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Tower of Babel - Has It Existed ?

Tower of Babel

Genesis reports that men, gathered in the plain of Shinear after the Flood, decided to erect a gigantic tower – the tower of Babel. God (Yahweh), alerted by this design, would have obstructed it by "confusing their language" so that the workers could not get along with each other.

Babel, Babylon, barbarians ...

Unable to work together, builders abandon the project and disperse in different directions. The tower and the city built around it, called Babel or Babylon, remain unfinished.

The legend of the confusion of languages has an etymological origin. "Babel" is interpreted by the biblical writer, who perhaps writes at the time of Israelite captivity in Babylonia, in the sense of "confusion" - confusion of languages, in this case. In the same way, because they do not understand the language of foreigners, and in the first place the Persians, the Greeks take, much later, the habit of designating them from the pejorative name of "barbarians" - the repetition of the syllable "ba" symbolizing the apparent disorganization of non-Greek dialects, whatever they may be, in relation to the rigorous organization of the language of Homer.

A very real tower for purposes opposite to its legend

The legend of the tower is also based on a reality. Indeed, there existed in Babylon a multi-storey building, called "ziggurat", of unknown origin but restored under Nabopolassar (626-605 BC), founder of the Chaldean dynasty, and under his successor, his son , the famous Nebuchadnezzar (605-562).


This construction was called Etemenanki, "the house of the high place between Heaven and Earth". An inscription from Nabopolassar states this name: "Marduk (the great god of Babylon) has ordered me to plant the foundations of the Etemenanki firmly, until it reaches the underworld, and to make its summit soar 'to the sky". Another, dating from Nebuchadnezzar, states that the top decoration was made of "brilliant blue enamel bricks", an ornament of the color of the sky, perfectly adapted to give the impression that the building was lost in the infinite azure.

However, there is no reason to think that it is by presumption that the Babylonians have undertaken such a construction. They acted on "order" of the god Marduk, specifies the oldest inscription, and seem to have done it for the sake of ensuring harmony between Heaven and Earth. The historian Herodotus, who visits Babylon around 460 BC, reports indeed that a god visited a woman who slept in a room arranged at the top of the building. Etemenanki thus ensured the link between two opposite orders of reality: the high and the low, the world of the gods and that of men.

What did the Tower of Babel look like?

Between the sixteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Western travelers and explorers traveling to Mesopotamia tried to locate the famous building. Some proposed to locate it at Afar Ouf, west of Baghdad, others at Borsippa, near Babylon ... Only the archaeological excavations were to allow to slice.

In 1913, the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey discovers the location of the tower. Its base forms a quadrilateral of 91.55 m side. Its center, the oldest part, consists of a core of raw bricks, enhanced in the time of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar and surrounded by a new brick facing. The excavations revealed three staircases, two lateral and one central, the latter perpendicular to the structure of the building.

This information is completed by the tablet called "Esagil" preserved in Paris, at the Louvre Museum, copied in 229 BC according to an old document describing the last state of the tower. From a height of about 90 m, the building consisted of 7 floors, made of vertical walls. The top floor housed the cult installations, adorned with blue enamelled bricks.


An ephemeral grandeur, and a series of destructions

The writer of Genesis thus makes a mistake when he attributes to the builders of the tower bad intentions. Moreover, the biblical story mixes truth and falsehood. People of different origins - so of different languages ​​- worked on the construction of the building. Another part of Nebuchadnezzar's inscription attests to this: "All the peoples of many nations were compelled to work." But this ethnic diversity did not prevent the completion of the works - since the enamel plates of the summit were posed.

Size and destruction

However, it seems that a bitter fate has hit the tower. Built with difficulty - along several reigns - it survived for a short time. Babylon, passed in 539 BC under Persian rule, rebels in 482. Xerxes, who brings it back under his authority, retaliates and cause serious damage to the monument.

A century and a half later, in 331, when Alexander the Great established his capital in Babylon, he saw the ruined tower and wished to restore it. But it takes such work that he gives up this project. Subsequently, the tower serves as a quarry for builders in the area that reduce it to a shapeless cluster. A building is then built over it. And, when it collapses, it covers the ruins of the original tower, hiding it for centuries.