The Search for Babylon

Coins from the Tigris hoard

Weight: 15.600 g
Weight: 15.600 g

CM BMC Characene p306/12;CM BMC Characene p307/17

In the attempt to trace the origins and development of civilizations, many people had attempted to uncover the remains of ancient cities, in particular those mentioned in the Bible. Europeans had visitied the ruins of the palaces of the ancient Persian kings Darius and Xerxes at Persepolis in Iran since the early seventeenth century. But the locations of the cities of Babylon and Nineveh, which featured prominently in the Old Testament, remained a mystery. New searches for these cities began during the Enlightenment. These aimed not only to verify the Bible as a historical account, but also to discover the origins of religion, language and writing.

Early European travellers and officials of the British government and the East India Company played a key role in rediscovering the ancient civilisations of the Near East. One of these, Claudius James Rich (1786-1821), was the first person to correctly locate the ruins of Babylon and to produce a plan of the ancient Assyrian capital at Nineveh.

The monuments that Rich and others discovered were covered with wedge-shaped marks, which they began to recognize as writing, called cuneiform. The gradual decipherment of cuneiform led to the rediscovery of the history of the ancient Near East.

On display: Enlightenment: Ancient scripts