UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Etemenanki / Ziggurat of Marduk

Marduk's chief temples at Babylon were the Esagila and the Etemenanki, a ziggurat with a shrine of Marduk on the top. The Babylonian name "Etemenanki" means in English "House of the platform of Heaven and Earth". The colossal mass of the tower, which the Jews of the Old Testament regarded as the essence of human presumption, amidst the proud palaces of the priests, the spacious treasuries, the innumerable lodgings for strangers-white walls, bronze doors, mighty fortification walls set round with lofty portals and a forest of 1000 towers,-the whole must have conveyed an overwhelming sense of greatness, power, and wealth, such as could rarely have been found elsewhere in the great Babylonian kingdom.

Herodotus names the group of buildings "the brazen-doored sanctuary of Zeus Belus." The zikurrat inside the sanctuary he describes as a massive tower on which stood a second, third, up to an eighth tower, above which was a "great temple." In the words of Herodotus himself, however, there is nothing whatever about stepped terraces. He speaks of 8 towers standing one above another, but he does not say that each was smaller than the one below it. This was long the sole ground for the conception of the "terraced towers" of Mesopotamia, prior to the excavations of the actual ziggurats [Herodotus frequently exagerated, but he was not always wrong].

Nabopolassar lays great stress on the height of the tower, and so does Nebuchadnezzar in his cylinder-inscription of Etemenanki. Nabopolassar says: "At this time Marduk commanded me . . .; the tower of Babylon, which in the time before me had become weak, and had been brought to ruin, to lay its foundation firm on the bosom of the underworld, while its top should stretch heavenwards". Nebuchadnezzar says: "To raise up the top of Etemenanki that it may rival heaven, I laid to my hand." In both inscriptions mud brick, burnt brick, asphalt, mud, and mighty cedars of Lebanon are mentioned as the materials employed. The latter could scarcely have been employed otherwise than to roof in the temple on the top of the tower.

By one account, it was two hundred and seventy-two feet square on the ground, and consisted of seven stories, the six upper stories being each forty-two feet less each way than the one below it. The three lowest stories were, by one estimate, each twenty-six feet high, and the four above each fifteen feet, for a total of about 135 feet.

Another estimate makes it much larger - 300 feet on each side, and 300 feet tall. The original of the second Babylonian text that refers to the enclosure has disappeared. There is only an epitome of it given by Smith (Hommel, Geographie Vorderasiens und Nordostafrikas, p. 315, and ThureauDangin, Journal asiatique, janvier 1909):-

... the Babylonian measures used, that they are principally the cubit, equal to about one foot eight inches English, and the gar or sa, equal to 12 cubits, or 20 feet English ...

In the centre of these groups of temples stood the grandest portion of the whole pile, the great Ziggurat, or temple tower, built in stages, its sides facing the cardinal points.

The bottom or first stage was a square in plan 15 gar in length and breadth, and 5^ gar in height (300 feet square, 110 feet high). This stage appears to have been indented or ornamented with buttresses.

The next or second stage of the tower was also square, being 13 gar in length and breadth, and 3 gar in height (260 feet square, 60 feet high). The epithet applied to this stage is obscure; it had probably sloping sides. The third stage differs widely from the lower ones, and commences a regular progressive series of stages, all of equal height. It was 10 gar in length and breadth, and 1 gar in height (200 feet square, 20 feet high).

The fourth stage was 8 1/2 gar in length and breadth, and 1 gar in height (170 feet square, 20 feet high).

The fifth stage was 7 gar in length and breadth, and 1 gar in height (140 feet square, 20 feet high).

Probably by accident, the dimensions of the sixth stage of the tower are omitted in the inscription, but they can be easily restored in accordance with the others. This stage must have been 5 1/2 gar in length and breadth, and 1 gar in height (110 feet square, 20 feet high).

On this was raised the seventh stage, which was the upper temple or sanctuary of the god Bel. This building had a length of 4 gar, a breadth of 3 1/2 gar, and a height of 2 1/2 gar (80 feet long, 70 feet broad, and 50 feet high).

Thus the whole height of this tower above its foundation was 15 gar or 300 feet, exactly equal to the breadth of the base; and, as the foundation was most probably raised above the level of the ground, it would give a height of over 300 feet above the plain for this grandest of Babylonian temples . . ."

But the statements can only be reconciled with the existing remains with great difficulty, and then only in general. The measurements given for the three courts should agree with the ruins, at least as regards the relations of length to breadth, but this is not so whether one takes the measurement of the walls outside or of the open space within the courts. Under these circumstances one need not attach any great importance to the measurements given for the alleged 7 stages of the tower. Those uncertainties are caused by the fact that the original inscription is not at hand, and the object for which these statements were made is not known.

From the ruins as they existed before excavation, it may be assumed that a colossal stairway led up from the south to the top of the immense mass of building. Steps in antiquity were always extremely steep, as they were found here, and the height and breadth were usually the same, so according to the measurements of the length of the foundations of the steps their height may have been about 50 meters [about 150 feet].

The complete height of the tower is not known. Jewish writers no doubt exaggerate its height. Strabo, in his description of it, calling it a pyramid, because of its decreasing or benching at every tower, said of the whole, that it was a furlong high, and a furlong on every side. Taking it only as it is described by Strabo, it was prodigious enough; for according to his dimensions only, without adding anything further, it was one of the most wonderful works in the world, and much exceeding the greatest of the pyramids of Egypt, which was thought to excel all other works in the world beside. For although it fell short of that period at the base, (where there was a square of seven hundred feet on every side, and this but of six hundred,) yet it far exceeded it in the height, the perpendicular measure of the Great Pyramid being no more than four hundred and eight-one feet, whereas that of the tower [according to Strabo] was full six hundred, and therefore it was higher than that pyramid by one hundred and nineteen feet, which is one quarter of the whole. And therefore it was not without reason, that Bochartus asserts it to have been the very same tower which was there built at the Confusion of Tongues; for it was prodigious enough to answer the Scriptures' description of it, and it is particularly attested by several authors to have been all built of bricks and bitumen, as the Scriptures tell us the tower of Babel was.

Strabo's account makes it to have been six hundred and sixty English feet tall, and just as wide. Existing ruins are only half this large in horizontal extent, so surely the vertical extent is exagerated by Strabo by at least a factor of two as well. The existing ruins of Etemenanki are about 300 feet on a side, but was it some 300 feet tall, or less than half this height. Even this lower height would make it among the largest ziggurats of Mesopotamia. The experience of similar structures in Egypt may provide some insight.

The first certain king of the Third Dynasty was Horus Netjerykhet, called Djoser by later dynasties of Egyptians. Djoser's reign saw the prominence of the most famous non-royal person in pharaonic history: Imhotep ("who comes in peace"), the king's vizier, or "prime minister" or "chancellor". Imhotep's great achievement, the Step Pyramid, was the "next logigal step" in the evolution of the royal burial from the mastaba. By using stone as the primary material, Imhotep was able to create a series of mastabas, one atop the other, similar to the ziggurats in Mesopotamia.

In Egypt, the pyramid at Meidum was built by Sneferu in the Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494 BC). Originally, the Meidum pyramid was a step pyramid, but it appears that Sneferu later ordered the steps to be "flled", an attempt at building a true pyramid. A disputed theory is that the pyramid actually collapsed catastrophically and the mound of rubble around the base is what remains, but no bodies, scafolding, tools, or the like have ever been found in the mound. The more widely accepted theory is that the pyramid was "quarried" for stone in later times; indeed, the Arabic writers of the 1100s CE report that the pyramid had five steps, while today it has only three.

In Egypt, the Bent Pyramid was created during the reign of Sneferu (2680-2560 BC). The bend is a result of a change in the design of the pyramid in mid-construction to keep the pyramid from collapsing as the Pyramid at Meidum had collapsed. The angle of slope is 54 degrees, 27 minutes, 44 seconds up to the bend and 43 degrees, 22 minutes above the Bend. This change is believed to be due to subsidence that was noticed while the pyramid was still being built; the accurate cutting and laying of the blocks was not yet what would be seen at Giza. The first successful true pyramid, is the North Dahshur Pyramid or "Red Pyramid", so called for the red color of its sandstone blocks in the sun, and built entirely at the "safer" reduced slope.

The walls of the zikurrat Etemenanki, as with other ziggurats, rose at a far steeper angle, over 75 percent. It seems improbable that a brick structure could resist the failure mode that may have doomed the "Collapsed Pyramid" or "Ruined Pyramid" Meidum pyramid. The tower of Babylon may have been nearly 150 feet tall, but it seems unlikely that it was 300 feet tall, though it is this later height that is depicted in almost all modern artistic conceptions of this structure.

The ancient sacred precinct in which stood the zikurrat Etemenanki, "the foundation stone of heaven and earth," the tower of Babylon, surrounded by an enclosing wall against which lay all manner of buildings connected with the cult. This enclosing wall forms almost a square, divided by cross walls into separate parts, three of which we have already recognised. All the buildings consisted largely of crude brick, and only, as an exception, the very considerable crude-brick core of the tower in the south-west corner was enclosed in a thick wall of burnt brick, which has been removed deep down by brick robbers. Now only their deep and broad trenches are to be seen, but these enable identification of a great open stairway which led up to the tower from the south.

The east end of the northern front is very instructive. It is possible to distinguish the original building and a strengthening wall, the kisu, in front of it. Here it is of crude brick, but on the west front, like the kisu of Emach, it is of burnt brick. On the original building three periods lie superposed, as also on the kisu. Of each of these building periods slightly projecting towers are placed on the walls close together, and differently distributed, which considerably aids us in distinguishing the periods, as the mud - brick courses are frequently placed immediately over each other. Inside the lowest kisu, somewhat farther to the west, there is a vertical gutter of the kind observed in the inner city walls. In this were inscribed bricks of Esarhaddon, with the statement that he built the zikurrat of Etemenanki. The two upper portions of the kisu must therefore belong to a later period, and the lower part of the main building to an earlier period, than that of Esarhaddon.

Excavations have produced in addition stamped bricks of Sardanapalus and inscribed bricks of Nebuchadnezzar, all of which refer to the building of Etemenanki. Even if these bricks were not intended for the peribolos, but for the tower itself, their occasional use for the former is in no way surprising.

The surrounding wall is for the greater part a double wall, in which uniform broad chambers are constructed by means of cross walls. The ornamental towers on the inner walls are always placed between two doors of these chambers, while on the outside, where the two ornamental grooves that used to decorate both the towers and the intermediate spaces still exist in places, both towers and spaces are of the same breadth. There are buildings at other points of the encircling walls always joined to the outer wall. Large as they are, they have none of the characteristics of temples. Two large buildings lay on the east side, each with a large court surrounded by deep chambers uniform in size.

Babylonia's independence was lost forever when the Persian ruler removed the golden image of Marduk from his famous sanctuary on the Euphrates. At the end of the fourth century it seemed for a little while as if the ancient cult would be revived with even greater magnificence than at the time of Hammurabi and Nebuchadrezzar. The ruined stages of Etemenanki, which the destroyer of Jerusalem " had raised like a mountain " in honor of Bel, were torn down by foreign soldiers to secure a solid foundation for the more sumptuous structure of their own king.

Herodotus must have seen the enclosure in a comparatively good state of preservation. Under Alexander it needed repairs, and 600,000 days' wages were spent on clearing out the precincts and removing the rubbish (Strabo, xvi. 1).

In consequence of this historical fact travellers and explorers searched in vain for the remains of the "tower of Babel." Nothing but the lowest foundations of the famous structure will ever be discovered. For modern Arab brick-diggers completed the work of demolition which Alexander's soldiers had begun 2000 years ago. In connection with their pernicious digging they discovered the building records of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadrezzar in their original niches. A fine bomb-shaped clay cone of the first-mentioned monarch and fragments of three duplicate cylinders of his son were obtained from them more than twelve years ago for the Archaeological Museum of the U. of Pa. The place where the stage-tower once stood can be recognized even now with absolute certainty from the peculiar form of the depression which the extracted bricks have left in the soil. The Arabs call it es-sahan, "the bowl." Unlike the stage-tower of Nippur the ground-plan of Etemenanki seems to have formed a square. A curious depression extending from the centre of its southeast side marks the entrance of the ancient tower of Babylon.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 26-03-2012 18:41:40 ZULU