Babylonian Calendar Conversion

2 June 2011

A Babylonian astronomical text from the British Museum. It mentions the comet of Halley.

The Babylonian calendar is one of the greatest achievements of Antiquity: it combines a solar and a lunar cycle in such a way that the beginning of the year never wanders far from the Spring equinox. The basic theoretical principle is well-known: in a cycle of nineteen years, we have twelve years of twelve lunar months and seven years of thirteen months. Theoretically, dates in ancient Babylonian texts can be converted to our calendar; there are several webpages that offer converters, which are also useful for dates on Jewish calendars.

And that’s the problem. The Babylonian calendar is not exactly the same. In the end, a new month started when the new moon was actually observed, which means that the months could sometimes be one day longer or shorter, depending on the circumstances in Babylon or Jerusalem.

A more or less correct conversion is mentioned in the tables of Parker & Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C. – A.D. 75 (1956; update 1971). Now, Dutch astronomer Rob van Gent of Utrecht University has made a calendar converter that’s not derived from the Jewish calendar, but is directly based on Babylonian information.

It’s still not perfect; from the Astronomical Diaries, we know that there are still discrepancies of one or two days. However, Van Gent’s converter is a giant leap forward. You can find it here.

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Babylonian Exile: New Sources

17 July 2009
The Chronicle Concerning the Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar II or Jerusalem Chronicle or ABC 5 mentions the deportation of many Jews in 597 BCE.

The "Chronicle Concerning the Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar II" or "Jerusalem Chronicle" or "ABC 5" mentions an early deportation of many Jews in 597 BCE.

When I started this blog, I wanted to use it to announce what was new on LacusCurtius and Livius, occasionally adding a review of a book or a museum. What I never wanted to do, was “recycle” other people’s content. I’ve always found that a bit cheap. However, here is an interesting newspaper article that summarizes cuneiform research on the exile of the Jews in Babylonia, which is usually dated to 587/6-539 (the return may in fact have taken place three or four generations later). The article discusses exiled Jews mentioned in the Murashu Archive, who apparently lived near Nippur. This confirms a statement by Ezekiel, who calls this settlement Tel Abib.

There’s something to be added to that newspaper article. The Talmud refers to another Jewish settlement, more to the northwest, near Sippar, called Nehardea. At the moment, we can not establish whether this Jewish town, which certainly existed in Parthian times, dates back to the Exile. The Talmud was written more then a millennium after the events it describes, and contains many old legends, so we may be forgiven for being a bit skeptical.

Other Jews lived in Babylon. The article refers in passing to tablets that record Jehoiachin’s stay in that city. You can find translations online on my website: here. Other evidence for the Jewish presence in Babylon can be found in Josephus and a tablet that may mention a man named Baruch: both refer to the reconstruction of the Etemenanki during the reign of Alexander.

On two occasions, my friend Bert van der Spek, coeditor of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Age, told me that one of his colleagues had discovered tablets that refer to Jewish temple in Babylonia. I would like to know more about those tablets.


An Important Source from Babylon: The Nabonidus Chronicle (ABC 7)

21 January 2009
The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle is one of the most important historiographical texts from the ancient Near East. It documents the main events of the reign of the last king of Babylonia, Nabonidus. It does so without bias: the king’s defeats are mentioned, no attempt is made to hide the fact that he did not really care for the Babylonian cult. Of course, the text was written during the reign of Nabonidus’  successor, Cyrus, but the chronicle also records how this Persian king kills citizens after a battle. So, although this text is limited in outlook, it is a valuable source.

We learn that during his first regnal years, Nabonidus campaigned in the west, and then settled in Tema, an oasis in the western desert; although no explanation is offered, the consequences are repeatedly stressed: the Akitu Festival could not be celebrated. As the bottom of the tablet is missing, we do not know under which circumstances Nabonidus returned to Babylon, but on the reverse of the tablet, we find the king at home again.

The tablet also describes the rise of Cyrus the Great, who is first presented as the ruler of Anšan who subdued the Median leader Astyages (550); we also learn that Cyrus conquered Urartu in 547; and we read how -in October 539- he outmaneuvered the Babylonians in a battle at Opis, which was followed by the killing of citizens. Babylon is captured, Nabonidus is taken captive, and Cyrus enters a peaceful city. The final remarks of the tablet deal with Cambyses, who appears to have made a mistake during the Akitu Festival.

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

I have put online the well-known edition by A.K. Grayson, with two important changes. In the first place, I have inserted his own “Addenda et Corrigenda”, which are too often neglected by students of his Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975, 2000). The consequences are disastrous: it is, for example, time and again stated that the Nabonidus Chronicle dates Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia to 547, which is simply untrue, and was already corrected by Grayson himself.

The fact that almost nobody seems to check the additions and corrections, has allowed an erroneous chronology of Anatolia and Greece to survive for more than a generation. And I am afraid it will continue to bedevil us, because it has been accepted in Asheri e.a., A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV (2008), which may become the commentary on Herodotus for some time.

In the second place, I took the liberty to invite my friend Bert van der Spek, who is one of the authors of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period, to add several other notes to make the commentary up to date. Of course, they have been indicated, so that no one will be in doubt about the authorship of the comments – they may be Grayson’s original ones, his own corrections, or additions by Van der Spek or myself. (I think that Grayson, who used the second edition of his book to correct himself, would not have objected.)

The text is here.


2001. A Space Odyssey, and Zoroastrianism

6 September 2008

It is probably one of the best-known and most impressive images from movie history: the spectacular rise of the sun and the earth over a moonscape, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey. Kubrick seems to have liked the image, because he repeated it several times, with minor variations like the sun rising over a strange monolith or the sun rising over a crescent-shaped earth (video).

Of course, it is not just the image that makes this scene unforgettable. It is the splendid music that really matters and makes the experience, in a word, sublime. This is what makes cinema great, and this is why I went back to see 2001 at least five times.

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (British Museum)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the British Museum)

Kubrick’s movies are usually full of little, intellectual jokes. To offer an example from his wicked Doctor Strangelove: if in one scene a group of soldiers is ordered to bomb the “Laputa Missile Complex”, it comes as no surprise that in another scene a Soviet leader is visiting a brothel. And yes, la puta is not only Spanish for “prostitute”, but also a reference to Gulliver’s Travels. I said Kubrick was a bit of an intellectual, didn’t I?

Perhaps, the intellectual joker in Kubrick also accompanied the artist when he created the sunrise in 2001. The impressive music is from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spoke Zarathustra”), and belongs to a part of that symphonic poem that represents a sunrise. Well-chosen, but there is more to be said.

Strauss’ tone poem was in turn based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s book with the same title. The philosopher was not particularly interested in the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, but merely needed a hero that was older than Judaism and Greek philosophy, and lived at the dawn of history.

Nabonidus, stele from Harran (Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

It seems that Kubrick did some research into Zoroastrianism, the religion founded by the real Zarathustra. The alignment of a lunar crescent and the sun is a common theme in eastern art. It can be seen, for example, on every Achaemenid royal tomb, and I would not be surprised if Kubrick knew it. An even closer parallel can be found on two monoliths from Harran, which can be seen in any book on ancient eastern art: the Babylonian king Nabonidus venerating the moon crescent, a planet, and the sun.

Perhaps some of you will object that Babylonian art has little to do with Zoroastrianism, or remark that it is debatable whether the Achaemenids adhered to the teachings of Zarathustra. Of course that’s fair criticism, but as I said: Kubrick was an intellectual and an artist – he was not an Iranologist.


Mesopotamian Olympics?

14 August 2008
A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

The modern Olympics are not the subject of ancient history and under normal circumstances, I would not have mentioned the Games at all. But here’s a subject that I like to mention: Mesopotamian influences on the origins of the Greek Olympic Games. This is the link to a new website that presents the evidence for cultural borrowing; the author, David Chibo, claims to have found eleven parallels between oriental and Greek athletic contests.

He points at a key text from Babylonia: the Sumerian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was known throughout the ancient Near East and has jumped to Greece as well (it is referred to by Aelian, who also knows the name of “Gilgamos”). The idea that the archaic Greeks, who accepted oriental artistic motifs, were inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh, is by no means far-fetched, especially since Gilgamesh and Heracles (the mythological founder of the Olympic Games) closely resemble each other.

As I said, Chibo claims to have found eleven parallels. I was not convinced by all of them, but yes, athletic contests, in July/August, to honor the gods, awarding wreaths, ending with a victory banquet – well, five parallels is at least quite suggestive.

The remaining six parallels I find unconvincing and I think that the author overstates his case when he suggests that it is still necessary to prove “that civilisation evolved naturally at the confluence of three continenents rather than miraculously in the isolated mountainous terrain of Greece”. I think only very old-fashioned scholars still make the last-mentioned claim: no scholar worthy of that title denies, for instance, that the Alexandrine Library was inspired by Babylon or that Alexander the Great ordered the Mesopotamian astronomical texts to be translated into Greek. At least on my website, Livius, I have never excluded the ancient Near East, and I think Chibo is putting up a strawman.

That being said, he has found five parallels, and I think his article is worth reading.