“So what do you know about the tower of Babel?” I asked Danny over coffee. Seemed as good a morning-talk subject as any. “The one in the Bible? asked Danny, “dunno, why?”.
So the ‘why the subject itself occurred to me’ is that I was thinking about the linguistic challenge facing the multi-national astronauts working in the international space station. I recalled the Biblical story that God confused the one common language on earth in order to prevent men building the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. So that just seemed an interesting mirror to the past.
The ‘why I asked Danny’ was because he had been raised in a religious school and spent some time of his career teaching in a Jewish school; I thought with that background he might have an insight or at least a conspiratorial opinion on a classic Bible story. But no, it drew a blank. He told me to Google it; that’s school teaching 21st century style.
So to summarise the Biblical story according to Genesis 11: ‘throughout the land mankind spoke one language and they moved eastwards to the land of Shimar (Sumer). And they said: “Come let us build a town and tower with its top reaching to heaven”.’ The Tower of Babel, a baked brick structure intended to reach the heavens, was halted by God and his angels, because (Gen. 11: 6-9) “the Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.”
But what was it about this Babel tower that so concerned the God of the Bible, Yahweh? The Tower in question was built in Shimar (Sumer) which was Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq). Archeology dates the arrival of humans into Mesopotamia between 3500 and 4500 BC. as they moved eastwards from the Mediterranean. This is from carbon dating the virgin soil beneath the earliest records of human occupation. The Bible records in Genesis 10:10, that a descendant of Noah’s son, Ham, a man named Nimrod was the first ‘king’ of this region and built his city called Nippur. We know from unearthed and translated Sumerian tablets that a six-seven story Ziggurat had been built in the city of Nippur where this priest-king lived.
The Sumerians are known for their skilled metalwork, stonework and statues. But more importantly they developed mathematics system based on 60, a twelve-month calendar based on moon cycles and a cuneiform alphabet which they used to keep records on clay tablets using a stylus. We also know that the oldest records of the science of astronomy are from Sumerian tablets dated back to the 3rd millennium bc and that they demonstrate that the Sumerians had a sophisticated knowledge of the solar system.
The tablet VA/243 shows all known planets in the solar system in correct relative size, including Pluto and, importantly, showed planets circuiting the sun (represented by the star of David). It was not until the 16th century AD that modern astronomers worked out that it was the earth travelling around the sun not the sun travelling around the earth.
While the five planets out to Saturn can be seen with the naked eye and were known to ancient astronomers, Uranus was only discovered by William Herschel in 1781, Neptune discovered by Johann Galle in 1846 and Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. And yet these three outer planets are depicted accurately on this 3,000 BC Sumerian tablet.
Babylon itself is first mentioned in tablets around 2300 BC as a small city in Akkad. Its status grew and around 1800 BC, a ruler named Hammurabi expanded the borders of the Akkadian/ Babylonian Empire, conquering Sumer. Babylon is recorded as replacing Nippur as the “Holy City of Mesopotamia”. The Babylonians adopted the Sumerians cuneiform alphabet and then adapted it to their own Akkadian language.
The literal words of Genesis 11 are that the whole earth spoke one language. But this is the Bronze age. There were well-established civilisations in Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Sparta, Troy, China, Europe, North and South America and archaeology demonstrates that there were already many languages around the world. Being so concerned about this one baked-brick tower trying to reach the heavens also seems a bit pointless when just along the road the Egyptians were building their pyramids, in Britain Stonehenge was built 3000 bc, in South America pyramids were being built and the remains of many ziggurats have been uncovered throughout Mesopotamia, having been built between 3000 BC and 600 BC.
So perhaps it was not the tower itself that was of concern but rather what was actually inside the tower. Perhaps it was no more than an historical account of the Babylonians conquering the Sumerians, plundering the library of knowledge, cosmology and science stored in the Priest-King’s Ziggurat in Nippur and replacing the Sumerian cuneiform language with the Akkadian cuneiform language so that the knowledge contained in the Sumerian tablets would become confused within a generation.
And so it could get all too academically speculative or just dismissed as another Biblical myth that just doesn’t quite stack up against archeological evidence, except for the uncanny message that it is recorded in the Bible which tells us that a common language would enable men to reach the heavens and so a diversity of language was imposed on man to prevent that achievement; and that situation is now being challenged 4-5,000 years later.
While the modern exploration of the heavens was initiated as part of the USA/USSR cold war, it is today very much a global mission. USA launched the space station Freedom in 1987 with support from the European Space Agency (Columbus Laboratory) and Japan (Japan Experimental Laboratory). In 1990 NASA launched the Hubble space telescope into low earth orbit. Russia then abandoned its plans for a successor to the Mir space station and in 1993 became a partner of the International Space Station (ISS). Without Russian support, the Western partners probably would have had to give up the Freedom Space Station.
Though NASA no longer sends its own shuttles into space, it has an agreement to help staff the ISS until 2020 and, as part of this agreement, will continue to send astronauts to the ISS in conjunction with the Russian Federal Space Agency. So astronauts from around the world, including Japan, Canada, Europe in addition to Russia and the United States, travel to the ISS. Several languages are spoken on board. This communication challenge is assisted by the spoken dialogue computer on the ISS, named Clarissa, which is programmed to understand both English and Russian. But future NASA astronauts will be required to learn Russian before they go into space. Because the Russian Federal Space Agency is facilitating the space flight to and from the ISS, it makes sense that the NASA wants astronauts to be able to correspond with their fellow space travelers. For over ten years all European astronaut activities are conducted at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany. In fact all the other astronauts on the ISS: Americans, Russians, Japanese and Canadians are also trained with European laboratory equipment. And European astronauts receive training in either Houston, USA, Star City in Russia, Tsukuba in Japan or Montreal, Canada to learn to operate the systems and components of the partners. The arrangement between the international partners is that any partner who owns a laboratory or another infrastructure element on the station trains the astronauts of all partners for it. We will also soon have to take into account that China, as the emerging dominant global economy, will probably start playing a much larger role in reaching the heavens.
To seriously explore the heavens we need international financial and intellectual co-operation and so we really do need a common language. An Anglo-Asian-Euro common language may possibly evolve in time, but it seems far more likely that Apple.com will much sooner adapt Clarissa into a virtual common language by translating multiple languages instantaneously into a receiving earpiece; sreating a virtual common language. The confusion of language will then be unravelled. Maybe they will name it Nimrod. And when we understand each other, will “nothing we plan to do be impossible for us”?
So from the rubble of the Tower of Babel emerges, 4-5,000 years later, the Satellite of Apple reaching the heavens; such is the imagination of man. But will the Gods intervene again? Will the satellite come crashing down to earth and will Apple’s universal language become confused? And just how did the ancient Sumerians know about the outer planets 4-5,000 years ago?
This is the conversation I was trying to have with Danny. Coffee has that effect on me, its surprising that it is still legal. I must contact Peter Jackson and see if there’s a movie in it before I come down from my caffeine buzz.