Royal Gardens, Parks, and the Architecture Within: Assyrian Views.

Author:Albenda, Pauline

Inscriptions of Assyrian kings disclose that these rulers maintained and improved the land nearby to the palace. Terrain was sometimes set aside for one or more of the following royal purposes: garden, grove of trees, or animal preserve. Occasionally there is mention of the addition of a building within a given landscape. This paper brings together the pictorial versions of what may be described as the "Assyrian royal landscape"; that is, outdoor scenery designed for royal purposes and represented on the stone panels that lined the walls of the palaces at the modem sites of Nimrud (Kalhu), Nineveh (Kuyunjik), and Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin). These select depictions occur infrequently relative to the many military narratives and views of foreign territories of the bas-reliefs. Over time greater attention was given to details of the respective landscape scene, which include architectural features that can be compared with the archaeological evidence. When available, this last evidence is useful as a source of information regarding the importance of an image or item in a select scene.

It must be stated that the royal landscapes recorded on the bas-reliefs differ from reign to reign, since they reflect some aspect of the king's rule. Thus, the description and discussion of the individual scenes also consider the rationale behind their creation. Here, text and archaeological data are supportive additions, and the previous studies and views of other scholars are likewise considered. Among the selection of art works discussed below, several were found damaged or are now lost but are preserved in drawings made at the time of their discovery. The scenes carved on the stone panels follow in chronological sequence those of four Assyrian kings: Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), Sargon II (721-705 BCE), Sennacherib (704-689 BCE), and Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE). The use of chronology is a means to demonstrate that royal landscape imagery in the sculptural arts progressed as a method of documentation by the Assyrian kings, over the course of the Neo-Assyrian period.


As noted in royal inscriptions, Assyrian kings were attentive to the planting of gardens. An early king, Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 BCE), imported a variety of trees and rare orchard fruits, numbers of which were likely planted in the king's garden at Nineveh (Grayson 1976: 17, no. 47). Within that garden he built a "pleasure-palace." A later king, Ashur-bel-kala (1073-1056 BCE), records that after the clearing of the canal at the city Ashur, he planted gardens, but he does not elaborate further (Grayson 1976: 56, no. 251). In his text inscribed on the Banquet Stele, Ashurnasirpal II itemizes the many kinds of imported trees and fruits that were planted in the gardens and orchards in the environs of Nimrud (Wiseman 1952: 29-30; M. E. L. Mallowan 1966: 65-71, pl. 27). He adds that the canal from above crashes into the gardens, and that "streams of water" flow in the pleasure garden (Grayson 1976: 173-74, no. 678). This vivid description indicates that at some juncture the canal was constructed at a level above the pleasure garden. Presumably the garden was one of the places watered by Ashurnasirpal's large irrigation system, which the king named the Patti-hegalli; the canal was dug out from the Upper Zab, cut through a mountain, and irrigated the meadows and orchards (Harmansah 2012: 68, fig. 4).

Illustrative references to a garden are largely lacking in the Middle Assyrian and early part of the Neo-Assyrian periods. Exceptions are the ivory pyxis and ivory comb discovered in a late fourteenth- or early thirteenth-century grave at the city Ashur (Feldman 2006: 24-28, figs. 3-8). The incised scene encircling the side of the pyxis is a garden setting indicated by four alternating date palm and conifer trees, a gazelle on either side of a conifer tree, and clusters of flowers. Pairs of roosters and doves rest among the respective pine and palm trees. The comb from the same grave is incised on both sides, showing women with elaborate headdress in a garden of date palm trees. Feldman points out that these two objects were made at the time Assyria emerged as an independent state, and that they are examples of a new Assyrian art identity. Another example of alternating palm tree and conifer is painted on a potsherd from Ashur, dated to the thirteenth century (Feldman 2006: fig. 14). The palm tree on this object is especially interesting, since it is surrounded by a continuous arcaded garland with petal flowers. This tree-and-garland motif may have developed into the so-called sacred tree found in the art of much later date, particularly on the Assyrian bas-reliefs of the ninth century.

Turning to the narratives on the bas-reliefs of Ashurnasirpal's Northwest Palace at Nimrud, the absence of a natural garden is notable, although branches with daisy-like flowers are sometimes held by winged genii (B. P. Mallowan 1983: figs. 8-10, 12). Representations of living trees occur infrequently among the stone sculptures depicting military campaigns and, except for the palm tree, are difficult to identify. On the other hand, sacred/stylized trees do occur in various chambers and doorways of the palace. In two contiguous chambers of the royal residence, Rooms S and T, single-register bas-reliefs displayed a continuous line of alternating sacred/stylized trees and winged genii, thereby fashioning extraordinary imagery, that is, magical figures standing within a mystical grove (Russell 1998: figs. 21-23). The two long walls of Room S framed the narrow wall whose bas-reliefs (slabs 1 -5) showed the king flanked by attendants and trees. Room L had similar magical subjects on the bas-reliefs. In Room I the subject matter was arranged in two registers. Half-kneeling genii flanking a sacred/stylized tree were arranged in the upper register, and standing bird-headed genii flanking the tree were in the lower register (Fig. 1). This room showed ninety-six trees of the same type that alternated with genii, suggestive of a sacred forest (Russell 1998: fig. 17, table 1).

The sacred/stylized tree motif has been subjected to various interpretations. Russell questions those of Parpola, Foster, and Albenda (pp. 687-90). He follows the suggestion of Parker Mallowan that the tree and purifiers (genii) could function independently and be seen as a powerful apotropaic agency. Thus the rooms entirely lined with apotropaic figures insure "immunity to evil influences" (pp. 691, 697). The abundant depictions of sacred trees in the Northwest Palace--and the general absence of living trees--are telling with regard to Ashurnasirpal's religious and cultic tendencies.


Several letters to the king mention the collecting of cedar and cypress saplings and fruit trees that were destined for Sargon's new palace (Parpola 1987: nos. 226, 227). Numbers of these trees may have been placed in the royal garden, although archaeological evidence is lacking in this regard. A clue that points to flora in the garden is the lotus-and-bud sprig held in the lowered hand of Sargon II and also by a wingless genie (Albenda 1986: pls. 59, 70, 89, figs. 24, 25, 84; Bleibtreu 1980: 116-20). A variant is the lotus-and-poppy sprig (or pomegranate?) held by the king (Albenda 1986: pl. 93). Three-stemmed poppy sprigs are held by genii only (Albenda 1986: pls. 53, 54, figs. 16-19, 22-24; Albenda and Guralnick 1986: 235-36, fig. 4). Similar sprigs first appear on the reliefs of Tiglath-pileser III (744-27 BCE) (Bleibtreu 1980: 94-95, pl. 8). This king, too, holds the poppy and other flowers (Barnett and Falkner 1962: pls. XIX, LXIII, LXXI). An interesting occurrence of genii with poppy sprigs standing on either side of a "sacred" tree comes from a fragmentary bas-relief discovered in the isolated building at Khorsabad (Albenda 1986: 133, 159, pl. 62, fig. 20). Bleibtreu (1980: 115-16) observes that the style of the sacred tree is unusual, and to some extent it has a similarity with the stylized tree carved on an Urartian basalt relief from Adilcevas in Van. The latter tree is thought to derive from a highly stylized form, in metal, of the tree of life (Burney and Lawson 1958: 215).

As for the two flower species, the lotus (Nymphaea) and the poppy (Papaver somniferum), they were likely grown in the king's garden. Moreover the lotus is an aquatic plant, so it seems probable that within the same garden was a shallow pool or small pond. We can only conjecture whether the garden was set up in an open area adjacent to the palace complex or, as part of a larger landscape, situated on a lower terrace (Foster 2004: 213-15). According to Oppenheim (1965: 331-32), the garden connected with the palace was a new architectural element of royal living, shifting from utilitarian to display purposes and personal pleasure.

Room VII in the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad was lined with bas-reliefs arranged in two registers, of which several sections are extant. As recorded in Eugene Flandin's drawings made in 1844 (Albenda 1986: 138-39, pls. 86-90), the upper register shows banqueting and the lower register (Fig. 2) illustrates a forest that extends across the four sides of the chamber (Loud 1936: figs. 83, 84, 89; Guralnick 1976: pls. 1-7). It is peopled with Assyrian soldiers hunting small game amidst a row of pine trees that were probably originally painted green and black (Albenda and Guralnick 1986: 240, fig. 9). The Assyrian king stands in his chariot and, accompanied by military personnel, advances through the wooded terrain, towards a small isolated building situated at the edge of a lake that seems to be watered by a nearby river, possibly the Kosr, which flowed past Khorsabad (Fig. 2). Above the structure are three apple trees, one of the several varieties of fruit trees planted in the king's garden. Further on, a low forested hill is surmounted by a monument that has been...

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