Babylon: Myth and Reality

Posted: January 12th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Last Saturday I went to The British Museum for the well anticipated Babylon exhibition. A lot of work went into the curatorship of the event, where many pieces from a variety of world museums were selected and shown side-by-side for a richer viewing experience. This worked particularly well on the case of the Tower of Babel, where you had a dedicated room with several artistic interpretations on the topic over the last millennium. The exhibition didn’t impress me as much as I was expecting, in part due to management issues. Too many people were let in in very short intervals of 10 minutes. This led to quickly packed rooms and corridors, that would already be very constrained for normal traffic.

Apart from some particularly vivid paintings, and the remarkably interesting cuneiforms (the first writing system in the world created by the Sumerians), what made my day was to finally be able to see up close the oldest known world map. Dated from the 6th century BC, the map, which was reconstructed by Eckhard Unger, shows the city of Babylon on the river Euphrates, surrounded by a circular landmass showing Assyria, Armenia and several cities. The circular landmass is in turn surrounded by a “bitter river” (Oceanus), with eight regions arranged around it so as to form a eight-pointed star. The map itself is small, occupying only two-thirds of the surface of a clay tablet that measures about 125 x 75 mm (5 x 3 in).

The accompanying text mentions eight outer regions beyond the encircling ocean. The descriptions of five of them have survived:

  • the third region is where “the winged bird ends not his flight,” i.e., cannot reach.
  • on the fourth region “the light is brighter than that of sunset or stars”: it lay in the northwest, and after sunset in summer was practically in semi-obscurity.
  • The fifth region, due north, lay in complete darkness, a land “where one sees nothing,” and “the sun is not visible.”
  • the sixth region, “where a horned bull dwells and attacks the newcomer”
  • the seventh region lay in the east and is “where the morning dawns.”

The old Babylonian World Map bears a striking similarity to many medieval T-O maps (see below).

The T-O map represents the physical world as first described by the 7th century scholar Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae (chapter 14, de terra et partibus):

Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est [...] Undique enim Oceanus circumfluens eius in circulo ambit fines. Divisus est autem trifarie: e quibus una pars Asia, altera Europa, tertia Africa nuncupatur.

The [inhabitated] mass of solid land is called round after the roundness of a circle, because it is like a wheel [...] Because of this, the Ocean flowing around it is contained in a circular limit, and it is divided in three parts, one part being called Asia, the second Europe, and the third Africa.