Tower of Babel floor plan and elevation

The Tower of Babel steleA stele from the collection of Norwegian businessman Martin Schoyen includes the clearest image of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II extant and the earliest images of the Great Ziggurat of Babylon, aka Etemenanki, the leading candidate for the Biblical Tower of Babel. This is one of only four known images of Nebuchadnezzar, and the other three are carved on cliff-faces in Lebanon and have been hard used by the elements. The stele shows the king in profile, wearing the conical hat of royalty, holding a staff in his left hand and an unknown object that might be a foundation nail or a scroll with plans for the tower in his right hand.

Nebuchadnezzar reigned over the Neo-Babylonian Empire between 605 B.C. and 562 B.C. During that time he restored and completed the great ziggurat which was first built by an earlier king at an indeterminate time (the Schoyen scholars say 1792-1750 B.C.) in honor of the god Marduk but had been damaged by the Assyrian King Sennacherib when he destroyed Babylon in 689 B.C. Restoration began under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar’s father Nabopolassar and was completed during the son’s reign 43 years later. Nebuchadnezzar boasts of his construction prowess on the stele, describing himself as the “great restorer and builder of holy places.”

“I mobilized (all) countries everywhere, (each and) every ruler (who) had been raised to prominence over all the people of the world (as one) loved by Marduk…” he wrote on the stele.

“I built their structures with bitumen and (baked brick throughout). I completed them, making (them gleam) bright as the (sun)…” (Translations by Professor Andrew George)

Line drawing of the Tower of Babel steleHe illustrates his great accomplishment with carved images of the gloriously rebuilt Tower: one is a ground plan of the temple showing the outer walls and inner rooms, the other an elevation showing the front of the ziggurat with the relative proportions of each of the seven steps and the temple on top. Unambiguously labeled as “The house, the foundation of heaven and earth, the ziggurat in Babylon,” these are the only contemporary images of the tower known to exist.

The ziggurat was ill-used by subsequent conquerors. Cyrus the Great of Persia took Babylon in 538 B.C. and pulled down the three stair ramps so the tower couldn’t be used as a fortress. By the time Alexander the Great took over in 331 B.C., water damage penetrating through the torn down stair ramps had caused severe structural damage. Alexander planned to restore the foundation of heaven and earth, but when he returned the next year no work had been done so he ordered the ziggurat torn down and rebuilt. It was torn down, but he died before it could be rebuilt.

All we’ve got left now is the square base of the Great Ziggurat just south of Baghdad. It can still be seen from satellites.