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Ruin of Esagila chronicle (BCHP 6)

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Antiochus I Soter as crown prince. Coin from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Coin of Antiochus I Soter (Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)
The Babylonian Ruin of Esagila chronicle (BCHP 6) is one of the historiographical texts from ancient Babylonia. It describes how a Seleucid crown prince (probably Antiochus, the son of king Seleucus Nicator) fell during a sacrifice on the ruin of Esagila.

The cuneiform tablets (BM 32248 + 32456 + 32477 + 32543 + 76-11-17 unnumbered) are in the British Museum. On this website, a new reading is proposed by Bert van der Spek of the Free University of Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Irving Finkel of the British Museum. Please notice that this is a preliminary version of what will be the chronicle's very first edition. This web publication is therefore intended to invite suggestions for better readings, comments and interpretations (go here to contact Van der Spek).

Babylonian Chronicles
Text and translation
Commentary (obv)
Commentary (rev)


BCHP 6: The Ruin of the Esagila Chronicle, obverse. Photo Bert van der Spek.
BCHP 6: Ruin of Esagila Chronicle, obverse (British Museum).**

Commentary obverse

The obverse describes activities of crown prince Antiochus I concerning the restoration of Esagila. Etemenanki has been in state of delapidation since the Persian period, perhaps since Xerxes. Alexander the Great ordered the removal of  the remnants of the temple tower in order to restore it. After Alexander’s death this work continued. A royal inscription of Antiochus I records the repairs of Esagila and Ezida, which are supposed to have started on 20 Addaru 43 SE = 27 March, 268 BCE (Weissbach 1911, 132-5; ANET3 317; Austin 189; Kuhrt/Sherwin-White 1991).

niplu, ruin". The word is not previously documented, but it is surely a substantive derived from to naplu, "to destroy". Cf. Isaiah 30:13 for a parallel in Hebrew.

in-da-qut, perfect of maqtu, "to fall down". At first sight one is inclined to see in this expression a pious prostration of the king for the gods. This interpretation, however, is probably wrong. In the first place, the proper word for that act is the verb šuknu, like it is used very often in Astronomical diaries and chronicles of this period. Secondly, the verb maqtu has quite another connotation. It rather refers to accidents, to collapse. The CAD gives the following translations: "to fall down; to collapse; to fall to the ground, into a pit; to fall upon something; to swoop down, to suffer a downfall," all very negative in tone. In only a few instances a meaning in the sense of  "prostrating oneself" is attested. It occurs in the Amarna letters, in which the Akkadian has got strong West-Semite influences, and it is always followed by ana šp, "for the feet of". (CAD Š3, p. 242-3, s.v. maqtu 1.c.2’). So the conclusion must be that Antiochus simply fell on his face when he tried to perform offerings on the ruin of Esagila.

It was recorded by the scribe, since it had to be considered a very bad omen. That it was a bad omen in Greek perception is illustrated by Plutarch of Chaeronea, who mentioned a bad omen for Antigonus Monophthalmus, just before the battle of Ipsos (301 BCE):

Moreover, Antigonus, when his phalanx was already forming and he was leaving his tent, stumbled and fell prone upon his face, injuring himself severely; but he rose to his feet, and stretching out his hands towards heaven prayed that the gods would grant him victory, or a painless death before his defeat.
[Plutarch, Demetrius 29.2]
As a matter of fact, Antiochus reacted in the same manner. After the incident he made an offering "in the Greek fashion". Greeks were not accustomed to prostrate themselves for the gods. They prayed standing up with their hands raised, as Antigonus did. Secondly, his stumbling may well have raised his anger, so that he wished to remove the rubble of the temple once and for all as soon as he could and in a grand and royal manner: with wagons and with elephants.

It is the first time that we expressis verbis hear about offerings made "in the Greek fashion". It occurs later in

Please note that there are also parallels in the Roman world: Suetonius' famous anecdote about Julius Caesar (Caesar 59) and Livy's story about Camillus (AUC, 5.21.16). Cf. Plutarch, Camillus 5.

Unfortunately the first two signs of the line are hardly legible, but they must refer to food that was eaten after the offering ceremony, and in fact belonging to it. The phenomenon is recorded more often and was in the eyes of the scribe apparently part of  "the Greek fashion". The phenomenon is also recorded in: 

It may well be that the scribes recorded these events, because they found them sacrilegious.

maškan Esagil, "the empty lot of Esagila". The word maškanu has a variety of meanings, like "threshing floor" and "small agricultural settlement". It is derived from the verb šaknu, "to establish, to locate". But the general meaning is "empty lot", used for arable but uncultivated land (CAD M1, p. 368, s.v. 1b) and for the "site" or "location" of a building (ibid. p. 370-1, s.v. 3). Phrases like maš-kan ekalli mahrti zibma, "I (= Sennacherib) abandoned the site of the old palace" (OIP 2 128 VI 48), and Etemenanki ziqurratu ... ašar maš-kn-š mahri eššiš ušpiš, "the ziggurat of Etemenanki ... I ordered to rebuild on the place of its former lacation" (Borger 1956, p. 24 Ep. 34 VI c 28-34); cf. ašar maš-kn Esagila (BiOr 21, 145 Ep. 25:38).

These passages suggest that the work of  the removal of the debris of Esagila, which occurs so often in the chronicles, diaries, and administrative documents, had come to an end by this final effort of Antiochus, the crown prince. We know that Antiochus was really interested in the reconstruction of temples. The last preserved cuneiform royal inscription is the one from this very man, dated to 268 BCE (see above). These texts are usually combined with the statements in the classical sources that Alexander wished to rebuild the temple of Bl and that he began to clear the site of the temple tower with the help of 10,000 soldiers (Strabo of Amasia 16.1.5). Classical authors often add that after the death of Alexander nothing came of it, due to the lack of interest of the Seleucid kings (Strabo 16.1.5; Diodorus, Library, 2.9.9; Pliny the Elder, Natural history 6.121-2). The archaeological evidence teaches us, that the site of Etemenanki, the temple tower, was cleared indeed, but it also tells us that rebuilding did not take place on a grand scale (Wetzel 1957, 30-1; Schmid 1995).

Now there is one complicating factor. The name Etemenanki, the name of the ziggurat, never occurs in cuneiform texts of the Hellenistic period. When the removal of debris is mentioned, it is always "the debris of Esagila" which is at issue. It is generally agreed that the name Esagila was used as a general denominator of the entire temple complex of the god Marduk, hence including the temple tower. Esagila thus used as a totum pro parte. Line 9’, however, seems to imply that the removal of the debris of Esagil was accomplished in one month. It means either that the removal was already nearly finished, or that something else was recorded.

One might also argue, that the removal of the dust of Esagila was a continuing concern of kings and city authorities, since Esagila and the other temples were made of mud brick, which had always the tendency to crumble down. Constant removal and constant repairs are necessary. So it might also have been this activity: regular cleaning and repair of the temple complex. Repairs on Esagila in the Hellenistic period are attested archaeologically (Wetzel 1957, 29-33; Schmid 1995) and the repair is mentioned in Antiochus' royal inscription (Kuhrt, Sherwin-White 1991). 

Arguments for the traditional view are that maškanu designates an empty lot and it was certainly not true that the entire site of Esagila was razed to the ground and rebuilt. In that case the present remains of Esagila would have been a complete new Hellenistic building. That does not seem a sound assumption. The site of Etemenanki was razed indeed, as can be seen today. The present editors of this chronicle so far politely disagree about the question.

IZI ŠUB = miqitti išti, literally "fall of fire", probably meaning "stroke of lightning". cf. AD I –330 Obv. 7; -293 Rev. 14’. This kind of information is found passim in the Diaries. These were regarded as omens.

These lines are unfortunately broken on the most essential parts. Someone is crossing the Tigris, and says or gives orders (but to whom?) to go to an unknown part of the world, who does however, seem to return.  It is especially disturbing that that gaps leave no room for a second person, who is supposed to go. That would mean that the subject of the sentence only "says" that he will go himself; cf. Lie 1929, p. 54, 368-9: la a-la-ka iq-bi-š, "he told him that he would not come". If a second person would be involved, then the verbs iqbi "he said", and illik, "he went" have different subjects. The sentence thus leaves a range of interpretations of which we will venture a few, in order to show what the possibilities are:

  • “Month Simanu. That month, [day x, Seleucus, the king, (...)] crossed the Tigris. He told that he would go to [Macedonia; Syria]. He went, and he did <not> return”. 
    • If this interpretation is correct, it would refer to Seleucus’ coming from the East after his Indian campaign, and his subsequent campaigns in the west (Battle of Ipsus 301 BCE; Corupedium 281; and his crossing over to Macedonia in 280, where he met his death). Seleucus may indeed never have returned to Babylon and have left his son in charge in the East. In that case, the <not> must be inserted and this indeed is in congruence with the expression, like in the Diadochi Chronicle, where the same is said of king Philip Arridaeus (BCHP 3: 29 = ABC 10: 8’).
  • “Month Simanu. That month [day x, Antiochus, the son of the king,] crossed the Tigris and to [the Upper Satrapies] he said to go. He went, but he returned.”
In this case no emendation is necessary. The many chronicles concerning the crown prince seem to suggest that Antiochus was often in Babylon, that he perhaps was ordered to pay more attention to the eastern satrapies or even only the new city of Seleucia, which was apparently being built at this time. Antiochus may not have liked to live in a city, which was one great working place with a lot of noise of workmen. He will have preferred the royal palace of Babylon, for the time being.

Whatever the case, the essential words are missing, and every reconstruction must remain speculative.

to part three

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