As a red-blooded American gardener, it worries me that Iraq should control the world's foremost horticultural shrine: the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the fabled hanging gardens once flourished on a fertile plain 55 miles south of Baghdad, in central Iraq. Exotic plants and trees were said to have thrived in the terraced roof gardens, which reportedly covered several acres and were built on 75-foot stone arches overlooking the Euphrates River.
Though they fell into ruin more than 200 centuries ago, the mystical hanging gardens continue to intrigue historians, not to mention the Iraqi government, which was working feverishly to rebuild both the gardens and the ancient city of Babylon before the current crisis in the Persian Gulf.
"I imagine they've put the work on hold for now," says Dr. Erle Leichty, professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania. But Westerners can't be sure, since construction at the site continued throughout Iraq's 10-year war with Iran. Then, Sudanese laborers replaced Iraqi workmen who joined the army.
The garden project has been a goal of Saddam Hussein for more than a decade. Frankly, I never suspected Hussein of having a green thumb, only a black hat. Apparently, gardening appeals to both good guys and bad guys. President Bush has his rose garden. Saddam Hussein has his hanging gardens.
Iraq has pledged $25 million, mostly in oil revenues, for the restoration of Babylonia. Intrigued by the ancients' method of irrigating the elevated hanging gardens, Hussein is also offering a $1.5 million prize to any Iraqi citizen who can match that extraordinary engineering feat, and $750,000 to the runner-up. No, a soaker hose won't do. Entrants may use only primitive tools of the times. Presumably, this includes slaves hauling water buckets.
There is method to Hussein's madness. According to legend, the hanging gardens were created by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, the foremost tyrant of the sixth century B.C. Nebuchadnezzar conquered the land that is now Kuwait, as well as Syria, Israel, Jordan and parts of Saudi Arabia. He was Saddam Hussein's kind of guy.
The gardens were reputedly built for Nebuchadnezzar's bride, Amytis, who longed for the green mountains of her homeland in fTC present-day Iran. So the king had 10,000 workmen build an artificial hill, landscaped with a seven-tiered garden and decorated with flora from empires he had sacked.
"Most Babylonian and Assyrian kings kept some type of botanical gardens, to show off the riches of their conquests," says Leichty. But he is among those experts who question the very existence of the hanging gardens.
"How can the madman reconstruct the gardens when there is no description of them in any books on antiquity?" says Leichty.
Dr. Richard Zettler, an expert on Mesopotamia, agrees. "I don't know of any drawings of the hanging gardens outside of some 19th century paintings," says Zettler, an archaeologist at the University.
Zettler spent 10 years digging in Iraq and visited the Babylonian ruins. "I've never been convinced of the gardens' existence," he says. "It's all very, very tenuous."
The Iraqi government dispels all doubts. In fact, plans also call for the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar's palace and construction of several modern restaurants and hotels at the site. All of which makes the hanging gardens sound more like Busch Gardens.
"Iraq is, or was, desperately trying to create a tourist industry, and from time to time they come up with something," says Leichty. "It's always very fanciful."
Can we take that chance? If the hanging gardens did exist, they must have been picturesque, peaceful and serene. They would have been a haven from the travails and bloodshed of the times.
Their fate does not belong in the hands of an Iraqi strongman. Therefore, I propose we save the hanging gardens from Saddam Hussein.
How do you airlift an entire garden?