vast temple complexes.

These were city-states, sovereign political centres that governed the surounding territory. Cities were surrounded by walls and dominated internally by temples and palaces whose precincts contained impressive monuments. Though the religion was polytheistic each city tended to have its own dynasty of rulers and its own supreme god or gods. Taxes, often in the form of livestock, were gathered and men could be drawn from the general population for military service. Domestic housing was clustered together but in some places, a in ancient Abu Salabikh, many houses were quite large with six or more rooms aggregated around a courtyard and probably made up an extended family or kinship group with their servants.[17]

Social scale (see also Neolithic Revolution)

With large numbers of people living together certain social changes became possible that could not have occurred before. With developments in social complexity came a division of labour with people of particular crafts (like scribes or bakers) living in the same neighbourhood, the regulation of social behaviour through religious and secular control from temples and palaces (the two interdependent but occasionally in conflict), expansion of trade, much of it by shipping, and the development of writing used, at first, as an accountacy tool. As early as about 1754 BCE an elaborate system of 282 laws hewn in cuneiform into a public stele and known as the Code of Hammorabi (c. 1792-1750 BCE) set out Babylonian law concerning both free man and slave.

Transfer of power from Sumeria to Akkadia

Sumer occupied the region in the south at the mouth of the Persian Gulf while further north at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates was the kingdom of Akkad. Sumerians produced the first ruling dynasties in places like Ur and Uruk, their influence spreading to the north, and also east onto the Persian plateau.

Among the famous fortified historical cities of the region, several mentioned in the Christian Bible, are Ur, Uruk, Nippur, Assur, Nineveh, and Babylon. Royal graves excavated at Ur c. 2600-2350 BCE contained many luxury items including silver from Anatolia, gold from Egypt and Persia, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Cities were frequently at war with one-another and around 2334 BCE the centre of power moved from Sumeria to Akkadia when Sargon I, a ruler in Akkad began military campaigns outside Mesopotamia creating the world’s first supranational state and a magnificent harbour, Agade, near Baghdad where ships arrived from distant ports including the Indus, Oman and Bahrain carrying cargoes of luxury goods like silver and copper as well as timber, perhaps as a consequence of this trade Akkadian became the accepted language of the Near east for almost 2000 years.[20]

Mesopotamian civilization ended with the fall of Babylon to Persian Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, Cyrus himself later overthrown by Greek-Macedonian Alexander the Great in 332 BCE when Mesopotamia was absorbed into the Greek (Seleucid) Empire until succumbing, in the late 7th century CE, to Islamic conquest when a Caliphate was established and the region became known as Iraq.

Information sources

Earliest Mesopotamian cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing, the world’s first written language, was found on clay tablets from Uruk dating back to about 3,300 BCE. This made possible for the first time the permanent recording of cultural history, especially historical events and economic transactions. By 1400 BCE cuneiform had become the language of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia. A royal library in Nineveh excavated in 1932 contained about 30,000 clay tablets and fragments representing accumulated knowledge, written in cuneiform, on a wide range of topics including medicine, history, astronomy, mathematics and literature. Mesopotamian science, art, government, law and literature has come to us through cuneiform texts like these that were first translated into Aramaic and Greek.

Design elements

As a strongly religious culture the temples (often a tiered ziggurat which looked like a stepped pyramid) dominating the high ground in the cities. Royal palaces were designed to impress, not only through their size, magnificence and skill of construction, but by displaying magnificent furniture, household goods, jewellery, monuments and statues.

From written accounts, visual representations and archaeology we can piece together the main elements of the Mesopotamian city. Within the elevated and walled compound was a walled garden, the courtyard of the king, like the impressive Court of Palms at Mari on the Middle Euphrates (c. 1800) with walkways of brick and terracotta and professional gardeners employed by the king.[3] There were also orchards and fish ponds associated with the city. Written in the most famous literary work of Mesopotamia, The Epic of Gilgamesh, notes that the city consists of three equal thirds devoted to buildings, clay pits (for bricks presumably) and ‘orchards’ (which was a general term for groves of dates and other food plants as well as trees like the apple).[3] Clearly another element were the temples and temple gardens or groves and, outside the city walls, the hunting parks.

Palace courtyards

In a palace courtyard at Ugarit c. 1400 BCE on the coast of Syria there was a garden with a stone basin for water. Writings report the garden as picnic ground, a place for romance, aromatic plants, quiet meditation and the display of military trophies.

Temple gardens

Major temples of large cities consisted of a ziggurat tower topped by a shrine. Outside Assur (capital of Assyria on the middle Tigris) king Sennacherib built a garden with a temple grove dedicated to the New Year Festival. Archaeological investigation of the site has revealed root pits and evidence of planting in formal rows to form a designed temple courtyard with flower beds which were the source of floral offerings in the temple.[24] It seems that Babylonian temples were also associated with larger areas of land dedicated to the cultivation of dates, pomegranates and figs used as offerings in the temple. Substantial temples have been found with their columns decorated to look like date palm trunks.[9]

City gardens

Assyrian king Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE) describes a vast irrigation scheme for his ‘orchards’ at Nimrud in today’s northern Iraq. From a military campaign [assuming the translation is accurate] he had brought back different species of pines, cypresses, and junipers as well as almonds, dates, ebony, rosewood, olive, oak, tamarisk, walnut, terebinth, ash, fir, pomegranate, pear,quince, fig, grapevine …

Assyrian Sargon II (722-704 BCE) of the Middle Euphrates NE of Nineveh built a new city, Dur-Sharrukin, ordering thousands of fruit trees (apple, medlar, almond, quince and plum) to be established in the orchards where he and his family could practice hunting lions and practicing falconry.[12] Reliefs sculptures of the garden suggest landscaping of slopes, with an altar on top, a pavilion, and artificial lake in a naturalistic style recalling the landscapes he had seen in northern Syria and Anatolia with an artificial mountain and pillared pavilion, and unlike the formal geometric Persian gardens of the time. He referred to his contruction asa new type of garden, a pleasure garden (bitanu).[7][21] Sargon’s successor was King Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) who introduced, among other lants, the Levant Cotton, Gossypium herbaceum , to Khorsabad on the upper Tigris.[26]

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The culmination of the gardening tradition in Mesopotamia would have been the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which are described by various classical authors who had not actually visited the site. Their vaulted terraces were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to later Roman chronicler Diodorus Siculus they were constructed by famed King Nebuchadnezzar (c. 634–562 BCE) to placate his Persian wife Amytis who was yearning for the hills of Medea, the construction simulating the treed mountainside of the Amanus mountains in North-west Syria.

Research by Oxford archaeologist Stephanie Dalley has found that in the extensive cuneiform record of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned over a vast Assyrian empire, there is no account of any gardens. It now seems likely that this much-admired garden was not at Babylon but at Nineveh or ‘Old Babylon’ located about 400 km to the north of Babylon where it was constructed about 100 years before Nebuchadnezzar, during the reign of Sennacherib (reigned 705 – 681 BC).[8][24] A cuneiform account of Sennacherib’s achievements found on a ‘prism’ from this period describes a garden with aromatic plants, fruits and exotic plants. In the garden were several pavilions (small palaces) and this particular garden, with its elaborate irrigation system, is almost certainly illustrated by a relief sculpture now in the British Museum dating from the period of Sennacherib’s grandson Assurbanipal (668-627 BCE) when the garden was at its height.[11]

Sennacherib records that by the side of his palace was a park like the Amanus mountains where he grew the products of Chaldea and its hills, both spices and trees.

‘I have given and distributed, to the men of Nineveh the lands outside the city, 3 Pt. in size [3 plethra, about 30,000 sq ft] to be laid out in plantations.’ ‘I made gardens in the upper and in the lower town, with the earth’s produce from the mountains and the countries round about, all the spices from the land of the Hittites, myrrh (which grows better in my gardens than in its native land), vines from the hills, fruits from every country; spices and Sirdu-trees have I planted for my subjects. Moreover, I have cut down and levelled mountain and field from the land about the town of Kisiri unto the country near Nineveh, so that the plants may thrive there, and I have made a canal; one and a half hour’s journey from the Chusur river have I brought water to flow in my canal, and between my plantations for their good watering. I have set a pond in the garden to keep water there, and in it I have planted reeds . . .By the grace of the gods the gardens prospered, vines and fruit, Sirdu-wood and spices. They grew tall and flourished greatly, trees, and reeds also . . . palms. cypresses, and the fruits of trees . . . the reeds in the pond I cut down, and used them for divers purposes in my lordly palace.’

Greek writers record that the Hanging Gardens were like a vast amphitheatre – a towering architectural masterpiece – with a lake at its base. These impressive gardens were described as high and terraced in ziggurat fashion with a complexly engineered system of irrigation.

Irrigation systems

Today there are remains of a canal system about 95 km long developed from a river system originating in the Zagros mountains – a major engineering feat being about 100 m wide in places and 20 m deep and including a vast aqueduct pre-dating those of the Romans by 500 years. Today this garden site at Nineveh is in a politically dangerous territory and is yet to be fully excavated.

What made the gardens possible was the invention of the Archimedian screw (whose invention is generally attributed to the Greeks some 400 years later) which raised the water from cisterns fed by the mountain water. Cast in copper or bronze it could lift water to the top of terraced structures like the ziggurats.

Elaborate irrigated gardens like this were illustrated on Assyrian coloured wall reliefs. A tablet from the reign of King Marduk-apla-iddina around 700 BCE lists some of the plants grown in his royal garden. Though there are difficulties in translating the plant names it seems they were mostly culinary and medicinal plants like leek, garlic and other onion-like plants, mint, cress, spices, beetroot and turnip. Perhaps these gardens were precursors to the later Medieval physic gardens. Leaves, fruits and flowers were often used for decoration and in head-dresses.

Hunting parks

Assyrian kings established large hunting parks on the Banks of the Tigris. From at least 2000 BCE Mesopotamian kings set out on military campaigns and established relations with other rulers. From these conquests and associations came a range of gifts and trophies. Among these were exotic animals. In palace courtyards might be seen deer or gazelle but others were kept in special royal hunting enclosures outside the city. Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser (1114-1076 BCE) speaks of his herds of deer, gazelle, ibex, oxen, asses that he had built up as trophies of war and …’such trees as none among previous kings, my forefathers, had ever planted … I took rare orchard fruit which is not found in my land and filled the orchards of Assyria’, listing the cedar, box-tree, and Kanish oak.[6]

Plants

First gardens

The first known reference to a garden space comes from an epic Sumerian poem Lugal-e dating to the late third millennium c. 2150 BCE and recounting the heroic exploits of king Ninurta.[23]

Now, today, throughout the whole world, kings of the Land far and wide rejoice at Lord Ninurta. He provided water for the speckled barley in the cultivated fields, he {raised up} {(2 mss. have instead:) piled up} the harvest of fruits in garden and orchard.’ (360-367)

Ninurta fashions the stones into an artificial mountain that encloses Sumer and he gives his creation a blessing:

Let its meadows produce herbs for you. Let its slopes produce honey and wine for you. Let its hillsides grow cedars, cypress, juniper and box for you. Let it make abundant for you ripe fruits, as a garden. Let the mountain supply you richly with divine perfumes. Let it mine gold and silver for you, make …… for you. Let it smelt copper and tin for you, make its tribute for you. Let the mountains make wild animals teem for you. Let the mountain increase the fecundity of quadrupeds for you. (390-410)

Ninurta had created a secure space for his people away from the surrounding wilderness.[22]

Royal horticulture and botanical collection – first plant introductions

Sargon I (c. 2333-2279 BCE), founder of the Akkadian dynasty, was the son of a gardener and may have initiated the association between kings and horticulture that has been a feature of western horticultue down the ages. He accumulated exotic plants collected on military campaigns, plant trophies like these also recorded in the magnificent later palace gardens of king Tiglath-Pileser (1114-1076 BCE), Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), Sargon II (721-704 BCE) and Sennacherib (704-681 BCE).[14]

In the Early Dynastic period cuneiform tablets tell us of the date palms, Phoenix dactylifera, and tamarisk grown in palace courtyards as shade from the heat and here the king and queen had their meals and held official ceremonies. Dates are the main religious food, the tamarisk used to make the king’s couch, table, eating bowl, the tools used in their construction, for making the kings clothes and temple furnishings.[2] Another naturally-occurring and common tree in the region is the Euphrates Poplar, Populus euphratica, with its cottony fruits.

First pleasure garden

Sargon II introduced what he referred to as a new type of garden, a kirimahu (pleasure garden), an Assyrian celebration of the glorious Akkadian days of ‘gardener’ Sargon the Great. The traditions of collecting plant trophies was well established and described, for example, in the annals of Sennacherib, Sargon IIs successor who planted a kirimahu at Nineveh: ‘Surpassing his forbears, Sennacherib not only transplanted subjugated trees, but he also reproduced the entire foreign ecosystem of a subjugated territory, the marshes of southern Babylonia, complete with reed beds, herons, waterfowl, and wild boar‘.[15] Perhaps this was the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon (see above).

Assurbanipal II developed a garden beside the Tigris that was irrigated from a canal. Here he grew many kinds of fruits and vines that were the source of temple offerings ‘From lands I travelled and hills I traversed the trees and seeds I noticed (and collected): pines, cedar, cypress, junipers, fir, myrtle, almond, date palm, ebony, rosewood, olive, tamarind, oak, terebinth, myrrh, Kanis oak, willow, pomegranate, plum, pear, quince, fig, grapevine[13](loose translation).

Economic botany

Mesopotamia was poor in some natural resources, making up for this through a vibrant trading system. By the 2,500 BCE, trade had reached a high point, with goods imported from the Indus Valley, Iran, northern Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Oman, Egypt and Nubia, Anatolia (Turkey) and Syria.

 

Mesopotamian trade

Known Mesopotamian trade routes

 

As the city-states grew so did the demand for materials. Wheat, barley, dates, flax, and other essential crops together with oils and textiles were exchanged for luxury items like exotic foods, timber, wine, metals, animals and semi-precious stones. Travelling merchants from other countries travelled to Babylonia to exchange their goods. Bulky goods like grain were transported by boat. In the marshes there were fish and water-birds as well as the reeds that were the source of the styli used for cuneiform and could also be crafted into housing materials like mats. Mud and clay was used to make bricks, pottery and cuneiform accounting tablets needed to maintain an ordered urban life. Even a poor quality limestone was available nearby.

The 1920s and 30s were a golden age for archaeology, famous Englishman Leonard Wooley gaining his reputation excavating the Royal Cemetery at Ur whose tombs dated to about 2,500 BCE. Ur was a politically and economically powerful urban centre on the Euphrates, with connections to the Persian Gulf and long-distance sea trade, its trade networks extending from western Anatolia (Turkey) to the Indus Valley in the east and from Oman at the mouth of the Persian Gulf including Egypt and Nubia, to the Caucasus Mountains in the north. Most of the artefacts found in the royal tombs were imported treasures or their manufactured products.

Trees

The tree was a central feature of ancient Mesopotamian gardens, personified as the god Nin-Gishzida, and it had the power of speech, acting as a guard to the gate of heaven and the underworld. There is also an indication in ancient writing that gardens were associated with the dead and royal burials are known to have been found under the paving of coutyards.[4] The Epic of Gilgamesh includes a timber mission and forest-clearing for building projects underway in Uruk, the source of timber being possibly the Cedar of Lebanon that still grows in pockets in W. Iraq, Lebanon, and N. Syria.

Trees were revered as a source of food, timber and shade and included the Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) and the date palms that provided sap for wine, fibre used for rope and leaves for baskets, mats, fans and brooms as well as timber for furniture and construction. Assyrian kings c.1100 BCE hunted in wooded park-like plantations, King Tiglath Pileser proudly bringing cedars and box back home from his military campaigns, plants that ‘none of the kings, my forefathers, have possessed‘ – this being an early record of plants collected as trophies, the spoils of war, to be brought home and admired. Later, another Assyrian king, Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) of the Hanging Gardens, boasted his collection of cypresses, spices, and fruits from the land of the Hittites which he grew in his palace garden which he enjoyed from the shady vantage points of temples and pavilions erected on high ground. He also used mulberries and cypresses that grew in his artificial marsh for the construction of his royal palaces.[5]

Flowers and herbs

Though trees receive the greatest attention in ancient texts described above, there is little doubt that some flowers and herbs were also cultivated. Of special note is a cuneiform list of herbs and vegetables growing in the garden of Babylonian king Merodach-Baladan II a contemporary of Assyrians Sargon II and Sennacherib. The list is arranged into 15 sections, possibly corresponding to garden beds and especially interesting in its specificity (there are 5 kinds of mint it seems although translation of names from cuneiform is a hazardous business), and because some of the names are non-Babylonian. It is tempting to conclude that this was a collection of medicinal plants, a physic garden, especially as medical texts of the time show that herbal medicine was highly developed.[10]

Flowers are poorly recorded but art works show people holding flowers among which the lily is evident.[10]

Landscape

Some cities were laid out on a formal way with rectilinear streets and buildings while other cities grew in a more haphazard way.

Land tenure

Though urban space was most noticeably allocated to temple and palace there were also leading families who controlled extensive private property. At the time when writing emerged it appears that these leading families were distributing land as though it were privately owned, being bought and sold from this time on in a kind of property market.[18]

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

From Mesopotamia came the sexagesimal system (a numbering system based on the number six) that we still use for time (seconds/minute, minutes/hours, hours/day, months/year) and degrees of the circle; mathematical theorems relating to shapes and solids; the world’s first written language emerging as cuneiform pictograms c. 3,100 BCE; a 12 month calendar based on the cycles of the moon and theories of the motion of the planets (Seleucus adopting a heliocentric system) that underpinned later astronomy; sophisticated empirical medicine; also advanced technology of metals, glass, textiles, irrigation techniques; and what Greek scholars at the museum in Alexandria from the 5th to 3rd century BCE regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world – the Hanging Garden of Babylon.[1]

The transition from village to walled city in the fourth millennium BCE entailed the emergence of irrigated farming and the development of writing as an accounting tool (at first). Rivalry between cities led to long-distance trade and the formation of empires of Akkad, Ur and Babylon.

Walled cities kept out not only unwanted people but wild boar, goats, and flooding rivers, the stock was also protected by being brought inside the city at night. Planting design in ancient Mesopotamian cites gives us a general insight into the early organization of urban space, the way it was categorized, and how it was used. Though thoroughfares would have been part of any settlement we see their use as elements to impress as grand Processional Ways. Trees were highly respected and sometimes personified as gods, grown mostly for their shade, fragrance and fruit in palace courtyards and temples and used as a source of offerings during religious festivals and ceremonies in the temples. Fragrant resins and spices were highly prized as was the case throughout the ancient world. Animals and plants were collected, sometimes as game in the hunting parks but also as trophies of conquest.

The origins of ornamental gardens remain uncertain as does the historical precedence of designed areas, groves of trees and flower gardens. Any speculation concerning the relative influence of garden design and garden design elements and cross-cultural relations at play in the gardens of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the eastern Mediterranean and Persia remains tentative. Reference to irrigation channels appear in the earliest ancient texts of about the third millennium BCE as does mention of a place called ‘Edin’ (Eden).

Key points

  • oxen domesticated in Mesopotamia and Indus valley c. 5000-4000 BCE
  • first written reference to a garden in the epic of Ninurta c. 2150 BCE
  • Sumerian cultural developments include world’s first writing (cuneiform) used as an accounting tool but later for medicine, astronomy, history, mathematics, the law, and arts including literary works like the famous Legend of Gilgamesh
  • sexagesimal numbering system, 12-month calendar, and adoption by Seleucus of a heliocentric planetary system, trade, & wheel, imposition of taxes,use of seals to indicate contractual arrangements & framing of laws
  • invention of the Archimedian screw c. 700 BCE for elevating water used for irrigation on terraces at Nineveh’s hanging gardens
  • gardens, palace courtyards, temples, processional ways
  • trees grown for fragrance and edible fruits
  • herbal medicine practiced and probably associated with rudimentary ‘physic gardens’ curated
  • Early rivalry between priests & kings
  • Royal hunting enclosures become a feature that has continued as an aristocratic tradition to this day
  • Assyria creates world’s first Empire in 911 BCE
  • Creation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
  • Vibrant trade with technology using metals, glass, textiles as part of trade with wood imported from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey (especially the cedar); gold considered a divine metal

Media gallery

Mesopotamia

CrashCourse – 2012 – 12:05

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