The story of the Babel Tower is (grossly) true.

The Bible states (and historical evidence confirms) that the Hebrews of Judah were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar/Nabuchodonosor II, king of Chaldea, in 597 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar subsequently deported large parts of the population, thus following a common mesopotamian practice (the Assyrians had done exactly the same when they conquered the northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel in 722). In 586, the kingdom of Judah technically ceased to exist, thus effectively depriving the deportees of their nation. David's temple was destroyed a few months later. This was the actual beginning of the Exile.

Now Nabuchadnezzar happened to be among the most powerful emperors of his time, almost equal to Pharaoh himself. He turned his capital Babylon into a magnificient city that, according to Herodotus, "surpasse(d) in splendor any city in the known world." The most famous monument of this time is of course the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (as any Civilization player will tell you), one of the seven Wonders of the ancient World.

We know that the Babel Tower was in fact the temple of Marduk, a gigantic ziggurat of approximately 295 feet (61 metres) in height, width and length. According to an inscription it was made of "baked brick" (the only abundant material in the region) "enameled in billiant blue".

Now imagine the deported Jews, in their unexplainable exile ("Has Yahweh forsaken us ? Didn't He give that land to us, and if so why have we been expelled ?"). Contrarily to the Assyrians, the Chaldeans had not scattered the Hebrews among their land : the Jews were settled in a single place, Babylon, and formed their own community. The extreme conditions led to a resurgence of faith ("we have been punished because of our impurity - let us be pious again") and to a radical change in the foundations of their beliefs : in the Lamentations and the book of Job (an upright man who goes through terrible sufferings), written respectively shortly before and after the Exile, the Jews admit the fact that God does whatever He pleases, and that humans should not question God's will. In this atmosphere, the building of the majestuous tower was seen by the Jews as a symbol of arrogance and lack of humility.

OK, so we know where the tower comes from, but what about the "counfusion of languages" ? The actual lingusitic explosion had happened a long time before, c. 2000 B.C., when the languages of Mesopotamia, Iran and Anatolia began to diversify into different branches of what we call the Indo-European and Semitic families of languages (see The Alphabet, Episode One). This diversificaton was later encouraged by the creation and the spreading of the Aramaic alphabet, the ancestor of both semitic and phenician alphabets (we use a latin version of the greek version of the phenician version of the aramaic alphabet). Interestingly enough, this alphabet began to spread in Chaldea in the 6th century, together with a massive increase of trade and migrations which turned Babylon into a cosmopolitan city.

It is easy to figure out how the Jews, who lived in a virtually closed society and had never been exposed to such a variety of cultures and languages, expressed their amazement through the myth of Babel, the tower of all langagues.


Note : If you want to have an idea of what the Babel Tower looked like, there is an older, smaller (but still impressive and remarkably conserved) version of it : the Ziggurat of Ur, Iran.

BA'BEL, TOW'ER OF
After the flood, the world was repopulated by the offspring of a single family, speaking only one language. The existing diversity of tongues is accounted for (Gen. 11:1-9) by the story which relates how Noah's descendants, in the course of their wanderings, settled in the plain of Shinar, or Babylonia; and there, in addition to building a city, thought to construct a tower high enough to reach heaven, as a monument to their fame, and as a center of social cohesion and union. Upon learning of their ambitions (cf. Gen. 1:26; 3:22), the LORD (Yahweh) frustrated their plans by confounding their speech, making further concerted action on their part impossible. As a result, the name of the city was called Babel, and its builders were scattered over the face of the earth.

Also known as the Tower of Babylon, and called "Etemenaki" by the Babylonians who built it, the Tower of Babylon was reportedly started by King Nimrod (who may be Gilgamesh, or Ninus), grandson of Ham, grandson of Noah. King Nimrod wanted to subvert the Babylonians' worship of God so that they might worship him, instead. In a rare show of Old Testament God kindness, God decided not to smite the Babylonians, but instead to torment them by creating language barriers. The Tower was fully completed under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar.

All of which seems unlikely, given that the Babylonians had their own pantheon of gods, and that the Tower was, in fact, a type of temple known as a ziggurat.

Modern day historians believe that the original Tower may be the Marduk Ziggurat, the remains of which can be found today in Iraq near the banks of the Euphrates. The ziggurat was square-shaped, measuring 300 feet on a side. The plains of Mesopotamia not exactly being high in building resources, the Tower was built out of sun-baked bricks made of clay and straw, and bound together with bitumen, probably imported from the Iranian plateau.

It was located a short distance from the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Also, King Nebuchadnezzar had two, count 'em, two palaces within the city.

What probably ended the tower for real was the conquest of Babylon by Persia's own King Xerxes. Under normal circumstances, ziggurats used complex drainage systems to prevent water damage. Under command of a distant king, upkeep of the Tower was neglected, pipes and channels clogged, and, being made mostly out of mud, it slowly disintegrated.

Babel Construction(3254 BC) Ltd.

Copyright Peter Heerdegen (2006). All rights reserved.

The Client said “go let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven…” (Genesis 11,4), somewhere nice on the plain of Shinar. An inexplicably jealous and insecure God smote the Main Contractors with the curse of multiple language groups and insurmountable communication difficulties. The sub-contractors all spoke different languages.

It is implausible that this was the true cause of the project’s failure. The construction industry has been chewing its beard for the last six millennia about foreign tradesmen. To this very day, the situation hasn’t changed but buildings, somehow, still get built.

Sometimes, they differ from the original drawings and specifications. Sometimes they aren’t in quite the right place. This is due largely due to their being designed by people who know about buildings, but don’t know about building.

The original drawings and specifications are sometimes little more than a cartoon and a fairy-tale, particularly when they are designed by people who are passionate about their visions. There is a word for these people. We all know what it is.

Buildings are complicated things. Putting them together would be far simpler if it was just a matter of placing brick upon brick until the desired shape was achieved, but complexity gives rise to specialised trade groups. The groups have different tasks, and so must be issued with different instructions.

Occasionally, in the sequestered cells of an Architectural practise, a chief architect will be heard to cry, “Oh Hell, we got the contract! Quick! Draw something!”

The Engineers will eventually get sent a concept statement, and a sheaf of cartoons scribbled on fag packets and restaurant menus.

“Oh God…they’re talking about light and space. They want the columns made of glass, and the beams made of something called ‘guava jelly’. Can we put reinforcing steel through guava jelly? Brian, could you look up the strain-tables for guava jelly? Brian? You OK?”

The sub-contractors, having quoted a Guaranteed Maximum Price on the strength of cartoons and fairy-tales, will already be waiting on-site, for drawings in which the dimensions and material-specifications are more specific than “To Be Advised.” With impending progress deadlines, and a workforce standing idle costing them money, they will just make a Best-Guess, and start anyway.

“Do you think they’ll be wanting electricity Jack?”
“That’s why we’re here Richard.”
“Where shall we sling the main switchboard Jack?”
“Oh...in the middle.”
“Ok Jack. I’ll get the diggers to excavate us a trench from the road to the…er…middle, and we’ll pull some cable in.”
“Richard?”
“Yeah Jack?”
“Make it a big bastard, just in case.”

Later that day, the excavators will dig up a gas main. The site and surrounding buildings will be evacuated for six hours.

There are three trillion or so possible end-combinations of pieces after the first six moves in a game of chess. Mathematicians call this a combinatorial explosion. Professional trades-people call it standard practise, in a game where people can get killed just trying to set up the board.

After a building is completed, the professional trades-people produce much better drawings called as-built drawings. These documents exhaustively describe what actually got built.

If your building leaks, don’t blame the trades-people. Blame the main contractor who said “You will build it this shape using these materials in this manner, or we will give the contract to someone else. Make sure you’re finished by deadline, or we’ll deduct $1200 dollars a day from your fee until you are. And then we will sue you.”

Many trades-people are not surprised that some buildings leak. Sometimes they are surprised that the buildings remain upright.

I think we should talk, it feels like we're crumbling,
The magical place for our hearts might be tumbling,
My love for you's strong but I feel something's changed,
My fears tell me that we're becoming estranged.

When I lie down to sleep my mind whirls in tangents,
As if the two years' plans are now flying to fragments.
Did something important escape my attention?
Is our love on the rocks from misapprehension?

Remember the widow? We ate at her table,
We spent the whole day at the Tower of Babel.
I went to have tea in her big cozy home,
Since he's been gone she has lived there alone

          And we talked about living
          She talked of her garden...
          I asked her a fine point of grammar
          And we talked about parting.

With my oolong and cookies I seemed so refined
As we talked about stories—the life of the mind
She asked how you are and she mentioned your name
But speaking to her I need not be ashamed.

She knows me too well, I couldn't have lied
I told her my fears—they flowed out like a tide.
"Seek and you'll find"—it was me who came seeking
Sometimes there are things we can fix just by speaking.

She looked at me kindly, she knows how I worry
She said "You're both young, you don't need to hurry."
With well-chosen words, she gave me assistance
She said "Love's not easy at short or long distance."

          And we talked about you
          And how the two of us cope
          We laughed about shopping for clothes
          And she said "Don't lose hope."

I know that it must be quite late where you're living
But I needed to call. I hope you'll forgive me...


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