WESTERN ASIA IN ANCIENT TIMES
Park origins - in Western Asia
History has nothing to show that is comparable with the gardens of Ancient Egypt, either for style or for antiquity. It might appear that Asiatic culture rivals the Egyptian in actual age, but the monuments of literature, and still more of pictorial art, begin at a much later date. The Babylonians arrived at their cultivation of nature from a standpoint essentially different. The inhabitants of the Nile valley had been led to their kind of horticulture by the very abnormality of their country. But the Asiatics have the credit of being the real inventors of the park. [See additional discussion on CD]
A park must have a fence and can only come into being in a well-wooded land, or at any rate a land where the ground is not so valuable that one cannot cover large tracts of it with vegetable plantations. In Egypt, of course, they had to consider too much the utility of their products. In Western Asia the properties of mighty rulers would be set in the middle of forests. The Gilgamesh story, the oldest hero-epic of Babylonia, tells of such a woodland castle, and in this saga the wild creatures show unmistakable signs of a mixed ancestry, from demi-gods and from animals. Their homes have been the wood and the field; and, living so near to Nature, in their life and their joys they seem akin to the soil. In the story King Gilgamesh sallies forth with his friend Engidu to slay the Elamite tyrant Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar wood, whose business it is to terrify all human beings. His breath is like the roaring of the storm in the forest. They seek him in his lair on a high mountain with woods all around. When the heroes arrive, they
. . Stand and look upon the wood:
They behold the high tops of the cedar,
The entrance to the wood,
Where Humbaba goes in on lofty tread.
The ways are straight, and the path is wrought fair,
They see the cedar mount, the dwellings of gods, the sanctuary of the Imini.
Before the hill stands the cedar, abundant and tall,
Her good shadow is full of rejoicing,
It covers the thorn-bush, covers the dark-hued sloe,
And beneath the cedar the sweet-smelling plants. [Tablet V]
The poem is not about a park in our modern sense. There is no enclosure with wall or fence, which differentiates park from wood. Besides, the word which is used (qistu) means wood, not park or garden. That would be expressed by the word kiru, which implies a regular arrangement plain to see, a place laid out and planted by the hand of man. All the same, this cedar wood of Humbaba, so realistically described, with its straight, cared-for paths (the keeper of the wood is mentioned), and its bushy undergrowths and sweet smelling plants, is a forerunner, a kind of starting-point, for the park of history. Deep-rooted in the people is their veneration for lofty trees, for shadows “full of rejoicing.” The same admiration that we see in the Gilgamesh Epic is remarked on in very late days by the Greeks as a leading characteristic of Asiatic nations.
Besides the park for trees, we may also assume in the most ancient times the existence of vineyards and other useful plantations. In the earliest account of a war between Egypt and Asia, about 2500 B.C., we are told that “the army returned in good order to Egypt after it had cut down their (the enemy’s) fig-trees and vines.” This was an act of revenge, of a type which constantly occurs in the East. We find a picture in the palace at Kuyundjik, belonging to the latest days of Assyria, which shows a hostile army at the siege of a town busily hewing down palm-trees. Assyria is the name given to the ancient empire of Mesopotamia, centred on the land between the River Tigris and the River Euphrates.
The account of every war with Egypt takes us to the west coast, near the ancient Byblos. A little later, about 2340 B.C., there is a mention of vineyards that the Sumerian King Gudea planted, and also of fish-ponds which he bordered with reeds, a matter of pride for the later kings.
The first person to boast of a park is Tiglath-Pileser I., about the year 1100. “Cedars and Urkarinu (box), Allakanu-wood have I carried off from the countries I conquered, trees that none of the kings, my forefathers, have possessed, these trees have I taken) and planted them in mine own country, in the parks of Assyria have I planted them.” There were parks, of course, in the days of his forefathers, but he likes to be the first to accilmatise foreign plants in his own land, as the Egyptian queen liked to be the first in hers some five hundred years before.
Parks were the chief ornament of the country, and therefore the first to be exposed to the enemy’s depredations. Not only were these useful and valuable woods and trees highly esteemed, but the hunting grounds were greatly valued. Tiglath-Pileser boasts that he brought to his capital Assur young wild oxen, and stags, and wild goats, even young elephants, and let them grow up like flocks of sheep in his park; he also imported dromedaries; and foreign kings sent him as presents “ from the great sea,” for which he had large fish-ponds made.