Monday, February 22, 2010

The Tower of Babel

There are many weird and wonderful interpretations of the Tower of Babel that can be found in both picture books and paintings, so how do we go about finding out what the Tower of Babel actually looked like? The best way to find out is to look at the earliest examples of large-scale buildings found in roughly the same area. These are of course the Ziggurat's of Mesopotamia. Most biblical scholars and archaeologists agree that the Tower of Babel was most likely an early, if not the earliest, form of Ziggurat. Ziggurats were a type of tower which were commonly found in the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian cities of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia means "the land between two rivers" and was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq.

The picture above is my drawing of a ziggurat before I added all the people busy in construction. Many Bible artists show the Tower of Babel towering up into the clouds, but the Bible does give the impression that the tower, due to Gods intervention, was left unfinished, as was the city. It's been suggested that the reason why there are no remains of such a sizable structure to be found today is because God frustrated their work in the very early stages.
As I was planning on showing the tower unfinished (at 3 levels), I also needed a way of showing how high the tower was intended to be when finished, (7 levels). The only way that I could think of doing this was to show the people gathered around a plan of the intended tower drawn onto a stretched animal skin, which we see in picture one. (left)

Ziggurats were huge stepped structures that were 2 to 7 tiers high, and usually found in the centre of a city. On the highest platform a temple was built to worship the various deities of the time. Because ziggurats were considered to be the dwelling place of a particular deity, only priests were permitted on them. The Mesopotamians believed that these ziggurat temples connected heaven and earth. The highest ziggurats went up to 300 feet high, which is equivalent to a 30 story office block today! They were built from mud bricks as there were few trees and little rock to quarry in the area. Unlike todays buildings, ziggurats were solid. The ancient architects did not have the know-how to build tall hollow structures, and so they filled them with earth. They were in effect man-made mountains! This is best seen in picture 3 which is an ariel view of the partly built ziggurat. The fact that ziggurats were solid would do away with the need for scaffolding which you do sometimes see in pictures of the tower of Babel.
Each flat terrace was paved with kiln-baked bricks. Some Bible artists have shown these flat terraces planted up with plants and trees. This is interesting because these ziggurats were like giant planters complete with drainage holes! You can see how the ancient architects later developed the idea of planting up these raised platforms in the hanging gardens of Babylon.The holes which look a little like windows in the walls of the ziggurat were there to allow water trapped inside to evaporate. The British archaeologist Leonard Woolley (1880-1969), who was well known for his excavations of the ziggurat at Ur, called these holes 'Weeper holes'.

Ziggurat Bricks
Ziggurats were built with two layers of brick. The inner layer was built of sun-dried bricks, and the outer layer was built of kiln-baked bricks which were less porous. The wooden brick molds seen in picture 2 are loosely based on the Egyptian ones that I've seen in Manchester museum. The bricks that were baked, to make them water resistant, were baked in dome shaped kilns made from, (yes you've guessed it), mud! These kilns had holes in the sides which dry twigs could be fed through to keep the fire going. When the bricks had cooled, they were removed from the dome and ready for use.
Bricks were also glazed in many different colors, I've chosen terra cotta and blue, but other colors were also available such as white and indigo. The temples constructed on the top tier were built entirely out of blue or indigo glazed bricks. The mortar used to hold the bricks together was bitumen (Gen 11:3). This was found in natural pits in Mesopotamia. In the photo on the right you can see a close up of the bricks and bitumen mortar used on the ziggurat at Ur. Bitumen or pitch was also used for other purposes during Bible times such as coating the outside of vessels. (See the Noah's Ark post).

There are 5 pictures in the 'Tower of Babel' set which can be viewed here. This brings our Bible picture count to 832!


Deboraw said...

Graham, Very interesting. Lots of research. It is helpful to have an idea of what went into the pictures. Deboraw

Tim Shirey said...

Thank you for your recent posts and the historical research behind the images. When I see depictions of the tower, for example, it's hard to know what decisions the artist based on archeological evidence and what may have been simply added as creative embellishment. Example: the 'Weeper holes' on the sides.

I also greatly appreciate any color information you give (brick color, glazing pigments used, rock types in region, etc.). This is often omitted from historical research sites I find but is important for an illustrator.

Your posts are very timely for me as I am having to illustrate these subjects over the next several months! (Babel, Noah's ark, etc.).

For structures like the tower and the ark, I realize that I'll probably need to take the additional step of building small maquettes first to better flesh it out, so I can see how light hits it and to keep it looking consistent throughout the lesson.

Deboraw said...

Graham, I agree with Tim. It is so important to have the back ground in order to better illustrate. All of these things are such a help. Deboraw

Allen said...

While people may have different views still good things should always be appreciated. Yours is a nice blog. Liked it!!!

Nahum said...

Great visual interpretation based on impressive research.

Bible artist said...

It does make you more confident going ahead with a picture when you've done some background research.

Yes, I love to read any information on colors too. Anything I find I like to share on the blog.
It really does help building models. I carved a small scale model of Noah's Ark out of wood and I was amazed how long and narrow it was. I should take more photos Tim but my camera's not the best!
I would be very interested to see any photos of your models when completed.

Thanks Allen!

Many thanks Nahum.

Deboraw said...

Graham, Are you going to post any of your pictures of models? I would be interested in seeing something like that also. I am planning my classes for the end of the year and we should be going back through some of those very things also. Consequently, it would give insight. Deboraw

Bible artist said...

I've only made one model Deboraw, of Noah's Ark. It's solid wood and painted black! Not very interesting, or photogenic, I'm afraid. I made it just to get a feel of the Ark's dimensions. I could have done with a model of the Tower of Babel though, especially when it came to drawing the ariel view!

If anyone has built a model to help them to draw a particular Bible object or building, I would be interested to see it.

Deboraw said...

A friend of my youngest son is wanting him to carve duck (decoys), and I'm figuring if he could carve duck decoys, he could (with a little help and some persuasion--smile) carve (or build) ME some things also. Which would be much more helpful than a duck decoy...and I was thinking...which is what my husband says always gets HIM in trouble...Hmmm? Smile Deboraw

Bible artist said...

If we hear on the news that someone is building a Tower of Babel in Iowa Deboraw, we'll know that you're keeping your son busy! Lol!

Speaking of building - I had an email from an NTM missionary who will be using our pictures in a tribe in Pau Pau New Guinea. He was very pleased that the building process is clearly shown in this set of pictures, as the tribe where he is based have no concept of how to build using brick.

Deboraw said...

Graham, I always seem to keep everyone busy...people in my family have complained that they can't seem to sit down without a voice saying,'come here and help'. Just after they sit down...not right before.'s called timing. LOL Deboraw