"She is Semiramis, of whom we read That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse; She held the land which now the Sultan rules"
The whirlwind of souls in the second circle
Public DomainThe whirlwind of souls in the second circle - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 5, lines 58-60)

Semiramis and Ninus are both half-mythological figures; according to tradition, Ninus was the founder of the Assyrian kingdom. Some versions of the story say that Semiramis later had her husband murdered to take the throne herself after he had conquered all the surrounding Asian kingdoms. In any case, her figure came to have a reputation for murderous lasciviousness, for having all her former lovers killed and even having an incestuous relationship to her son, who according to one version killed her in turn.

In Dante's time, the Sultan referred to the Egyptian king, whose territory reached into western Asia but did not correspond to the areas governed by Semiramis. Sapegno therefore thinks that the "land" may refer to the area between the Assyrian capital and Cairo: Reggio proposes that Dante is mixing up two different places named Babylon, the capital of the Mesopotamian empire and the fortress city in the Nile delta. It might also simply refer to the fact that the heartlands of Egypt once were ruled by the Assyrian empire.