History and Archaeology of the World’s Oldest City—Babel/Babylon and the Tower of Babel

by Bodie Hodge on January 18, 2023
Featured in Answers in Depth
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Cincinnati, Ohio, which has suburbs extending into Indiana and Kentucky, is an old city (by US standards). It was one of the first settled cities (1788) between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. As a result, it was called the “Queen of the West.”

Yet, Cincinnati is not as old as New York (formerly New Amsterdam, founded in 1625). And these US cities are nowhere near as old as London, England (almost 2000 years old), or Rome, Italy (founded around 750 BC). But even those cities are not as old as Jerusalem (which means the “peace of Jebus,” “possession of peace,” “foundation of peace,” “teaching of peace”—Salem, or shalom, means “peace” by the way). In Scripture, Jerusalem is also called the city of Jebus, Salem, the city of God, Zion, city of David, and so on. Jerusalem is mentioned in Judges 19:10–11 (NKJV).

However, the man was not willing to spend that night; so he rose and departed, and came opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). With him were the two saddled donkeys; his concubine was also with him. They were near Jebus, and the day was far spent; and the servant said to his master, “Come, please, and let us turn aside into this city of the Jebusites and lodge in it.”

Jerusalem was founded by Jebus and his offspring, the Jebusites, one of the Canaanite tribes after the confusion event at Babel. The city was given to the Israelites after the conquest to judge the Canaanites for their sin against God (e.g., Leviticus 18).

Ahh, but Babel—now that is an ancient city. In fact, it was the first city that was established after the global flood of Noah’s day. The flood destroyed every city that existed prior to it (e.g., the city of Enoch, per Genesis 4:17). Outside of Noah’s farm (Genesis 9:20), this was where civilization re-began and, more properly, self-destructed. Like the city of Enoch, Babel was ultimately destroyed and left in ruins. But unlike Enoch, there are archaeological remains of Babel that can be studied today.

Noah’s Farm

After the flood, God told Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 9:1). So, naturally, the earth was to be divided among Noah’s three sons and their future progeny.

During the time it took to move things from the ark to Noah’s farm, they likely had to do a great deal of scouting and mapping of the land in their immediate vicinity—which could’ve taken many years. After Noah had found a site to plant his vineyard, it likely took 5–8 years for the vineyard to grow to maturity for a decent harvest, particularly for wine. Also, keep in mind that Canaan was the youngest out of four sons from Ham, all of whom were born after the flood.

Obviously, Ham’s actions toward his father in Genesis 9 were grossly inappropriate. So, when Noah awoke and found out what Ham had done, he called down a curse. But notice that Noah did not curse Ham (and rightfully so). For God had previously blessed Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 9:1), so far be it for Noah to curse whom God had blessed. Thus, Noah instead cursed Ham’s youngest son Canaan (Genesis 9:25), whom many commentators suggest was like Ham but worse. In fact, from biblical history, some of Canaan’s progeny turned out to be downright evil (e.g., Leviticus 18 lists some of their egregious sins).

And part of this curse was Noah’s request that Japheth receive more territory (Genesis 9:27)—perhaps a double portion as elsewhere in Scripture the oldest was sometimes allotted a double portion of inheritance (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:17). Japheth was the eldest and his godly actions here resulted in increased territory, where Shem’s godly actions earned him a different type of blessing.

In a general sense then, if the earth was split into roughly four quadrants, then Japheth received two northern quadrants, Ham received the lower left quadrant, and Shem received the lower right quadrant as well as the region surrounding Babel buffering both Japheth and Ham (see Initial Settlement Maps).

Ultimately, God is the one responsible for allotting the territorial divisions and their continual changes to serve his purposes. Think of how God used surrounding nations to both help and punish his own people, according to their covenant with him. This makes sense scripturally. Even at Mars Hill, Paul pointed out to the Greeks that it is God who sets national boundaries. Bear in mind that many Greeks were still reeling from the fact that their once-great empire broke into four parts (prophesied in Daniel 8:8) and was conquered by Rome. The Holy Spirit says through Paul,

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings. (Acts 17:26 NKJV)

The majority of Noah’s descendants left records and names all over the world as they spread from Babel.1 What we see recorded in Scripture and built on in historical records is that Japheth’s descendants largely went to Europe and North Asia.

Ham’s descendants largely went toward Africa and Arabia except for Nimrod, a descendant of Cush who remained in the region of Babylonia, set up a kingdom, and invaded Assyria (Genesis 10:10–12). Shem’s descendants remained in the Middle East and went toward India and beyond. Of course, there are some exceptions to this regional breakdown, but this was primarily the case.

  • Map of Japheth’s Initial Settlements

    Japheth’s Initial Settlements Map 12

  • Map of Ham’s Initial Settlements

    Ham’s Initial Settlements Map 23

  • Map of Shem’s Initial Settlements

    Shem’s Initial Settlements Map 34

If Noah’s descendants had initially moved to their “assigned” boundaries, then there wouldn’t have been the need for a confusion of languages (Genesis 11:7). However, they defied God’s command. “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” (Genesis 11:2 NKJV). Shinar means “between two rivers.” They decided in unison to build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves so they would not be scattered (Genesis 11:2–5).

Hence, Babel was founded. Babel (aka Babylon) has a long history and, next to Jerusalem, is one of the most attested cities in the ancient world. Though Babylon no longer exists, Jerusalem still does at this stage of history—even after surviving several destructions.

Archaeological Babel is located about 59 miles southwest of the modern city of Baghdad in Iraq. The modern country of Iraq is named for the ancient city of Erech mentioned in Genesis 10:10 and Ezra 4:9 (Iraq is a mild variation of that name). The city of Babel was excavated and initially documented by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in AD 1899. Since then, many other German archaeologists have been taking the lead in excavating Babel, with several foundation stones confirming the site.

The Timing of the Founding of Babel

In the 1700s, chronologist Antoine Augustin Calmet placed the dispersion events at 113 years after the flood.5 In the 1600s, Archbishop James Ussher placed Babel’s dispersion 5 years after the birth of Peleg (who was born 101 years after the flood) by appealing to Greek historian Manetho (who lived in the third century BC). Manetho stated that these events occurred five years after Peleg was born. So, Ussher reiterates this with 106 years after the flood.6

The Bible is not specific as to the exact date. We know the division took place “in the days of Peleg” (Genesis 10:25), so this at least gives us a range—it must have been during Peleg’s lifetime. Consider that Peleg’s entire lifetime was within Noah’s lifetime because Noah actually outlived Peleg!

Table of age's of men in years after creation.

But what exactly does “in the days of Peleg” mean? Is it when he was born, weaned, or ready for marriage? Or rather did people elect different rulers or kings at different times, and this happened to be when Peleg was in charge or was being honored? The Bible often speaks of others in a similar fashion (e.g., “In the days of Amraphel,” Genesis 14:1; “In the days of Saul,” 1 Samuel 17:12; “In the days of David,” 2 Samuel 21:1; “In the days of Solomon,” 1 Kings 10:21; etc.). The fact is that we simply don’t know which case is correct.

Since Peleg’s descendants speak the variant languages of his father (Heber/Eber), which is where the names “Heberew” and “Hebrew” come from, it makes sense that the scattering was early enough in Peleg’s life to be associated with his father’s family and language (that is, as opposed to having his own family and language). For instance, Abraham and Joseph, as descendants of Peleg, were called “Hebrews” (Genesis 14:13, 41:12). Also, one variation of Eber’s language (i.e., biblical Hebrew) was passed down to descendants like Moses and David.

Eber, the father of Peleg and Joktan, was 34 when he fathered Peleg (Genesis 11:16). Yet Joktan, Peleg’s brother, had 13 sons who were old enough to leave Babel with their families and a new language by the time the scattering event occurred at the tower of Babel (Genesis 10:25–31). Clearly, from Peleg’s birth to the scattering event, enough time had passed for these developments to occur.7

Nevertheless, Babel must have been a significant city with a significant tower by the time the division occurred. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been called a city or a tower.

When the people were divided at Babel, most of them likely already knew the direction they wanted to head, perhaps because they remembered the territorial divisional breakdown that extended back to Noah (with a few exceptions naturally). Upon the mass exodus of people due to the splitting of languages, they obviously ceased building the city (Genesis 11:8). Clearly, the city had a growth pause at this point.

Who Took Over Babel After the Scattering?

Babel has a long history. So, what happened after the scattering event? The Bible gives us a piece of its early history. Genesis 10 says,

Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD.” And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (that is the principal city). (Genesis 10:8–12 NKJV)

Nimrod, Noah’s great-grandson, took over four cities including Babel (after the scattering event) for his new kingdom. From there, he went out of the land of Shinar and into the land of Assyria, which is the land of Noah’s grandson Asshur (Genesis 10:22). From those four initial cities of his kingdom, Nimrod then built four more cities in Asshur’s land for his progeny and perhaps conquered some of Asshur’s descendants (the Assyrians) too.

The land of Asshur (Assyria) has been dually associated with the land of Nimrod ever since. Consider Micah 5:6, which reads,

They shall waste with the sword the land of Assyria, And the land of Nimrod at its entrances; Thus He shall deliver us from the Assyrian, When he comes into our land And when he treads within our borders. (NKJV)

The population in the area of Babylonia and Assyria became intermixed with the descendants of both Nimrod and Asshur, which was still the case in the Greek historian Herodotus’ day (fifth century BC).8 Recall that even one of the initial cities of Nimrod’s kingdom, Erech, is essentially what we call modern-day Iraq.

Note that Genesis 11:1–9 is the chronological account of the scattering event. But Genesis 10, although it precedes Genesis 11:1–9 in our Bible, is actually the divisional breakdown of languages and peoples on the earth as result of the dispersion. So Genesis 10:8–12 is speaking of events that occurred as a result of the division of languages and people across the earth.

Babel did not rest idle long but was soon overtaken by Nimrod after the dispersion. According to ancient histories, Nimrod set up his throne in Babel itself.

The names Babel and Babylon are translated from the same word in Hebrew (בבל), which occurs in 233 verses in the Old Testament—though it is only translated as Babel twice—once in Genesis 10:10 and once in Genesis 11:9. After the scattering event at Babel in Genesis 11, the remaining occurrences of the Hebrew בבל are translated according to the Greek word for Babel (Βαβυλων), which is Babylon, when referring to the city, region, and subsequent empires.

How Long Did Nimrod Reign and What Happened to Babel After Him?

The Bible simply doesn’t give us that many details regarding Nimrod’s reign from Babel. At this point in history, Scripture shifts to follow Abraham and his descendants to Christ, showing how God made Abraham’s descendants a great nation in contrast to the other post-Babel nations.

So we must instead turn to recorded extra-biblical history to find a reasonable answer. The Georgian Account, as well as another account called Armenian Chronicle (by Movses Khorenatsi), tells us that Nimrod reigned 126 years until he was killed in battle fighting against the Armenians. Specifically, it’s recorded that he was killed by the son of Togarmah named Hayk (also known as Hyak/Hiak). Togarmah was the son of Gomer, the son of Japheth, the son of Noah. Although some of these historical accounts mix up certain details about peoples after Babel (which is expected from fallible history), we can generally follow who they were discussing.9

Even so, Belus Nimrod expanded his kingdom far and wide until his death. Note, Belus is a title, like “chief,” “lord,” or “king” (from Nimrod’s line, Noah, Ham, and Cush also had the title of Belus). In Dr. John Gill’s commentary notes on Genesis 10:6, he quotes early Christian historian Eusebius:

The Babylonians say, that the first was Belus, called Cronus or Saturn (that is, Noah), and of him was begotten another Belus and Chanaan (it should be read Cham), and he (i.e. Ham) begat Chanaan, the father of the Phoenicians; and of him another son, Chus, was begotten, whom the Greeks call Asbolos, the father of the Ethiopians, and the brother of Mestraim, the father of the Egyptians.”10

After Nimrod established himself as a king and began conquering the surrounding lands (Genesis 10:10–11), he was sadly elevated to a godlike status by his descendants, worshipped simply as “Belus/Bel,” or the more common “Baal/Ba’al.”11 He was also known as Marduk/Merodach, who is equated with “Bel” in Jeremiah 50:2.

After the language splitting at Babel, many patriarchs who were listed at Babel came out with multiple names (due to the multiple languages). One variation of “Nimrod” was “Ninus,” which is where the name Ninevah comes from—Nineveh and Nimroud (also called Calah) were early cities with names derived from Nimrod’s various names.12 Ninus’ description given by ancient historians Diodorus Siculus (Library of History) and Justin (Histori Romani Scriptorium) match Nimrod rather well.

Figure 1: The peak of Nimrod’s/Ninus’ kingdom according to Diodoros

Figure 1 The peak of Nimrod’s/Ninus’ kingdom according to Diodoros

After Nimrod’s death, his kingdom fell apart into petty kingdoms in certain local areas. Eusebius relates that event closer to home, stating that Queen Semiramis (which some suggest was the wife of Nimrod) retained power, reigning for 42 years in Assyria,13 and was known for building projects in Babylon.

Many of the local rulers vied for power in Nimrod’s broken kingdom, controlling bits and pieces of it. Sometime in the aftermath of Nimrod’s death (and possibly Semiramis’ death), a war broke out between two groups of vying kings, as mentioned in Genesis 14:1–9.

And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations, that they made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).

All these joined together in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled. In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him came and attacked the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in their mountain of Seir, as far as El Paran, which is by the wilderness.

Then they turned back and came to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and attacked all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who dwelt in Hazezon Tamar. And the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out and joined together in battle in the Valley of Siddim against Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of nations, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five. (NKJV)

This is the war that Abraham was dragged into and fought to successfully rescue his nephew Lot (Genesis 14:12–16). By this point in history, these smaller kingdoms were setting the stage for later empires like the Akkadian Empire, Assyrian Empire, the flourishing of Egypt, and so on.

Chronologist and Archbishop James Ussher places the scattering event at Babel at 2242 BC.14 But keep in mind, this date is likely a little early, based on our previous discussion. Nevertheless, if we estimate the time needed for people to move, settle, build, and populate nearby cities, plus the time needed for Nimrod to grow in power, build an army, and set himself up as a king over four cities, to be around 20–50 years, then Nimrod could’ve reigned for 126 years.

Roughly, this would be about 146–176 years after Babel. If so, then Nimrod’s reign would’ve come to an end around 2096–2066 BC (2024 if you include Semiramis’ subsequent reign). Abraham was born in 1996 BC (according to Ussher) and moved away from his homeland when he was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4). So this recorded history fits logically into the plain reading of Scripture.

During Nimrod’s reign, the city of Babylon began to regrow. The tower became known as the tower of Bel, after “Belus Nimrod” or the “Temple Tower of Marduk”—another variant name for Nimrod. Because he controlled it for so long, it’s easy to see why many historians (e.g., Josephus) mistakenly think that the tower was founded by Nimrod and why there is often a misconception that Nimrod’s kingdom began solely at Babylon, instead of four different cities (Genesis 10:10).

Because of the regions that Nimrod conquered, the prominence of the tower was widely known, since it was in the seat of power in Babylon. Although many rulers and conquerors after Nimrod’s death took possession of Babylon and laid claim to the tower—at times repairing, destroying, or expanding it—the name of the tower was not easily disassociated from Belus Nimrod. In fact, the tower of Bel/Belus was still widely known even into the fifth century BC.15

Nevertheless, another name was consistently associated with the tower starting around 2000 BC—Etemenanki. Unlike the tower of Bel or tower of Marduk, this name is different in that it is a name that gives a description of the tower. Etemenanki means the “temple of the foundation of heaven to earth.” This descriptive name of the tower was also commonly used in cuneiform beginning about 2000 BC. Interestingly, this name reflects a variation of the language used of the Babel builders “and a tower with its top in the heavens” from Genesis 11:4.16

After Nimrod’s death, however, the city’s prominence was merely a remnant of its former glory as the seat of power. Over the years, power ebbed and flowed in Babylon.

Babel After Nimrod and Semiramis

From this point in time, there is a lot of recorded history from Babylon that is quite well-known to historians. As this history unfolds, the Akkadians (some of Nimrod’s descendants through his son Accad/Akkad) held control of the city of Babel/Babylon and were ruled by Sargon the Great (also known as Sargon of Akkad).

Based on some unreliable (sketchy) history, the Third Dynasty of Ur once held the city for a short time before Sargon and that ruling class quickly floundered. This is possible after all. Given the collapse of the remnant of Nimrod’s empire, particularly when Semiramis’ reign ended, Babylon may have changed hands routinely during this post-empire epoch prior to the Akkadians securing control with Sargon.

Amorites and Hammurabi

From Hammurabi forward, secular and Christian accounts largely agree on the history of Babylon. Hence, much of the following historical information is merely a record of what can be found in many ancient histories of Babylon and reiterated in modern encyclopedias.

After Sargon and the Akkadians, the dynasty of Isin (who also controlled Ur) took control of Babylon. Then, in a short course of events, the Amorites (descendants of Amoreus [Latinized] the son of Canaan) took control of Babylon. The Old City of Babylon comes to more light historically and archaeologically by the time of Hammurabi, an Amorite king, who reigned out of Babylon.

After his father, King Sin-Muballit, left his crown, King Hammurabi then ascended to the throne and conquered the Sumerian dynasty of Isin in Mesopotamia, which gave him access to Babylon. King Hammurabi reigned from 1800–1750 BC. This date range would have been around the time of Isaac, Jacob (Israel), and Esau (Edom).

Hammurabi then worked to transform the city into a popular trade center. Hammurabi’s 282 law codes are well known to this day from archeological finds inscribed in stone (consider Romans 2:15). His policies built up the city and maintained peace. As examples, he built enlarged city walls, more temples, and canals for better access to the city and irrigation.

Just like after Nimrod’s death, the empire again fell apart after King Hammurabi’s death. After it was in disarray for some time, the Hittites (descendants of Heth, the son of Canaan) attacked and took the city roughly around 1600 BC. For reference, this point in history was just before Aaron and Moses were born (while the Israelites were in Egypt).

Let’s pause for a moment. It may seem odd that so many different peoples conquered Babylon. But Babylon was the center of all peoples at the scattering. So, even though the tribes leaving Babel could’ve potentially settled far away, many representatives of these fleeing nations would’ve still left pockets of tribes nearby. That is, they built cities, fought, and warred repeatedly—unless conquered (and sometimes assimilated) for a time by larger empires with rulers like Nimrod, Sargon, or Hammurabi.

Keep in mind that these pockets of nations were located in just about every direction from the proximity of Babel. So when you think about it carefully, it makes logical sense why so many different peoples conquered Babel.

Kassites and Assyrians

After Hammurabi, Babylon was taken by the Kassites who called the city Karanduniash. They ruled for over 400 years. The language of the Kassites remains unclassified (called a language isolate), differing from most common languages that exist today in the world. It’s possible this group was originally at Babel and over time their language became lost due to things such as wars, slavery, intermixing, and conflicts (this is common with many lost languages). Though they generally had good trade relations with most people around them, they still warred with Assyria and a few others.

Although the Kassites ruled for multiple centuries (by far the longest dynasty to control Babylon), only a relatively small amount of their history still exists today, which could be (at least partly) due to this language barrier.

After the Kassite Empire was finally overthrown, the second Dynasty of Isin (who ruled in the cities of Ur [of the Chaldeans] and Isin) then secured control of Babylon.

At one stage during this time, Babylon rebelled against them, which then allowed the Assyrians (a mix of descendants from Asshur and Nimrod), under their famous king Sennacherib, to sack the city. For reference, this event took place around the same timeframe as King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah (around the seventh to eighth centuries BC). In fact, Sennacherib even tried conquering Jerusalem, which caused Hezekiah to cry out to God for help and resulted in God rescuing the city and sending Sennacherib back to Nineveh.

When the city of Babylon rebelled, Sennacherib had Babylon destroyed and then flooded. And it was this flooding event that caused the water table to rise against the city, thus causing problems to this day for archaeologists. That is, the Old City of Babylon’s ruins (i.e., before/during the time of Hammurabi) are beneath the water table, which means any attempts to excavate the area are met with difficulty due to underground flooding.

Sennacherib writes in his Annals, which are preserved for us,

On another campaign, I marched quickly against Babylon as I had decided to conquer it. . . . The city and its houses, foundations and walls, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire. The wall and outer-wall, temples and gods, temple-towers of brick and earth, as many as there were, I razed and dumped them into the Arahtu canal. Through the midst of that city I dug canals, I flooded its site with water and the very foundation thereof I destroyed. I made its destruction more complete than that by a flood. That in days to come, the site of that city, and its temples and gods, might not be remembered, I completely blotted it out with floods of water and made it like a meadow.

After I had destroyed Babylon, had smashed the gods thereof, and had struck down its people with the sword, that the ground of that city might be carried off, I removed its ground and had it carried to the Euphrates and on to the sea. Its dirt reached unto the Dilmun, the Dilmunites saw it and the terror of fear of Asshur fell upon them and they brought their treasures. . . . I removed the dust of Babylon for presents to be sent to the most distant peoples.17

The following king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (one of Sennacherib’s sons), rebuilt Babylon back to its famed glory in his short 12-year reign, which showed his dedication to build the new city over the previously razed foundations. The scale of destruction by Sennacherib was unlike previous battles for the city where the larger structures (including the temples and towers) were usually rededicated. Not only did Sennacherib devastate the structures, but he also lowered the ground level and increased the water table for flooding. He really hated that the city rebelled against him.

According to ancient Assyrian records, Esarhaddon rebuilt the major structures, largely matching the previous architecture and style, using baked mud bricks and asphalt to keep with the original style.18 But even so, the water table remained and still does to this day.

For example, the rebuilt temple tower was still called the tower of Belus as well as still being called the Etemenanki.

The rebuilding effort initially constructed by Esarhaddon was later expanded under the Babylonian Empire during the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II, which also used the same name, Etemenanki. World renowned archaeologist Dr. Clifford Wilson suggests this site possibly sits above the original tower of Babel. He writes, “This large pool at modern Babylon is over the ruins of an early structure that was possibly the original Tower of Babel.”19

Etemenanki

In this image, you can see how the water table causes the pool in the foundational area of the Etemenanki, which was later removed by Alexander the Great’s men with the intention of rebuilding it (more on that in a moment). Archaeologist Gary Byer says of the same site,

Etemenanki. I wouldn’t be surprised if beneath the foundation of that ziggurat temple if there wouldn’t be evidence of the Tower of Babel. But you can’t get down there because the water level is so high. . . . So maybe the Tower of Babel was there. . . .

I think the Tower of Babel was the first ziggurat.20

For reference, the name ziggurat comes from the Sumerian and Babylonian name zaqaru (which means “to rise high”). A ziggurat is like a step pyramid—square in its base with multiple levels as it rises up.

Back to Babylon’s rule—Esarhaddon’s oldest son and heir died young. But in a strange move, Esarhaddon gave the power of his throne, not to his son next in line for the throne (Shamash-shum-ukin), but instead to his younger son (Ashurbanipal). In a consolation attempt, Shamash-shum-ukin was given charge of Babylon itself, yet still under the authority of his younger brother. This was the initial makings of a rebellion (in case you didn’t notice).

Ashurbanipal of Assyria and Nineveh (the younger brother and now supreme ruler of the empire) defeated the city of Babylon (ruled by his older brother Shamash-shum-ukin) as it tried to revolt. But records indicate little damage was done in this battle.

Nebuchadnezzar II and the Golden Age

After the fall of the Assyrians, Babylon was taken over by the Chaldeans (descendants of Heber) under Nabopolassar. They spoke a version of Heber’s language called Chaldean (a name itself directly derived from Chesed—Genesis 22:22). This was the beginning of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II, renovated the city and built it to its peak glory, which then began the golden age of Babylon.

The Etemenanki tower’s reconstruction, initially done by Esarhaddon, needed to be finished because it had fallen into disrepair, with major portions of it decimated due to neglect and weathering.

The Etemenanki of Nebuchadnezzar’s day was the last repair and rendition of the tower site. But note that the name of the site remained the same through its various constructions and repairs. This makes sense historically since calling it by any other name would have indicated something entirely different. But due to its design similarity, it is easy to see why the name of the site remained consistent.

Also, it’s important to notice that the one time (at least that we know of) the tower was destroyed—razed to the ground—it was then rebuilt shortly afterward by the destroyer’s son, who was familiar with the previous tower’s design. That is, he rebuilt it to its previous design according to the Assyrian cuneiform that was contemporaneous to the times.

Babylon also had the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the famous Ishtar Gate, the Ésagila Complex (the center court and temple of Babylon), and so much more. Without belaboring too much, this era in the history of Babylon is extremely well-known. After this golden age, Babylon fell under the control of the Persians and Medes and then to the Greeks (with Alexander the Great, who died in Babylon).

Alexander the Great had the tower deconstructed in an effort to totally rebuild it again. But his untimely death ultimately halted the rebuilding efforts. After the Greeks, the Roman Empire took control of the area. Finally, the Sasanian Empire took over Babylon, which resulted in a brief revival before the city was ultimately destroyed due to Muslim conquests in AD 650, which left its ruins lying in the sand as a “tell” (not excavated until 1899).

Order of events using Ussher’s date for the tower of Babel

Order of events using Ussher’s date for the tower of Babel (though it was likely a little later)

Archaeology of the Ancient Tower

Due to the higher water table, excavations of the tower’s foundation are obviously difficult. German archaeologists have spearheaded much of the recent discovery (over the past 100+ years). Yet, since much of it is documented in German, many people (especially those who only speak English) have failed to realize the significance of their finds. Here’s just some of the archaeologists and authorities on the subject:

  • Koldeway, 1899—Babylon
  • Friedrich Wetzel, 1913—tower at Babylon
  • D. D. Luckenbill, 1924
  • Theodor Dombart, 1915–1930
  • F. H. Weissbach, 1938
  • Wolfram von Soden, 1939–1996
  • Hansjörg Schmid, 1995
Satellite image of the site of Babylon, showing the remains of ancient structures.

Satellite image of the site of Babylon, showing the remains of ancient structures.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Professor Andrew George at the University of London, who is an expert in Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform documents, has summed up much of the German archaeology on the tower of Babel.21 However, as a caveat, George does not believe in the tower of Babel as listed in the Bible, as evidenced by the very first line from one of his extensive research papers on the subject, where he says,

Such is the fame of the myth of the Tower of Babel related in Genesis 11 that the publication of a new monograph on the building generally thought to have inspired the myth is an important event.22 [italics mine]

Nonetheless, regardless of George’s personal opinions on Genesis, there have been several significant findings regarding the tower’s base and platform.

Prior to Sennacherib’s destruction of the city, the Etemenanki (tower) was mentioned on the Ésagila Tablet of Uruk,23 giving its base dimensions, which translates to about 90 meters (295 feet) on each base.

Recall that Sennacherib’s son, Esarhaddon, claimed to rebuild the destroyed tower to its former measure.

Perhaps it represents the building that Sennacherib damaged during his sack of Babylon, but perhaps not. If one recalls how careful Esarhaddon was to rebuild the neighbouring E-sangil exactly to its former measurements (George 1992: 122-3), one might have expected him also to have set about building Etemen-anki with similarly faithful adherence to the dimensions of the previous structure.

Indeed, the phrases he uses in connection with the rebuilding of the tower are kima mahrîmma ‘as before’ and asar maskanisu mahrî (written a-sar mas-kán-sú mah-ri, Borger 1956: 24, 32) ‘in its previous location’, which can both be interpreted to signify exactly that.24

Nebuchadnezzar II commented in ancient cuneiform writings that he rebuilt the tower on its previous base saying, “Through the craft of exorcism, the wisdom of Ea and Marduk, I purified that place and made firm its foundation platform on its ancient base.”25

Furthermore, there also exists the Tower of Babel Stele with an image of Nebuchadnezzar II and the seven-level tower with an inscription. The inscription states,

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon am I: In order to complete [the towers] Etemenanki and Eurmeiminanki, I mobilized all countries everywhere . . . the base I filled in to make a high terrace. I built their structures with bitumen and baked brick throughout. I completed it raising its top to the heaven. . . .26
Tower of Babel Stele with an image of Nebuchadnezzar II and the seven-level tower with an inscription.

This tower survived into Herodotus’ day (in the fifth century BC). Since his dimensions were larger, including one more level as compared to historical comments from previous centuries, it’s possible this is the reason why it was not recorded by historians. Herodotus writes about the tower in Babylon saying,

[It] was still in existence in my time. It has a solid central tower, one stadium square, with a second erected on top of it and then a third, and so on up to eight. All eight towers can be climbed by a spiral way running round the outside, and about half way up there are seats for those who make the ascent to rest on.27

As you may have noticed, there are discrepancies between the tower’s description in Nebuchadnezzar’s day and Herodotus’ day. For example, the Tower of Babel Stele has a 7-level tower and Herodotus mentioned 8. So was it 7 levels or 8?

Some have suggested that the differences in Herodotus’ account could be due to the following possibilities:

  • There was an extra story on the upper temple.
  • The ground level was included in the count.
  • Herodotus received his information from the Babylonians who were exaggerating (there were points where he didn’t believe certain things they were declaring).
  • Herodotus wrote after the fact.
  • Herodotus received second-hand information (he never mentioned he was there but that it existed in his time).
  • It’s an ideal description but not a historical description.
  • There are only seven relevant extant copies, with the earliest from the tenth century AD, that could have changed the information.

These suggestions are interesting to think about, but the obvious answer is that there were changes (e.g., repairs and modifications) from Nebuchadnezzar II’s day to Herodotus’ day. There had been about 200 or so years between the two descriptions. Having the structure modified to have eight levels is not unreasonable.

As previously stated, after Herodotus, Alexander the Great had the tower torn down to be rebuilt. But due to his early death, the project also succumbed to an early “death” and was never rebuilt.

Thus, the tower remains were left to the elements from that day until its excavation in 1899. Although the water table is higher and excavation is difficult, there have been discoveries that are quite significant for the foundation of the tower. German archaeologist Hansjörg Schmid discovered three successive foundations under the ruins. Professor George relates,

Careful survey and measurement of the ruined infrastructure led Schmid to identify the remains of three successive buildings, not two. The oldest structure was a tower of mud brick measuring about 65 m square at its base, which had suffered heavy damage. Superimposed on this core was a mantle of more mud brick anchored into the older structure with timber beams and measuring about 73 m square at its base. The brickwork of this mantle and the older core had later been cut back below ground to about 60 m square; the residual shelf of compressed mud brick (the so-called ‘Tonbettung’) then served as a partial platform for a more durable mantle of baked brick measuring about 91 m square at its base.28

The three foundational cores break down to:

  • 65 Meter Core = 213 Feet (Lowest)
  • 73 Meter Core = 239 Feet (Middle)
  • 91 Meter Core = 298 Feet (Highest)

So, from ancient records, the tower’s base size prior to Sennacherib, his son Esarhaddon/Ashurbanipal’s rebuild, Nabopolassar’s repairs, and Nebuchadnezzar II’s rebuild were all on the 91-meter (298-foot) base. So how far back does that base go? Professor George asks,

Who, then, might originally have been responsible for this ziqqurrat of base one ikû in the large cubit-standard? And who, before that, might have built the mud-brick towers of bases 73 m and 65 m square?29

Based on historical prowess of power and capability, only a few of Babylon’s rulers could have possessed the required resources to successfully accomplish such a project. Professor George argues for the following few candidates:

  1. Hammurabi
  2. Kurigalzu I, Kassite King in fourteenth century BC (likely not, by all accounts)—walls repaired
  3. Adadsumausar, Kassite King (likely not, by all accounts)—walls repaired

Two of these three kings are not likely candidates—and George agrees. Then he wrote something intriguing that nearly escaped my eye. He said,

Another list may even derive from the Kassite period (George 1993: 45–9 no. 4). The reference to a ziqqurrat at Babylon in the Creation Epic (Enuma elis VI 63: George 1992: 301–2) is more solid evidence, however, for a Middle Assyrian piece of this poem survives to prove the long-held theory that it existed already in the second millennium BC. There is no reason to doubt that this ziqqurrat, described as ziqqurrat apsî elite ‘the upper ziqqurrat of the Apsû’, was E-temenanki.”30

Professor George argues, based on the text from the ancient Enuma Elish, that the tower’s existence was attested prior to the time of Hammurabi. Recall that Hammurabi was reigning not long after the tower of Babel event (which was still after the rule of Nimrod [and Semiramis] for whom the tower’s name still reflects). Thus, Hammurabi’s reign was part of the Old Babylonian times. But if Hammurabi accounts for only one base foundation (likely the 91 m core), then who was responsible for the other two base foundations (65 m and 73 m)?

Biblical Answers

If I could be so bold, the obvious other candidates who preceded Hammurabi and were capable of such a project were: (a) the Babel builders in the days of Peleg and (b) Nimrod, whose name remained associated with the tower. The 65 m base and the 73 m base are surely associated respectively. Unlike researchers who deny the truth of the Bible in Genesis 10–11, I am not limited in such ways. Instead, I affirm the Babel builders could do what they set out to do and also affirm Nimrod’s existence and his presence in Babylon, modifying the tower to his measure during his reign.

Although Professor George (along with many others) rejects God’s Word, thus denying the events in Genesis 11 as real history, he has in fact helped provide and bring to light incredible evidence to confirm the historical account in the Bible. Overall, this evidence helps to settle the historical attestation of the tower of Babel in archaeological finds. And it confirms the very name reflecting Nimrod (Bel/Belus/Marduk are variants names of his title) who initially took over the tower of Babel.

Babel/Babylon and the tower at Babel are ancient. Very ancient. The foundational platforms of the tower, which still exist, go back to Hammurabi’s reign and before. So, like other ancient cities (e.g., Jerusalem, Rome, etc.), Babylon and the tower have been through hosts of iterations (ebbs and flows) of various ruling dynasties. As we’ve seen, both historical records and archaeology attest to this history. But, of course, it is the Word of God that is supreme to all other sources. God is the ultimate authority on all subjects, including Babel’s existence and the events that took place as recorded in Scripture.

In the end, we can be 100% certain the city of Babel and its tower existed. Why? Because God said so. But it is still nice to have archaeological finds that provide confirmations of the Bible’s account of this ancient city and tower. Let’s not miss something though. God sovereignly decrees everything in history (Psalm 115:3; Isaiah 46:10). So this means his purpose was undoubtedly accomplished at Babel. People have indeed scattered abroad all over the face of the earth, thus filling the earth, and continue to do so. God’s purposes were not thwarted by any means.

Footnotes

  1. Bodie Hodge, Tower of Babel (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2012), 113–191.
  2. Hodge, Tower of Babel, 149–182.
  3. Hodge, Tower of Babel, 122–134.
  4. Hodge, Tower of Babel, 134–149.
  5. Augustin Calmet, Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible, rev. Edward Robinson (Boston, MA: Crocker and Brewster, 1832), 948.
  6. James Ussher, The Annals of the World, rev. Larry and Marion Pierce (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2006), 21–22.
  7. The Bible simply doesn’t tell us if Joktan had one or many wives, which could speed up the number of children one can have in a short time.
  8. For example, Herodotus states, “There were many rulers of Babylon who have further adorned the city with walls and sanctuaries. Some of these I will mention in my history of Assyria. . . .” (The Landmark Herodotus, ed. Robert Strassler, [New York: Anchor Books, 2007], 98).
  9. Movses Khorenatsi, History of the Armenians, trans. Robert W. Thomson, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).
  10. John Gill, Exposition of the Old Testament, notes on Genesis 10:6 (1748–1763).
  11. John Gill, Exposition of the Old Testament, notes on Genesis 10:6.
  12. Robert Jamieson, Andrew Robert Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, notes on Jonah 1:2 (1871).
  13. Eusebius, Chronicle (Beloved Publishing, 2015), 28–29.
  14. Eusebius, Chronicle, 2.
  15. For example, Herodotus calls it the “Tower of Belus” (The Landmark Herodotus, 97–98).
  16. Andrew George, “The Tower of Babel: Archaeology, history and cuneiform texts,” Archiv für Orientforschung 51 (2005/2006), 75–95, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303824383_The_Tower_of_Babel_Archaeology_history_and_cuneiform_texts.
  17. Marc Van De Mieroop, “Revenge, Assyrian Style,” Past & Present 179 (May 2003), 3–23, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3600821; Daniel David Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib, ed. James Henry Breasted (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1924), 17, https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/oip2.pdf.
  18. George, “The Tower of Babel.”
  19. Clifford Wilson and Barbara Wilson, The Bible Comes Alive, vol. 1 (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Press, 1997), 47.
  20. Gary Byers, Henry Smith, and Scott Lanser, “The Ancient City of Babylon,” Digging for Truth, September 19, 2019, https://biblearchaeology.org/mediainfo/digging-for-truth/episodes/4553-digging-for-truth-episode-47-the-ancient-city-of-babylon.
  21. George, “The Tower of Babel.”
  22. George, “The Tower of Babel.”
  23. “Esagila Tablet,” LouvreBible, accessed January 17, 2023, https://louvrebible.org.uk/oeuvre/137/louvre_departement_antiquites_orientales.
  24. George, “The Tower of Babel.”
  25. George, “The Tower of Babel.”
  26. Christopher Eames, “Nebuchadnezzar’s ‘Tower of Babel,’” Armstrong Institute of Biblical Archaeology, November 11, 2018, https://armstronginstitute.org/125-nebuchadnezzars-tower-of-babel.
  27. Herodotus, Histories, 1.181–182; trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt, fifth century BC.
  28. George, “The Tower of Babel.”
  29. George, “The Tower of Babel.”
  30. George, “The Tower of Babel.”

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