The Landscape Guide

The design of Assyrian parks and gardens

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[Editor's Note: 'Assyria' comes from the Greek word Assurios and describes the ancient empire of Mesopotamia, centred on the rivers Tigres and Euphrates, modern Iraq. The empire expanded and contracted, sometimes including modern Syria,  Iran and other countries.]

In dealing with Assyria we always feel the want of pictures. In reliefs, down to the ninth century, there are practically no backgrounds of country scenery. Every now and then we get a badly drawn tree (Fig. 27). Among these trees the palm is often recognisable, also the vine. Together with the attempts at realistic drawings, sacred plants are represented allegorically, but they are purely conventional, and therefore must not be taken to show any sentiment in these people towards the trees themselves (Fig. 28). It is only after the second half of the eighth century that the younger Assyrian monarchs begin not only to boast, in inscriptions of their park sites, but to represent them in reliefs on palace walls. We now find that we find that the interest of the artist is not concentrated on man alone. In many cases there are landscapes as a background. In the customary scenes—hunting, war, palaces, banquets—they take great pains to show landscape, with carefully-drawn trees and plants, although this precision of detail is at the cost of proportion and perspective.

The first of these pictures comes from the palace built by the enterprising King Sargon. He founded above Nineveh a city called Dur-Sharrukin (Sargonburg) “by command of the gods and the desire of my heart,” He set round it a great wall, and added a park, “like the Amanus mountains, wherein all flowers from the Hittite land and herbs from the hill are planted together.” The ruins of the palace have been found among the villages of Khorsabad, and the park was probably close to it, adjoining the north wall. The Amanus, which plays so great a part in this and in all subsequent park- inscriptions, lies on the extreme north-east coast of the Mediterranean, and extends to the Cilician Taurus.

In all the royal inscriptions of later date, the words “like the Amanus” occur as though it is an “epitheton ornans” in the praise of a park. Far too often are words transferred in an almost meaningless way from one monument to another; and the only question is, what was the original similarity (or imitation) of the Amanus? The Amanus is the hill country of the Hittites, and there is no doubt that a certain influence was exercised by the Hittites upon Egyptian architecture. In the inscriptions it is said in a formal way about certain palaces, “I built a Chilani in the manner of a Hittite palace.” If one assumes that by this Chilani is meant an open hall supported on pillars, such as is constantly found in or near a park, there is no evidence that it was from the Hittites that the style of a park- site was either borrowed or influenced. It is more likely, and more in accordance with the wording of the Sargon inscription, that the beautiful flora of this fertile mountain, full of trees and ell-watered, was acclimatised in the Babylonian plain, just as Queen Hatshepsut brought a “Punt” to her temple garden.

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We must entirely reject the view that the Assyrian kings meant by the phrase, “like the Amanus mountains,” to suggest any imitation of form or of landscape, thereby pointing to a picturesque and artificial style such as is meant by the “Chinese-English garden.” Western Asiatic gardens were laid out formally, as is shown by the very old Chaldean word kiru (see p. 29) and by the fact that Xenophon, who greatly admired the regularity of the rows of trees, bears witness at a much later time to the same thing. The monuments that have been preserved are all to the same effect.

The Assyrians had a great fancy for artificial hills and terraces. Their palaces stand on enormous heaps of piled-up earth, and chapels and temples are erected on little hills in the parks (Fig. 29). Often, the palaces have small open pillared corridors. They are near to running water on rising ground planted formally with trees, such as pines and cypresses. The hill is often crowned with a little altar with the hall near by. Whether these temples are built in the “Chilani style” is not yet known. It is only by looking far ahead that one can discern the hill made (many centuries later) for the sake of a view, called a spiral mount (German Schneckenberg), of which the Hill of Cypresses in the Villa Medici gives a classical example.

Sargon’s son and successor, Sennacherib, gives us far more information about the nature of his park. [Editor's note. Sennacherib was later identified as the owner. See info on CD re the 'Hanging gardens of Babylon']. He says he built “a palace that knew no equal,” on a gigantic sub-structure of terraces. In his magnificent rooms there are numerous reliefs, which tell of the countless hosts of men by whose work the house was made, and in all the really important events the monarch appears in person. By the side of the palace was a park, “like the Amanus mountains,” wherein grew the products of Chaldea and of the hills, both spices and trees. “I have given and distributed,” he says, “to the men of Nineveh the lands outside the city, 3 Pt. in size, to be laid out in plantations.” [Editor's note: If the abbreviation 3 Pt. means three plethra, the area would be about 30,000 square feet.]

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In another place Sennacherib says:

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.

Sennacherib is evidently proud of his water system, and an abundant distribution of water was a matter of life and death for the whole country [Editor's note: it is now thought to have been raised with a screw]. Like the popes of the Renaissance in Rome later on, the king brought the water first into his own garden, and only afterwards into the city. It was not in Sennacherib’s nature to shrink from difficult undertakings, so he built a festival house for the god Assur on the naked rock. Traces have been discovered by excavations of a large garden which he ordered to be made round the house of the god (Fig. 30). In front of the building there is a walled-in canal, and running parallel to it there are smaller water courses between the plants and trees, of which the old pits are still visible, quite round and dug about one and a half metres deep into the rock; the traces of them extend to the amazing area of 16,000 square metres. It is evident that this mighty ruler used whole nations, that he had taken prisoner, to carry out his works.

Here also were huge reservoirs, three of which have been found, and we are able to think of them (judging by the various inscriptions) as all alive with fish and encircled with reeds and rushes, like the ponds that King Gudea made in his own park. Many reliefs show us what they looked like, and the reeds and sedges were so high that a sow

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with her litter could hide in them, or stags and roes—even, if we may trust the pictures, a horse and his rider. In this large park stood in deep shade the festival house of the god Assur, and there he received and feted all the other gods each New Year’s Day.

Some light is thrown on the system of irrigation by a fragment of a tablet which is unfortunately nearly all destroyed. There is one wide canal, with little ducts branching out of it, and there are straight rows of various kinds of trees. It almost looks as though the different kinds were set in separate gardens and divided by low walls, as in Egypt, but perhaps these are only meant for paths (Fig. 31). In this picture we see many fishes and crabs, a kind of gondola, and on one side a man being let down by a rope, apparently to fetch water. Generally the edges of the pond were planted with rows of trees on the inner, or garden, side. But here there are straight rows outside, along the course of the water on the level ground, whereas there are irregular groups on the mountains, which are seldom drawn in a formal way. In backgrounds with many trees it is usual to represent the deeds of warriors, or even an actual battle.

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