The Story of a Cuneiform Text

30 September 2010

A Babylonian Brick

About two years ago, my friend Ellen contacted me. She had obtained a fragment of an ancient Babylonian brick, which one of her friends had given to her. Was I interested? Certainly, and I became even fascinated when I noticed that it contained an inscription.

How did a Babylonian brick come to Holland? It turned out that the father of Ellen’s friend had been working in the off-shore in the mid-1960s, and had on one occasion visited Baghdad and the ruins of Babylon. He had bought the brick in Hillah and had left the object to his son, who contacted Ellen.

The Leiden Brick

My friend Bert van der Spek identified the signs as archaizing Babylonian, which means that the brick dated to the glory days of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He told me to ask another assyriologist for more information, but she never replied to my request, and I did not really know what to do. I offered it to a museum, which didn’t reply either, and decided to offer it to the Leiden Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, which immediately accepted it after I had told them about the way I had obtained it. (A museum cannot buy antiquities that have come to Europe after 1970 or 1971.) Today, I traveled to Leiden and left the brick at the museum.

When I returned home, there was already an e-mail from the director, who had immediately handed over the object to the curator. He must have been amused when he read the text, because it turned out to be a copy of a much better preserved brick that was already in the museum (more…). It is now also possible to restore the full text, which is not really surprising: “Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, keeper of Esagila and Ezida, oldest son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon”. A standard text, but it’s nice for Ellen and her friend to know what they have had in their hands, and what, thanks to their care, now is where it belongs: in a museum.


The Discoverer of Persepolis: Cornelis de Bruijn

15 March 2009
Cornelis de Bruijn: painting by Godfrey Kneller

Cornelis de Bruijn: painting by Godfrey Kneller

Whenever a Dutchman visits Persepolis, he will be pleasantly surprised. Upon entering the big gate he is greeted by a fellow-Dutchman: a man named Cornelis de Bruijn left behind his signature more than three hundred years ago.

OK, that was vandalism – but if anyone would have had a right to cut his name in one of the monuments, it would have been De Bruijn, whose story is part and parcel of the story of Persepolis. He was born in 1652 and became famous with a book on his travels to Italy, Egypt, Jerusalem, the Aegean Sea, and Constantinople. Published in 1698, it soon became a best-seller, and it is easy to understand why: being a trained painter, he could add splendid illustrations. For the first time, Europeans could get an idea of the interior of the Great Pyramid, could see the Column of Pompey in Alexandria, or enjoy a view of Jerusalem or Palmyra, Smyrna or Constantinople.

De Bruijn’s Signature in Persepolis (on the Gate of all Nations)

De Bruijn’s Signature in Persepolis (on the Gate of all Nations)

These drawings were unique, and the book was translated into several languages – unfortunately, not all of them very accurate. The English edition (1702) was based on the French one (1700), and until the twentieth century, you would not be able to find De Bruijn’s book in the catalog of, say, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, unless you knew that the English translator had been capable of mistranslating even the author’s name (Corneille le Brun).

In 1703, De Bruijn left Amsterdam for a voyage that would bring him to Russia, Persia, Ceylon, and Java (where he discovered a small kangaroo-like animal that is still called Thylogale Brunii). It was his visit to Persepolis, however, that made him immortal. In November 1704, he arrived in the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, where he was to stay until January. Although several European travelers had already offered descriptions of the site, none of them spent two and a half months amidst the ruins, became so well-acquainted with the site, or added such marvelous illustrations to his book.

De Bruijn’s account consists of several parts. First, he describes the terrace and its buildings, which can easily be identified with the remains that are visible today. De Bruijn is not always able to interpret the buildings, but recognizes that the rock reliefs belonged to royal tombs. He also mentions the four Achaemenid tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and the Sassanian rock reliefs, which he believes to be representations of the legendary Persian hero Rustam. (This must be information from a local guide.) Next, De Bruijn compares his observations to what is written by the ancient authors. For example, he is able to identify Median and Persian dresses. In the next chapters, he describes the history and customs of the ancient Persians. All this is based on Greek and Latin sources, but he impartiality adds a chapter with the Persian side of the story.

De Bruijn’s Copy of a Royal Inscription (XPb)

De Bruijn’s Copy of a Royal Inscription (XPb)

De Bruijn’s combination of antiquarianism and historiography was later popularized by Winckelmann and Gibbon, but was still rare in the early eighteenth century; in fact, De Bruijn was one of the first to attempt to corroborate a historical account by using artifacts. How innovative this was, becomes clear when we take into account that even today, it is possible to become an ancient historian without taking part in an archaeological excavation.

De Bruijn’s Persian book, published in 1711, was no success, even though the reviews in the Acta eruditorum and Journal des Sçavans were enthusiastic. But the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of Spanish Succession and suffered heavily; few people could afford to buy the book. Worse, people found it hard to believe his story. The painter-traveler died in 1727, bankrupt and forgotten.

You can find a longer biography here.