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.

Common Errors (20): Hanging Gardens

28 June 2009
Artists Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Artist's Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Babylon was the cultural capital of the ancient Near East. Many monuments have become famous, like the Ištar Gate, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, and the temple tower named Etemenanki, the “Tower of Babel”. Equally famous are the Hanging Gardens that king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562) created for his queen, a young lady from Iran who longed back to the mountains of her fatherland.

The Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, are mentioned by several Greek authors: the geographer Strabo of Amasia, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the orator Philo of Byzantium, and Cleitarchus, who wrote a biography of Alexander the Great that is now lost. This book, however, is quoted by the Sicilian historian Diodorus and his Roman colleague Curtius Rufus. So, we have a great many sources, and we get the impression that the complex was about two hectares large, as high as the city walls, and resting on heavy foundations of natural stone.

So far, so good. The problem is that all these sources were written in Greek or Latin. The Hanging Gardens are not mentioned in the thousands of cuneiform tablet from Babylon, not even in the list of monuments that is known as TINTIR is Babylon. Archaeology has not been helpful either: when the city was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century, Robert Koldewey (1855-1925) was unable to establish the site of the Hanging Gardens, and in the end pointed at the only natural stones he could find. He admitted that he was not convinced himself.

It has been suggested that there must be a misunderstanding: the gardens may have been in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Although this assumes an error that is as big as placing the Eiffel Tower in Berlin, it is not impossible: Greek authors often confused Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus of Halicarnassus was even capable of making Babylon the capital of Assyria. An alternative explanation is that the Hanging Gardens are simply a description of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar: we know that it had gardens – so roof garden may have been there too. If this is true, the original mistake may have been made by Cleitarchus, who was not above exaggerating and delighted in stories about wonderful things.

Is Cleitarchus the inventor of the Hanging Gardens? All sources directly or indirectly quote him, except one: Josephus refers to a list of monument by Berossus, a Babylonian author from the third century BCE, who was known to Josephus through Alexander Polyhistor. However, there is something weird with Berossus’ list: it enumerates a series of monuments in exactly the same sequence as the East India House Inscription that is now in the British Museum. The only monument mentioned by Josephus that is not mentioned by Berossus, is the final one: the Hanging Gardens.

The similarity between the Berossus fragment quoted by Josephus through Polyhistor and the East India House Inscription is so striking that it is impossible that Berossus does not quote (a copy of) it. This leaves us with only three possibilities:

  1. Josephus added information from Cleitarchus to information he found in Polyhistor (unlikely: he had no motive for this fraud);
  2. Polyhistor added information from Cleitarchus to Berossus (likely: we know that Polyhistor had a rather loose way of dealing with texts);
  3. Berossus added information from Cleitarchus to the East India House Inscription (which raises the question why the inscription ignores a major monument).

We can not be completely certain, but it seems very likely that the Hanging Gardens are in fact Cleitarchus’ fantastic description of the royal palace in Babylon. All our sources can, directly or indirectly, be connected to his biography of Alexander.


R.J. van der Spek, “Berossus as a Babylonian Chronicler and Greek Historian,” in: R.J. van der Spek (ed.), Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society, Presented to Marten Stol on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (2008) 277-318.

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