Babylonian perspectives: Bel-re’ushu / Berossos on the origins of civilization (late fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Babylonian perspectives: Bel-re’ushu / Berossos on the origins of civilization (late fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 5, 2023,

Ancient authors: Berossos / Bel-re’ushu of Babylon, Babylonian Matters (Babyloniaka), also known as Chaldean Matters = FGrHist 680, as cited by Alexander Polyhistor (mid-first century BCE), Eusebios (early fourth century CE), George Synkellos (eighth century CE), Athenaeus (second century CE), Josephus (late first century CE), and others (link to FGrHist).

Comments: Berossos (or: Berossus, if Latinized), whose Babylonian name was likely Bel-re’ushu, was a priest of Marduk and contemporary of Alexander of Macedon who wrote a now lost work on Babylonian Matters (Babyloniaka) around 300 BCE. The passages below are portions of the work, particularly those summarized by Alexander Polyhistor (mid-first century BCE) and cited by various authors, particularly Eusebios, who writes in the early fourth century CE but is known for his accurate reporting about sources he uses.

Bel-re’ushu is not working from scratch here, but rather drawing on a variety of Babylonian and other Mesopotamian traditions that he reworks and presents to a Greek-speaking audience. But he does so in a way that claims a top position for Babylonians in the progress of civilization. In particular, Bel-re’ushu begins by sketching the wild and uncivilized life of earliest humanity before the gods sent the wise Oannes (Uan in Sumerian, one of the fish-men sages or apkallu of Sumerian and Akkadian traditions) to share virtually all important aspects of civilization, including written language, laws, astrological calculations, building technologies, and agricultural production. The fish-man figure sent from the gods also introduces an account of creation (drawing on traditions also in the Babylonian Creation Epic, or Enuma elish) that puts the Babylonian god Marduk on top. These revelations to Babylonians specifically are preserved by Xisouthros (the Noah-like figure) through the flood so that civilization can be reintroduced afterwards. Bel-re’ushu’s work also went on to outline subsequent important achievements by Babylonian kings like Nebuchadnezzar. In this way, this author could claim a preeminent place for Babylonians in the competition among peoples of his own time in the wake of domination by the Greco-Macedonians. Not included here are astrological works that are attributed to Berossos, though they too suggest that certain Greeks thought of Babylonia and Berossos as a principal authority for interpretation of the stars.

You can read more about Bel-re’ushu and ethnic relations in Harland’s article: “‘‘From that time, nothing else has been discovered’: Subject Peoples and Civilizational Priority” (2023, preprint, forthcoming).

Works consulted: Geert de Breucker, “Berossos of Babylon (680),” Brill’s New Jacoby (Leiden: Brill, 2010), with fragment numbers here following FGrHist / BNJ.

Source of translations: R. Bedrosian, Eusebius’ Chronicle Translated from Classical Armenian (n/a: Bedrosian, 2008) (link), public domain, adapted by Harland; Synkellos translation by Harland in consultation with W. Adler and P. Tuffin, The Chronography of George Synkellos (Oxford: OUP, 2002); C.B. Gulick, Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists, 7 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-41), public domain (passed away in 1962 and copyright expired), adapted by Harland; H.S.J. Thackerey and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackerey passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.


Babylonian Matters (= FGrHist 680)

Book one

[F1a = Eusebius, Chronicle (in Armenian) 3-7, drawing on Alexander Polyhistor’s summary]


(3) Nevertheless, I will relate what that same Berossos (Berosos, or Berosus) relates in the previously mentioned historical work, and will resume their previous thread which Polyhistor has put in his own book. One after the other he recounts these types of things.

(4) More apocryphal Chaldean history taken from the same book of Alexander Polyhistor about the Chaldeans:

In the first of his Babylonian books, Berossos claims that he lived in the time of Alexander son of Philip, and that he wrote based on numerous books which were kept carefully in Babylon describing a period of two hundred and fifteen myriad years, such as chronologies, historical accounts, the creator’s making of heaven, earth and seas, and information about kings and their deeds.

[Description of the land and its produce]

First, he says, the country of the Babylonians was established on the Tigris river and the Euphrates river passed through it. The country brings forth of its own accord wild wheat and barley, lentils, peas, and sesame. In the tranquil, swampy rivers a type of edible tuber is found which they call ‘gongk‘ (“turnip”), having the same quality as barley bread. Also found there are dates and apples as well as various other fruits. There are fish and birds, wild fowl and marsh fowl. There are sections by the Arabian areas devoid of water and fruit, while opposite the Arabians’ land are areas which are mountainous and fruit-bearing.

[Oannes and the shift from uncivilized to civilized living for people]

In Babylon dwell a multitude of foreign peoples from the Chaldean land, and they live wildly like beasts and wild animals. Now it happened that in the first year, in the confines of Babylonia, there emerged from the Red Sea an awesome creature which was named Oannes. As Apollodoros relates in his book, this being had the complete body of a fish. Yet by the fish’s head was another appropriate human head, and by the tail were a pair of human feet, and it could speak human language. An image of Oannes has been preserved to this day. He further states that this creature kept company with humans during the day, completely abstaining from any kind of food, instructing people in letters and the techniques of different skills including city and temple building, knowledge of laws, the nature of weights and measures, how to collect seeds and fruits. In fact, he taught humankind everything necessary for domestic life on earth. From that time on no one has discovered anything more.

Now when the sun went down, the Oannes creature once again returned to the sea, remaining until morning in the vast expanse of the waters. In this way it lived the life of an amphibian. Subsequently other similar creatures came forth, as the book of the kings [i.e. book two] makes clear. Furthermore it is said that Oannes wrote about deeds and virtues, giving humankind words and wisdom.

[Retelling of the Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish: Strange hybrid creatures on earth and Marduk vs. Tiamat]

(5) There was a time, Berossos says, when all was dark and water. And there were other sorts of creatures on the earth. Half of them could reproduce themselves asexually, while there were others which procreated and bore humans with two wings, others with four wings and two faces, with one body and two heads, male and female, and others having both male and female natures combined. Other humans had the legs of goats, horns on their heads, others had horses’ hooves. Others had the rear half of a horse and the front half of a human. Some had the hybrid (yushkaparik) appearance of a horse and a bull. Also born were bulls with human heads, dogs with four-part bodies having the flippers of a fish and a fish’s tail sprouting from behind. There were horses with dogs’ heads as well as humans and other creatures with horses’ heads and human forms and the extremities of fish. In addition there were diverse sorts of dragon-shaped creatures, hybrid fish, reptiles, snakes, and many types of astonishing creatures of differing appearance. The pictures of each of them are preserved at the temple of Belos [literally “Lord,” but here referring to the Babylonian deity Marduk specifically].

All of them were ruled over by a woman named Markaye who was called T’aghatt’ay in Chaldean [i.e. the sea goddess Tiamat]. The Greek translation of T’aladday is “Sea”. Now while all of these mixed creatures were arising, Belos attacked. He cut the woman [i.e. Tiamat the sea] in two, making half the sky and the other half the earth, and he killed the creatures in it. So information about the natural world is expressed in the form of an allegorical fable which means that initially there existed only water and moisture and the creatures in it. Then that deity cut off its head and another deity took the blood which dripped from it, mixed it with soil, and created humankind. Thus they became wise and partook of the thoughts of the gods.

Regarding Belos, which translates into Greek as “Zeus” (Dios) and into Armenian as “Ahura Mazda” (Aramazd), he split the darkness in two, separating heaven and earth from each other, and then smoothed and fashioned the world. Those creatures which could not endure the strength of the light perished. Then Belos looked at the world, both the desert parts and the fruitful parts, and gave an order to one of the gods to take some of the blood which was dripping down from his own severed head and to mix it with soil and to create humans, other animals, and beasts which could withstand this air. Belos also established the sun, the moon, and the five wandering stars. According to Alexander Polyhistor, this is what Berossos relates in his first volume. In the second volume he provides information about the reigns of the ten kings individually, which we have already treated. This portion, from Oannes to Belos, extends the account back more than forty myriads [400,000 years]. . . [omitted Eusebius’ negative reaction regarding what he considers unbelievable numbers of years].

[F1b = George Synkellos, Chronography, drawing on Alexander Polyhistor and paralleling the above citation from Eusebius]


(28-30) From Alexander Polyhistor concerning the ten kings of the Chaldeans who ruled before the flood and the flood itself, and concerning Noah and the ark, in which he also inserts some fantastic stories, as they are written in Berossos:

In the first book of his Babylonian Matters, Berossos says that he lived in the time of Alexander son of Philip, and that he diligently preserved records of many in Babylon spanning a period of time approximately over 150,000 years. These documents covered the histories of heaven, the sea, the first birth, the kings and the kings’ achievements.

[Description of the land and its produce]

First of all he says that the land of the Babylonians lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and that the land produces wild wheat, barley, lentils, sesame, and edible roots which grow in the marshes. And these are called “gongas.” And the roots have the same properties as barley. And there are also dates, apples, other fruits, fish, and birds both on land and in the marshes. And while parts of it in Arabia are dry and deserted, the area that lies opposite Arabia is mountainous and fertile.

[Oannes and the shift from uncivilized to civilized living for people]

In Babylon there was a large population of men from different peoples (alloethnai) living in the Chaldaian region. Now these peoples lived without rules like wild animals. But in the first year there appeared from the Erythraean Sea in a place next to Babylonia a foolish [George’s value judgment rather than Berossos’] beast by the name of Oannes. This beast is just like Apollodoros also recorded, having the whole body of a fish, but there was another head that grew under the head of the fish, and similarly human feet had grown out from the tail of the fish. It had a human voice. And its image is still preserved now. He says that this beast spends its day with humans, eating nothing, and transmits to humanity knowledge of letters, of calculations (mathēmata) [i.e. astrology], and of skills (technai) of all kinds. It also teaches the founding of cities, the establishment of temples, and the introduction of laws and land measurement, as well as showing them seeds and the gathering of fruits. In general, it transmits to humanity all that pertains to civilized life. From that time, nothing else has been discovered. With the setting of the sun, this creature Oannes again submerges into the sea, and spends the nights in the sea. For it is amphibious. And later other beasts similar to it appeared, about which he says he will explain in his record of the kings. He also says this Oannes wrote about birth and government and transmitted the following account to humanity: [retelling of the clash of Marduk and Tiamat from the Enuma elish follows closely the Eusebius’ version above in F1a].

[F2 = Athenaios of Naukratis, Sophists at Dinner 14.639c]

[Ethnographic description of Babylonian festival]

In the first book of Babylonian Matters, Berossos, says that on the sixteenth day of the month of Loos they held a festival called Sakaia in Babylon, extending over five days. In this festival it was customary for the masters to be ruled by their slaves, and one of them, as leader of the household, was clothed in a robe similar to the king’s and was called the “zoganes.” The festival is also mentioned by Ktesias in the second book of Persian Matters.

Book 2

[F3a = Eusebius, Chronicle (Armenian version)]

[Earliest Babylonian kings]

(3) How the Chaldeans chronicled their past, from Alexander Polyhistor and about their writings and their first kingdom: Here is what Berossos (Berosos in the manuscript) related in his first book, and in his second book what he wrote about the kings, one by one. He mentions the period when Nabonassaros was king, but merely records the kings’ names not saying anything precise about their deeds, perhaps because he did not consider that they had done anything worth recalling – beyond providing a list of their names. This is how he begins. Apollodoros says that Aloros was the first Chaldean king to rule in Babylon, reigning for ten sars. A sar consists of three thousand six hundred years, and this figure may be broken down into ners and soses. He says that one ner is six hundred years, while one sos is sixty years. This is how the Chaldean ancients reckoned periods of years. Having stated this, he proceeds to enumerate the kings of the Assyrians, one by one. There were ten kings from the first king, Aloros, to Xisouthros. He says that during the latter’s time the first great flood occurred, which Moses also mentions. He states that the reign of those kings consisted of a total of one hundred and twenty sars, making a total in our denomination of 2043 (sxd in Armenian) myriad years. He describes them one by one in this way:

He says that on the death of Aloros, his son, Alaparos, ruled for 3 sars; after Alaparos, the Chaldean Almelon, from the city of Pautibiblon [possibly Bad-tibira], ruled for 13 sars; after Almelon, Ammenon, from the city of Pautibiblon, ruled for 12 sars. Now in his day a creature called “Idotion,” having the composite shape of a man and a fish, emerged from the Red Sea. After Ammenon, Amegalaros, from the city of Pautibiblon, ruled for 18 sars, and after him, the shepherd Daonos, from the city of Pautibiblon, ruled for 10 sars. In his day, once again there emerged from the Red Sea four hybrid beings [yushkaparik in Armenian; Annedotos in Greek, in George Synkellos’ parallel passage] of the same man-fish type. Then Edovanchos, from the city of Pautibiblon, ruled for 18 sars. During his reign once again another sort of man-fish being emerged from the Red Sea, called Odacon. He says that all of them were from Oannes, and he concisely describes them, one by one. Then the Chaldean Amenpsinos, from the city of Lanchara ruled. His reign lasted for 10 sars. Then the Chaldean Otiartes from Lanchara ruled. His reign lasted 8 sars. Upon the death of Otiartus, his son Xisouthros ruled for 18 sars. The great flood occurred in his time. Altogether this makes ten kings ruling for a total of one hundred and twenty sars. . . [omitted table of years for the kings]. Such are the figures related in Alexander Polyhistor’s book. . . . [Eusebius’ negative assessment regarding the excessive number of years omitted and, therefore, the unbelievable nature of Berossos’ work].

[F4a = Eusebius, Chronicle (Armenian version)]

[Xisouthros, the flood and the preservation of civilization as introduced by Oannes]

(7) Alexander Polyhistor on the flood, from the same book we just mentioned.

He says that upon the death of Ardates (Otiartes), his son Xisouthros ruled for 18 sars, during which time the great flood occurred. His text relates the details as follows: He says that Kronos – who is called the father of Ahura Mazda [Jupiter / Zeus] and, by others, Time [Chronos] – came to Xisouthros in his sleep and revealed to him that on the fifteenth of the month of Desios, which is the month of Marer [December/January], humankind would perish in a flood. Kronos commanded that the entire book of Oannes – the beginning, middle, and ending – should be taken and buried for safety at Heliopolis, in Sippar. Kronos also commanded Xisouthros to build a ship and to go inside it with his family and closest friends, and to put inside the ship provisions and drink, animals, birds, and four-footed animals, and to be completely ready to set sail. Then Xisouthros inquired where he should sail the ship, and Kronos replied that he should just pray to the gods and that all would be well for humanity. And so Xisouthros saw to building the ship which measured fifteen stadium-lengths in length and two stadium-lengths in width.

After doing all that he was commanded, Xisouthros entered the vessel with his wife, children, and closest friends. Then the flood came. As soon as it had receded, Xisouthros released some birds. However, when they were unable to find anything to eat or any place to perch, he took them back on board. A few days later he again released some birds, and they too returned to the ship, but this time their claws were covered with mud. Finally he released them a third time, and this time they did not return to the ship. By this means, Xisouthros realized that the ground had become visible. He opened a side of the ship’s deck and observed that the boat had landed on some mountain. He emerged with his wife, a daughter, and the navigator, and worshipped. He fashioned an altar and made sacrifice to the gods.

[Xisouthros appears to point humanity to the books about or by Oannes]

Afterwards, he and those who descended with him from the ship did not appear to anyone. Those people who had remained on board and had not emerged with Xisouthros subsequently descended and looked for him, circulating around shouting out his name. But Xisouthros never again appeared to them. However his voice came to them from the air and commanded that they should worship the gods, and that he, because of his worship of the gods, had gone to dwell where the gods dwelled. His wife, daughter, and the ship’s pilot shared in this honour. He also ordered them to return to Babylon (for that is what the gods had commanded) and to excavate and remove the manuscripts buried at the city of Sippar and give them back to humanity [i.e. the reintroduction of the teachings of Oannes]. As for the place where they emerged from the ship, it was the land of the Armenians.

Now when the people heard all this, they offered sacrifices to the gods, and then went to Babylon on foot. As for that ship which landed in Armenia, they say that to the present a small portion of it remains in the Korduats’ mountains in the land of the Armenians. Some people scrape off the naphtha which had been used as a sealant for the ship and make amulets from it to treat pain. Now those who disembarked went and arrived at Babylon, excavated in Sippar city and removed manuscripts of the book. Then they constructed numerous cities, erected temples to the gods and renewed Babylon once more. Along with this story, Alexander Polyhistor tells the following story of the building of the tower of Babel, similar to the account found in the writings of Moses, almost to the syllable.

[F5a = Eusebius, Chronicle (Armenian version)]

[Subsequent kings]

(8) . . . Polyhistor supplements this topic by adding that after the flood, Evexios ruled over the Chaldeans for four ners. After him his son, Komosbelos, held authority for four ners and five soses. Polyhistor counts a total of eighty-six kings from the time of Xisouthros and the flood until the Medes captured Babylon, and he provides the name of each one from Berossos’ book. The total for all of them comes to 33,091 years. Now after these generations, one after the other, suddenly the Medes massed troops against Babylon and took it, and set up tyrants of their own people there.

Then he enumerates the names of the Median tyrants, eight of them, ruling for two hundred and twenty four years. Then eleven kings for . . . years; then Chaldeans again, forty-nine kings for four hundred and fifty eight years; then nine Arabian kings for two hundred and forty-five years. After this period he writes that Shamiram [Semiramis] ruled the Assyrians. Then he briefly lists the names of forty-five kings, giving them a total of five hundred and twenty-six years. He says that after them, the kingship of the Chaldeans was held by a man named Phoulos [Tiglath-Pileser III], also recalled in Hebrew history as Phoulos. They say that he came against the country of the Judeans.

Polyhistor relates that, following Phoulos, Sennacherib [reigning ca. 705-681 BCE] became king. He is mentioned by the Hebrew books as ruling during the time of king Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. Scripture mentions in order that “In the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them” [2 Kings 18:13]. After this entire narration, he continues with the information that Sennacherib’s son Asordan [Esarhaddon] ruled after him. Then he proceeds to relate that in that period Hezikiah became sick. Continuing on, he states that the king of the Babylonians, Merodach Baldan [Marduk II], sent messengers, letters, and gifts to Hezekiah. This is what the Hebrew books say.

[F7c = Eusebius, Chronicle (Armenian version)]

[Achievements king Sennacherib]

(8-9) Now the historian of the Chaldeans mentions Sennacherib [ca. 705-681 BCE], his son Asordan, Marodach Baghdan, and with them Nebuchadnezzar as our passage has done. Here is his description:

From the same Alexander Polyhistor on the deeds and valour of Sennecherib and Nebuchadnezzar.

After Sennacherib’s brother ruled, then Akises reigned over the Babylonians. He barely held power for thirty days, before he was killed by Maradoch Baladanos. The latter forcibly ruled for six months until a certain Belibos (Elibos) [ca. 702-700 BCE] killed him and seized power. Now Sennacherib king of the Assyrians, in the third year of his reign, massed an army, went against the Babylonians, fought them, and triumphed. He arrested Belibos and his associates and had them taken to the country of the Assyrians. So Sennacherib dominated the Babylonians. He then enthroned his son Asordanios [699-694 BCE], and he himself returned to the country of the Assyrians.

Soon afterwards he received word that the Greeks (Ionians) had come to the land of Cilicia to wage war [ca. 696 BCE]. Sennacherib went there and deployed his troops, brigade by brigade. He triumphed over the enemy, despite the fact that many of his own troops were killed. As a memorial to his conquest, he had a statue of himself erected on the spot and ordered that an account of his bravery and power be inscribed in the Chaldean language as a memorial for the future. Polyhistor says that Sennacherib built the city of Tarsus in the likeness of Babylon, and named it Tarsin. And he relates that after all his other accomplishments he went on to rule for nineteen years, until he died as a result of a plot hatched by his own son, Ardamusanos. This is from Polyhistor.

The account chronologically is in harmony with what is written in Scripture. According to Polyhistor, Sennacherib ruled during the period of Hezekiah for eighteen years; his son succeeded him for eight years; Samoges [ca. 667-648 BCE] followed, for twenty-one years; followed by his brother, for twenty-one years. Then Naboupalasar ruled for twenty years, followed by Nebuchadnezzar, for forty-three years [ca. 604-562 BCE]. From Sennacherib up to Nebuchadnezzar the regnal years total eighty-eight.

If one examines Hebrew writings, nearly the same information will be found. For following Hezekiah, his son Manasseh ruled over the remaining Hebrews for fifty-five years. Then Amos ruled for twelve years, followed by Josiah, followed by Jehoiakim. At the beginning of the latter’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar came and besieged Jerusalem and took the Judeans captive to Babylon. From Hezekiah to Nebuchadnezzar there are eighty-eight years, just as Polyhistor calculated from the Chaldean sources.

After describing all this, Polyhistor again turns to the works and deeds of Sennacherib. The Hebrew sources also refer to his sons. And he records them one by one. They say that the philosopher Pythagoras lived in this period, during their time. Now following Samoges, Sardanapallos ruled the Chaldeans for twenty-one years. He sent an auxiliary army to the patriarch and lord of the Medes, Azhdahak, to secure one of his daughters, Amuhean, as a wife for his son Nebuchadnezzar. Then Nebuchadnezzar ruled for forty-three years. He massed troops and came and took captive the Judeans, Phoenicians, and Assyrians. Since the Hebrew sources are in harmony with Polyhistor here, there is no need to elaborate.

[F8 = Josephos, Antiquities]

[Achievements of king Nebuchadnezzar II]

(10.217-228) Now king Nebuchadnezzar’s life came to an end after a reign of forty-three years [Nebuchadnezzar II, reigning 604-562 BCE]. He was a man of bold action and more fortunate than the kings before him. His deeds are also mentioned by Berossos in the third book of Chaldean Matters, where he writes as follows:

“When his father Nabopalassar [reigning ca. 625-605 BCE] heard that the satrap appointed over Egypt and the districts of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia had revolted from him, being no longer himself able to endure hardships, he placed a part of his force at the disposal of his son Nebuchadnezzar, who was in his prime, and sent him out against this satrap. Then Nebuchadnezzar engaged the rebel, defeated him in a pitched battle and brought the country which was under the other’s rule into his own realm. As it happened, his father Nabopalassar fell ill at about this time in the city of Babylon and departed this life after reigning twenty-one years. Being informed, not long after, of his father’s death, Nebuchadnezzar settled the affairs of Egypt and the other countries and also gave orders to some of his friends to conduct to Babylon the captives taken among the Jews, Phoenicians, Syrians and peoples of Egypt with the bulk of his force and the rest of the plunder, while he himself set out with a few men and reached Babylon through the desert. There Nebuchadnezzar found the government administered by the Chaldeans and the throne preserved for him by the most able man among them.”

“After becoming master of his father’s entire realm, he gave orders to allot to the captives, when they came, settlements in the most suitable places in Babylonia. He himself magnificently decorated the temple of Bel [Marduk] and the other temples with the spoils of the war. He also restored the originally existing city and fortified it with another one, and, in order that besiegers might no longer be able to divert the course of the river and direct it against the city, he surrounded the inner city with three walls and the outer one with three, those of the inner city being of burnt brick and bitumen, while those of the outer city were of brick alone. After walling about the city in this remarkable way and adorning the gate-towers as befitted their sacred character, he built, where his father’s palace was, another palace adjoining it, of the height of which and its magnificence in other respects it would perhaps be extravagant of me to speak, except to say that in spite of its being so great and splendid it was completed in fifteen days. In this palace he erected retaining walls of stone, to which he gave an appearance very like that of mountains and, by planting on them trees of all kinds, he achieved this effect, and built the so-called hanging garden because his wife, who had been brought up in the region of Media, had a desire for her native environment.”

[Greek authors on similar achievements of Nebuchadnezzar]

Megasthenes also mentions these facts in the fourth book of Indian Matters, where he attempts to show that this king surpassed Herakles in bravery and in the greatness of his deeds, saying that he subdued the greater part of Libya and Iberia. Diokles also mentions this king in the second book of Persian Matters. Furthermore, in his book on Indian and Phoenician Matters writes that this king besieged Tyre for thirteen years at the time when Ithobalos was king of Tyre. This, then, is what has been written about this king by all the historians.

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