Debating The Biblical Babel

Iraqi and Western scholars meeting in Baghdad have been debating whether the Tower of Babel was myth or reality.

There seems to be consensus from the Bible, ancient texts, and classical authors that some kind of tower graced the skies of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century B.C.

But no one knows for sure why it was built or how it looked.

"We can imagine what the tower looked like," said Giorgio Gullino of Italy's Torino University. "We can do it in our computers. But I am afraid we will be far from archaeological fact."

Gullino spent three years excavating in Babylon, 65 miles south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The weeklong conference, which ends Saturday, has drawn 50 experts from Iraq, Britain, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Poland, and the United States.

It is the first such gathering of Western scholars there since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War.

Those attending the sessions presented a variety of views on what the Tower of Babel might have looked like.

Muaayad Saeed, head of Iraq's Antiquities Department, said he would review them all and to try to reach a conclusion.

Saeed supervised a massive reconstruction in 1987 of the palace at Babylon, which was famed for its hanging gardens. But he would not say if he intends to try to reconstruct the tower at the site.

The Tower of Babel is discussed in the Bible, which says the people of Babylon were trying to build a tower to heaven. God disapproved and caused the workers to speak in different languages, scuttling the project.

Saeed and other Iraqi archaeologists presented further evidence of an ancient tower from a cuneiform text, which they attribute to Nebuchadnezzar, and a description provided by Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.

A German expedition that spent 12 years digging in Babylon at the turn of the century uncovered what it believed was the foundation of Nebuchadnezzar's tower. That base, now submerged in water, was 90 yards square.

Johan Schmid of Hamburg University said a computer analysis, however, indicated the foundation wouldn't support a tower built to Nebuchadnezzar's specifications.

"Cuneiform texts tell us it was a monument of astounding beauty, dedicated to the supreme Mesopotamian god Murdoch and his spouse Zarpanitu," said Fran Reynold from Britain's University of Birmingham.

She said one text describes a sanctuary to Murdoch atop a 95-yard tower, complete with a "cedar-made bed and gold-engraved throne."

Helga Trenkwalder of Austria's University of Innsbruck has been excavating another tower at Borsippa, seven miles south of Babylon. It is the best surviving Mesopotamian ziggurat, or tower, in Iraq and still rises some 50 yards in height, she said.
"I can draw parallels, but these pyramidal brick structures came in diferent shapes set on rectangular, square or oval platforms,'' she said.

McGuire Gibson from the Oriental Institute of Chicago University said he doubted if scholars would ever have an exact image of the Tower of Babel.

History indicates that Alexander the Great, who occupied Babylon in the fourth century B.C., dismantled Nebuchadnezzar's tower. He had planned to refurbish and rebuild it "but died before accomplishing his wish," Gibson said.

Alexander's successor carted the stones away to build a new capital elsewhere, he said.

Written by Leon Barkho