One of the most puzzling stories from the Book of Genesis involves the building of the Tower of Babel. Surely a structure of such impressive dimensions should have been identified by archaeologists after two hundred years of excavations in Mesopotamia? Sadly, this awe-inspiring monument to Man's self-aggrandisement has never been knowingly unearthed and, as a result, a continuing mystery surrounds both its whereabouts and purpose.
The logical place to start looking for the Tower of Babel is in the city of Babylon itself where the ruins of a great temple-tower or ziggurat still survive today. But, although the biblical name Babel may have derived from Bab-ilu (‘Gate of the Gods’), the ancient name of Babylon, archaeologists have failed to find any evidence to show that the city’s history extends far enough back into the past. The ziggurat itself was built in the Old Babylonian Period (1667-1362 BC in the New Chronology) and Bab-ilu's foundation dates to a few centuries earlier. This is much too late to be linked to the Flood and the building of the Tower of Babel.
Clearly, something is wrong here. Either the whole story is fictitious (as many scholars believe) or archaeologists have been looking in the wrong place for the infamous ruin. It is my belief that any dismissal of the story is premature until we have fully explored this alternative explanation. So, here is my offering to solve the mystery of the lost tower.
First, let’s start with what the Bible itself has to say. The passage relating to the Tower of Babel, which begins Chapter Eleven of Genesis, comes soon after the Flood.
The whole world spoke the same language, with the same vocabulary. Now, as the people came from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar where they settled. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire’. For stone they used bricks and for mortar they used bitumen. ‘Come’, they said, ‘let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we do not get scattered all over the world’.
Now Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. ‘So they are all a single people with a single language!’ said Yahweh. ‘This is only the start of their undertakings! Now nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they cannot understand one another.’ Yahweh scattered them thence all over the world, and they stopped building the city.
To find out why the Tower of Babel has never been identified we need to look outside the Bible where clues to biblical Babel’s true location and the tower’s royal builder have recently been found.
The initial discovery was one of language. In ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) there were two major linguistic families – the Sumerians and the Semitic speaking tribal groupings later known as the Babylonians and Assyrians. The former wrote their documents in Sumerian and the latter in Akkadian (East Semitic). As a result of this dual linguistic population, the cities of the region bore both Sumerian and Akkadian names. This was the crucial factor which led to a fundamental mistake made by the writer of the book of Genesis.
Who was that original author of Genesis? Jewish tradition and the Bible itself give the honour to Moses. However, most biblical scholars argue that the first book of the Old Testament is comprised of several writing styles which were only brought together into a single narrative relatively late in Israelite history. It seems to me that this misses the point. Just because the final version has all the signs of having been edited and added to, this does not deny the original attribution of authorship to the hero of the Exodus. So, what do we know about Moses? And what documentary sources might have been available in order for him to compile the story of his Israelite ancestry?
The first decades of Moses’ life were spent as a prince of Egypt – a fact well known to millions of kids since the release of the animation film of the same name. He grew up in the palace of Pharaoh where he would have received a first-class education, learning to read and write hieroglyphics and, no doubt, being introduced to several other languages spoken by Egypt’s neighbours. Top of the list of these foreign scripts would have been cuneiform. This is the wedge-shaped writing impressed into clay tablets which was used to transmit both the Sumerian and Babylonian languages and which was the script of diplomatic communication – the lingua franca of the ancient world.
The Bible then describes Moses’ exile from Egypt, after killing the Egyptian overseer, and his flight into Sinai where he was sheltered by the Midianite priest, Jethro. There in the safety of Jethro’s tent the young Moses married the desert chief’s eldest daughter and settled down to the life of a shepherd.
The Midianites were a semi-nomadic tribe descended from Abraham just like the Israelites. But they had not been enslaved by the Egyptians and therefore had not been deprived of their cultural identity. Centuries of oppression in the land of the pharaohs had led to all knowledge of the ancestral heritage of Israel being lost. The purpose of writing the book of Genesis (Hebrew Bereshit = ‘origins’) was precisely to re-educate the Israelite slaves as to their ancestral background. It seems extremely likely that Moses himself learned of the stories of his cultural heritage from Jethro who, as high-priest of his clan, must have been conversant in the oral traditions of Abraham and his origins in Sumer. In the New Chronology of the ancient Near East being developed by myself and other European scholars, Moses lived at a time when the great epic literature of the Sumerians was first being widely disseminated in Akkadian (the language of the Old Babylonian Period). Could Moses have acquired such documents from Jethro? And did he read there of the Flood and the building of the Tower of Babel?
Picture Moses, sitting in Jethro's tent, poring over a large clay tablet covered in the tiny wedge impressions of Akkadian cuneiform. The document is a copy of an epic Sumerian poem of great antiquity which had recently been translated into Akkadian by the scribes of the court of King Hammurabi, the great ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon.
Before we get to the heart of the puzzle surrounding the identity of Babel, we need to understand something about the relationship between the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. The classic tongue of ancient Mesopotamia was Sumerian. In later periods, when Akkadian dominated the region, some ancient names were still written in Sumerian, even though they had perfectly good Akkadian alternatives. Sumerian was the ‘Medieval Latin of Mesopotamia’. In Akkadian literature numerous archaic names were written in what scholars call Sumerian logograms. Thus the city of Babylon in Moses’ source tablet would have been written as Nun.ki (the ‘Mighty Place’), the Sumerian name of the city. Moses would naturally have understood Nun.ki to represent Babylon and, in so doing, the city of Nun.ki became biblical Babel in the Genesis narrative.
What Moses did not know was that a far more ancient city existed in Sumer which was also called Nun.ki – the original place of that name. Indeed, Sumerian tradition claimed it to be the first city in the world. This older Nun.ki was also known as Eridu – the city where, according to the Sumerian King List, kingship was first ‘lowered from heaven’ and where the great god Enki (‘Lord of the Earth’) had his temple. Archaeology has revealed that the temple of Eridu was the first sacred shrine to be built in Sumer and that, over the centuries, it grew into a substantial structure.
It is my belief that the original story of the Tower of Babel describes the building of the last great phase of the temple of Enki at Eridu. This was begun in the Uruk Period – the archaeological era which I have argued immediately followed the Flood. One of the most powerful rulers of Uruk at this time was Enmerkar, a mighty king of the heroic age and second only to Gilgamesh in the epic literature. The Sumerian King List makes Enmerkar the second king of Uruk after the Flood which would place his reign at the time when the building of Enki’s temple at Eridu reached its apogee.
It was in this era that a massive platform was built over the original shrine and the erection of a new temple begun on the artificial mountain. This was the first platform-temple to be built in Mesopotamia and the prototype of the later stepped platform-temples which we know as the ziggurats. It towered above the surrounding countryside and was certainly a major architectural innovation. Remember that this was the biggest and tallest structure which had been attempted since civilisation had begun in the Sumerian lowlands. It was constructed in mudbricks with bitumen as mortar, just as the Bible claims for the Tower of Babel and, again, it was left unfinished as in the Genesis story. All that the Iraqi archaeologists found of the temple building intended to top the great platform was a few traces of its foundation walls. What they did find was that the mighty monument had been abandoned to the wind-blown sands for half a millennium. The city of Eridu/Nun.ki was evacuated and the temple of Enki remained unfinished. This archaeological picture fits uncannily well with the story of the Tower of Babel and the scattering of its builders to distant lands. Coincidence? Perhaps.
A second discovery has finally also solved the mystery surrounding the historical identity of the biblical King Nimrod. Genesis 10:8-10 has this to say about him:
Cush (son of Ham and grandson of Noah) fathered Nimrod who was the first potentate on Earth. He was a mighty hunter in the eyes of Yahweh, hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter in the eyes of Yahweh’. The mainstays of his empire were Babel, Erech and Akkad, all of them in the land of Shinar.
Shinar is ancient Sumer, Akkad became the capital of the later Akkadian empire (the city is still to be located), biblical Erech is Uruk, and Babel, as we have seen, originally referred to Eridu. But Nimrod himself has always eluded identification – until now.
The trick was to realise that the element ‘kar’ in Enmerkar was the Sumerian word for ‘hunter’. Thus the king of Uruk’s name consists of a nomen plus epithet – Enmer ‘the hunter’. This was precisely the epithet Genesis uses to describe Nimrod. The next step was straightforward. Ancient Hebrew was originally written without vowels (as in the Dead Sea Scrolls). Vowel indications were only added into the Masoretic manuscripts from the 5th century AD onwards. So, in early copies of Genesis the name Nimrod would simply have been written ‘nmrd’. The name Enmer would also have been transcribed into Hebrew as ‘nmr’ – identical to Nimrod but for the last ‘d’. The Bible is well known for its plays on words. The Israelite writers often translated foreign names into familiar Hebrew words which they felt had appropriate meaning. In this case they changed Sumerian ‘nmr’ to Hebrew ‘nmrd’ because the latter had the meaning ‘we shall rebel’ – a perfect description for the king who defied God by building a tower up to heaven.
The 1st-century-AD Jewish historian, Josephus, informs us that it was Nimrod who built the Tower of Babel. We have not only identified Babel with Eridu but also Enmerkar with Nimrod. These findings are confirmed by the epic literature which informs us that Enmerkar lavished great building works upon both his capital of Uruk and the sacred temple of Enki at Eridu (Nun.ki) whereas Nimrod is closely associated with both Erech (Uruk) and Babel (Nun.ki = Eridu). Enmerkar was seen as the first great ruler in Sumer whilst Nimrod is called the ‘first potentate on earth’.
The Tower of Babel story in Genesis tells us that God confused the tongues of its builders so that the people could no longer understand each other. The legacy of that event has been to create a similar misunderstanding amongst scholars as to the identity of both Babel and the builder of its ziggurat. But the mystery is now resolved. It has all simply been a matter of language and a confusion of tongues.
The Hidden Name of God
The Genesis story tells us that, after some years spent with Jethro and his tribe, Moses was tending his flock one day when he spotted a glowing light far up the mountain slope. Upon reaching the source of the glow, he found a burning bush from which the voice of the god Yahweh (Jehovah) emanated. Naturally Moses asked the voice who he was. The famous and puzzling response was 'I am who I am'. This single cryptic sentence has been analysed and debated for centuries. What does it mean? A new explanation has now come to light which appears to reveal the earliest and previously hidden name of the Hebrew god.
Sumerian literature identifies the god who warns Noah of the impending flood as Enki, the same deity whose temple was located at Eridu. Enki’s Akkadian (East Semitic) name was Ea (pronounced Eya). The Hittites referred to him simply as Ya.
If we translate the mysterious ‘I am who I am’ of Exodus 3:14 back into Hebrew we discover perhaps the most remarkable of all biblical plays on words. What Moses heard was ‘eya(h) asher eya(h)’ – the ‘h’s are silent. This does indeed mean ‘I am who I am’ but it can also be translated as ‘I am the one who is called Eya’. This gives a whole new meaning to God’s subsequent instruction to Moses. When the exiled prince of Egypt says ‘Behold, if I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The god of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they say to me, “What is his name?”, what am I to tell them?’ the reply from the burning bush is: ‘This is what you are to say to the Israelites, “Eya (not ‘I am’) has sent me to you”. You are to tell the Israelites, “Yahweh, the god of your ancestors, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent me to you”. This is my name for all time and in this way I am to be invoked for all generations to come.’
Yahweh was, from that moment, to become the new name of the Mesopotamian deity whose original Semitic name was Eya. The god of the Hebrew ancestors can thus be traced back to a great Sumerian deity with many epithets: the ‘friend of Man’, the ‘clever god’, the god of the sweet waters and the watery Abyss, but whose most important title was Enki, the ‘Lord of the Earth’.