Room 55 of the British Museum is always quiet. Visitors who've made it to this upper floor make a beeline for the Egyptian galleries next door, perchance to ogle a mummy. But this peaceful Middle-Eastern gallery holds one of the greatest treasures of all: the oldest known map of the world.
The Babylonian Map of the World, also known as the Imago Mundi, stands alone in an island cabinet. It's immediately eye-catching. This ancient object has the size and substance of a brick, and is chiselled with cuneiform. What looks from afar like a child's drawing of the sun turns out to be a detailed map of Mesopotamia. It was set in clay around 600 BCE, and may be based on an even older original.
The clearest feature is the circular band. This is labelled as the river of bitter water, and represents the sea. Lines elsewhere are understood to indicate marshes and mountain ranges.
Inside the band, seven cities are inscribed in what the museum calls 'loosely correct geographical positions'. Chief among them is Babylon, just up from centre. It is shown on a vertical band representing the River Euphrates.
The map was surely not intended for wayfinding, as we might use a map today. It is believed to be a mythological interpretation of the world, or as much of it as was known to the Babylonians. The eight petals or triangles that radiate from the circle like the sun's rays represent eight islands beyond the sea, 'the homes of strange or legendary beings'. One is thought to symbolise the mountain where Noah's Ark came to rest.
Who carved the map, and why, may forever remain mysterious. Nevertheless, it is a stirring relic to behold. Those curves and characters, etched into wet clay two and a half millennia ago, are a direct ancestor of the A-Z.
Read more about the map on the British Museum's site.