City and Tower of Babel

BABEL, CITY AND TOWER OF bā’ bəl (בָּבֶ֔ל). The term “Tower of Babel” is not found in the Bible, but is used popularly for the structure built on the plain of Shinar, where the population migrated and settled after the Flood, when men began to multiply (Gen 11:1-9). The history of the building of the city and its high tower (Gen 11:1-11) called Babel (Akkad. Bābilu, “Gate of God”) is explained by popular etymology based on a similar Heb. root bālal which means “to mix, confuse.” Babel, therefore, became a synonym for the confusion caused by the language barriers which God imposed because of the human pride displayed in the building.

The account clearly reflects a Babylonian background. Hebrew בִקְעָ֛ה specifically indicates a “plain,” and Babylon was situated in a wide plain. The construction was of manufactured bricks and asphalt; not of cut rocks and mortar as elsewhere used, e.g. in Pal. The Heb. perspective here (Gen 11:3) reflects a note of sarcasm: “They had (only) brick instead of stone! and asphalt instead of mortar!” The Babylonian Epic of Creation, discussing the construction of celestial Babylon (Tablet 6, lines 58-61) says “for one whole year they molded bricks. When the second year arrived, they raised high the head of Esagila” (tr. in ANET2, pp. 68, 69). Bricks (both sun-dried and fire-baked), along with asphalt, provided building material in Mesopotamia. Likewise, the combination of a temple tower with a city is typical for the Mesopotamian landscape. In the great, esp. the holy cities of Mesopotamia, the temples were the most impressive buildings, and the tower that arose from the temple area was its supreme glory and splendor. This tower, called in Akkad. ziqqurratu, was built in terraces, or stories, each of which was smaller than the one below it.

The sanctuary of Marduk at Babylon was called É-sag-ila (“The house whose head is raised up”), and the lofty tower was called É-temen-an-ki (“House of the foundation of heaven and earth”). The chief source of information for this building is an Akkad. description that has been preserved in a copy made, from a much older tablet, in the 3rd cent. b.c., not altogether clear, as well as from a portrayal by Herodotus (c. 460 b.c.). The ziqqurratu which Herodotus saw had been built by Nabopolassar (625-605 b.c.) and Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 b.c.), and these kings had built upon a previous ziqqurratu which had fallen into a bad state of ruin. The original construction of a ziqqurratu on this site cannot be dated. It is known that King Šar-kali-šarri of Akkad built a temple at Babylon about 2225 b.c. In the course of centuries, the temple and tower were destroyed and rebuilt. Sennacherib destroyed it about 689 b.c. but it was restored by Esarhaddon (680-669 b.c.) The tower was severely damaged in the war of 652-648 b.c. but was restored again. The interpretation of the technical data presented in a cuneiform record of the 3rd cent., which describes this building, varies somewhat with different scholars. Of the high tower only the merest fragment, a portion of the lowest story remains, and it was buried under debris until excavated by Die deutsche Orient Gesellschaft (1889-1917). Everything considered, the structure was at least seven stories high, with the dwelling of Marduk erected on the seventh story. The height has been variously estimated up to 300 ft.

The cities of Nippur, Larsa, and Sippar each called their ziqqurratu by the name É-dur-an-ki (“The house of the bond between heaven and earth”). The one at Babylon had inscribed in its foundation, by Nabopolassar, “Marduk had me lay its foundation in the heart of the earth and lift its pinnacle in the sky.” One of the best preserved of the ziqqurratu is that in Ur, with a base 200 by 141 ft. and a bottom terrace 50 ft. high. Jewish and Arab tradition identified the “Tower of Babel” with the great temple of Nebo in the city of Borsippa, now called Birs-Nimrod. The ruins of this ziqqurratu, originally seven stories high, still rise over 150 ft. from the plain. The highest preserved ziqqurratu ruins are those of Dur-kurigalzu (modern ’Aqar Quf, 20 m. W of Baghdad) which still towers to a height of 187 ft.


T. Dombart, “Der Babylonische Turm,” JBL 34 (1919), 40-64; The Assyrian Dictionary, Vol. 21, 129ff; E. Unger, “Der Turm zu Babel,” ZAW 45 (1927), 162-171; L. H. Vincent, “De la Tour de Babel au Temple,” RB 53 (1946), 403-440; P. Amiet, “Ziqqurratu et culte en hauteur des origines a l’époque d’Akkad,” RA 47 (1953), 23-33.