Inside Etemenanki: The Real-Life Tower of Babel
If there was a tower of Babel, it was Etemenanki: a massive, stone ziggurat at the center of Babylon built to be a passageway up to heaven. The Babylonians didn’t see their tower of Babel as a failure. As far as they were concerned, they really had made a stairway that they could walk up to go see the gods – and it really worked.
The Tower of Babel Was Real
The Bible wasn’t lying – the Babylonians really did make a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven”. They called it Etemenanki or the Ziggurat Babel , and it really was meant to be a stairway to heaven.
From the bottom, the Etemenanki would have looked like a staircase climbing up into the clouds. It was a massive, seven-level clay pyramid that climbed up 91 meters (300 feet) into the sky . To put that in perspective, that made it about the same height as New York’s Flatiron skyscraper, which, when it was built in 1902, was one of the tallest buildings on earth.
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‘The Tower of Babel’ (1563) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. ( Public Domain )
But this wasn’t just a big building. Like the tower in the Biblical story, the Etemenanki was built in a deliberate attempt to make a staircase that climbed all the way up to the gods.
The tower was built on a spot that the Babylonians believed was the exact center of the universe. It was here, they believed, that their god Marduk created the world. Here alone, heaven and earth could interconnect… as long as someone could just build a staircase that went up high enough. That’s what the Etemenanki was meant to be – a staircase tall enough that you could climb it up to heaven.
Marduk and his dragon Mušḫuššu, from a Babylonian cylinder seal. ( Public Domain )
Unlike the Bible story, though, the Etemenanki didn’t get knocked over by an angry god. The Babylonians finished building their tower to heaven, and they added a massive flight of stairs that climbed all the way up to the place that, they believed, connected heaven and earth.
They’d climb to the top of that building regularly. And while they were there, if they’re to be believed, they really did meet god.
From Athanasius Kircher. Turris Babel... Amsterdam, 1679. ( Public Domain )
An Inter-celestial Brothel
The top level of the Etemenanki was like a motel room for the gods. The floor was full of luxurious bedrooms, each one with the finest beds and couches they had to offer, bearing the names of the god they believed would spend the night there.
One was for Marduk and his wife Sarpanitum, another for Nabu and his wife Tashmetu. Others were set aside for the gods of water, light, and heaven. These places were decadent, lavishly decorated rooms, and they were left completely empty. They were put aside for the gods, who, as the priests assured the people of Babylon, regularly dropped by for vacations at the holy hotel.
This attendant god was found at the Temple of god Nabu at Nimrud, Mesopotamia, Iraq. The cuneiform inscription mentions the name of the Assyrian king Adad-nirari III and his mother, Sammuramat. Circa 810-800 BCE. The British Museum, London. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
The strangest part of the tower, though, was even higher up. Above the top level, there was a temple that contained nothing other than a couch and a table made of pure gold. Only one person in all of Babylon was allowed to visit it: a woman, chosen by the god Marduk, to be his lover .
The priests would let one woman in the city know that the god had been checking her out. They would send her up to the top of the tower to wait for Marduk. There, she would lay down on the couch and wait for Marduk to arrive. Nobody knows for sure exactly what really happened up there, but when she came down, she would be completely sure that she’d just made love to god himself.
Model of Etemenanki. Pergamonmuseum (Berlin). ( Public Domain ) The top level contained a temple for a chosen woman to meet Marduk.
The Ritual Murder of Substitute Kings
The tower wasn’t just a motel for the gods, though. It had other uses. Babylonian astronomers would climb up to the top of it to watch the skies – and they learned some incredible things.
Thanks in part to the Etemenanki, Babylon had an unparalleled understanding of the movements of the stars. They had detailed astronomical diaries that tracked their movements. They’d observed Venus as early as the 17th century BC; they’d made stellar catalogs by the 8th century BC; and, by the 7th century BC, they could even predict an eclipse.
A Babylonian tablet recording Halley's comet during an appearance in 164 BC. At the British Museum in London. ( Public Domain )
That was an important job. In fact, in Babylon, the king’s life depended on it. The Babylonians had long believed that eclipses were the gods’ way of expressing their wrath with mankind. Before they learned how to track them, they were so desperate to appease the wrath of their gods that, if the moon appeared in front of the sun, they would literally murder their king.
That didn’t exactly change when they learned how to predict eclipses. Even though they knew that eclipses came and went at set intervals, they still stubbornly clung to the idea that they were signs of the gods’ anger. Now, though, they could crown a substitute king before an eclipse. They’d let some poor fool call himself king for a few days, then would kill him as soon as the eclipse began.
The real king would lay low until the eclipse was over, and then hop right back onto the throne of Babylon. Thanks to his astronomers at the top of the Etemenanki, he’d be able to cheat his way out of a ritual sacrifice.
Kudurru (stele) of King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC): the king presents his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the Shamash and the star the goddess Ishtar. Kassite period, taken to Susa in the 12th century BC as war booty. ( Public Domain )
The Destruction of the Tower of Babel
There’s a reason the Israelites thought the Tower of Babel was in ruins. For most of human history, that would have been exactly what it looked like. The Etemenanki was a huge undertaking for an ancient civilization. It’s believed that it took more than a hundred years to build, and, until then, would have been in a state of disrepair.
Even when it was finished, the Etemenanki didn’t stay standing for long. It was torn down multiple times. First, the Assyrian king Sennacherib shattered and desecrated the tower after a particularly vicious war with Babylon. It was rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, only to be torn again by the Persian King Xerxes.
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Xerxes at the Hellespont. ( Public Domain)
After Alexander the Great invaded Persia, he promised to rebuild it but, as far as anyone can tell, he never actually got around to doing it. He had his men tear down every last brick, but died before he actually put it back together again. And so, for thousands of years, the Tower of Babel lay in ruins.
It took more than 2000 years before modern archaeologists found it. The Etemenanki, though, really was there. We have found the foundation , stretched out 91 meters wide and 91 meters long at the center of a courtyard half a kilometer wide. It was exactly how the ancients described it.
Today, it’s nothing more than a few clay bricks buried under the dirt. But at one point, thousands of years ago, that clay held up a tower that rose all the way up to heaven.
‘The Tower of Babel’ (1594) by Lucas van Valckenborch. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: ‘The Tower of Babel’ (1595) by Lucas van Valckenborch. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Oliver
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