Broadly speaking, there are two places where we can look for evidence of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The first is in the words of those ancients who lived during or close to their time and wrote about them. And the other is at Babylon itself — or rather in the ruins thereof, where we might hope to find concrete archaeological traces of the Hanging Gardens’ existence. Both paths of inquiry prove to be, as we’ll see, as frustrating as enlightening.

The logical place to start our textual search is with the writings of the Babylonians themselves. Theirs was, after all, a rich literary society, the oldest example of same in the entire world. And certainly Mesopotamian kings were never shy about boasting of their accomplishments; grandiose odes to their achievements, generally written in the first person, were a veritable literary form unto themselves. Take, for example, the description of Babylonian urban renewal that was etched right into the face of the Ishtar Gate by its builder Nebuchadnezzar II, who is also the most frequently cited candidate for the builder of the Hanging Gardens:

This street of Babylon having become increasingly lower, I pulled down the gates and re-laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks. I had them remade of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars lengthwise over them. I fixed doors of cedar wood trimmed with bronze in all the gates. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that mankind might gaze on them in wonder.

Any monarch that excited to trumpet the rebuilding of his capital’s gates would presumably be at least equally eager to celebrate the creation of a Wonder like the Hanging Gardens. Yet we find no similar texts associated with the latter — neither among the proclamations of Nebuchadnezzar II nor anywhere else in the cuneiform corpus.

We should be careful about leaping to conclusions here: absence of evidence is, as every detective and historian alike must learn, not necessarily evidence of absence. Still, the absence in this case does loom large indeed, given what an impressive quantity of cuneiform writing has come down to speak to us over the gulf of millennia. In fact, far more cuneiform has reached us than has the more famous and more recognizable hieroglyphic writing of the ancient Egyptians; this is largely thanks to the Mesopotamians’ habit of etching their missives into durable clay tablets rather than using the fragile papyrus rolls that were favored by the Egyptians. (Ironically, we understand some aspects of the very late stages of Mesopotamian history, when scribes did begin to move to paper, less well than the earlier ones for this very reason.) It’s been estimated that as many as 1 million separate cuneiform documents of all stripes have been recovered to date.

On the other hand, the number of cuneiform documents which have been translated is much, much lower. As I noted in my last chapter, cuneiform writing is insanely difficult to read even by the standards of other ancient writing systems, full of traps for the unwary that can turn something as straightforward as a trial verdict of guilty into not guilty (or was it vice versa?). By all indications, cuneiform took would-be scribes in ancient times, equipped with all the cultural context which we lack, years and years to master. The number of people willing and able to put in the time and effort necessary to understand it today — i.e., people with the right sort of minds who are able to resist both the more glamorous allure of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and more cutting-edge fields of ancient linguistics like the proto-Greek script known as Linear B — is inevitably limited. There is, to put it simply, a serious cuneiform-translation backlog, which would be more than large enough to keep all of our current translators busy for the rest of their careers even if no one ever dug another clay tablet covered with spidery writing out of the dust of the Near East.

And yet the existence of Hanging Gardens somewhere in all those undeciphered texts is by no means certain. The fact is that we have already translated a large proportion of the big, important texts dealing with matters of state and major achievements — and surely the Hanging Gardens, if they existed, were nothing if not a major achievement. The absence of any reference to them is odd considering that all of the other glories of the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar II’s time in particular are gushed over so extensively in other contemporaneous cuneiform texts.

But for whatever reason, we have only Greek and Latin texts to go on for our descriptions of the Hanging Gardens. Setting aside the travelogue-style commentaries on them as a Wonder of the World which I wrote about in my first chapter, four sources stand out for approaching them as something other than items on a bucket list. All four are clustered within a century and a half of one another, beginning fully half a millennium after the time of Nebuchadnezzar II. Yet their four authors are not, it should be understood, the first ancient scholars to write about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They are merely the only four whose works have come down to us in a reasonably complete form. All of them appear to have consulted older sources that are now lost to us. This reality will make the knot we’re about to try to untangle an inevitably confusing one. Please bear with me. At the end of it all, I’ll wrap up what we’ve learned as neatly as I can in a timeline.

The first of our four texts is by Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote in Greek between approximately 60 and 30 BC. His life’s work was staggeringly ambitious: a “library of history,” meaning a universal history of the world as he knew it, spanning all cultures and times. Less than half of it has come down to us, but his history of the Neo-Babylonian Empire is thankfully a part of what we do have. It includes one of the lengthiest of all ancient descriptions of the Hanging Gardens. And yet the very first words he writes on the subject problematize our investigation by reminding us of what we lack: “There was also, beside the acropolis, the Hanging Garden, as it is called, which was built, not by Semiramis, but by a later Assyrian king to please one of his concubines.”

The “not by Semiramis” part of this tells us that Diodorus was participating in a scholarly dialog — not to say argument! Unfortunately, we lack the texts to which he was evidently responding; for us, the effect is rather like trying to deduce the nature of a phone conversation from the words of the person on one end of the line. At a stroke, Diodorus has introduced two candidates for the builder of the Hanging Gardens: his vaguely described “later Assyrian king” and the Semiramis whose candidacy he desires to reject. It’s difficult to know what to do with the former, given that he provides us with no name and no other details about his king. What, then, of this Semiramis of whom he writes in negation?

It turns out that Semiramis was a mythical female Mesopotamian ruler. She has been connected with one Queen Shammuramat, who appears to have ruled the Assyrian Empire for a few years during the late ninth century BC. Shammuramat was the only female ruler in the entire history of the Assyrian Empire; how she alone among all those of her sex might have been elevated to that position is not at all understood.

The Semiramis that Diodorus describes is, however, a more unlikely figure than even the historical Shammuramat. He seems rather entranced with her, telling her story at surprising length. She was according to him half divine, being the daughter of a mortal man and one of the minor Mesopotamian goddesses. After a series of colorful adventures during her early life, she became not only the wife but also the most trusted military advisor to Ninus — another mythical figure, a king who was believed to have founded the Assyrian Empire. After her husband’s death, Diodorus tells us, Semiramis ruled for 42 years on her own, conquering much additional territory. He claims that she built the magnificent walls around the city of Babylon, the same ones that would later be labelled a Wonder of the World in their own right by writers such as Philo. In light of this, she would seem a natural candidate to have built the Hanging Gardens as well. But, as we’ve seen, Diodorus explicitly denies this to be the case, despite his self-evident admiration for Semiramis in general.

Let’s see what Diodorus has to say about the Hanging Gardens in full:

There was also, beside the acropolis, the Hanging Garden, as it is called, which was built, not by Semiramis, but by a later Assyrian king to please one of his concubines; for she, they say, being a Persian by race and longing for the meadows of her mountains, asked the king to imitate, through the artifice of a planted garden, the distinctive landscape of Persia. The park extended 4 plethra [400 feet, or 122 meters] on each side, and since the approach to the garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier, the appearance of the whole resembled that of a theatre. When the ascending terraces had been built, there had been constructed beneath them galleries which carried the entire weight of the planted garden and rose little by little one above the other along the approach; and the uppermost gallery, which was 50 cubits [75 feet, or 23 meters] high, bore the highest surface of the park, which was made level with the circuit wall of the battlements of the city. Furthermore, the walls, which had been constructed at great expense, were 22 feet [6.7 meters] thick, while the passage-way between each two walls was 10 feet [3 meters] wide. The roofs of the galleries were covered over with beams of stone 16 feet [4.9 meters] long, inclusive of the overlap, and 4 feet [1.2 meters] wide. The roof above these beams had first a layer of reeds laid in great quantities of bitumen, over this two courses of baked brick bonded by cement, and as a third layer a covering of lead, to the end that the moisture from the soil might not penetrate beneath. On all this again earth had been piled to a depth sufficient for the roots of the largest trees; and the ground, when levelled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size or any other charm, could give pleasure to the beholder. And since the galleries, each projecting beyond another, all received the light, they contained many royal lodgings of every description; and there was one gallery which contained openings leading from the topmost surface and machines for supplying the garden with water, the machines raising the water in great abundance from the river, although no-one outside could see it being done.

Diodorus’s “royal lodgings” nestled amidst the terraced greenery smacks uncannily of the “garden cities of the future” envisioned by the twentieth-century Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, a tireless advocate for better living through the union of technology and nature; the technology in this case must be the “machines raising the water in great abundance from the river,” which Diodorus doesn’t deign to further describe.

Now we must address the question of where Diodorus got his information. He wasn’t a traveler and raconteur like Herodotus; he appears to have relied entirely on existing texts in compiling his grand overview of history. And indeed, we can deduce from certain clues found in his work that he relied heavily for the Mesopotamian portions of his history upon one Ctesias, a Greek physician to the Persian court of the fifth century BC, who wrote a history of the lands east of Greece called the Persica that is now lost to us. Ctesias was not regarded as a terribly reliable source even in his own time; his appetite for the bizarre and the sensationalist would appear to have put even Herodotus to shame. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame today is that of having been the first to describe a unicorn in text, something he did with complete credulousness. Yet Diodorus appears at best to have paraphrased his description of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, at worst to have copied it word for word. It likewise appears that he based his rejection of Semiramis as their builder on the claims of Ctesias.

There is one final intriguing aspect to Diodorus’s description of the Hanging Gardens: unlike the next two authors we will consult, he refers to them consistently in the past tense. Did he know something the others did not? The idea is tempting, but, given that he never describes their destruction, hard to proceed much further with. It may very well reflect a simple stylistic choice.

So, we move on to the second important source that remains to us. Strabo lived and wrote in Greek shortly after Diodorus; he was active during the time of Christ. From his home in Asia Minor, he wrote his Geographica, a work we might today label a socio-historical survey of the known world. Being more interested in the contemporary world around him than its history, his approach to research had more in common with that of Herodotus than Diodorus. “Westward I have journeyed to the parts of Etruria opposite Sardinia; towards the south from the Euxine to the borders of Ethiopia; and perhaps not one of those who have written geographies has visited more places than I have between those limits,” he boasted. It’s thus unsurprising to find that his paragraphs about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon deal only with their presumably contemporary appearance, saying nothing whatsoever about their history.

Babylon is situated in a plain. The wall is 385 stadia [44 miles, or 71 kilometers] in circumference, and 32 feet [9.8 meters] in thickness. The height of the space between the towers is 50 cubits [76 feet, or 23 meters], and of the towers 60 cubits [91 feet, or 28 meters]. The roadway upon the walls will allow chariots with four horses when they meet to pass each other with ease. Whence, among the seven wonders of the world, are reckoned this wall and the hanging garden: the shape of the garden is a square, and each side of it measures four plethra [400 feet, or 122 meters]. It consists of vaulted terraces, raised one above another, and resting upon cube-shaped pillars. These are hollow and filled with earth to allow trees of the largest size to be planted. The pillars, the vaults, and the terraces are constructed of baked brick and asphalt.

The ascent to the highest story is by stairs, and at their side are water engines, by means of which persons, appointed expressly for the purpose, are continually employed in raising water from the Euphrates into the garden. For the river, which is a stadion [600 feet, or 185 meters] in breadth, flows through the middle of the city, and the garden is on the side of the river.

This description echoes that of Diodorus in many respects. However, instead of the latter’s maintenance gallery, if you will, filled with pumping machinery, Strabo writes of pumps mounted alongside the stairs leading up the structure, each with its individual operators — presumably slaves or other unfortunates. Some translations of some versions of Strabo’s text call the “water engines” by the more specific name of “water screws,” a form of pump that was at least 300 years old by the time of Strabo, but may not have been known to the Babylon of hundreds of years before that; this fact will take on some significance in a later chapter.

By no means should we assume that Strabo’s description of the Hanging Gardens actually dates from his own time. Despite his self-professed proclivity for travel, some parts of the Geographica are quite clearly based on earlier texts rather than firsthand knowledge, and among them are precisely the paragraphs that interest us today. His source for them would seem to have been Onesicritus, a helmsman who traveled with Alexander the Great on his campaign against Persia more than three centuries before Strabo and later wrote a memoir about the experience. Like that of Ctesias, Onesicritus’s work is lost to us. But, once again like that of Ctesias, we do know that it wasn’t held in particularly high regard. Onesicritus’s tendency to exaggerate was widely known among the ancient scholars who came after him. To cite the most notorious example, he claimed to have been the commander of Alexander’s fleet rather than its helmsman, something for which many a subsequent scholar roundly mocked him. Still, he would have had little obvious personal motive to embellish — or to make up out of thin air, for that matter — his description of the Hanging Gardens.

Our third textual touchstone is Quintus Curtius Rufus, a Roman scholar about whom very little is known, but who appears to have lived around AD 50. His one surviving work is another history of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, written in Latin rather than Greek this time. It includes the following description of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — or, as his translator here prefers, the “Pensile Gardens.”

On the top of the castle are the Pensile Gardens, so much celebrated by the Greek poets; they are of equal height with the walls of the town, and are mighty pleasant both on the account of their shady groves and the tallness of the trees that grow there. This bulky work is supported by pillars, over which there runs a pavement of square stone, able to bear the earth which is laid upon it to a great depth, and the water with which it is irrigated. This pile carries trees of so large a dimension that their boles are eight cubits [12 feet, or 3.7 meters] about and fifty foot [15 meters] in height, and altogether as fruitful as if they grew in their natural soil. Now notwithstanding time preys by little and little, not only on artificial works, but even upon nature herself; yet this huge pile which is peltered with the roots of so many trees, and loaded with the weight of so large a grove, remains fill entire. It is supported by twenty large walls, distant eleven foot [3.4 meters] from one another, so that they who behold these groves at a distance would take them to be so many woods growing upon their mountains. It is reported that a king of Assyria reigning in Babylon contrived this mighty work to gratify his queen, who, being wonderfully delighted with woods and forests in the open fields, persuaded her husband to imitate the beauties of nature in this work.

Curtius’s description of the Hanging Gardens bears many similarities to those of Diodorus and Strabo. And he repeats Diodorus’s claim that they were built by some unnamed “king of Assyria.” We don’t know, however, what sources he might have relied on for this information. His manner of description is just different enough to make one suspect that he wasn’t simply cribbing from Diodorus and Strabo. Of course, he would have had to translate those earlier authors from Greek into the Latin in which he wrote, which may account for some of the changes in form and emphasis.

Our final touchstone is in some ways the most compelling of them all because of the nature of the earlier source upon which it relies. Its author is a Jewish Roman named Josephus, who wrote a history of his sect called Antiquities of the Jews in AD 94. It includes the most detailed story of the construction of the Hanging Gardens, an event which it places not during the times of some anonymous queen or king of the semi-mythical past but rather during the established historical reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. Yet Josephus retains the claim that the king built the gardens in order to please his queen.

He [Nebuchadnezzar II] rebuilt the old city, and added another to it on the outside, and so far restored Babylon, that none who should besiege it afterwards might have it in their power to divert the river, so as to facilitate an entrance into it; and this he did by building three walls about the inner city, and three about the outer. Some of these walls he built of burnt brick and bitumen, and some of brick only. So when he had thus fortified the city with walls, after an excellent manner, and had adorned the gates magnificently, he added a new palace to that which his father had dwelt in, and this close by it also, and that more eminent in its height, and in its great splendor. It would perhaps require too long a narration, if any one were to describe it. However, as prodigiously large and as magnificent as it was, it was finished in fifteen days. Now in this palace he erected very high walks, supported by stone pillars, and by planting what was called a pensile paradise, and replenishing it with all sorts of trees, he rendered the prospect an exact resemblance of a mountainous country. This he did to please his queen, because she had been brought up in Media, and was fond of a mountainous situation.

As I’ve already mentioned, we do know Josephus’s source for this story, and it’s a fascinating one at that: Berossus, a Babylonian of the early third century BC. Berossus lived during the so-called Hellenistic Age of Western history, after Alexander the Great had spread Greek culture over most of the known world. Although Alexander himself was long dead by the time of Berossus, his empire long since divided among his generals, Greek remained the lingua franca of the world, the international language of scholarship and diplomacy. Thus we see many natives of traditionally non-Greek-speaking countries writing in that language in order to reach the broadest possible audience, just as the international scholarly journals of today publish almost exclusively in English. These works by non-Greeks writing in Greek proved to be of incalculable value a millennium and more later, when people who could read only ancient Greek and Latin began to try to understand the history of other ancient lands. The same texts still carry an outsize influence today. For example, an Egyptian writing in Greek named Manetho provided what was for a long, long time our only window into his country’s history from the perspective of one of its own people; the scheme of numbered pharaonic dynasties which Manetho either originated or documented is still employed by Egyptologists today in an only modestly modified form.

Berossus, who wrote at roughly the same time as Manetho, is another example of the same type. But sadly, his work has come down to us in far too incomplete a way to have had the same sort of influence. It exists today only in citations and paraphrasings such as the one we’ve just seen from Josephus. But for all that, Josephus’s history constitutes the only written reference to the Hanging Gardens that can with any degree of confidence whatsoever be traced back to an actual Babylonian — albeit one writing in Greek rather than his native language.

At this point in our investigation, it may be helpful to put all of these sources and events into a timeline alongside some other important dates which I mentioned in my previous chapters. Note that many of the dates which follow — especially the suspiciously round numbers — are approximations.

2300 BC: The city of Babylon is founded.

1800 BC: Hammurabi’s reign marks the high point of the Old Babylonian Empire.

1600 BC: Babylon is sacked by the Hittites, marking the end of the Old Babylonian Empire. The Assyrian Empire begins to gather steam in the north around the same time, and soon sweeps southward to conquer Babylon. Its second monarch in myth is Queen Semiramis, a figure who almost certainly never lived in reality. Nevertheless, she will later be described by some sources as the builder of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Other sources will describe the builder as a later, unnamed Assyrian king.

626 BC: The Assyrians are driven out of Babylon for the last time, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire begins under King Nabopolassar.

605 BC: Nebuchadnezzar II, the greatest king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, assumes the throne. He will reign for more than forty years, and is considered by most modern and some ancient scholars to be the most likely builder of the Hanging Gardens, assuming they ever existed at all.

539 BC: Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon, marking the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

450 BC: The Greek traveler and historian Herodotus describes Babylon, seemingly from first-hand knowledge. Yet he writes nothing about the Hanging Gardens.

420 BC: The Greek Ctesias writes his history of the lands east of his homeland, mentioning the Hanging Gardens in the process. This constitutes their oldest known appearance in text — although, importantly, the text in question has not come down to us in its original form.

331 BC: Alexander the Great takes Babylon from the Persians.

323 BC: Alexander dies in Babylon.

320 BC: The Greek Onesicritus, who sailed with Alexander’s navy, writes a memoir of his adventures which includes a description of the Hanging Gardens. But his original text too is now lost to us.

280 BC: Berossus, a Babylonian writing in Greek, becomes the first and only native of the city that we know of to describe the Hanging Gardens in text. Unlike Ctesias and Onesicritus, who attributed them to Assyrian monarchs of the distant past, Berossus says that Nebuchadnezzar II built them. Unfortunately, his original text as well is lost to us.

250 BC: The Greek Philo writes the oldest description of the Hanging Gardens as one of the Seven Wonders of the World to have made its way down to us. They will continue to show up frequently as an entry on these bucket lists for the next five centuries or so.

150 BC: The Persians retake Babylon and its surrounding lands, making it extremely difficult for Greeks and Romans to travel there during the centuries to come.

50 BC: Diodorus of Sicily writes of the Hanging Gardens in Greek as part of his all-encompassing history of the world. He appears to lift his description of them from Ctesias.

AD 10: The Greek Strabo writes of the Hanging Gardens as part of his grand geographical and sociological survey of the world. He appears to lift his description of them from Onesicritus.

AD 50: The Roman Quintus Curtius Rufus writes of the Hanging Gardens as part of his history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns. Although we do have Curtius’s text in full, very little is known today about either its author or his sources.

AD 94: The Jewish Roman Josephus writes of the Hanging Gardens as part of his history of the Jewish people. In doing so, he draws from Berossus.

So, what can we deduce from all this?

To begin with, it does seem that it is a relatively straightforward terraced garden — a sort of botanical ziggurat — that we speak of when we talk about the Hanging Gardens. All of the descriptions which I’ve quoted in this chapter are compatible with that idea, being all of them notably less fanciful than the vision of Philo. But make no mistake: irrigating such a structure would have been a huge hydraulic-engineering challenge in ancient times.

Next, we can say that the notion that the Hanging Gardens could have been built before the advent of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and then survived into the final half-millennium before Christ is intensely problematic, because the city was sacked and, if the ancient accounts are to be believed, virtually razed to the ground on numerous occasions prior to the ascent of Nebuchadnezzar II to the throne. It’s hard to conceive how something as inherently delicate as an exotic terraced garden, filled with plants and trees growing outside of their natural habitats, could have survived such trauma. So, we can tentatively conclude that the Hanging Gardens were built either very shortly before, during, or after the time of Nebuchadnezzar II — or, alternately, that the Hanging Gardens of the extant texts are a mere echo of something far older than than said texts, something that was destroyed long, long before they were written. For now at any rate, we will proceed on the former rather than the latter theory, not least because there’s so little we can do or say at all about the other possibility.

Finally, it does strike me as reasonable to give most credence among all the characters we’ve just met to Berossus, as cited or paraphrased by Josephus. Not only is he the only native Babylonian in the bunch, but he remained free in later ancient times from the reputations for over-credulousness and/or outright dishonesty which dogged Ctesias and Onesicritus. And then, again, his description of the Hanging Gardens as a product of Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign squares best with our knowledge of Babylon’s history.

Thus we come away from our survey of the ancient texts with a fairly solid idea of what the Hanging Gardens must have looked like and when they were most likely built, if not how. But that, of course, is assuming that they ever really existed at all; the lack of mentions anywhere in the extant cuneiform corpus continues to be a telling counterpoint to all of our earnest deductions. In order to truly know that they once amazed and delighted visitors to Babylon, we would need to find incontrovertible physical evidence of them out there in the ancient ruins.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

8 Comments for "Chapter 3: Searching the Ancient Texts"

  • morg

    Good read! But “tireless [advocacy] for better living through the union of technology and nature” is about the nicest way I’ve heard anyone frame Le Corbusier’s hyper-technical approach to urbanism.

  • Aula

    “the proto-Greek scripts known as Linear A and Linear B”

    That’s only half right. The language of Linear A isn’t known, but most likely it’s not any form of Greek. More to the point, no one is spending any time on translating Linear A because no one knows how to translate it.

    • Jimmy Maher


    • Will Moczarski

      Also, Linear A is not the most thrilling riddle out there. As far as I know, about a hundred numbers and words or so have been deciphered but seeing as there are virtually no longer texts but mostly lists and dedications, it does not seem worth the hassle, I suppose.

  • Will Moczarski

    And yet the very first words he writes on the subject problematizes
    -> problematize

    Diodorous -> Diodorus

    the ancient scholars who came after him him.
    -> him.

    [12 feet, or 3.7 meters)
    -> meters]

    Diorodus of Sicily
    -> Diodorus

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Sam

    Let’s talk about what an incredibly difficult chore it is to translate cuneiform, starting with the original Sumerian language.

    0) Initial phase is just numbers or “one symbol = one word” not altogether different than classical Chinese.
    1) The symbols begin to be used as sounds, i.e. if “la” means “hill” then the symbol for “hill” also means the sound “la” and can be used to write words that have the sound “la” but do not have anything to do with hills. This is somewhat similar to the alphabet system used in English.
    2) Oops, here comes Sargon who speaks Akkadian, a Semitic language completely unrelated to Sumerian (which has no known language cognates, adding an extra layer of difficulty to understanding it). Therefore, Sumerian gets twisted a bit as it is used to write down Akkadian words, some of which have sound combinations that don’t exist in Sumerian, sort of how like Russians write and say “Aftomobile” because there’s no “au” sound in Russian.
    3) Just when this syncretic style of Akkadian/Sumerian has been standardized, here comes the Hittites and Assyrians (Elamites, Babylonians, et al) adding new sounds and words into the language.
    4) Later, when Sumerian is about 1000 years old, it is now exclusively a language used for diplomacy and religion, not one spoken by ordinary people. Therefore, it’s only temple-trained clerks who use it, somewhat similar to the way Latin is used in the Catholic Church but not spoken by anyone in “real life.” So much written correspondence in this period uses the (more or less) same cuneiform symbols but contains words and phrases and sounds from different languages, akin to trying to write down the lyrics to a modern French-language rap song in Classical Latin.
    5) The writing system evolves into three main components:
    a) Special symbols to indicate names (esp of the gods) not entirely dissimilar to the way Egyptians drew a cartouche around the name of the Pharoah, but they aren’t ALWAYS used.
    b) Some remaining “one symbol = one word” usages.
    c) The rest of the words are “sounded out” using the “symbols = sounds” method.
    6) The documents which survived from Ancient times are largely the result of random events (such as sacking a city and burning its library, thus kiln firing the clay tablets into bricks that last forever). A large number of recovered tablets are from scholars PRACTICING their writing and then tossing away the tablets, meaning that there are plenty of mistakes. This makes reconstructing the language akin to learning English by reading essays written by C students in Oxford Univeristy from 800 years ago.
    7) There are no punctuation marks or other indicators to know when a sentence or word/phrase is over. Furthermore, since cuneiform was written on blocks or tablets of different sizes, the writing goes from one end to the next with no break in the flow (for paragraphs etc) and sometimes down one side and around and back to the other side of the tablet.
    8) Some of the symbols (cuneiform marks) evolve or change over time.

    Therefore, if someone hands you a cuneiform tablet to decipher, here’s what you’ve got to do:

    a) Ask how old it is to try and guess what version of Sumerian (or Akkadian, Babylonian, et al) it’s written.
    b) Look at each symbol and ask “Is this one word? Or is it just a syllable in a longer word?
    c) If you have three symbols, they could mean one word and two syllables of a second word. Or maybe it’s one word with three syllables. Or maybe it’s three one-syllable words!
    d) Even if you do parse out the words/syllables, you have to figure out what’s being referenced. If it says “hill king great” does that mean the king of a great hill? The great king of a regular-sized hill? The big hill is a (metaphorical) king of something? Or maybe “hill” refers to a previous sentence/idea and then “great king” is a new sentence/idea. Or maybe the king’s NAME is “Great Hill” ! Or maybe it’s just a foreign guy whose name sounds like the three symbol sounds so that’s how they wrote it down phonetically, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with hills or kings.
    e) Or maybe the three symbols is a previously unknown Sumerian word that refers to something impossible to guess like the name of a kind of plant, esp since there are no related languages to Sumerian to use to find some cognates.
    f) Then there’s all the fantastical (mythological) elements like the Anzu Bird that are even more impossible to “translate” since it involves the realm of the supernatural. And if you don’t know the mythos, you can’t possibly begin to understand what an “Anzu Bird” even is.

    And then, if all of the above weren’t enough, there’s the horrific fact that 99.9% of the tablets are nothing but accounting records and are thus incredibly boring, but you can’t tell just by looking at the tablets which one is a “ledger” and which one is an amazing story about the deeds of the King of Babylonia and his wondrous garden.

    Throw in some peevishness by scholars in the Western world because Sumerian tablets revealed that many of the books of the Old Testament are nothing more than recycled Babylonian stories (i.e. Noah’s flood is just a reboot of Gilgamesh), making a mockery out of the “holiness” of the Bible right about the same time that Charles Darwin was pounding Christian doctrine from the other end (fossils, age of the Earth, et al), and it’s easy to see why so few tablets have been translated.

  • Sam

    I should add here that despite the difficulties in translating cuneiform, it isn’t ENTIRELY impossible to uncover some real gems. One of my favorites is here:


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