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The Hanging Garden – remarks on the use of ancient languages

A fruitful line of research for my book on the Hanging Garden of Babylon was analysis of Babylonian words. They were written in the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script, which is very different from an alphabet. Most alphabets have about 30 letters, and C, for instance, is always C even if it is pronounced in a variety of ways in different languages, or within the same language (compare Cat with raCe in English). In cuneiform, by contrast, there are several hundred signs, and each one can have various values, for example the kal sign also has the values rib, rip, lab, lap, dan, tan, gurush, and a few more. So when you find a word containing that sign, many options are available, and other syllables in the same word may have options too. Sometimes you can be sure you have selected correctly only when a variant is found in a duplicate phrase or inscription, for instance ka-al or ri-ib, using two signs instead of one. Duplicates are also useful for checking when one version has a damaged sign – most inscriptions are written on sun-dried clay, so they are easily damaged. In the case of Sennacherib‘s prism inscription, now in Chicago, a second prism with the same inscription later came to light, and was kept in Baghdad. It was invaluable for checking the choice between options.

In the case of one particular word, ishkuru, an amusing ambiguity was not recognized when the first translation of the prism inscription was made, not surprisingly since the dictionaries available were inadequate at that time.  The translator selected “they drank”, which on its own is perfectly correct.  But it seemed to be nonsense in the context. The word can also be a noun, “wax”, which makes good sense in the context, where the casting of metals is described.

English and Babylonian have very different ranges of meaning. In English one has no trouble telling the difference between a well and a cistern, but in Babylonian the same word serves for both. When the translator makes a choice, he or she is interpreting the context, but that is subjective, and so it is quite often wrong. One can compare that ambiguity to the English word “hanging” for the Hanging Garden. For many people the image that springs to mind is a hanging basket, or a roof garden, on which plants hang down over an edge. But one of the Greek descriptions of the Hanging Garden makes it clear that soil was heaped upon terraces made from stone-built vaults, so the trees were suspended above the earth, and could not send down roots deeper than the top of the vault. If one only reads a mention of the Hanging Garden in English, without the detail of the Greek account, one can easily form the wrong image of “hanging” in the mind’s eye.

When a new invention is made, a word has to be found for it. Often it is a metaphor: consider these examples from the world of computing, web, net, mouse, folder, crash. When screws were first manufactured, the Greeks used the word for snail, cochlia, but the Babylonians chose the word for the male date-palm because they already had a tradition in which that tree was depicted in art with a spiral pattern on the trunk, formed when the fronds are cut off as the tree grows higher. In Babylonian mathematics when a word was needed to mean a cylinder or large pipe, the word “great tree-trunk” was chosen.  Sometimes a deliberately poetic choice replaced a mundane word; in the case of Sennacherib’s prism inscription, “tallow” was replaced with “clothing of flocks”.

In one case of ambiguity, the Babylonian word which Sennacherib uses for his palace garden is kirimahu, a compound of two words, kiri and mah. Kiri has a wider range of meaning than one might realise from a translator’s choice, for it can mean a garden, an orchard, or a plantation. Mah can mean “great”, or “high”. In my book I have suggested that it means a high garden, one that is planted on a citadel mound high up above the surrounding land. The choice depends on my own understanding of the context; a different understanding might allow a different choice. In the case of the word for a cylinder, the element mah as part of the word gishmahu is translated as “large, great”. Since Sennacherib’s palace was on the citadel and the garden was adjacent to it, I think my choice for kirimahu is hard to dispute!


The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon is an exciting story of detection involving legends, expert decipherment of ancient texts, and a vivid description of a little-known civilization.