From Myth to History: the Tower of Babel

The massive real-life structure that inspired one of the Bible’s most famous stories

“The Great Tower of Babel”, oil painting on wood panel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. (image souce: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brueghel-tower-of-babel.jpg).

“11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

— Genesis, Chapter 11 (Bible Gateaway, 2021).

TThe Tower of Babel is one of the Bible’s most famous stories, one which has been told a thousand times by our parents, our grandparents, and great-grandparents. Its simplistic nature combines all the essential elements of a great story. It features God, humans, a gigantic skyscraper, and one of humanity’s most loved story themes; some good, ol’ Hubris, and Nemesis.

The above chapter, which can be found in the book of Genesis — the first book of the Old Testament –, tells us in just two hundred and two words that a united human race once decided to build a tower, which would reach the Heavens, where God and the Host of Angels reside and then brag about themselves for the great deed they had accomplished. Of course, no one could stand such annoying neighbors, not even God himself. However, He is not willing to destroy the human race, for this hubris of reaching his doorstep and bragging in front of it. He had already walked down this road with the Deluge story a few centuries earlier and it didn’t end well for anyone… Instead, He decides to play the humans a little trick, some sort of a prank. According to the text He “confused their language”, so they would be unable to understand each other. Without proper understanding, they weren’t able to finish their work and were forced to abandon the project and “scatter over the face of the whole earth.”

The “Tower of Babel” might not be the most important story from the Bible in terms of theological value. The whole concept of “mortal sin and divine punishment” had already been explored in countless other stories both from the Bible, the other religions, and lots of myths, legends, and fairytales. “Adam and Eve,” “Noah,” “Atlantis,” even the “Sunk of Numenor” which was written by one of my favorite fantasy writers, J.R. Tolkien, stand as proof that a badly behaved humanity and an angry God are always a good combo for a successful story. But the Babel tale has one other important aspect, which worth to be explored.

The Historical Hypothesis: From Myth to History

It is a known fact that lots of stories from the Bible are based on true events, or sometimes are inspired by them. There is a theory that the mythical tower of Babel is also based on a real, historical, massive building of the ancient near-east world, which has in fact been discovered and identified by modern archeologists. In the paragraphs that follow, I’m going to examine, whether this hypothesis is true or just another myth, based on the archaeological data we have up to this point and by following a series of arguments regarding the biblical story’s historical accuracy. In more simple words, I am going to re-interpret the story, this time focusing on its hidden historical elements and then compare these with the results of various archaeological studies in order to see if we can possibly find and identify the historical “Tower of Babel.”

Location

Map of the southeastern region of Mesopotamia, known as Babylonia with its most important cities. (image source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kassite_Babylonia_EN.svg)

We will start testing the historical hypothesis of the biblical story, by focusing first on the most easily examined information that the tale provides us, regarding the tower’s geographical location. According to professor Jan Christian Gertz (2021) “Babel” is the equivalent Old Hebrew word for “Babylon.” The land of “Shinar”, which is mentioned in the story, has also been identified with ancient Babylonia (Livius.org, 2020), a land located in the southeastern part of Mesopotamia and is part of modern-day Iran and Iraq. So, if the biblical story was true, the tower’s location would be located somewhere in the city of Babylon, preferably near or inside its walls. These are the only two clues, which the story provides, regarding the tower’s location.

The Builders

With that information in mind let’s learn more now, about the tower’s builders. The peoples of southern Mesopotamia — the region where the “Tower of Babel” must be located — were (in a way) cultural descendants of the Sumerian People, who created one of humanity’s first civilizations (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021). When the Sumerian civilization started to decline, the rest of the Mesopotamians inherited many Sumerian customs, social and religious habits, and scientific knowledge.

One of the latter was the knowledge of baking clay bricks in order to build houses, palaces, and temples, a technique that was commonly used among the Mesopotamian peoples (Crawford, 2004, 87–88). The author of the biblical story mentions that the Jews did not use similar construction techniques and they instead preferred stone as their primary building material. By mentioning this technique of brick making, we can be almost sure that the people who build the tower were Mesopotamians — and not, for example, some foreign invaders — and more specifically, Babylonians since it was located in Babylon.

“The Temple Theory”

Having established the tower’s location and the national identity of its builders, we will now examine the reason behind the structure’s construction. In the original text, it is said that the people — and not a king, a tyrant, or an emperor — wished to build the tower. The Old Hebrew word for “tower” was “migdal” (Uehlinger, 2021). This word is sort of an umbrella term. Based exclusively on this we could be looking for a fortress, an actual tower, a citadel, or just for a structure that looks like a tower (Uehlinger, 2021).

The answer to this enigma lies in the element of sin, that the building’s construction bears. We understand that this building is an act of hubris against God. We know that, just like many Middle Eastern peoples, the Israelites used to build gargantuan structures, to worship their God. So the Jewish author of the story isn’t against the construction of large-scale buildings in general — after all the Solomon’s Temple was one of them — but, like the rest of his people, was against the construction of such colossal projects, whose purpose was to worship the foreign gods, the false ones. So, if the building wasn’t made to serve as the palace of a ruler (since the story does not mention this kind of motive behind the tower’s creation), and the Jewish people view its construction as an insult against God, we can conclude that the “Tower of Babel” was in fact a temple.

The ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil, the largest and best preserved ziggurat outside of Mesopotamia. Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

Next, we need to pay attention to the builders’ words, regarding the structure’s purpose. They wanted to build a temple, whose top would rise through the sky and reach the heavens. This sentence proves furthermore that the building was actually a temple. Babylonian temples copied in terms of architecture and design the Sumerian ones. The Sumerian and Babylonian temples were called “Ziggurats,” a name that comes from the word “zaqaru,” which in turn means “to rise high” (Livius.org, 2020). In fact, the word “ziggurat” translates as “the tower which rises to the sky.” This description corresponds to the ziggurat’s unique design. It resembled a stepped pyramid, consisting of three to seven levels of terraces, which ascended to the sky. On its top lied the main temple, where religious ceremonies and rituals took place (Crawford, 2004, 108). Both the ziggurat’s “sinful nature” as a place of heathen worship and its linguistic and structural resemblance with the biblical description of the “Tower of Babel” has lead the majority of historians to believe that the “temple origin theory” is in fact correct, and can stand as a plausible explanation of the mythical building’s historic origin.

However, even if the theory is correct, it is still too generic. There were lots of temples inside Babylon, all of whom rose to the sky. The Tower of Babel could be any of them. Moreover, the Jews had coexisted with the Babylonians for hundreds of years. By the time they first came into contact, there were already lots of ziggurats in Babylon. So if the Israelites knew the purpose of these buildings, why not simply refer to the “tower of Babylon” as a “temple”? To answer this question, we should focus more on the lines, which mention that the temple would rise up to the sky. These lines, “a tower that reaches the heavens” seem more of the actual temple’s name, than a generic translation of the word “ziggurat” from Babylonian to Old Hebrew. In simple words, the author is mentioning the temple by its actual name, and not by referring to the building’s type, just like when we mention the name Hagia Sophia, we refer to the colossal, Christian church located in Istanbul.

The naming of the temples was extremely important in ancient Mesopotamian cultures. It was a way to give the building an identity and connect it with a specific god. One important piece of information to keep in mind here, regarding the naming of temples, is the fact that, because each temple served as a house for a specific god, all of the temple names included the word “house” (Taylor, Feldman, 2021). For example, the temple of Enki, the Sumerian god of the waters and wisdom, located in the city of Eridu was named “Abzu”, meaning “House of the Subterranean Waters”, while the temple of Sin, god of the moon, in Uruk was called “Egishirgal” meaning “House of the Great Light.”

Traditionally the temple’s creator named the building in a ceremony before its construction began. Notice that in the biblical story, the temple’s builders follow the exact same motif, before its construction takes place. They designate its purpose and identity by naming it “the tower that reaches the heavens,” a name which the Jewish author avoids using himself because it is considered an offense to God and thus refers to the temple simply as “the Tower of Babel”. So, the author refers to a specific temple, with a specific name and not to a generic, unknown ziggurat.

It is known that the Babylonians kept extensive records of everything they did, and particularly everything related to their religious practices. If a temple was to be made, there would be clay tablets referring to its construction and also to its name, given by its creator. So, to conclude, if a researcher wished to find the long-lost “Tower of Babel,” and if the “temple theory” is correct, he simply needed to search for a ziggurat with a name similar to “the house that rises to the heavens”, or “the house which rises from the earth and reaches the heavens.”

The Etemenanki: the Real-life “Tower of Babel”

Reconstruction of the carving featured in the “Tower of Babel Stele”. It shows the standing figure of Nebuchadnezzar II with his royal conical hat, holding a staff in his left hand and a scroll with the rebuilding plans of the Tower (or a foundation nail) in his outstretched right hand; at the top: a line drawing of the ground plan of the temple on the top, showing both the outer walls and the inner arrangement of rooms, including the one that once had a fine large couch in it (The Schoyen Collection, 2021). (image source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Etemenanki_Babylon_(5).png)

Imagine the archaeologists’ surprise when, while conducting excavations in Babylon under the famous archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1913 (Livius.org, 2020), they found the ruins of a gigantic temple, and an inscription on a stele linking its ruins with the name “Etemenanki,” which literally translates as “the House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth,” a name that perfectly matches the biblical description of the Babel Tower (Livius.org, 2020)! The stele, which came to be known as the “Tower of Babel Stele” also mentions that King Nebuchadnezzar II, who some of you may know as the man who ordered the construction of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was the mysterious creator of Etemenanki (Livius.org, 2020).

In the following decades, a number of ancient sources have been found further linking Etemenanki with the mythical Tower of Babel. According to one of these sources, and specifically, a clay tablet found in Uruk (LouvreBible, 2021), the massive temple rose 91 meters from the ground, had a square shape with each side being 91 meters long, and seven levels. These colossal dimensions made it one of antiquity’s tallest buildings, and an easily recognisable landmark inside the city!

The temple was dedicated to Marduk — the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon — , something which undoubtedly would have sparked the hatred of the Jewish peoples. The dedication of the temple to Marduk, a sky god who created heaven and earth according to the Babylonian creation myth, explains its name origin as “the foundation of heaven and earth”. It also explains why the Jews hated so much this specific temple. For them, the mere building’s existence was a mockery against the real God.

The Etemenanki: Problems and Answers

Of course, there are always some doubts, regarding the building’s identification with the famous biblical one. To start with, the biblical story mentions that the building’s construction happened sometime after the deluge, long before Etemenanki’s most possible historical date of construction. Moreover, the temple’s constructor, king Nebuchadnezzar II, is mentioned multiple times in the Bible’s later books. The argument here is that, if Nebuchadnezzar, the constructor of the “Tower of Babel,” was a known and famous figure to the Bible’s authors, why not simply mention him? Perhaps, Etemenanki is a latter structure, irrelevant to the “Tower of Babel” after all. To these arguments, the supporters of the Etemenanki theory have two plausible answers.

First, the Bible’s early chronological timeline is imprecise, to say the least. The story mentions that the tower was built sometime after the deluge. When it comes to myths and legends, time is irrelevant. For example, the Sumerians and the Babylonians thought that Eridu was the first city built on earth and that its foundation dated back to 50.000 BCE (Hirst, 2019). Both of these statements are not true. So we can simply imply that the chronological misinformation is just a result of the abstract nature of myths, legends, and tales.

The second argument, which has a more scientific nature, tells us that Nebuchadnezzar was in fact the tower’s rebuilder not the original constructor (Livius.org, 2020). The proof to support this claim lies in a historical source, which informs us that the temple was destroyed by the Assyrians in 689 BCE. More specifically, the Assyrian king Sennacherib, the one who sacked Babylon in 689 BCE, mentions specifically that when he sacked the city, his soldiers razed to the ground the once-proud Etemenanki (Luckenbill, 1924, 84). Based on this, we can be sure that the tower was much older than Nebuchadnezzar’s time, perhaps even 1.000 years older, according to the newest estimations, which place its construction date around the time of Hammurabi’s reign over Babylon (The Schoyen Collection, 2021). This fact makes it the ideal candidate for the Bible’s story.

The “Tower of Babel”: a Modern Interpretation of a Classical Story

Researchers nowadays are almost certain that this particular temple, the only one bearing that specific name, is the notorious “Tower of Babel.” Just like Babylon itself, Etemenanki was plundered damaged, destroyed, and repaired thousands of times, surviving until the Hellenistic period (Livius.org, 2020). It is likely that the temple’s immense height, combined with its sacrilegious name (for the standards of the Jews), and troubled history, inspired the Jews to write the “Tower of Babel” story, in order to show the weakness of their heathen neighbors, when compared with the power of God, who crashed the temples of their false gods.

Regardless of whether you believe that the “Tower of Babel” never actually existed, or that, just like the above theory suggests, it was in fact a ziggurat in Babylon, you can’t deny the fact that it has become one of the most recognisable buildings in human history, a symbol of a corrupted, sinful humanity, which wishes to cross its natural limits. However, it doesn't have to be this way. I choose to close the article with a wonderful linguistic pun that the Jewish author of the story chose to put in, in order to ascribe a different and perhaps a more positive meaning to the tale.

The original Old Hebrew word that describes God’s trick against the Babylonians was “balal”, a word that means “to confuse”, regarding the confusion of languages (Gertz, 2021). In the story, God acknowledges the ability of the human race to do the impossible and reach the heavens, without His consent or help. Notice, however, that He does not choose to completely remove the humans’ ability to understand each other. Being God, He could have simply chosen for the humans to not be able to understand each other at all like we are not able to understand what a dog’s bark means. But, He chooses to confuse them. This practically means that the human race is capable of reinventing a common language again, which had happened multiple times in history.

Perhaps, “the Tower of Babel” has a different meaning after all, or perhaps it is time to give the story a different meaning from its original “hubris and punishment” one. Maybe the real meaning behind the story is that, when God, the Universe, life itself, or mere luck put obstacles in front of us, it is for our own good, in order to learn something, adapt to the circumstances, or simply face the challenge that lies in front of us, and emerge victorious. No matter how big the obstacle is, we can always surpass it and make our dreams come true.

Bibliography

BibleGateaway.com, The Tower of Babel, available at Genesis 11:1–9 NIV — The Tower of Babel — Now the whole — Bible Gateway, (last access: 02/06/21)

Crawford H., (1991), Sumer and the Sumerians, Cambridge Univercity Press

Hirst K.K, (2019), Eridu; The Earliest City in Mesopotamia and the World, available at https://www.thoughtco.com/eridu-iraq-earliest-city-in-mesopotamia-170802, (last access: 02/06/21)

Jan Christian Gertz, The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9), https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/tower-of-babel, (last access: 02/06/21)

Livius.org, (2020), Etemenanki (the “Tower of Babel”), available at https://www.livius.org/articles/place/babylon/etemenanki/, (last access: 02/06/21)

LouvreBible.org, Esagila Tablet, available at https://louvrebible.org.uk/oeuvre/137/louvre_departement_antiquites_orientales, (last access: 02/06/21)

Luckenbill D.D., (1924), the ANNALS OF SENNACHERIB, the Univercity of Chicago Press

Taylor A., Feldman M., The Development of Sumerian Temple Architecture in Early Mesopotamia, available at https://cnx.org/contents/Yip68Fa2@9/The-Development-of-Sumerian-Temple-Architecture-in-Early-Mesopotamia, (last access: 02/06/21)

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2021), Babylonia, available at https://www.britannica.com/place/Babylonia, (last access: 02/06/21)

The Schoyen Collection, Tower of Babel Stele, available at https://www.schoyencollection.com/history-collection-introduction/babylonian-history-collection/tower-babel-stele-ms-2063, (last access: 02/06/21)

Uehlinger C., Tower of Babel and Mesopotamian Influence?, available at https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/tower-of-babel-and-mesopotamian-influence, (last access: 06/06/21)

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Nick Iakovidis

Nick Iakovidis

Studying History and Philosophy of Science at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.