Babylonian Map of the World

The Babylonian map of the world sheds light on ancient perspectives

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A damaged clay tablet discovered in the late 1800s in Sippar, Iraq is said to be the oldest map of the world. It was discovered on the banks of the Euphrates River, and published in 1899. Now housed at the British Museum, the damaged clay tablet dates back to 600 BC, and depicts an early interpretation of the layout of the world. At 122 x 82 mm, the small map gives us a glimpse into how the Babylonians viewed the world around them, both physically and spiritually.

The tablet contains a map of the Mesopotamian world, with Babylon in the center. It contains carefully etched images and cuneiform writing. Babylon is surrounded by two concentric circles that represent the ocean, named “bitter water” or the “salt sea.” It is labeled with Babylon, Assyria, and Elam. Eight triangular areas labeled as “Regions” or “Islands” surround the Salt Sea, and are labeled with distances, descriptions of the regions, and descriptions of great heroes and mythical beasts that lived in each region. The southern marshes are indicated at the bottom of the map by two parallel lines, and a curved line near the top shows the Zagros Mountains. The Euphrates River is shown running from the mountains above, through Babylon, to the marshes below. Within the center of the map are seven labelled areas that appear to represent cities. Due to damage of the tablet, it appears that three islands are missing from the lower corner.

Three of the islands are labeled as:

  • “place of the rising sun”
  • “the sun is hidden and nothing can be seen”
  • “beyond the flight of birds”

The below sketch shows a detailed outlined of the map and a key is provided showing the labels of each element.

Sketch of the Babylonian map of the World

1."Mountain" (Akkadian: šá-du-ú)
2. "City" (Akkadian: uru)
3. Urartu (Akkadian: ú-ra-áš-tu)
4. Assyria (Akkadian: kuraš+šurki)
5. Der (Akkadian: dēr)
6. Unknown
7. Swamp (Akkadian: ap-pa-ru)
8. Elam (Akkadian: šuša)
9. Canal (Akkadian: bit-qu)
10. Bit Yakin (Akkadian: bῑt-ia-᾿-ki-nu)
11. "City" (Akkadian: uru)
12. Habban (Akkadian: ha-ab-ban)
13. Babylon (Akkadian: tin.tirki), divided by Euphrates
14 - 17 . Ocean (salt water, Akkadian: idmar-ra-tum)
18- 22 . Mythological objects

It is believed that the map was intended to convey the entire contents of the world. It is unique in its inclusion of the islands beyond the ocean.  All other maps produced during the same period were localized to the area in which they were created, did not include land beyond the ocean, because the ocean was considered the end of all lands.

The actual meaning behind the content of the map has been disputed. While many of the places are shown in their correct location, some have said that the map is intended to show the Babylonian view of the mythological world. The 18 mythological beasts mentioned in the writing on the map allude to the Babylonian Epic of Creation where the new world was created after the mythological animals were expelled to the “Heavenly Ocean.” Others say that the Babylonians engaged in cartography to assist in their exporting of agricultural surpluses. While the Babylonians were well-aware of other peoples, such as the Persians and Egyptians, the map creators specifically excluded those peoples from the map. The location of Babylon on the map shows that the Babylonians believed themselves to be the center of the world.

Artist’s depiction of the Babylonian Map of the World

Artist’s depiction of the Babylonian Map of the World. Image source: Cartography-images

The discovery of artifacts such as the Babylonian Map of the World can answer many questions about ancient peoples, the way they lived, and the way they viewed the world, while also opening up new questions. What was their purpose in creating this map? Was it intended to be a literal interpretation of the geological world around them, or a representation of the mythological world they believed in? Questions such as these may never be answered. 

Featured image: The Babylonian Map of the World. Credit: The British Museum

Sources:

Map of the World – The British Museum

The oldest map of the world in existence – The Basement Geographer

Cartography – Ancient Wisdom

Coming of Age in the Cartography Evolution – Amusing Planet

The Babylonian World – Cartographic Images

By M R Reese

Comments

Yes and when looked at through the eyes of an Astrologer it is fairly clear that it is a birth chart.

 

 

 

I agree. It's a zodiac. Archaeologists need to be educated on ancient zodiacs. This for instance is patent nonsense: "The location of Babylon on the map shows that the Babylonians believed themselves to be the center of the world." So do we think that those who produce A-Z maps of London think that London is the centre of the world? Babylon was the Greek for Babilu, which meant Gate of the Gods, which you would have at the centre of the a Zodiac. A river running through it could well hav been the Milky Way.

The first thing I saw was the cross of St.George = the Zodiac and the Sun moving around " flat Earth " like map ... imo correct ...

amazing if it fit that map too ... as it may show how mesopotamian cities were also aligned to the stars ... for example the Euphrates river may have been the equinox line ...

rbflooringinstall's picture

This is awesome. Their mythological world is their litarall world around them. The map represents both.

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

and the shape is much like a pentagram.

I think it looks like the State or Country Seal. Not meant to be a literal map just an image representing the Land.

This looks like a sun dial to me. It seems to be missing a part in the center. Not exactly a Rolex, but it would do.

LUCIFERJONES's picture

Just as Americans use a map with North America being the center of the World the Babylonians did the same. I think most people do this even today, the Chinese are going to have maps that show them as the center of the world etc. As the world changes around us some ideas and perspectives stay the same. I would really like to know if anyone has ever come across a map from the ancients that included knowledge of places they couldn't possibly know unless they received information from an outside source be it from explorers from far off lands or possibly from another world?

It is true what you say... Piri Reis Map is an example of a strange map.
http://www.ancient-origins.net/antarctica-ancient-technology/piri-reis-m...

The article lists several missing things. If they aren't on the tablet, how can we be sure that's what was intended? Although it could be inferred, the article should state it that way. I don't see it being quite as symmetrical as the second rendition has it. Did other items catalogues along with it (near it) show mention of it, or of transactions that may need the map (grain shipments, etc.)?

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aprilholloway's picture

Sure, if it's just quotes that's absolutely fine.  If you'd like to include more than just quotes, then you can view terms of publication here: http://www.ancient-origins.net/terms-publication 

It looks too anachronistic to be of 600 BC. It looks seriously more ancient. And if it's a map, where is Anatolia, Greece and of course EGYPT, which was the main neighbour power of Babylon.

NEAT! But this statement really gets my goat, "The location of Babylon on the map shows that the Babylonians believed themselves to be the center of the world." Or ... maybe it's just really convenient to center yourself in your own map. I mean, Google maps always centers itself on where I am, but I don't think I'm the center of the world. Nice assumption, Mr. Scholar. Way to presume how the Babylonians think. The truth is, they probably put themselves in the center because they were mapping their _surroundings_, the lands that surrounded them. This is not evidence of what they believed.

Actually Urartu is the ancient region or kingdom known as Urartu Ararat. Its a stand in for Armenia, because in the 19th century when this map was discovered. Archaeologists discovered that "Urartu" was the Babylonian term for Armenia. When this map was discovered historians put it all together. This map was one of the greatest discoveries in modern times.

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