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Views of Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamia in Classical Greek and Hellenistic Thought

The Predecessors of Herodotus

Achamenid Persia conquered Lydia in the 540s, resulting in the absorption of the Greek cities of western Anatolia into an imperial state of immense size, eventually embracing all the eastern nations with which the Greeks had had contact with until then. The Persian expansion constituted a turning point for the Ionian cities, as attested by Xenophanes of Colophon (second half of the sixth century BCE): "Such things should be said beside the fire in the wintertime when a man reclines full-fed on a soft couch drinking the sweet wine and munching chickpeas -- such things as 'Who and from where are you? And how old are you? Of what age were you when the Mede came?" (No 18).

The inexorable advance of the previously unknown Persians which threatened not to stop at the Aegean but to sweep into mainland Greece, made it imperative for Greeks to try to explain the rise of the Persians and trace their links with other people. The formation of the Persian Empire may also have made it easier to travel in the eastern territories. One writer who traveled extensively in the Persian Empire, including possibly Mesopotamia, was Hecataeus of Miletus (circa 500 B.C.E.). Unfortunately, it remains uncertain that he included anything about either Assyria or Babylonia in his two works, the Periegesis and the Genealogiai, both now lost. This is a pity, as it is known from a reference in Herodotus that Hecataeus tried, in his work on genealogies, to question the Greek view of early history by showing that the generations of Greek heroes reached back only a few hundred years, as opposed to the thousands of years found among some eastern peoples.

Three other Ionian Greeks almost certainly composed works on Persian history and customs (Persica) before Herodotus wrote his great work. All of them wrote after Xerxes's invasion of mainland Greece, and their purpose was clearly to commemorate the unexpected and decisive victories won by the Greeks on that occasion. All their works, like those of Hecataeus, are lost, and it is hard in the case of two of them (Dionusius of Miletus and Charon of Lampascus) even to approximate how their histories were structured. The Persica of Hellanicus of Lesbos, in two books, is a little better known from surviving fragments. The work covered the history of Assyria and Media and the rise of Persia. The reigns of Cambysis and Darius were treated in some detail and there was, almost certainly, an extensive section on Xerxes's invasion. Two fragments of Hellanicus reveal something of the kind of Mesopotamian material he included. First, he presents the Chaldeans as a people (not a priestly group) descended from Andromeda's father, Cephaus. This meant that, according to his genealogical scheme, they were older than the Persians, who were the descendants of Andromeda's son, Perseus. The second passage is particularly fascinating: Hellanicus had apparently collected a not always consistent series of stories about an Assyrian king, Sardanapalus (the name is probably a bowdlerized conflation of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal). According to some of the stories, Sardanapalus was a great hero; according to others, he was a luxury-loving weakling. In true Ionian rationalizing style, Hellanicus argued for the existence of two Assyrian kings with the same name. What is quite uncertain, given the very fragmentary nature of the surviving material, is to what extent the information in Hellanicus was new to the Greeks; his speculation about the identities of Sardanapalus could be taken to imply that his audience knew of the existence of the Assyrian king, and the genealogical information could have been part of the Greek worldview he was reinforcing. One other interesting piece of information that can be gleaned from Hellanicus is that the concept that empires were destined to succeed each other existed; the earliest was Assyria, succeeded by Media, which was displaced by Persia.


Although Herodotus could fit into this pattern of Greek works on Persia, and he undoubtedly owed a good deal to the ethnographies of his predecessors, his work is radically different in scope and purpose. It is much longer than theirs, and he presents the results of his "inquiries" (historia) into the conflict between Persia and Greece and theorizes how the Persians justified their act of aggression. In the first chapters of his historia Herodotus reports that "Persian learned men" claimed that the Persians were avenging the disproportionate Greek action against Troy. Herodotus does not find this explanation ridiculous, but he questions the right of Persians to enter a quarrel between Greeks and cities in western Anatolia at a time when Persia was not yet a nation. To demonstrate the relatively recent arrival of the Persians on the scene, Herodotus traces the background of all the peoples Persia eventually absorbed. This requires him to consider Assyria, which in Greek eyes had been the first state to exercise hegemony in Asia. In his section on Babylonia, Herodotus tells his readers of plans to discuss the Assyrian kings in a separate section on Assyrian history; but there is no such detailed discussion, and scholars speculate that the work either has been lost or was never written.

Clearly, Herodotus was operating with a picture of Assyrian history that circulated widely among the Greeks, but is scattered through his work: the founder of Nineveh, Ninus, appears at the beginning, in the context of Lydian history; he includes an anecdote about Sardanapalus as he describes his visit to Lake Moeris in Egypt; the fall of Nineveh is part of his Median history. A story about Sennacherib's unsuccessful attack on Egypt clearly depends on Egyptian accounts, but Herodotus makes no attempt to link him with other Assyrian kings. The only new information that Herodotus provides is a chronological framework: the Assyrian empire lasted 520 years and fell toward the end of the seventh century.

Much more extensive is Herodotus's excursus on Babylonia and its history. Whether the account is based on personal observation during his travels -- and how extensive these might have been -- or whether it is derived from informants is, as with much of Herodotus's information, hotly disputed. His description of the layout of the city of Babylon and of its major sanctuaries has rightly elicited praise from archaeologists who match it well with the results of their excavations. Much more difficult to assess is Herodotus's description of Babylonian customs, which seems to be influenced bu a Greek tendency -- developed in the wake of the Persian wars -- to judge other cultures by how much they deviated from Greek social behavior, deemed the civilized norm. Certain key features of the alien society -- particularly female behavior, marriage practices, rituals surrounding death, eating habits, and religious beliefs - were selected to demonstrate how far various non-Greek communities diverged from familiar Greek practices. By dwelling on differences to create contrast, however, non-Greek mores can become seriously distorted and leave us wondering to what extent they reflect reality. This feature of Greek writers, especially of Herodotus, should serve as a warning against simplistic attempts to harmonize Herodotus's account of Babylonian life and the evidence of Babylonian society contained in the Mesopotamian texts.

On Babylonian history Herodotus presents some information not encountered earlier. He mentions the Assyrian queen Semiramis as a builder of Babylon, but otherwise he says very little about her. He mentions two Babylonian kings, both called Labynetus, and a queen, Nitokris. He clearly perceives them as ruling only in Babylon, although in the Herodotean view Babylon was a great city in Assyria; for him the political distinction between Assyria and Babylonia remains fuzzy. Very important is Herodotus's finding that there were powerful rulers in Babylonia, contemporary with the kingdom of the Medes, whose power was not extinguished until Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia. The identity of the Babylonian kings mentioned by Herodotus and their chronology have been the subject of extensive, but totally inconclusive debate. In Herodotus's scheme, Semiaramis obviously belongs to the period before the fall of Nineveh, while Nitokris, who is described as a great builder, obviously belongs after the Assyrian collapse. It has been observed that the two queens duplicate each other, and that the name of Nitokris seems to have been imported by Herodotus from Egypt. Trying to unravel the Herodotean account and to match historically attested Mesopotamian royal figures with the queens are impossible. And perhaps also misconceived exercises, especially when Semiarmis's exploits are attributed by Hellanicus of Lesbos to the Persian queen Atossa. Perhaps a complex of stories concerning a famous Mesopotamian queen existed, some associating her with Assyria and some with Babylonia, but, given his chronological structure, Herodotus was forced to turn her into two separate persons. The two identically named Babylonian kings are more readily decipherable: one represents the shadowy and unimpressive last Babylonian ruler, defeated by Cyrus; the other, a respected earlier king called upon to settle a boundary dispute between the Medes and Lydians in 585 B.C.E..

Fundamentally important in Herodotus's account is his recognition of the existence of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, however vague he is on details. Semiramis appears for the first time in his history, although it is possible that an earlier poem by Panyassis mentioned her. It is also possible that the idea of the Chaldeans as a Babylonian priestly or learned class should be attributed to Herodotus. While Semiramis and the Chaldeans continued to be featured in subsequent classical accounts of the East, the Neo-Babylonian phase of Mesopotamian history virtually vanished when treated by Herodotus's successor on near eastern history, Ctesias. Following Herodotus, Greek popular perceptions of Mesopotamian history appear limited to the well-known themes of Sardanapalus's fabulous wealth (Aristophanes, The Birds, 2.1022) and the fall of Nineveh (Herodorus in Aristotle's On the History of Animals 8.183).

Ctesias's Persica

Ctesias, a Greek doctor at the Persian court at the end of the fifth and the beginning of the fourth century, produced an enormous work on Persian history in twenty-three books, in which he discredited a great many of Herodotus's findings on eastern history. Since he had spent considerable time in the heartland of the Persian Empire, his claim to present authentic information was strong. Yet where it is possible to check his account, which survives only in selective though substantial fragments and a later summary, his information is considerably inferior to that of Herodotus. One problem is trying to understand how Ctesias compiled his history: Did he fabricate events in order to discredit Herodotus, at the same time relying on his Persian connection to bolster his own credibility? Or did he faithfully reproduce Persian traditions? The latter view is quite widely accepted, with the result that while it does not imrpove the quality of Ctesias's account, it can provide some very interesting insights into how fifth/fourth-century Persians viewed their past.

According to Ctesias, the Assyrian Empire, to which he devoted three books, was a model the Persians sought to follow. He seems to have recounted in immense detail (probably the whole of books 1 and 2) the exploits and romance of King Ninus and Queen Semiramis, the latter turned into an enormously powerful figure who campaigned extensively on the Iranian plateau and regions farther east. This was followed by the history of her son, Ninyas. It is uncertain whether the fall of Nineveh was included in book 3 or formed part of book 4. What is clear is that Ctesias dated Assyria's fall to about 860 B.C.E., attributing it to a Mede called Arbaces. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was effectively omitted from this reconstruction; Babylonia appeared only as a province of the Median Empire, which a Chaldean, Belesys, was permitted to rule as governor - his reward for correctly foretelling Arbaces's military success (see Diodorus Siculus 2.24-28). Where Herodotus had demonstrated that Mesopotamian history did not end with the fall of Nineveh, Ctesias placed Assyria in the dim and distant past, emphasizing instead the antiquity of the Iranian empires.

Ctesias's version of eastern history became the standard account at least by the third century. Later compilers of universal histories, such as Diodorus Siculus, Pompeius Trogus, and Nicolaus of Damasucs (first centuries BCE and CE), followed it.

Mesopotamia: Fantasy and Fiction

The segment of Babylonian society that exercised a continuous fascination for classical writers was the "Chaldeans," Babylonian scholars famous from the fourth century B.C.E. for their immense learning about the courses of heaven and hence for their ability to forecast events with great accuracy. Despite the many references to them that surface in classical texts, there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone in the classical world before the first century B.C.E. seriously studied Babylonian astronomy and astrology. The Greek and Babylonian forms of these science appear to have developed independently but in parallel. What is interesting here is that the Greeks so greatly respected Babylonia's primacy in this sphere of knowledge that many famous Greek scholars and prominent philosophers were credited with connections to Babylonia and the Chaldeans. For example, Pythagoras was credited by Aristoxenos, pupil and close friend of Aristotle, with having studied with the "Chaldean Zaratas" (Zoroaster).

Chaldeans were supposed to have foretold Euripdes's future poetic success (Aulius Gellius attributed this to either Theopompus or Philochorus). What was being exploited here was the idea of an arcane culture (or cultures, as indicated by the confusion of the Iranian Zoroaster with "Chaldeans"), the potency and superiority of which were accepted at face value. The origins of the Chaldeans were debated; Hecataeus of Abdera (late fourth century B.C.E.) argued that they were Egyptian colonists - a theory perhaps related to the tradition, found earlier in Hellanicus, that they were descended from Andromeda's father, who was king of Ethiopia. It is possibly this association that led pseudo-Democritus of Abdera (probably third century B.C.E.) to include in his writings studies on Babylonian and Meroitic hieroglyphs, as well as a Chaldean logos (an account of customs, history and culture) possibly containing religious syncretistic speculations. Again significant here is the quite unnecessary false knowledge that prevailed during this period. Cuneiform was still used in Babylonia at that time, and Akkadian was being transcribed into Greek characters; Babylonian cults and temples were well maintained and fully staffed, and traditional rituals performed. Anyone seriously interested in Babylonian culture, writing, religion and science could have obtained quite reliable information. But the reality was clearly less attractive than speculation about the obscurities of the mysterious East: a kind of "orientalism" seems to have gained ground then, whereby classical writers treated Assyrian (and Persian) history as the unfathomable "other" forever implacably opposed to Greek "rationalism."

Dinon of Colophon and an otherwise unknown Athenaeus (late fourth century B.C.E.) both elaborated and improved on Ctesoas's Persica, introducing a variant of the story about Semiramis's rise to power. The popularity of the Semiramis story, which indulged a Greek stereotypical image of the East as a place where women could run public affairs, is reflected in the development of the Ninus Romance, one of the earliest preserved Hellenistic novels (first century BCE). Semiramis was the subject of a painting by Aetion in the fourth century B.C.E.. Baylonia, too, became the setting for romantic stories: Xenophon of Antioch wrote a novel called Babylonian Matters, and at the turn of the first century CE Soterichos developed the romantic vignette about Panthea and Abderates, which featured an incident in Xenophon of Athens's popular treatise Cyropaedia (md fourth century BCE), by turning it into a full-blown novel called The Experiences of Panthea, the Babylonian Girl. Mesopotamia's distant past also provided the backdrop for Iamblichus's novel A Babylonian Story, which included the melodramatic adventures of a paur of eastern lovers. Nothing could better illustrate the exotic and fantastical aura that Mesopotamia evoked for classical writers and their audiences than the satirical story by Lucian of Samosata (second century CE), The True History, in which he ridiculed scholarly preoccupation with discovering Homer's birthplace, by presenting the epic poet confessing to him in the Underworld that he came from Babylon.


Learning another language and its script was not widespread in the classical world. Would not Mesopotamian culture therefore have remained difficult to access? Here one must remember that in the Hellenistic period, when the greater part of the Near and Middle East was incorporated into great kingdoms ruled by dynasties of Macedonian origin, many Greeks were settled in colonies and cities throughout the area, including Mesopotamia. Clearly intermarriages took place, different cultural and linguistic groups lived in the same settlements and served in the same armies. Moreover, there is good evidence that some of the local scholars, learned in cuneiform writing, knew Greek (the language of their new rulers) and were familiar with Greek literary forms and philosophy. One such scholar from Babylon was Berossus, who lived through the tumultous events following Alexander's death, when Babylonia was the site of devestating wars. From these bitter conflicts in which the Babylonian cities and inhabitants suffered extensively, Seleucus emerged victorious. The core of the huge realm that Seleucus built up after his triumph was Babylonia; it was here that his first and largest royal center was developed (Seleucia on the Tigris). Particular attention was paid by Seleucus I's successor, Antiochus I, to repairing the temple of Nabu at Borsippa and completing the repairs on the great Marduk sanctuary in Babylon.

This is the background to Berossus' life and work. From later references it is known that he presented a history of Babylonia (the Babyloniaca) to Antiochus I; it was in three books and was written in Greek. It seems likely that this work was a token of gratitude to the new kings who had restored peace and stability to the region, intended to provide them with historical and ideological support for legitimately controlling Babylonia. Unfortunately, Berossus's work is preserved in fairly small extracts, quoted in the writings of various later historians, so that trying to reconstruct the original shape of his history is difficult. Certain aspects of his work, however, seem clear: Berossus made extensive use of Babylonian stories, historical traditions, and chronicles; the first book contained a geographical description of Babylonia and recounted the creation of the world and the appearance of civilized life; the second detailed the story of the Flood and enumerated the dynasties ruling before and after that cataclysmic event down to the reign of Nabu-nasir; the third covered the period of Assyrian domination over Babylonia, the emergence of the great Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the incorporation of Babylonia into the Persian Empire, probably ending with Alexander's conquest. The focus throughout was firmly on Babylonian, as distinct from Assyrian, history. Berossus seems to have deliberately ignored the version of Mesopotamian history made popular by Ctesias's Persica, and stressed the importance of the Neo-Babylonian period, which had been almost entirely squeezed out of Ctesias's picture.

Two other aspects of Berossus's Babyloniaca are more debated, and there is much less agreement. The first are of disagreement concerns the literary style and form employed by Berossus in constructing the Babyloniaca. It has been usual to assume that he would have used the terse style familiar from the Babylonian chronicles, especially since many of the preserved quotes contain rather dull lists of kings. What needs to be remembered, however, is that this information derived from Berossus appears in contexts where the interest of the writer was focused exclusively on calculating the length of human history since the creation of the world (e.g., Eusebius's Chronikoi Kanones). So it was natural that whatever was gleaned from Berossus should be presented in an abbreviated form that suited this purpose. This becomes quite clear when one compares some of this monotonous chronological material with quotes from Berossus in works with a more philosophical or historical focus, such as Josephus's Jewish Antiquities and his tract Against Apion, or Celement of Alexandria's Protrepticus. In these instances, Berossus's style appears much more comparable to the Greek form of narrative historiography. In one instance even Eusebius indicates how much he has summarized Berossus's much more detailed information. It could therefore be argued that Berossus, while using traditional Babylonian material, substantially and deliberately reshaped it following the well-established Greek forms of history writing, to create a Babylonian history based on local sources but in a literary form familiar to educated Greeks. It is therefore quite conceivable that Antiochus I received from his learned Babylonian subject an elegantly written Greek history of Babylonia displaying familiarity with a number of philosophical and historical approaches current in the Greek world.

The second dispute concerns some material that has circulated since the first century B.C.E. under Berossus's name but consists of astronomical information. Did this form part of the Babyloniaca, and if so, where would it have appeared? Or was it a separate work concentrating on astronomy and astrology, for which the Babylonians had been famous since the fourth century? Yet a third possibility, adopted by the main editor of the fragments of the Greek historians, Felix Jacoby, is that this astronomical lore has nothing to do with the Berossus who wroye in the early third century B.C.E. but was produced later by someone else and presented as his work. Unfortunately, Jacoby did not live to complete his monumental study of the lost Greek histories, so all that is available is the distinction he made between a genuine Berossus, the writer of a historical work on Babylonia, and pseudo-Berossus, an astronomer; we do not know Jacoby's reasons for separating the two.

In more recent scholarship, some have argued that this distinction is false, and that astronomical knowledge was so much a part of Babylonian learning that Berossus would certainly have included such material. It could have formed part of his account of the creation of the world, or it could have been associated by him with a supposed Babylonian concept of history, which was that historical events moved through recurring cycles; in this case it would have provided an indication of future events. A different approach has been to study the astronomical information attributed to Berossus more closely. This has led some to argue that there is nothing in the material which harmonizes with what is known at present of Babylonian astronomy. Rather, it has a distinctly Greek cast to it, with an occasional Babylonian twist added, which gives the impression that the material was produced by someone familiar with Greek astronomy trying to authenticate a particular argument by giving it a Babylonian flavor and "publishing" it as from the pen of Berossus, a famous Babylonian scholar.

Berossus was read certainly for about two hundred years following the appearance of his work; it is even possible that some copies of the Babyloniaca continued to circulate for another hundred years after that. But undisputedly in the first century B.C.E. a summary of the Babyloniaca was produced by a widely read Greek scholar, Alexander Polyhistor. It is very likely that many of the people who made us of Berossus's work never read the original but used Polyhistor's convenient compendium, which embraced material gleaned from a mass of earlier historians. Polyhistor's work seems to have had little merit aside from its great range, and so it, too, has not survived. Moreover, Polyhistor pulled together, seemingly quite uncritically, all the material on different eastern peoples, so works of Greek writers on Assyria in the Ctesias mold appeared cheek by jowl with Berossus's work without any indication of the marked contradictions between them. Given the established reputation of reliability so long enjoyed by Ctesias's version of near eastern history, it seems that this material which fitted Greco-Roman preconceptions and cultural images so much more easily than the uncomfortable Berossus - who omitted such well-known heroes as Ninus and Semiaramis from his history - was greatly preferred to investigating the anomalous material presented by the Babyloniaca, which could not be slotted into the existing picture of Mesopotamia's past. What did remain, powerfully, was Berossus's name and reputation as a learned Babylonian. It is this which perhaps explains the sue made of it in the creation of pseudo-Babylonian astronomical lore about the same time that his history dropped out of circulation.

Some Final Thoughts on the Place of Mesopotamia in Hellenistic Thought

It is difficult to define clearly the earliest Greek ideas about the Mesopotamian cultural realm, although Greek soldiers in Babylonian service must have repeated something of its wealth and power. The process of trying to analyze the Persian Empire led Greek writers to look more closely at the great states preceding the rise of Persian power. Perhaps as a result of Persian traditions, the Assyrian Empire was seen as the dominant political entity, and considerable confusion existed about the status of Babylonia in relation to it. Herodotos came nearest to defining the Neo-Babylonian successor empire, although he seems to have visualized it as a remnant of the Assyrian state. What came to be the "orthodox" view of Mesopotamian history was that put forward by Ctesias, in which Babylonia as a politically important state was completely eliminated, replaced by Median power.

Berossus's attempt to assert the separateness and independence of Babylonian history and culture had practically no impact, although it obviously added to the existing confusion, judging by some of the later puzzled comments to the effect that he had taken no notice of Assyria. One group that did find Berossus useful was Jewish and Christian writers to whom persons such as Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar), as the destroyer of the Jerusalem temple, were of prime interest. Berossus's depiction of an immensely long Babylonian history in which figures ande events appeared that tied in with biblical traditions (e.g., the Flood) helped Judeo-Christian scholars to strengthen the claims to authenticity of their own stories of the early past in the face of general Greco-Roman skepticism. Aside from this limited use, Berossus was remembered as mainly a learned Babyolnian and slotted into pre-existing concepts of what Babylonian scholars did.

Different versions of Mesoptamia's past did not cancel each other out, but coexisted in a series of set images that varied little from each other: Semiramis was a famous Assyrian queen and world conqueror, Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes, Babylonia was part of Assyria, Babylon was a gigantic and wondrous city full of women with lax morals, the Chaldeans were unrivaled astrologers. When writers such as Diodorus Siculus or Strabo (first century B.C.E.) presented descriptions of Mesopotamia, they explored mainly Herodotus and Ctesias, differing in their selection of material from Greek writers; at no point did they adduce any new evidence, let alone anything from Berossus.

In spite of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, and hence the increased use of summaries of writers such as Berossus to calculate the dates of Creation and the Flood, the image of Mesopotamia's past that derivived from the fifth- and fourth-century Greek writers, with Ctesias's version predominating, persisted. Herodotus acquired a reputation as a liar quite early on, while Ctesias, with his vaunted use of Persian sources, was thought to be the more reliable historian. In the collection of summaries of the established literary corpus made for Photius, the learned patriarch of Constantinople (ninth century CE), Herodotus was judged to be the more elegant writer and Ctesias the one with claims to greater authenticity.

Babylon in Medieval Thought

It was curiosity about the Bible - its histories, its ethnic groups, its customs - that provided the earliest impetus among learned and privileged Europeans to travel to the Middle East in search of additional and deeper knowledge about the lands where the biblical traditions were said to be born. Western travelers went east also in search of the fabulous kingdom of Prester John, about which reports began circulating from the middle of the twelfth century. They were also responding to stories of the so-called Marvels of the East, based on Genesis 6, according to which there were races of monstrous men among the descendants of Adam who still populated the East. Friar William of Rubruck opened his thirteenth-century travel accounts with an admonition from Ecclesiasticus: "He [the wise man] shall travel into foreign countries and good and evil shall he try in all things" (39:4). In the fourteenth century Friar Odoric gave his motivation for travel in the following manner:

Although many stories and sundry things are reported by various authors concerning the customs and conditions of this world, yet I, Friar Odoric of Friuli, being desirious to travel unto the foreign and remote countries of the unbelievers, also saw and heard great and miraculous things, which I am able truly to account (Quoted in Contemporaries of Marco Polo, p 213).

The northernmost of the several ruin mounds that make up the ruins of the ancient city Babylonia bore the name Babil through the centuries, and thus made its identification by medieval travelers more secure. This name, however, actually applied only to the ruins of the palace Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar), while the actual site of the ancient city was at Hilla.

Benjamin of Tudela journeyed between 1160 and 1173 from his homeland of Spain across Asia to the borders of China to ascertain whether the way of life of the local Jews there was a prelude to the fulfillment of biblical promises of the restoration of the Jews. The earliest known European traveler's description from the ruins of Babylon comes from his writings:

This is the ancient Babel, and now lies in ruins; but the streets still extend thirty miles. The ruins of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar are still to be seen; but people are afraid to venture among them on account of the serpents and scorpions with which they are infested. Twenty thousand Jews live within about twenty miles from this place, and perform their worship in the synagogue of Daniel, who rests in peace. This synagogue is of remote antiquity, having been built by Daniel himself; it is constructed of solid stones and bricks. Here, the traveler may also behold the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, with the burning fiery furnace into which were thrown Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; it is a valley well known to everyone. (Quoted in Contemporaries of Marco Polo)

For Benjamin of Tudela, Babylon had relatively little significance, except in its relation to the Jewish people, in antiquity and at the time of his visit.

A thirteenth-century Arabic source, al-Qazwini, validates that Babil was the name attached to a Mesopotamian site during this period and gives a somewhat more informative description of the nature of the site at that time:

Babil: the name of a village which formerly stood on one of the branches of the Euphrates in Iraq. Currently, people carry off bricks of its ruins, and there exists a well known as "the Dungeon of Danayl" [Daniel] which is visited by Jews and Christians on certain yearly occasions and on holidays. Most of the population hold the opinion that this dungeon was the well of Harut and Marut. (Quoted in G. Awad, "Babil," in Encylopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 846).

The Bavarian noble Johann Schiltberger, the author of the first German travel book, spent the years 1396-1427 as a Turkish prisoner of war, having been captured as a sixteen-year-old at the battle of Nicopolis. Her served the Turkish sultan Bayazid I, after whose defeat he moved among the followers of Tamerlane for some years. At some point during these years he visited the site of Babylon, as he recorded in his memoirs upon his return to Bavaria. He gives a description of the ancient city plan, along with measurements of the city walls that correspond exactly to those given by Herodotus. The latter fact raises the question whether he accommodated his measurements to those of Herodotus.

Like Benjamin of Tudela, Schiltberger misidentified the ruins of Birs Nimrud (ancient Borsippa), which lie south of Babylon, with the Tower of Babel. Because this misidentification had already occurred in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a, Genesis Rabbah 38:11), it is likely that both Benjamin of Tudela and Schiltberger relied on its testimony for information on the layout of Babylon.


Drews, Robert. The Greek Accounts of Near Eastern History. (1973)

Hall, Edith. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition Through Tragedy (1989)

Momigliano, Arnaldo D. Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (1975)

Hartog, Francois. The Mirror of Herodotus: Representtations of the Other in the Writing of History. Translated by Janet Lloyd (1988)

Bursetin, S. The Babyloniaca of Berossus (1978)

Kuhrt, Amelie and Susan Sherwin-White, eds. Hellenism in the East: The Interaction of Greek and Non-Greek Civilizations from Syria to Central Asia After Alexander (1987)

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest