Mapping Antiquity Part 2: The Babylonian World Map

Lewis D'Ambra
Jul 11, 2020 · 14 min read
The Babylonian World Map

In 1881 the Iraqi born archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered a clay tablet whilst digging at the site of Sippar about 60km from Babylon. Rassam was searching for evidence of the Biblical flood and being unable to read the Cuneiform script dismissed the find as of little importance.

It was not until years later, in the late 20th century, that the scholars at the British museum deciphered the text and realised its significance. The tablet was in fact perhaps the oldest known world map, offering one of the few opportunities to glimpse the world view of Babylonian Civilisation[1].

To start the journey through Classical Antiquity, this article is going to take a close look at the Babylonian world map. Exploring the map itself and what it can tell us about the civilisation which produced it.

The Babylonian world map, sometimes called the Imago Mundi, is the first known depiction we have of the whole world and so the starting point for understanding knowledge of the world in Classical Antiquity.

Sargon of Akkad

Although its creator is unknown, it has been dated to somewhere between 800 BCE — 500 BCE[2], but the inscriptions on it indicate that it was a copy of an original. Given the locations featured, the original could not have been created earlier than the 9th Century BCE, but it may be an attempt to depict the world of Sargon of Akkad[3], of about 2300 BCE[4]. As such, the map could well be a Neo-Babylonian[5] attempt to link themselves to, and thus recapture the glory, of a past epoch. Given this information, the context of the world at the time of its creation is important to consider.

The world of the Greek dark ages

The world of early Classical antiquity was one of flux and change. On the edge of Europe, the Greeks were beginning to emerge from their dark ages[6], staging the first Olympic games in 776 BCE[7]. Traders and colonists from the island Euboea began making voyages out into the world both to the east and to the west[8], forging new contacts, trading connections, and gaining new knowledge, learning the Phoenician Alphabet[9], the precursor of the Greek[10] and Latin Alphabets. It is also around this time when the city-states we all know from Classical Antiquity began to emerge into the full light of history. The Spartans[11] were poised to embark on the Messenian Wars, enslaving their neighbours and laying the groundwork for the harsh system for which the city is famous. Athens[12] was developing into a sophisticated and large centre of trade which would eventually set it on the path to democracy[13].

Egypt was slowly emerging from its post Bronze age isolation and beginning to take an increasing interest in the outside world. At first forced into engaging with the world beyond its borders by the Assyrian conquest of Egypt in the 670s and 660s BCE[14]. After regaining its independence later in the century, this growing interest would lead the Pharaoh Necho II, ruling from 610–595 BCE, to order a canal to be dug between the Nile and the Red Sea to improve trade and communications. The project was abandoned after 12,000 deaths and the fear that the Babylonians would use it as an invasion highway[15]. However, the canal project still shows Egypt was increasingly looking to the world beyond its borders again, it would be the first of many attempts before the modern Suez Canal.

Necho II is also said to have commissioned Phoenician sailors to explore beyond the red sea. The Greek historian Herodotus reports that these explorers sailed south along Africa’s east coast, before turning westward around southern Africa, with the sun on their right, baffling Herodotus who had no idea of the curvature of the earth, and eventually returning to Egypt via the Mediterranean[16]. If this story is true it is the first recorded circumnavigation of Africa, a much-disputed feat that would inspire many more attempts down the centuries.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

For Babylon[17] this was a period of occupation, destruction, and rebirth. The Assyrian Empire[18] was resurgent after a long period of isolation and stagnation. With the ascension to the throne of Adad-nirari II in 911 BCE, Assyria once more began a long period of expansion, eventually coming to conquer and occupy almost the whole of the ancient near east. Babylon was dominated by this new imperial force and then occupied by the empire during the reign of Shalmaneser III, 859 BCE — 824 BCE.

The city was subdued for a time, but under the reign of Sennacherib[19], 705 BCE — 681 BCE, Babylon was in an almost perpetual state of revolt. As a result, the city was destroyed in 689 BCE. Even the city’s religious centre was not spared the destruction, and it was said that Sennacherib’s subsequent murder by two of his son’s was an act of atonement for this sacrilege.

Babylon was then rebuilt by Sennacherib’s successors[20], first taking up residence there for a part of the year and then city was used as the seat of the King’s son, the beginning of the once great city’s rebirth. A series of further revolts, which would see the city sieged and sacked once more, eventually led Babylon, as part of a coalition of peoples, to play a part in the destruction of Assyria for good between 612 and 609 BCE.[21]

The Neo-Babylonian Empire

For almost a century after, 626BC — 539 BCE, Babylon itself would rise to take Assyria’s place. The Neo-Babylonian empire would dominate the land between the Mediterranean and Persia as Assyria had before it. For the first time since the reign of King Hammurabi in the 18th Century BCE, the city would be the seat of empire[22].

However, the resurgence would not last. The rise of Cyrus the great[23], King of Persia, would see Babylon crushed and the city incorporated into the growing Persian Achaemenid Empire in 539 BCE.[24]

Although Babylon would continue to be a rich and important province of the Persian Empire, the city would never again rule itself.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire

This tumultuous setting is the world in which the Babylonian world map was created. Depending on the exact time of its creation, it may either be harking back to an age of glory in order to create a link to Neo-Babylonian power or an attempt to revive past stability and power in the face of defeat and subordination.

By looking in more detail at the map, its purpose can be discerned and along with-it insight into knowledge and world view of early Classical antiquity. First, delving into what is represented on the map.

Babylonian World Map with Overlay

The map is drawn on a clay tablet and is 12.2cm tall and 8.2cm wide, on this small surface area is drawn a small, labelled map as well as a partially destroyed cuneiform script.[25]

The vertical rectangle running down the middle represents the Euphrates river. The river is shown emptying into oblong swamps with a channel running through them, this may be identified as an ancient waterway used to bypass the marshes and enter the Persian Gulf.[26]

The upper horizontal rectangle represents Babylon, surrounding cities and mountain ranges are represented by circles, oblongs, and curves. As we might expect Babylon is sat at the centre of the map and the world and is much larger than the surrounding cities and empires[27].

“Assyria” is labelled but the representation is perhaps the Assyrian city Nineveh, “Der,” and “Susa,” the Elamite capital, are also labelled. Two other circles are simply labelled “city” and three circles show a central dot but are unlabelled. These unlabelled circles are perhaps representations of the “ruined cities” which are mentioned in the text on the obverse[28].

Three geographic areas are also labelled but not enclosed within a shape; Urartu, a kingdom located in the plateau between Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Caucasus Mountains, Habban, a Kassite tribal area in western Iran and Bit Yakin, the territory of an Aramaean tribal group located on the southern Euphrates[29].

Besides these manmade features the map includes the unlabelled Euphrates River, which bisected Babylon in the first millennium BCE, a “mountain” and a “swamp”. The Euphrates, which is shown running from the “mountain” down to the “swamp,” would suggest that the mountain should be identified as those in south eastern Turkey, the source of the Euphrates, while the “swamp” would depict the marshlands along the southern Euphrates that existed in antiquity. All the features are surrounded by an encircling ocean labelled the “salt-sea”[30].

Along the border of the map is where we begin to see the limits of Babylonian knowledge and the blending of myth and reality. Although this may well not have been a distinction made by the map’s creators.

Around the outside of the encircling ocean are 7 triangles or zones labelled Nagû (meaning regions or provinces), they describe dangerous regions “where the sun is not seen” filled with terrifying beasts. A mix of myth and speculation, this is the first representation we have of Terra Incognita, a term common to many maps down the ages and an insight into the Babylonian world, their mind set and mythology. Due to the damage of the map, only 3 of these regions are labelled, the names given indicate the far-off nature of these places and the feeling that they are the edge of the world; “place of the rising sun”, “the sun is hidden, and nothing can be seen”, “beyond the flight of birds”[31].

The distance between the regions is noted and they are shaped like triangles as this is how they were imagined looking as you approached them by water. Although the text is far from complete, it tells of great heroes also living in these regions[32].

Whatever the reason, it is unusual for a map of the period in being so wide ranging, most maps only depicted local areas. Especially unusual is attempting to depict what lay beyond the sea, as the sea itself was often considered the end of the world.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the map is the text written on the top and back of the tablet. The text, written in Cuneiform script, describes Babylonian cosmology, including how the earth was created “on top of the restless sea”. However, the damage to the map means that we can only get a glimpse of the meaning.

So, what does this map tell us of Babylon’s knowledge of the world? First and foremost, it tells us that their knowledge was very limited. With little to no knowledge shown of what lay beyond Mesopotamia’s immediate borders. However, given that we know that Babylon was aware of regions not depicted on the map, Egypt being the prime example, we can also conclude that the intended purpose of maps in this period was not to inform in a detailed way as we would expect maps to do today. More that maps were tools of storytelling and propaganda more likely used to cement legitimacy of a state or regime than as true aids to navigation.

This map is important in many ways, but its intended purpose is disputed amongst historians. Some arguing that it is an attempt to depict the world as the Babylonians knew it and others that it is meant more to explain the mythological world view of the Babylonians. The answer probably lies somewhere in between these two extremes and I doubt the Babylonians themselves would have made such distinctions.

The fact that the details of the map do give a somewhat accurate representation of the world the Babylonians inhabited, cities and people being in the correct place relative to Babylon for example, do give credence to the map being meant as an accurate depiction of the world.

However, the map does leave out knowledge of the world which we know the Babylonians had, the glaring example being Egypt being left off the map entirely. As a world map it is therefore of limited use to someone who wished to gain practical knowledge of the world in the 8th — 6th Centuries BCE.

That much trouble is clearly taken to explain the more fantastical elements would perhaps indicate that this was its intended purpose. However, there is more to it than this. As stated at the beginning of this piece, the map appears to be a copy of an older map and one which depicted the world of 2300 BCE[33].

This was a time of peace and stability, with Mesopotamia at the heart of the civilised world. The copying of a map depicting this time would suggest an attempt to link the time of the creator of the map with that earlier, and perhaps from the creator’s point of view, greater time. Linking Babylon itself with that epoch and may be an attempt to pull that stability into the creator’s own time.

As alluded to at the beginning of the article, this may be an attempt to link the empire of Sargon of Akkad with the Neo-Babylonian empire, an attempt to claim legitimacy through a link to a glorious past. Or, if the map was created during the Assyrian period or during the rise of the Achaemenid empire, periods of defeat and decline for Babylon, it may be an attempt to claw back some of the glory to an ailing Babylonian state.

There is some evidence to support this theory, as the Neo-Babylonian Kings seemed to pursue an arch traditionalist policy, reviving much of the old Sumerian-Akkadian culture. The use of Akkadian[34] as an administrative language despite Aramaic being the everyday tongue is one example, archaic expressions from 1500 years before were reintroduced into official inscriptions and even the cuneiform script was modified to look like the script used in the 3rd millennium BCE. The Neo-Babylonian Kings also revived the practice of appointing a royal daughter to serve as a priestess of the moon-god Sin[35].

Naram-Sin of Akkad

The story of how Nebuchadnezzar II[36], in his efforts to restore the Temple at Sippar, had to make repeated excavations until he found the foundation deposit of Naram-Sin of Akkad[37], is perhaps the most telling example. Naram-Sin of Akkad was the grandson of Sargon the Great and the first Mesopotamian King to claim divinity for himself, perhaps a further clue to the purpose and mindset of Babylon’s new Kings. This final example is most apt given that the map itself was discovered during an excavation at Sippar.

All this evidence points to a concerted and state led effort to link the Neo-Babylonian Empire with that of Akkad 1500 years before, attempting to gain legitimacy and depth for Babylon’s newfound and potentially fragile power. This may be especially so if the map was created not long after the fall of Assyria, the lessons of the collapse of that power being a fresh and violent example of the fragility of power.

Empire of Akkad circa 2300 BCE

Whatever its purpose, the map gives us an insight into how the world was viewed, what knowledge of the world existed and how depictions of it were used by civilisations. It also sets a few significant precedents which will continue to be used and adapted, consciously or not, by map makers for centuries.

This knowledge would be passed on in different forms as the Achaemenid Persian empire grew. Most notably as the Greeks expanded and developed their connections with the east, a series of intellectuals would take this knowledge and apply it to their own pushing knowledge of the world further. These intellectuals will be our next stop on the journey.

[1] Brotton, Jerry, “Great Maps: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained”, Penguin Random House, Dorling Kindersley Limited, Great Britain, 2015, Pg22

[2] Museum, Trustees O. T. B. “Babylonian Map of the World.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 26 Apr 2012. Web. 15 Jun 2019.

Jona Lendering, “Babylonian World Map”, Livius.org, last modified on 17 April 2014.

[3] Mark, Joshua J. “Sargon of Akkad.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

Mark, Joshua J. “Akkad.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 15 Jun 2019.

[4] Brotton, Jerry, “Great Maps: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained”, Penguin Random House, Dorling Kindersley Limited, Great Britain, 2015, Pg22

[5] Mark, Joshua J. “Babylon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 05 Jul 2020.

[6] Violatti, Cristian. “Greek Dark Age.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 30 Jan 2015. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[7] Cartwright, Mark. “Ancient Olympic Games.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 13 Mar 2018. Web. 15 Jun 2019.

[8] Robin Lane Fox, “The Classical World; An epic history of Greece and Rome”, Penguin Books, London UK, 2006, Pg24–38

[9] Thamis, “The Phoenician Alphabet & Language.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan 2012. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[10] Violatti, Cristian. “Greek Alphabet.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 05 Feb 2015. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[11] Cartwright, Mark. “Sparta.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 May 2013. Web. 12 Jun 2019

Robin Lane Fox, “The Classical World; An epic history of Greece and Rome”, Penguin Books, London UK, 2006, Pg69–79

[12] Mark, Joshua J. “Athens.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[13] Robin Lane Fox, “The Classical World; An epic history of Greece and Rome”, Penguin Books, London UK, 2006, Pg88–99

[14] Mark, Joshua J. “Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 16 Jun 2019.

Mark, Joshua J. “Esarhaddon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 08 Jul 2014. Web. 16 Jun 2019.

Crabben, Jan V. D. “History of Assyria.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan 2012. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[15] Brooke-Hitching, “The Golden Atlas: The Greatest Explorations, Quests and Discoveries on Maps”, Simon and Schuster, London, 2018, Pg18

[16] Herodotus, Translated by Robin Waterfield, “The Histories”, Oxford University Press, 1998, 4.42

[17] Mark, Joshua J. “Babylon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

Paul Kriwaczek, “Babylon; Mesopotamia and the birth of civilisation”, St Martin’s Griffin, 2012

In Our Time, “Babylon”, BBC, 3 June 2004

[18] Crabben, Jan V. D. “History of Assyria.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan 2012. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

https://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-assyrian-empire-marian-h-feldman

[19] Mark, Joshua J. “Sennacherib.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 15 Jul 2014. Web. 15 Jun 2019.

[20] Mark, Joshua J. “Esarhaddon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 08 Jul 2014. Web. 15 Jun 2019.

[21] Crabben, Jan V. D. “History of Assyria.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan 2012. Web. 15 Jun 2019.

[22] Mark, Joshua J. “Hammurabi.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 16 Apr 2018. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[23] Nijssen, Daan. “Cyrus the Great.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 Feb 2018. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[24] Davidson, Peter. “Achaemenid Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11 Feb 2011. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[25] Brotton, Jerry, “Great Maps: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained”, Penguin Random House, Dorling Kindersley Limited, Great Britain, 2015, Pg22

https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=362000&partId=1

[26] Brotton, Jerry, “Great Maps: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained”, Penguin Random House, Dorling Kindersley Limited, Great Britain, 2015, Pg22

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid

[33] Mark, Joshua J. “Sargon of Akkad.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[34] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Akkadian language”, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., October 09, 2017

[35] Kriwaczek, Paul, “Babylon”, St. Martin’s Griffin, March 27, 2012

Podany Amanda H., “The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, November 18, 2013,

Bryce, Trevor, “Babylonia: A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, September 2016

[36] Mark, Joshua J. “Nebuchadnezzar II.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07 Nov 2018. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

[37] Mark, Joshua J. “Naram-Sin.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07 Aug 2014. Web. 12 Jun 2019.

Mapping Civilisation

Exploring the history of our knowledge of the geography of the world through maps and explorations

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