Oldest known world map: Mesopotamia/Babylon, 700-500 BCE

[Image: possibly the oldest surviving map of the world. Mesopotamia/Babylon, about 700-500 BCE. Click to enlarge; see the note at the foot of this post for more information.]

From whiskey river:

In general, lives seem to veer abruptly from one thing to another, to jostle and bump, to squirm. A person heads in one direction, turns sharply in mid-course, stalls, drifts, starts up again. Nothing is ever known, and inevitably we come to a place quite different from the one we set out for.

(Paul Auster [source])

and (italicized portion):

The spiritual life — or the writing life — depends above all on fidelity to objects.

I wrote that sentence and looked out the window. It has rained for three days and in today’s sun the late roses strain, soggy as wet tissue, toward light coming just in time. Fidelity, I was saying, to objects…

Whatever your eye falls on — for it will fall on what you love — will lead you to the questions of your life, the questions that are incumbent upon you to answer, because that is how the mind works in concert with the eye. The things of this world draw us where we need to go.

It doesn’t matter how unprepossessing the world we look at, though it may seem to the lust of the eye that blue sky and late roses are more amusing to look at than dead winter growth. This mistake I make over and over.

(Mary Rose O’Reilley [source])

Not from whiskey river:

Turtle in the Road

It was the spring before we moved again, a list of what
we must do on the refrigerator, when my daughter
and I found a turtle in the road. He was not gentle
or shy, not properly afraid of the cars that swerved

around his mistake. I thought I might encourage him
towards safety with a stick but each time I touched
his tail he turned fiercely to show me what he thought
of my prodding. He had a raisin head, the legs of

a fat dwarf, the tail of a dinosaur. His shell was a deep
green secret he had kept his whole life. I could not tell
how old he was but his claws suggested years of
reaching. I was afraid to pick him up, afraid of the way

he snapped his jaws, but I wanted to help him return
to the woods which watched him with an ancient
detachment. I felt I understood him because I didn’t
want to move either; I was tired of going from one place

to another: the introductions, the goodbyes. I was sick
of getting ready, of unpacking, of mail sent to places
where I used to live. At last I put my stick away
and left him to decide which direction was best.

If I forced him off the road he might return later.
My daughter and I stood awhile, considering him.
He was a traveler from the time of reptiles, a creature
who wore his house like a jacket. I don’t know

if he survived his afternoon in the road; I am still
thinking of the way his eyes watched me go.
I can’t forget his terrible legs, so determined
to take him somewhere, his tail which pointed
behind him at the dark spaces between the trees.

(Faith Shearin [source])



The days aren’t discarded or collected, they are bees
that burned with sweetness or maddened
the sting: the struggle continues,
the journeys go and come between honey and pain.
No, the net of years doesn’t unweave: there is no net.
They don’t fall drop by drop from a river: there is no river.
Sleep doesn’t divide life into halves,
or action, or silence, or honor:
life is like a stone, a single motion,
a lonesome bonfire reflected on the leaves,
an arrow, only one, slow or swift, a metal
that climbs or descends burning in your bones.

(Pablo Neruda, from Still Another Day [source])


I think I may know how to proceed. I stand up. I turn around. Yes, this is how it was. I walk away from her. And now she begins to pursue me. I am not afraid. This is how it must be. I have created this maze. I am its author.

Through dimly-lit corridors, she pursues me. She travels at the same pace as me. When I slow, she slows. When I quicken, she does likewise. Nothing appears to have changed. But everything has changed.

I am the author of this maze. I know its every turn and bend, its every blind alley. I know its heart. Now, she is following me. Now I control our destination.

Counting in the half-light, I pass by one entrance, then another, then another. The passages appear identical. I am looking for the heart of the maze. I choose carefully. This place is larger than one might have expected.

I lead her along the route I have chosen. She is always just a little behind me, just out of view.

We come at last to the place I have chosen. The heart of the maze. I know, I think I know, what will happen here.

The centre of the maze is an empty room. This is the secret at the heart of every maze. She knows it too. Emptiness, a space at the heart.

The room is long. It is unbending. It is as large as the maze itself. This is a mystery beyond explanation.

I walk slowly up the length of the room. Slower than slow. She is behind me. She knows what will happen now.

I reach the far distance. This is impossible, of course.

I turn around.

I see her.

She sees me.

She speaks a series of words. They mean nothing to me. They mean everything. They are this story.

It is time for me to go.

(from “Pietro’s maze,” an article at the Wiki for the alternate-reality game (ARG) Perplex City [source])


About the image: This tablet (clearly broken and reassembled) is in the collection of the British Museum. That page explains:

This tablet contains both a cuneiform inscription and a unique map of the Mesopotamian world. Babylon is shown in the centre (the rectangle in the top half of the circle), and Assyria, Elam and other places are also named. The central area is ringed by a circular waterway labelled ‘Salt-Sea’. The outer rim of the sea is surrounded by what were probably originally eight regions, each indicated by a triangle, labelled ‘Region’ or ‘Island’, and marked with the distance in between. The cuneiform text describes these regions, and it seems that strange and mythical beasts as well as great heroes lived there, although the text is far from complete.

The regions are shown as triangles since that was how it was visualized that they first would look when approached by water.

The Visual Complexity (!) site furnishes more detail:

The map itself is small, occupying only two-thirds of the surface of a clay tablet that measures about 125 x 75 mm (5 x 3 in).

The accompanying text mentions eight outer regions beyond the encircling ocean. The descriptions of five of them have survived:

  • the third region is where “the winged bird ends not his flight,” i.e., cannot reach.
  • on the fourth region “the light is brighter than that of sunset or stars”: it lay in the northwest, and after sunset in summer was practically in semi-obscurity.
  • The fifth region, due north, lay in complete darkness, a land “where one sees nothing,” and “the sun is not visible.”
  • the sixth region, “where a horned bull dwells and attacks the newcomer”
  • the seventh region lay in the east and is “where the morning dawns.”

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  1. Quite a contemplative piece for a soggy Friday up north. Thanks. I tried to save a turtle last year from being crushed by cars. I was too late, some of them didn’t even pause to mourn. It was very depressing. But I did save one last year. It wasn’t particularly fierce, it just seemed lost trying to get from one place to another. I guided it along with my foot to the side of the road and it plunked down the drain which spills into the pond. At least I hope that’s where it went!

    • I never know what to do about wild creatures of any kind — even house pets in wild-creature situations (e.g., what is obviously a domesticated dog standing by the side of a country road and apparently thinking of crossing). I salute your doing that much for turtles… I’ve still got all these old, acquired neuroses about disease and sanitation, even touching them with a shoe. (Although it occurs to me now that if I had a stick to prod them with, I might do that — even if it was a stick they’d just lumbered over!)

  2. Remind me to stay away from the horned bull.

    I’m coming to this a week late, yet it resonates with me. Especially the “fidelity to objects” of which O’Reilley writes. And Shearin—time to expand my reading list. Yet again…

  3. Okay, so I clicked myself on over to the Visual Complexity site. Sigh. How am I ever going to get to sleep. I could read all night.

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