Historical Genesis

From Adam To Abraham

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Chapter 20 - Searching for Babel

Early explorers ventured into the land of "Arabian Nights" seeking adventure, fame, prestige, honor, glory, knowledge, trinkets, and a certain elusive tower. From the latter part of the sixteenth century AD three testimonials emerged: that of Rauwolff, the adventurous physician of Augsburg (traveling 1573-76); one from the Venetian jeweler, Balbi (1579-80); and another by a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, the English merchant Eldred (1583), all of whom descended the Euphrates in a boat, landed at Falluja and proceeded across Iraq to Baghdad.

In 1616, Pietro della Valle was the first visitor to examine the real site of ancient Babylon and he sent back to Europe a few inscribed bricks. On his homeward journey in 1625, he retrieved bricks from Muqayyar located at Ur. He described the tower at Babylon as a "huge rectangular tower or pyramid with its corners pointing to the cardinal points." Describing the material of the structure as "the most remarkable thing I ever saw," he noted the sun-dried bricks, but he also noted that "here and there" and at places that "served as supports, the bricks of the same size were baked."

Dominican father Emmanuel de St. Albert visited Birs Nimrud west of the Euphrates around the year 1700. Thinking he was visiting the original "Babel," he examined two mounds, one "situated in Mesopotamia," and "the other in Arabia about an hour’s distance from the Euphrates." He examined two masses of cemented bricks, one standing, the other overturned, and mused:

"People think that this latter hill is the remains of the real Babylon, but I do not know what they will make of the other, which is opposite and exactly like this one."

Father Emmanuel concluded that the remains were quite ancient and, much impressed, carried away with him a few souvenirs of the curious large square bricks with writing on them in "unknown characters."

Carsten Niebuhr examined the mounds near Hilla in 1765. He regarded the designation of "Ard Babel" used by the natives and the numerous inscribed bricks lying on the ground as evidence for the correctness of the local tradition. Niebuhr took note of the large ruin heaps close by the eastern bank of the river" as the probable site of Babylon’s castle and the hanging gardens described by Strabo, while "an entire hill of fine bricks and a tower on top" he identified as "Birs Nimrûd."

Residing at Baghdad from 1780 to 1790, Abbé de Beauchamp paid two visits to the ruins of Babylon, describing the area as located in the district of Hilla. By his reckoning the ruins were situated about one league to the north on the opposite (left) side of the Euphrates, "exactly under the mound the Arabs call Babel." Besides the mound itself, the "ruins of Babylon," consisted chiefly of bricks scattered about.

...there is in particular an elevation which is flat on the top, of an irregular form, and intersected by ravines. It would never have been taken for the work of human hands, were it not proved by the layers of bricks found in it … They are baked with fire and cemented with zepht <zift] or bitumen; between each layer are found osiers."

The new century brought forth a new breed of explorer, as much bent on returning souvenirs to their homeland as to ascertaining the intricacies of a distant, ancient civilization. Claudius Rich visited Babylon in 1811 and stayed for ten days. Taken in by the spotty accounts of previous travelers, Rich found not a few "isolated mounds." He quickly discovered:

...the whole country covered with the vestiges of buildings, in some places consisting of brick walls surprisingly fresh, in others merely a vast succession of mounds of rubbish of such indeterminate figures, variety, and extent as to involve the person who should have formed any theory in inextricable confusion and contradiction.

As to Babylon itself:

These ruins consist of mounds of earth, formed by the decomposition of buildings, channeled and furrowed by the weather, and the surface of them strewed with pieces of brick, bitumen, and pottery.

The most northern mound he described as "Babil," the natives called Mujêliba (overturned):

On his way to India in 1816, J. S. Buckingham examined the ruins of Aqarqûf, so called "Tower of Nimrod." Although the interior of the ruin was comprised of sun-dried bricks, Buckingham took note that the exterior surface had been coated with furnace-baked bricks. Well-acquainted with pyramids from his sojourns in Egypt, Buckingham recognized the mound as having been a step-pyramid or stage-tower.

A veritable mine of information on monuments, inscriptions, and antiquities of Babylonia surfaced in the early 1800s, when Sir Robert Ker Porter compiled two volumes of his extended travels in Western Asia. He inspected the four principal Babylonian ruins that had become the center of attention; ‘Aqarqûf, El Birs (Birs Nimrud), Babil, El-Ohêmir at Kish, and a number of other mounds in the general vicinity.

Not enough was known in the early days of Mesopotamian exploration to piece together the history of the tower, likely constructed originally between 2400 and 2050 BC. Expecting to find an ancient structure, they looked for signs of sheer antiquity. Such was not to be seen, however, Sennacherib sacked Babylon, destroying the city and the tower itself, dumping the bricks in a canal.

The existing ruins of Babylon date from the period of Nebuchadnezzar II, and so thorough was Sennacherib’s destruction of the city in 689 B.C., that after several years of work, Dr. Koldewey concluded that all traces of earlier buildings had been destroyed on that occasion.

This was a pattern seen often. The following inscription was repeated to the point of monotony in the annals of Assyrian kings when an enemy city was captured:

I despoiled it, burnt it down with fire, and converted it into a heap of ruins and deserts.

King Nebuchadnezzar continued the reconstruction begun by his father during a period of recovery after the Assyrian conquest, and the inscriptions match up with what Porter should have expected. Whether Birs Nimrud, an enormous tower regarded by many of the native Arabs as the Tower of Babel, or the mound at Babil, stands where the ignominious tower itself once stood, or whether these are simply towers of curiosity in a land replete with weathering mounds of brick, has long been a subject of dispute.