The Landscape Guide

Flowers in Assyrian gardens

When Assurbanipal completed the house he made for the women, and adorned it with all manner of colours, he added “a large grove with many kinds of trees.” There exists a little picture on a cylinder of jasper (Fig. 35), which shows a women’s garden, wherein women are plucking ripe fruits, and beside the tall trees are seen low-growing plants, one of them looking like a dwarf palm, and the middle one perhaps meant for a flower.

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There is no doubt that such civilised people would have grown flowers at an early date, although flowers cannot have played the same part with them as they did with the Egyptians, for it is clear that they did not use flowers either in honour of the dead, or in wreaths for breast or head. On the other hand, in their earliest pictures one often finds winged genii holding either branches or actual flowers in one hand; and the old ornamentation of coins with plant designs indicates a certain cultivation of flowers. The late reliefs from Kuyundjik show long processions of people carrying all things needed at a feast or a sacrifice; and many of them hold in their hands jugs or vases, in which bunches of flowers have been put, or whole branches of blossom.

Where flowers were to be cultivated, hedged gardens were necessary, and they would be near the house, or they might be actually inside it, as in the pleasure-palace of Sennacherib. Also a special site and special protection would be necessary for the women’s garden. In the same way the great hunting-parks with their supply of wild animals must have required a separate division and strong protection. 

The inscriptions say nothing of this, and the reliefs seem to make a point of ignoring all boundaries. This appears in an unusually pleasing picture of the time of Assurbanipal (seventh century), when art at its best showed a decidedly realistic tendency in the delineation of individual objects, By that time the artist had learned how to represent flowers in a thoroughly natural way, and in the relief from the northern palace at Kuyundjik the lily is depicted (Fig. 36), sometimes in bud, sometimes in full bloom, growing on its slender stalk; and these attractive flowers are in a grove of pines and palms, placed between the trunks of the trees, which are planted in regular alternation.

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Another tablet in the same relief has flowers, but the particular kind is not easily determined. The trees show that the same park is meant, but beside the flowers and under the trees there are two lions (Fig. 37). 
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Huntsmen show us that this is the royal park, for on the other side they are dashing through the wood with a couple of dogs. Overhead the vine, delicately and accurately drawn, is twining from trunk to trunk.

If we may trust the memorial records we possess, the vineyard underwent a change in the  time of this prince. The earlier monuments always show the vine creeping on the ground, and these date from Sennacherib’s time, In addition there are only figures of individual plants without any leaning towards naturalistic treatment, except that here and there we find several vines grouped close together. But in Assurbanipal’s time the vine is seen climbing from tree to tree, which implies some sort of training, such as one finds in Italy to-day, and very often in the Orient. At the king’s palace the park shows no essentially different character. On another carving of the same series the king is shown having a meal in the open with his wife (Fig. 38). He reposes on a lordly couch; and on a seat, as grandly decorated as his own, his wife sits at his feet; both are holding goblets in their right hands, and lifting them to their lips, while in their left hands they hold flowers -  which reminds one of an Egyptian banquet. Beside the couches stands a fine table with food on it, and behind the master are slaves fanning him. Above their heads there is the arch of a vine arbour, but without visible support from stakes or columns; at the side it extends farther among the trees, which alternate regularly between a date palm in fruit and a fir-tree with lower bushes between. A procession of servants, followed by musicians, come carrying dishes, and in the tree-tops birds are hopping about. But even this peace- lover among Assyrian princes cannot in a scene of tranquility forget his conquered foe. On one of the branches hangs the head of his last antagonist. This sight, promising rest and security, doubtless adds a peculiar spice to the meal!

Thus from special scenes and fragments we have to piece together the picture of an Assyrian-Babylonian park. These nations do not feel the Egyptian’s love for telling a story realistically. The chief impression is produced by their rows of splendid trees, with (in the later times) vines growing between them, and low bushes and flowers filling in the gaps. The water of canals or ponds, and little pleasure-houses set up on a hill or a terrace, and scattered about the park, enliven the scene. This park is in its first intention the spectacular scene for a great man’s hunting-ground, but is secondarily the place where feasts are given, and where assemblies, and audiences granted to great princes, take place.