Nebuchadnezzar and the Tower of Babylon

A collection of 107 ancient cuneiform texts is making the news. They are the personal collection of Martin Shoyen, a Norwegian businessman. Among the finds is a fragmentary inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II, in which the Babylonian king boasts of gathering the peoples and leaders of the world to build a ziggurat (tower) to Marduk, the god of Babylon. In fact, he boasts of building two ziggurats—one at Babylon, and the other at Borsippa (about 18 km south of Babylon—probably the ziggurat dedicated to Nabu, son of Marduk). The texts have been translated by Andrew George (University of London).

In the fragmentary stele, Nebuchadnezzar claims:

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 […]

I built their structures with bitumen and (baked brick throughout). I completed them, making (them gleam) bright as the (sun)…

These boasts are reminiscent of the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:

At one time the whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let us make oven-fired bricks.” They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11.1–4 [HCSB])

The stele also depicts the king in pictorial form standing beside the ziggurat of Marduk (the tower of Babylon).

This is now one of only four visual representations of Nebuchadnezzar from primary sources.

Among the other texts from the Shoyen collection are an account of Tiglath-Pileser I‘s capture of Babylon (c.1100 BC), and the oldest known copies of the legal code of Ur-nammu (c.2040 BC). The news report by Owen Jarus does not detail the age of these copies, though. You can read the report here. The laws include a stipulation that you can buy a beer from a female tavern keeper on credit in summer, but you’ll be taxed for it in the winter. It’s interesting to see what everyday issues needed legislation 4000 years ago.

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