Fact: The Tower of Babel is a story based in history
In the biblical book of Genesis the story of the Tower of Babel discusses a time when the people of Earth following the flood of Noah were unified in speech and sought to build a giant tower reaching to the heavens. God intervened and confused the languages of the people causing disunity and resulting in the great tower to remain unfinished. In modern times, many archeologists have been reluctant to attribute historical basis to the story, instead suggesting it was invented as a teaching myth. However recent discoveries in Babylon bring support that the story had a basis in fact.
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Towers and Languages
Chapter 11 of the book of Genesis describes the world following the Flood of Noah when humans unified and spoke a single language. As they settled the land in what would be modern Iraq, the decided to use baked bricks instead of stone to construct a huge tower to stand as an icon to human accomplishment. God seeing humans turning from Him and becoming self reliant, decides to intervene by causing the people to spontaneously start speaking different languages. This causes the tower to be left incomplete, and for the previously unified people to separate and scatter over the world.
Parallel stories can be found in other cultures around the such as the Sumerian story Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (21st century BC) where Enmerkar is trying to build a great Ziggurat but has difficulty with lack of unified speech among nearby peoples.
In the 16th century, the Aztec history Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl recorder a Toltec story describing men who following a great flood attempted to build a tower that would prevent them from a future flood, but that their languages became confused and the people became scattered across the earth.
A great effort was taken in 1918 by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer to chronicle stories found in aboriginal cultures around the world that bore similarities to Biblical accounts including the story of the great flood and the tower of Babel. In his book Folklore in the Old Testament he lists examples of similar tower stories found in the Lozi of Zambia, the peoples in Kongo and Tanzania, the Karbi, Tharu, and Kuki of India, the Karen of Myanmar as well as remote locations such as the Admiralty Islands. Similarly there are stories discussing the confusion of languages found in native Australia, California, Alaska, and the Maya of Guatemala.
The location of the tower (Babel) is synonymous with Babylon, a city in modern day Iraq founded on the banks of the Euphrates River in the late 3rd Millennia BC. It is a part of the world which has been occupied by more than a half dozen major historical dynasties, and subject to war and natural disaster of thousands of years. By the end of the reign of Alexander the great the city of Babylon ceased to be, although the culture of the people still identified as Babylonian for many centuries to come. Although the city site had been visited by historians over the centuries, by the time of modern archeologists in the early 19th century much was left to ruin and myth.
Among the sites of interest to historians has been finding the location of a ziggurat called Etemenaki. This great towering ziggurat was known to have been build by king Nebuchadnezzar II during the surge of the Babylonian empire in the 6th century BC. Its name means “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth” and was dedicated to the Babylonian god Marduk. A magnificent structure, stood for 300 years after which it was destroyed by Alexander the Great. Its location remained unknown until Robert Koldewey discovered its foundations and some remains in 1913. This was clearly the largest Ziggurat in Babylon, and as least as old as Nebuchadnezzar the II. Historians of the Ancient world attributed this ziggurat to the tower of babel, but did any thing precede it?
The tower before the tower
Modern archeological finds detail accounts from King Nebuchadnezzar himself describing how although he built the modern Etemenanki, there existed a ziggurat there that preceded him by some time. In part of the “Inscription on Borsippa” Nebuchadnezzar himself records:
“…A former king built it, (they reckon 42 ages) but he did not complete its head.
Since a remote time, people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time the earthquake and the thunder had dispersed the sun-dried clay. The bricks of the casing had been split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps. Merodach, the great god, excited my mind to repair this building. I did not change the site nor did I take away the foundation.”
Finally, in 1913 during Babylonian excavations Robert Koldewey discovered a stele (inscribed stone sign) from the time of Nebuchadnezzar depicts both the King and shows the only known contemporary image of the tower. Known as the “Tower of Babel Stele”, this discovery filed for a century, and then rediscovered and published in 2010 and is viewable here at the Schoyen Collection. This spectacular archeological find, allows us to look into the past at a structure that remained central to Mesopotamian history for hundreds of years. Although it does not confirm all of the elements of the original account in Genesis, this does show that there once was a great tower in Babylon, and we finally can see what it looked like.
To read more about the rediscovery of the Tower of Babel Stele visit:
- Discovery: Ancient Texts Part of Earliest Known Documents (http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/tower-of-babel-111227.htm)
- The Schoyen Collection: TOWER OF BABEL STELE (http://www.schoyencollection.com/history-collection-introduction/babylonian-history-collection/tower-babel-stele-ms-2063)