Babylonian Map of the World

The Babylonian Map of the World, known as the Imago Mundi, is a Babylonianclay tablet containing a labelled illustration of the known world, with a short and partially lost description, dated to roughly the 6th c. BC.

It was discovered at Sippar, north of Babylon, and now resides in the British Museum.

A close-up view of the Babylonian map of the World. This partially broken clay tablet contains both cuneiform inscriptions and a unique map of the Mesopotamian world. Probably from Sippar, Iraq. c. 700-500 BC. British Museum. (c) Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

The map is centered on the Euphrates, flowing from the north (top) to the south (bottom). The city of Babylon is shown on the Euphrates, in the northern half of the map. The mouth of the Euphrates is labelled “swamp” and “outflow”. Susa, the capital of Elam, is shown to the south, Urartu to the northeast, and Habban, the capital of the Kassites is shown (incorrectly) to the northwest. Mesopotamia is surrounded by a circular “bitter river” or Ocean, and eight “regions”, depicted as triangular sections, are shown as lying beyond the Ocean. It has been suggested that the depiction of these “regions” as triangles might indicate that they were imagined as mountains.

Babylonian Map of the World.

The map is circular with two outer defined circles. Cuneiform script labels all locations inside the circular map, as well as a few regions outside. The two outer circles represent water in between and is labelled as maratum “bitter river”, the salt sea. Babylon north of center of the map; parallel lines at the bottom seem to represent the southern marshes, and a curved line coming from the north, northeast appear to represent the Zagros Mountains.

There are seven small interior circles at the perimeter areas within the circle, and they appear to represent seven cities. Eight triangular sections on the external circle (water perimeter) represent named “regions” (nagu). The description of five of them has 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.”

A final paragraph summarises, “In all eight “regions” (nagu) of the four shores (kibrati) of the ea[rth …], their interior no-one knows”.

Skeleten map of the Babylonian World Map.

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