Tower of Babel

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and settled there ... They said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.'

"And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' "So the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because the Lord confused the language of all the earth." Genesis II, vv1-9 The Biblical account is far from transparent. Is the story of Babel an ancient Hebrew view of the history of Babylon? As early mid-Eastern peoples such as the Akkadians (third to first millennium BC) moved "from the east" on to the flood plain of Mesopotamia, they built mudbrick towers or ziggurats, mimicking the mountains from which they had come. The Akkadians called their city Babylon - bab-ilu or "gate of the gods" - and said the skygod Marduk had built it as a stepping-stone to heaven. Yet the Hebrew text derives "Babel" from balal, "to conuse". Who was confused? For Hebrews the idea of reaching divinity via a tower was blasphemy.

Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, built a gigantic ziggurat in 600 BC with gold, silver and precious stones set into the foundations. He forced slaves (among whom may have been captive Hebrews) to help. Enamelled in brilliant blue, the tower Etemananki stood 295 feet high and its terraces were planted with flowers and trees. Nearly two centuries later, the Greek historian Herodotus was impressed by its huge, crumbling remains. Archaeologists think that the Biblical Babel is a conflation of the ziggurats, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the vast conquests of the Babylonian Empire. And, perhaps, one in the eye for Marduk.

Nowadays, the term is shorthand for anyone wanting to evoke racial and linguistic disharmony (the EU has been "Tower-of-Babelled" heavily in the press of late). English-speakers, complacent at the globalisation of their own language, have often decried the "Babel" of foreign tongues.

Conversely, languages expert Dr David Dalby defiantly described the more than 10,000 living languages he had identified for UNESCO in 1998 as "not a Tower of Babel". He said: "We live in what should be a harmonious, multilingual world. I am furious still at the suffering imposed by those who sought to impose English language and culture on the rest of the world. How many tongues were destroyed because we felt we had a God-given right to force conformity on others?"

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