Ozymandias, king of kings, meet Sennacherib, king of the world.
About 700 years before the birth of Christ, the restless Assyrian listed his deeds on palace walls and artifacts.
“I led vast armies,” Sennacherib writes. “I made the desert bloom and built splendid palaces in Nineveh. Best of all, when the king of Judea misbehaved, I stuck him in a birdcage for a while.”
That’s a highlight from the annals he left in cuneiform on a curious eight-sided object now housed in the British Museum. I paraphrase slightly.
Did Sennacherib (who reigned from 705 to 681 BC) also build the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient world’s seven wonders?
Credit usually flows to Nebuchadnezzar II, a later Babylonian king who actually lived in Babylon. He makes several appearances in the Holy Bible and wanders singing through the Hanging Gardens in a tuneful opera by Verdi.
Yet, the ruins of Babylon, now some 50 miles south of Baghdad, show no signs of an unusual arboretum, not even a red-hatted ceramic dwarf or two.
Enter Stephanie Dalley, a low-keyed pro-Assyrian British archaeologist who has already published a book on the “Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon” and now presents her evidence in that most engaging PBS series, “Secrets of the Dead.”
We follow Dalley as she packs her sun hat and comfortable shoes for Iraq, where she sifted through ancient sands as a young woman in 1967.
Dalley clearly adores the Assyrian megalomaniac, whose handsome profile would propel many of us to dust off a few clay tablets in brain-baking 100-degree heat. One of the few people on the planet who understands cuneiform, she reads from Sennacherib’s annals and stands in front of impressive facades gorgeously incised with flowers and trees.
In a very interesting segment, Dalley visits Harvard’s Jason Ur in the northern mountains of Iraq. The cool Ur has found a vast network of canals using declassified satellite mapping programs developed by the U.S. military.
So how wide was the canal? She asks. Wide! The waterway running from the north to Nineveh was as wide as the Panama Canal, he tells her.
Sennacherib’s engineers were amazing. To surmount a tricky bit of landscape, they constructed an aqueduct of 2 million carefully fitted blocks of stone.
If Sennacherib wanted to do a little gardening, he certainly had the water.
“We’ve just been looking in the wrong place,” says Dalley.
Nineveh today is part of Mosul, Iraq, a dangerous city. Just as she arrives, a car bomb explodes and takes down part of a street and a few more citizens.
Iraq’s contemporary ruins contribute a feeling of dread and melancholy to her expedition into the past.
Nineveh turns out to be off-limits these days to foreigners. Two courageous local men volunteer to videotape the ruins. In the tape they bring back, Nineveh looks like the wasteland where Shelley’s Ozymandias is spending eternity:
“The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
But archaeologists can conjure up entire cities from broken pottery shards. Looking at the video, Dalley is positive she’s identified a section just right for terraced gardens. It’s shaped like an amphitheater and would have risen above the city with trees growing into the sky.
Here’s an idea: Let’s start a campaign to rebuild old Nineveh (and maybe Babylon while we are at it). Oh profiteers, politicians and people of the great empire of the United States, get out your checkbooks and watering cans! Let’s do something positive! Let’s construct a fantastic new city filled with flowers and hope and hospitals for the maimed, a city of Hanging Gardens festooned with signs that say: “So sorry about our big goof.”
The Assyrians loved music. Musicians playing lyres and flutes decorated their palace walls. But what did they sound like? New York’s New Museum has just opened an exhibition by the intriguing Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi, who works in many dimensions. The piece is a lament for ancient Assyria featuring strange instruments he built himself. Go.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)