Dr. Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute and author of “The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon” traveled to one of the most dangerous places on earth to prove not only that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon did exist, but also to identify where they most likely were located, describe what they looked like and explain how they were constructed. After filming her journey for Secrets of The Dead on PBS, Dr. Dalley shared some of her interests, background and techniques that led to her historical discoveries.
Do you recall a moment or period in your life when you became interested in the Hanging Gardens?
Yes, I was trying to prepare a talk on ancient Near Eastern gardens, and I could find nothing to say about them. How extraordinary, I thought, and I reckoned it was worth trying to find out the reasons. Things one does not understand are often more intriguing than things that are obvious.
What sets the Gardens apart from the other ancient wonders of the world for you?
The Hanging Garden is far further east than the others, and it was the only one that remained a mystery – it could not be found in Babylonian texts and archaeology. Some of my colleagues thought it must be a fictional wonder, which seemed likely to be wrong. It is stimulating to disagree!
Can you share a bit about your background and your work today at Oxford?
When I left school, I went to help on a dig in northern Iraq directed by a friend of my parents. I discovered that one could dig up literature that had not been read for 4,000 years. I wondered why I had never heard about it before, and wondered why so few people study the subject – and I still wonder! I loved working in Middle Eastern countries, and I am very sad about what has happened in Iraq, and in Syria – where I have also worked. So it was a great chance to go to Iraqi Kurdistan to make the documentary. By the way, Iraqi Kurdistan is a very safe country, unlike some other parts of Iraq.
I have retired from teaching Babylonian and Assyrian language, literature and history, so I am free to do more research. I have much more time for reading now.
How did you begin to develop your ability to decipher cuneiform?
I studied Assyriology for a BA at Cambridge University, and then at SOAS London for a PhD. For my thesis I worked on a royal archive written on clay nearly 4,000 years ago, which I helped to dig up in northern Iraq. Being faced with new texts fresh from the ground is hugely exciting, and it was a great opportunity at that stage of life.
You recently published a book about your research into the Gardens, but how and when did the filming for PBS come about?
My publisher, Oxford University Press, put me in touch with Bedlam Productions in London, which researched how to present the discovery, and eventually managed to raise enough money to make the film, and to find the producer, Nick Green.
When you were filming in Iraq, were there moments or locations you felt particularly moved or connected to the past? Particularly fearful?
It was very moving to visit the sites of the canal and of the aqueduct, to see the sculptures of Sennacherib on the rock at Bavian, and the inscription at Jerwan. it was not at all frightening. If I had gone in person to Nineveh by Mosul, outside Kurdistan, however, I would have been scared, and I was glad that we found a very satisfactory alternative.
What has been the biggest challenge for you, and for other scholars, in fully understanding these legendary gardens? Do you think we’ll ever have a complete picture?
There was a cluster of problems, each one needing to be pinpointed, and then requiring a new approach to try and solve it. Sometimes I got stuck on a difficulty, wondered occasionally if I was on the right track, and put the work aside until an opportunity arose to pursue it. I had many other pieces of work in between, and I like to work on more than one subject. We will never have a complete picture – that’s impossible with such ancient history, but one always hopes that new material will turn up to throw new light.