The Oldest Known Map of the World

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The oldest known world map is the Babylonian Map of the World known as the Imago Mundi.  This map dates back to the 5th century BCE. This map, found in southern Iraq in a city called Sippar, shows a small bit of the known world as the Babylonians knew it centuries ago. This map was formed out of a clay tablet and was found north of the ancient city of Babylon, on the fertile east bank of the Euphrates River.

This map shows the Babylonian perspective of the earth and the heavens through the eyes of the Babylonians themselves, putting the city of Babylon in the center of the map. Much like other civilizations have done with Athens or Jerusalem, Babylon was put at the center because it was the center of life for the thousands of people that lived there- this was the only perspective they had without the uses of modern day technologies like satellites, map making tools and reliable long distance transportation. Their perspective and ideas about the world around them can be seen through this tiny tablet, incomplete as it may be.

Surrounding the city of Babylon on the map lies seven cities and seven islands, surrounded by two circles that represent bodies of water possibly located near to Babylon at the time. The cuneiform writing at the top of the tablet labels each location; the water parameters on the map are labeled as a salt sea and a river of bitter water.

Imago Mundi from Babylonia, 500 BCE.

Imago Mundi from Babylonia, 500 BCE.

The locations on the map are mountains, a swamp, a canal, three unnamed cities, the cities of Urartu, Assyria, Der, Elam, Bit Yakin, Habban, Babylon, and an unknown location. Parallel lines below the marked city of Babylon are thought to represent the southern marshes of present day Iraq and another curved line, the Zagros Mountains which would have been visible close to the city.


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Another feature of the map visible in the cuneiform inscription is that it is actually a copy of an even older map of the region, one which has been lost to time and memory. The unique perspective of the map, even as a copy of an older creation, shows not only how Babylonians saw the world around them, but the mythical heavenly realm as well. The islands surrounding Babylon and the known regions around it don’t exist in the physical realm; they are thought to be a mythical representation of the connection between the earth and the heavens. The reverse side of the tablet shows a depiction of the stars with recognizable constellations corresponding to our modern understanding of the zodiac.

This fusion of the heavens and the earth, the realities of life around them and the accurate charting of the universe above them caused the Babylonians to create the world’s oldest existing map still in existence today.

References

Kurt A. Raaflaub & Richard J. A. Talbert (2009), Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern SocietiesJohn Wiley & Sons, p. 147, ISBN 1-4051-9146-5

Wikipedia. Babylonian Map of the World. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonian_Map_of_the_World

The Basement Geographer. The Oldest Map of the World in Existence. 16 June 2011. http://basementgeographer.com/the-oldest-map-of-the-world-in-existence/