Locating the Tower of Babel

Locating the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel is a story told in Genesis, which depicts the scattering of languages among humanity, by God. The story is meant to explain the origin of language variation present in the world today, and serves as yet another example of competition between humans and God (other stories include the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3).

For centuries, the story of the Tower of Babel has been paid much attention, particularly the location of the transcendent Tower which caused God to scatter humanity and confound the human language. But where is the Tower now?

Many have searched for the mystical tower mentioned in Genesis 11, and some have even found ancient sites which offer compelling evidence for the tower’s location. The accounts found in Genesis do not make any mention of the tower’s destruction, which encourages Biblical archaeologists to believe that the tower is either still in existence, or at least continued to survive for a while after the event took place. While the Biblical accounts do not give us specific information about the location of the tower, they do leave a few solid clues on which to start the investigation.



The story of the Tower of Babel opens with an explicit clue as to where the tower once stood. Genesis 11 states;

“And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” (v2)

Since this is the only clue that we have to the location of the tower, we must begin our search here…in Shinar. It was here, in Shinar, that the people began to rebel against God, and set out to construct a tower which would reach the heavens.

The location of Shinar is ambiguous. Wikipedia calls it the geographical location “of uncertain boundaries in Mesopotamia.” However, the name Shinar occurs eight times elsewhere in the Old Testament, and always appears to refer to the wider area of Babylonia. Some have even suggested that the location of Shinar in Babylonia is reinforced by the name of the tower ‘Babel’, which is a play on words for ‘Babylon’. Though the Biblical description of Shinar does not contain much detail, it seems likely that Shinar was within the territorial area of greater Babylonia.



It is commonly believed, among Biblical scholars and archaeologists, that the Tower of Babel was a ziggurat.

A ziggurat is a well-known structure of the ancient world which was often built and dedicated to a God. The most notable of these is ‘Etemenanki’, which was constructed and consecrated by Nabopolssar, King of Babylonia, in the name of the Mesopotamian God ‘Marduk’. Etemenanki was over 300 feet high and was demolished under the reign of Alexander the Great. Historians agree that the descriptions given of the Tower of Babel closely match those to an early ziggurat. A few ziggurats are still in existence today, with the largest surviving one located in Western Iran, in what was once the ancient land of Elam.

Ziggurats usually had a square base with receding level. Because the Tower of Babel was designed to reach up to heaven, we must assume that the base would have been extremely large in order to sustain such a height. It is also interesting to note that the builders of Babel were not only looking to build the tower, but were constructing an entire city – a fact which is mentioned three times in the first verse of the story. Ziggurats in other parts of the world were never built in isolation – they were also accompanied by temples, shrines and other prominent religious and civic buildings. This means that when we are trying to locate the tower, we need to be looking for an entire city, or the remains of one, rather than a lone tower, which is often how the Tower of Babel has traditionally been depicted.

Some sources even indicate that the Tower of Babel was adjacent to the mystical Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.


Building Materials

Another clue to the location of the tower is the building materials, which the text refers to in detail.

The first half of Genesis 11:3 describes the Tower as being made out of burnt bricks, while the second half outlines that they had “brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” Modern historians have confirmed that this description of the building materials is in keeping with what we know about ancient architecture in this area, particularly since bitumen was the usual mortar used in conjunction with kiln-fired bricks in the Mesopotamian area.

The choice to use kiln-baked bricks, and to explicitly describe the expensive building materials used is interesting. Firstly, the choice to use kiln-baked bricks indicates that the Tower was intended to last, since this material was known for its durability. Secondly, the explicit description of the expensive building materials lends further support to the theory that the tower was a ziggurat. The use of baked bricks was not underway until the mid-4th century B.C. and even then, was only employed for luxurious buildings such as temples and ziggurats.


Where Is It?

So where do we find this ancient kiln-baked brick ziggurat in Shinar? Because the Tower would probably now be nothing more than rubble, it is difficult to concisely pinpoint its location. However, given the durable material that Genesis 11 describes as having been used for the construction of the tower, and since the accounts in Genesis do not describe the tower coming under any type of destruction, there is a possibility that remnants of the Tower of Babel may well have survived until now.

Modern archaeologists claim that the remains of the Tower of Babel may still exist, in an area which was once occupied by ancient Babylon. The foundations of the tower still stand and the remaining embankments have been estimated to date back to the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar II who lived from 605-562 BC. Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Nebuchadnezzar was also responsible for the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Wherever the Tower lies, it is fair to assume that since God was so displeased with humanity’s efforts to construct it, he probably does not want humanity to find it, lest we once again pursue our efforts to ‘make a name for ourselves’.



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Babel: Was it Real?

Babel: Was it Real?

What is Babel?

The familiar and slightly mystical story of the Tower of Babel can be found in Genesis 11 and tells the story of the origin of language.

According to the account, humanity was living united in a post-flood world, speaking a single language and building an empire. Scripture tells us that the people had migrated from the East to a place called Shinar, and had begun development there on their city. Amongst their building efforts, was a tower which was being built to reach the heavens and to ‘make a name’ for the new civilisation. Babel was designed not only as a mark of achievement but as a means of preventing diaspora, a plan which backfired.

When God sees the project, he sees that the people are becoming unrestrained in their achievements, and becoming limitless in their abilities. In an attempt to reign them back in, God confounds their speech, and disperses them throughout the world. The plan to prevent dispersion has resulted in exactly that. Because of humanity’s attempts, they are divided linguistically and geographically.

This biblical story is believed by many to describe a genuine, historical event that took place after the great flood, but what is the purpose and significance of the story, and did it REALLY happen?


What Kind of Story is it?

Babel has continued to both captivate and confuse audiences to this day. Historical linguistics has spent much time debating the idea of a single original language and anthropology has long sought to identify if living descendants remain from one race such as the descendants of Noah in this story. Much artwork has also been created in the name of Babel, including Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting, Anton Rubenstein’s opera and the novel Babel Tower. The story of the tower has been used in many different contexts, but the kind of story that it is at its core remains the same: it is an etiology.

Etiologies are stories that serve to explain the origin of something. Every etiology or origin myth functions as a description of how some new reality came into being.

In this case, the story explains the origin of language, and the multiplicity of human language that exists today. Genesis 1 and 2 function in the same sense, with several themes within them. For example, Genesis 1 and 2 serves to explain the origins of human life on earth, as well as the heterosexual relationship, humanity’s relationship to animals, pain in childbirth and more. The story of Babel explains the origin of human language and its variants as well as issues such as the competition between God and humanity. This theme first appeared in the story of Adam and Eve when they unlawfully ate from the tree of knowledge, and is repeated in the story of Babel. First century historian Josephus described Babel as a prideful, arrogant defiance against God and thus mirroring the fall in the Garden of Eden. The story also serves to explain cultural and geographical differences amongst humans and places Babel as the cradle of civilisation.


The Story’s Creation

Traditionally, the first five books of the bible have been attributed to Moses, but more recently a proposal has been made for the documentary hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that the Yahwist source was responsible for the composition of Babel, particularly considering the Yahwist’s use of etiology in other parts of scripture. Use of wordplay including ‘Babel’ and ‘babble’ is also a signature tactic employed by the Yahwist.

The Ziggurat at Babylon is often cited when discussing matters regarding Babel. The Etemenaku was the name of a 200 feet high temple, or ziggurat, famously rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar. Tradition states that the story of the Tower of Babel was likely influenced by the construction of this mammoth Ziggurat which was constructed during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.

The account in Genesis appears in other sources, some of which give more detailed accounts about the Tower than the Biblical account. Other sources for the story include the Book of Jubilees, Josephus, The Book of Mormon and the Midrash. Parallels to the story also exist in Sumerian myth, Irish folklore and Central American legend.


Was it Real?

There is a long tradition of material surrounding the Tower of Babel, both biblical and non-biblical. We would expect a wide range of sources from an event that took place in history, as we see in this circumstance. Though the story was composed and presented by sources that had their own theological concerns, there is no reason to doubt that the biblical description of the event did not take place historically as well as theologically, and the existence of material within other ancient civilisations only serves to further confirm the Bible’s authenticity on the matter. Language changes and variations in existence today, ziggurats and tower legends are all more than substantial confirmations of the events that took place at Babel.




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