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Work The "Esagila" tablet

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Tablette dite " de l'Esagil "

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Raphaël Chipault

Near Eastern Antiquities

Iselin Claire

The "Esagila" tablet is a neo-Babylonian mathematical text that has come down to us in the form of a later copy made at Uruk (Mesopotamia) in 229 BC. The name given to the tablet does not correspond fully to the content of the text, for the only parts pertaining to Esagila (the temple of the god Marduk in Babylon) recorded by the scribes are two courtyards built earlier than the temple. The rest of the tablet concerns the ziggurat, Etemenanki, and is extremely valuable for its reconstruction.

The temple of Marduk in Babylon

The text, copied from an earlier document, describes the temple of the god Marduk in Babylon as reconstructed by the kings of the Babylonian dynasty of Nabopolassar (625-605 BC) and Nebuchadrezzar II (605-562 BC). This temple was called Esagila, "the temple that raises its head". The text first gives a double description of the base of the multi-tiered tower built inside the city walls or ziggurat, then describes the main temple, and, finally, gives the measurements of the multi-tiered tower, called Etemenanki, "House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth" - the "Tower of Bable" in the Bible (Genesis 11, 1-9). This tower seems to have had seven stories, built in the form of terraces, and was surmounted by a temple. German excavations have confirmed the dimensions of the square base: over 91 m along each side. They have also shown that three large stairways, resting on the south facade, provided access to the first story, higher than the others, and to the second story. Smaller staircases led to the top, probably situated at a height of 90 meters.

A complex mathematical system

This text, which illustrates the mathematical calculating methods used by the Babylonians, reveals a more mysterious aspect of the art of the scribe: these dimensions are "sacred," and on the back of the tablet, the recapitulation of the dimensions to be calculated are accompanied by the phrase, "let the initiate show the initiate, the non-initiate must not see this." This closed, learned system was for the sole use of the "wise men," the guardians of tradition. In their concern to safeguard it, they omitted to pass it on to their Aramaean and Greek colleagues, which brought about the disappearance of the entire Mesopotamian culture, for nearly two thousand years.
Excerpt from the text:
"Measurements of the base of the etemenanki: here are the length and width to be considered: 3x60 is the length, 3x60 is the width, measured in standard cubits (1 elbow length = about 50 cm). Its dimensions are therefore: 3x3=9 ; 9x2=18. If you do not know the value of 18, here it is: 3 measures of seed, surface area measured with the small cubit. Base of the etemenanki: the height is equal to the length and width. Let the initiate show this to the initiate. Let the non-initiate not see it. Tablet written, traced and collated, after a copy made at Borsippa... Uruk, month of Kislimu, 26th day (12 December 229 BC.). Year 83 : Seleucus (He was) roi."

The Greek sources

This tower of Bel-Marduk is also known to us from Greek sources: Diodorus Siculus (Book II, 7-10) records that "The temple of Bel erected in the center of the city ... was extraordinarily high ... and the Chaldeans did their astronomical work there." Herodotus (I, 178-182) gives its measurements: "This temple is square, and each side is two stadia in length. In the centre is a massive tower, of one stadium in length and breadth; on this tower stands another tower, and another again upon this, and so on up to eight." The Babylonian text confirms this information.


Thureau-Dangin François, Textes cunéiformes du Louvre, VI, Geuthner, 1922, n 32.
Weissbach F.H., Das Hauptheiligtum des Marduk in Babylon, Esagilia und Etemenanki II, Osnabrück, 1967.
André Béatrice (notice), Naissance de l'écriture : cunéiformes et hiéroglyphes, exposition : Grand Palais, 7 mai-9 août 1982, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, p. 336, n 284.
Powell M.A., "Metrological Notes on the Esagilia Tablet and Related Matters", Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, Band 72 I. Halbband, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 106-123.
Vicari Jacques, La Tour de Babel : reconstruction et recherches, exposition : Genève, oct. 1991, Maison du Bout-du-Monde, 1991.
André-Salvini Béatrice, Babylone, PUF, coll. "Que sais-je ?", 2001.

Technical description

  • Tablette dite " de l'Esagil "

    Datée de l'an 83 de l'ère séleucide (229 avant J.-C.)Copie d'un document plus ancien


  • Terre cuite

    H. : 18 cm. ; L. : 10 cm. ; Pr. : 1,80 cm.

  • Acquisition, 1913 , 1913

    AO 6555

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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