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Mesopotamia / Myths and Legends /
Tower of Babel
Hebrew: bābhel

European, artistic representation of the Tower of Babel. Albrecht Dürer.
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European, artistic representation of the Tower of Babel. Albrecht Dürer.

The Etemenanki ziggurat of Babylon
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The Etemenanki ziggurat of Babylon.

A tower described in the Bible, Genesis 11:1-9, where it is used as a symbol of infidelity and lack of respect for God.
The Bible tells about a tower about to be erected by descendants of Noah, on the plain of Shinar in Babylonia. The builders intended to build a structure high enough to reach heaven. As the work progressed, God became furious and he took his revenge by inflicting upon man a great confusion of languages. The human beings, now speaking a great number of languages, were then scattered all over the face of the Earth.
This myth can be seen both as a warning to humanity not to strive to be like God, as well as an etiological myth that seeks to explain why people speak different languages.
Genesis 11
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 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.
3 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.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 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.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Actual historical background
The Biblical story may well refer to an actual historic building, even if the revenge of God has no basis in fact, and the origin of different languages has a purely socio/linguistic genesis.
The tower was actually a ziggurat, a temple used to worship a god in the Mesopotamian religion. The actual tower was most probably the one of Etemenanki, which was part of the temple of Marduk in Babylon. Another theory suggests that the tower was at Eridu.
The temple-tower of Babylon actually did fall in, and was was rebuilt on a later occasion by king Nabopolassar towards the end of the 7th century. And while the size of the tower was impressive for its time, it was quite modest compared to modern buildings.
The name 'Tower of Babel' comes from the actual name of the temple, which was Bab-ilu, meaning 'Gate of God'.

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By Tore Kjeilen