As told in the Old Testament (Genesis: 11) the story of the Tower of Babel is one of the most fascinating stories of all time. It tells, concisely, of man's efforts to build a great tower into the heavens, of God's wrath at such arrogance and of the curious punishment He imposes. It has color, excitement and a moral that is plain to see:
"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heavens; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and fro thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of the earth."
The moral of the story, of course, is that man should keep his place and not aspire to God-like creativity. But down through the centuries the theme of the story—man the builder challenging God the creator—has been interpreted and reinterpreted according to the age. In medieval times the moral element—pride goeth before a fall—was uppermost. During the dynamic, self-confident Renaissance the story was an occasion to celebrate the ingenuity and adventurousness of man. In the Space Age, the era of nuclear fission, it might well express renewed doubt about the ultimate results of man's endeavors.
The story has had a particular appeal to artists. From faithful artisans carving simple versions on cathedral walls for the enlightment of unlettered peasants to imaginative giants like Brueghel, painting his splendid canvases for the pleasure of the world, it has been a fruitful subject for invention and enlargement. Perhaps it was the idea of man's recurring ambitions to create structures as high and as everlasting as possible. Perhaps it was the intriguing picture of thousands of workers suddenly breaking out into strange incomprehensible tongues. Whatever the reason, it touched the artistic imagination and brought forth almost as many versions of the tower as there were artists attempting to depict it. Some saw the tower as an early version of the leaning tower of Pisa. Some saw it as a massive pile of receding blocks of stone. Others likened it to a great wedding cake. Only a few turned to the surviving descriptions of what the tower actually looked like.
One of these descriptions came from the attempt Alexander the Great made to rebuild the tower after he found it in ruins. (Some 10,000 workers cleared away the rubble but with Alexander's death in 322 B.C. the project stopped.) Another, earlier description came from Herodotus, the Greek historian who visited Babylon about 460 B.C. and gave an eye-witness account:
"In the midst of the temple a solid tower was constructed, one stadium (about 200 yards) in length and one stadium in width. Upon this tower stood another, and again upon this another, and so on, making eight towers in all, one upon another. All eight towers can be climbed by means of a spiral staircase, which runs around the outside. About halfway up there are seats where those who make the ascent can sit and rest. In the topmost tower there is a great temple, and in the temple is a great bed richly appointed, and beside it a golden table. No idol stands there. No one spends the night there save a woman of that country, designated by the god himself. The priests told me that the god descended some times to the temple and joined her ... but I cannot believe this."
With such a tangible description on record one would think there would be no doubts that the tower of Babel really existed. But since Babylon, for more than 20 centuries, was really little more than a name—a vague legend of grandeur and a few undifferentiated mounds of earth in Mesopotamia—serious historians still tended to dismiss the story as no more than an interesting legend. Then, in 1854, the British Foreign Office notified its consul in Basra, Mr. J, E. Taylor, that the British Museum wanted someone to search out ancient ruins in southern Mesopotamia. Mr. Taylor obliged and in excavating those undifferentiated mounds uncovered the top of a large man-made brick structure and some clay cylinders on which was written, in cuneiform, the history of the building. They were not startling discoveries but they did point the way for the expedition in the 1920's during which Sir Leonard Wooley, under the auspices of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, found the famous "Ur of the Chaldees," the birthplace of Abraham, and unearthed evidence that the stories of ancient Babylon were not legend, but history.
It had been a splendid history while it lasted, rivaled only by that of ancient Egypt in brilliance and depth of civilization. It began sometime in the fourth millennium before Christ when a non-Semitic people called the Sumerians descended from the mountains of Persia and settled on the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They built cities, invented cuneiform writing, and perhaps the wheel, channeled the waters of the nearby Euphrates into a remarkable irrigation system, perfected the art of the goldsmith and built great towers of bricks made of clay. From them, eventually, evolved the Babylonian civilization, the center of which in the waning centuries of Mesopotamian importance, was Babylon, "the Glory of Kingdoms."
By any standards Babylon was a magnificent city. Sprawled along the banks of the palm-lined Euphrates, Babylon was a great metropolis of wide broad avenues, high buildings, numerous temples and great walls. Through the magnificent Ishtar Gate, a structure of yellow brick adorned with lions and bulls in glazed blue tile, streamed thousands of merchants, soldiers, priests and fanners. Armor glittered in the sun and chariots clattered down the avenues to the river. Beyond the city walls, lush fields of wheat, clusters of fruit trees and small gardens extended almost as far as the eye could see. And high above, looking down on this magnificence and out across the plains from a height of nearly 300 feet, stood the great tower that the ancient Jews, herded into Babylon for 70 years of captivity, were to describe to the world as the Tower of Babel.
In digging out the history of Babylon, archeologists found that in every important ancient town in the land between the rivers there existed the remains of tower-like structures called ziggurats. They also discovered representations of stepped towers on seals, amulets, cylinders and bas-reliefs, as well as cuneiform texts giving the names and dimensions of the towers. Eventually, near what is now the village of Hilleh in Iraq, they uncovered the ground plan of a particularly large tower. It was made of burnt bricks and was some 300 feet square. Texts found in the ruins called it "Etemenanki, the House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth." The texts also told of its restoration during the reign of Nabopolassar in 625 B.C., mentioned baked bricks, streams of bitumen, the counsel of Babylonian gods, and, some 60 years later, the conscription of foreign labor by the famous Nebuchadnezzar to continue the restoration.
It all fitted. This was the Tower of Babel and the Tower of Babel, although perhaps larger and more important, was no more than another of the ziggurats that dotted the Mesopotamian plains. Thus they had at once confirmed the Biblical story and produced at least a possible explanation of the Bible's combination of two unrelated subjects: the building of a tower and the diversity of languages among men.
For thousands of years, apparently, ziggurats were an integral part of Mesopotamian cities, each differing from the other in detail like the cathedrals of Europe, but essentially the same: massive cube-like blocks, with stepped-back upper terraces, and monumental stairways leading to upper sections from which spiral stairs ascended to the topmost platform on which stood a temple or shrine.
Inevitably they reminded the explorers of those other marvels of ancient engineering, the pyramids of Egypt. But while the pyramids were tombs, built by individual rulers to provide safe resting places for their bodies and to ensure their comfort in afterlife, the ziggurats were clearly places of worship, built, enlarged, restored, and embellished by generation after generation. Why, archeologists wondered, was such tremendous labor expended to give them this form?
From available evidence, the answer seems to be this. The Sumerians originated in mountainous country. They frequently depicted their gods standing on mountain tops, and many of the animals in their art are of a mountain type. When they migrated to the plain, they did not change their religion but, where nature had failed to provide mountains, they fashioned their own out of the only material available to them: clay bricks. Thus, far from challenging God as the Hebrews thought, the Sumerians and their successors worshipped from the ziggurats, and offered their gods a stepping stone between heaven and earth in the hope that they would descend and follow them to their new habitat.
As to the second part of the story, God's decision to "confound their language," one theory is that the captives might have mistaken the sacred name of Babylon, Babili, meaning the gate of God, for the Hebrew balal, meaning confusion—an ironic twist in a story about a confusion of tongues. Another theory is that because many nations had traversed the plains of Mesopotamia, Babylon probably housed people of many races—remnants of older inhabitants, slaves and conscripted labor, perhaps business or diplomatic representatives of neighboring tribes—all speaking different languages or dialects. To the simple nomadic Jews, marched off from their pastoral lands 800 miles away and set down in this teeming city, the diversity of language was unsettling and mysterious and called for an explanation. In the habit of seeking theological explanations for all human phenomena, they may have concluded that the confusion of tongues was God's curse on the Babylonians for setting up strange religions and for constructing these arrogant towers into the heavens. That, in any case, is how they told it and why, ever since, Babel has been a warning to man to limit his pride and put a rein on ambition.
Friedrich Ragette is Assistant Professor of architecture at the American University of Beirut.