Social Education 55(5) pps. 304-306
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

The Earliest World Map, Babylonia, c. 500 b.c.

Gerald A. Danzer

To understand fully any map, it is necessary to inquire about its origins. For example, to introduce properly the world maps printed in Europe on the eve of the great discoveries we must reach back two millennia. The earliest world map still in existence is a cuneiform tablet from about 500 b.c., currently housed in the British Museum. This map probably presents a traditional picture of the world that not only looked back many centuries to an earlier period of Mesopotamian history, but also carried forward to animate the Western perception of the world to the time of Columbus. Thus, this clay tablet is an appropriate introduction to the first European printed maps.
The map is artifact number 92687 in the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities of the British Museum, illustrated in plate 48 of the Department's Cuneiform Texts, XXII. Many general histories of cartography contain photographs of this celebrated map. Perhaps the best source for teachers, however, is the seminal essay published by Eckhard Unger in 1937, which includes line-drawings that reconstruct the image based on the accompanying cuneiform text and other Mesopotamian sources.

Unger's interpretation of this map is not built on a wide base of documentary evidence. The map is a unique item; nothing from early Egypt or any other civilization from the pre-Christian era is similar. Although Theophile J. Meek, a contemporary critic of Unger, dismisses Unger's map as "crudely and most inaccurately drawn" (1936, 224-225), it fits the general interpretative pattern not only for Mesopotamia, but for the Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, and European traditions that were built upon it. Indeed, if the tablet had been dated two, three, or four thousand years earlier, it would still fit neatly into the worldview, as we understand it, of Mesopotamian civilization. Teachers, therefore, should find it a remarkable tool for illustrating the nature of maps and their relationship to general cultural patterns.

Although hundreds of thousands of clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia have survived, only a few are cartographic in nature. Most of these are large-scale maps of fields, estates, and cities. One of the oldest maps, however, covers the whole region of northern Mesopotamia in a skillful representation created in approximately 3800 b.c. The only tablet more extensive in its coverage than this early piece is the rather late world map that is the focus of this article.

The tablet itself is a fragment from an elementary description of the cosmos. Part of the text, in cuneiform script, and most of the representation of the earth have survived. The text, which continues on the opposite side of the tablet, suggests that the description originally included another drawing of the heavens. Thus, the surviving tablet was probably only one of a series that made up a complete cosmology.

Looking at the Map as a Whole
The cosmic scheme suggested by the map and the text can be divided into four parts:

(1) the circle of land;

(2) the Earthly Ocean or Bitter River surrounding the land;

(3) seven "islands" or regions of transition, represented as triangles, connecting the earth with the Heavenly Ocean; and

(4) the Heavenly Ocean, holding various animal constellations, eighteen of which are mentioned in the text.

Unger (1937) has interpreted the cross in the center of the earth as the Euphrates River flowing through the city of Babylon. The city is thus located in the center of the earth, with the river dividing the land into two sections. Once the course of the Euphrates has been identified, we can see that the map was drawn with north, or northwest, at the top.

Looking at the Map: Parts and Details
The Circle of Land. On this map the mountains of the north, which form the source of the Euphrates, are suggested by a curved line. In other Mesopotamian maps, including the regional map of 3800 b.c., the mountains are represented by more elaborate symbols.

Rivers. The interpretation suggested by Unger (1937) focuses on one river, the Euphrates, represented by a double line.
The great river runs in a straight course from the northern mountains to the Persian Gulf in the south. The river also passes through a great Waterstream Marsh that extends east to west across the bottom of the map.
Alternatively, each line can be seen as a separate river. In this case, the Euphrates on the left would emerge from the western part of the mountains, and flow through the city and into the Waterstream Marsh before entering the Persian Gulf. The Tigris River, to the east, then, would seem (incorrectly) to flow through Babylon and (correctly) to enter the Gulf directly without passing through the Waterstream Marsh.

Cities and Regions. Some of the circles on the land represent various cities, and only one-Deri-is named on the tablet. Three regions-also represented by circles-are labeled on the map: Assyria to the northeast of Babylon, Armenia to the north, and Habban to the southwest.

The Bitter River. The Earthly Ocean, or the circle of waters, became a standard feature on almost all subsequent world maps. Two rows of mountains often mark the boundary between the Bitter River and the earth proper. The Persian Gulf itself seems to be an indentation of the Bitter River which encircles the earth. (The name "Bitter," no doubt, refers to the salt.)

The Seven Islands. The islands are numbered in sequence, proceeding clockwise from the southeast. Although most of the details concerning the first two islands have been obliterated, the text on the reverse side of the tablet reveals some details about the last five. The third island could not be reached by birds. The fourth island was a place of light, "brighter than that of sunset or stars," but was in obscurity for most of the year. The fifth island, to the north, was shrouded in complete darkness; here the sun was not visible. The sixth island was the home of a "horned bulquot; that attacked all visitors. The seventh island, due east, was where the morning dawned.

The Heavenly Ocean. Although the Heavenly Ocean does not appear on the map, much of the text describes animal constellations-the gods of the old order who were banished from the earth in the creation of the new order. Thus, the cosmic scheme portrayed on the Babylonian tablet does reveal a hint of a time dimension.

Although this Babylonian image of the earth is perhaps more acceptable as a cosmological illustration than as a topographical map, it is nonetheless a valuable tool in the study of world history. Indeed, the fundamental attributes of this map can be found in later representations of the earth. A circle of land, which is often called the ecumene ("the inhabited earth"), surrounded by an ocean or sea was a standard view of the world from ancient Mesopotamia to the days of Columbus. The division of waters into a bitter ocean and those which sustain human life also became a recurring theme. The representation of mountains to give character to the land, the use of symbols to denote cities or regions, and the placement of a great city at a central focal point continued for several millennia.

Beyond providing a major theme for the study of several thousand years of world maps, the Babylonian prototype calls upon us to think about modern representations of the world in new ways. Our image of the earth is what we have made of it-a mental construct no less culturally laden than the likeness incised on the ancient tablet. Students of world history can capture the sense of different worldviews as they scrutinize antique cartographic records such as this map. Then they will listen to the words of Isaiah with fresh understanding:

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth....
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them like a tent to dwell in. (Isa. 40:22 RSV)


Bagrow, Leo. History of Cartography. Edited by R. A. Skelton. London: C. A. Watts and Co., 1964. The second chapter comments briefly on Babylonian maps and places them in the context of "Cartography in the Ancient World." It also reproduces the map from c. 3800 b.c. as plate V.

Hodgkiss, A. G. Understanding Maps: A Systematic History of Their Use and Development. Folkestone, England: William Dawson and Son, 1981. Chapter 5, "The Evolving World Map," which begins with this map, provides the best brief discussion of the history of world mapping in print.

Meek, "The Orientation of Babylonian Maps," Theophile J. N.d. Antiquity X (1936): 223-226.Unger, Eckhard. "Ancient Babylonian Maps and Plans." Antiquity IX (1935): 311-322. A survey of various types of maps. Some of Unger's conclusions are challenged by Theophile J. Meek in Antiquity X (1936): 223-226.

____. "From the Cosmos Picture to the World Map." Imago Mundi II (1937): 1-7. The most useful source for understanding this map.
Questions for Discussion

1. Why did so few Mesopotamian maps survive, as compared to the large number of other types of cuneiform tablets?

2. State your answer to the first question as a hypothesis. What types of evidence would you like to find to prove, disprove, or qualify your hypothetical statement?

3. Do you think a map like this was meant to be used to help locate places or to plan a route?

4. In what ways is this map of the world similar to maps we use today?

5. What are the limitations of making maps on clay tablets? Are there any advantages?

6. Was this tablet a decorative map or a "working" map? Who do you think used it?