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Neo-Babylonian Mud Brick

But because our fathers had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia (Ezra 5:12 ESV)

 

All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar.  At the end of twelve months, he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:28-30 ESV)

 

Introduction

 

First referred to in the Tower of Babel saga, where the peoples of the Earth made bricks to build a great city and tower:   And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then 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 dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:3-4 ESV), the city of Babylon appears in various Old and New Testament accounts.  Located on the Euphrates River, about 88 km south of Baghdad, Babylon (Tell Babil), which means “Gateway to God,” was a major political epicenter of Mesopotamia over two millennia, as well as a major trade and religious center.  Perhaps its most famous ruler, more recognizable than Babylon’s earlier king Hammurabi, is Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned from 604-562 BC.  His extensive rebuilding of the city brought Babylon its greatest splendor and fame.  Babylon during Nebuchadnezzar’s rule covered a staggering 2,125 acres and its walls stretched over 11 miles on both sides of the Euphrates River, which divided the city and served as an entry point for Cyrus and his Persian army in 539 BC after he diverted the river’s course (cf. Isaiah 45:1; Daniel 5:30-31).  Eight gates provided access to the city.  Each gate lead to a processional street.  Prominent landmarks in Babylon were Nebuchadnezzar’s summer palace, built within a northern extension of the city, the southern and northern palaces, an impressive series of canals, moats and other water works.  The famed Processional Way, used during the New Year’s festival and traced for over a half mile, and the Ishtar Gate, rising some 12 m high and extending some 48 m, are among the most impressive landmarks of the city.  No one has yet convincingly identified the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  Wiseman (1985: 57-60 and Plate 2) places them at the so-called Western Outwork, west of the Ishtar Gate and abutting the river, while other scholars locate this once freestanding structure near the southern palace, where early excavators unearthed a series of vaulted rooms (Westenholtz 1996: 213-215).  Most scholars now reject this view (e.g., see further Oates 1986: 151; Finkel and Seymour 2008: 104-123).  Finally, Babylon’s impressive temples must be noted, as well as Etemenanki (the house of the foundation of heaven and earth). This great ziggurat equated with the Tower of Babel, which had a huge footprint of 91 x 91 m and perhaps rose to a height of 90 m (see Parrot 1955; Wiseman 1985: 68-73; Oates 1986: 157-159; Finkel and Seymour 2008: 54-59, 124-141).

All of these monumental structures were constructed of mud bricks due to the paucity of stone or wood in the region.  Bricks comprising the surface or exposed “skin” of a structure were often highly fired.  Other bricks were also glazed, both for aesthetic beauty as well as for durability.

Similarly, the common use of mud bricks as building material by people living in alluvial areas of the Middle East was primarily due to their simplicity and conveniently sourced components as well as their ease of manufacture.  The great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt used mud brick construction extensively and many preserved examples of ancient mud bricks still survive in these arid regions, demonstrating their amazing longevity.  Administrative and other public buildings, city wall and other important structures used highly fired, baked or glazed mud bricks for additional longevity and strength.  Until a generation or two ago, the use of mud bricks in construction persisted before the availability of cinderblocks and concrete largely replaced them. 

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

These bricks offer tangible evidence for Nebuchadnezzar and his extensive construction program at Babylon.  These same bricks were fired and used in buildings precisely during Israel’s Exilic Period or “Babylonian Captivity” (ca. 604-539 BC; e.g., Finkel and Seymour 2008: 142-154).  It is likely that some Israelite exiles actually took part in brick production in and around Babylon.  Older texts reveal that the Babylonians calculated daily labor based upon the number mud bricks produced.  Estimates suggest a daily production of 3,000 sun-dried bricks by an experienced worker and an assistant (Homsher 2012: 16-21).  For an excellent discussion about Babylon in light of the biblical texts, see the treatments by Parrot (1958), Wiseman (1985-81-115), Saggs (1988: 128-140), and Arnold (2004: 87-105).

 

Physical Description

 

Impressing an inscription onto mudbricks before firing was a common practice in Mesopotamia and known in Egypt.  The Horn Museum collection includes several such mudbricks, including two bearing the name of Amar-Suen and another probably reading Ur-Nammu, both kings of the Ur III dynasty (see the essay in this volume).  In his attempted restoration of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace at Babylon, the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, comparable to Nebuchadnezzar solely by the size of his ego, not by similar achievements, used new bricks stamped with his name and title (in Arabic) imitating the practice of certain ancient Mesopotamian rulers.

One of the first objects in what later became the Horn Museum collection, Melvin V. Jacobson donated a nearly complete mud brick from Babylon (51.0008) in 1951.  Impressed with a six line cuneiform inscription, the final two lines translate as King of Babylon, Nebuchadrezzar.  The second brick is a stamped fragment (53.0002) that Siegfried Horn retrieved from the dump heaps of a previous excavation while he visited Babylon in 1953 (Horn 1954a-d).  The third mud brick, also from Babylon (64.0001) and donated by Dr. Roy S. Cornell in 1964, is incomplete as well, but larger than Horn’s.  It contains a seven-line inscription reading Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon, provider of Esagila and Ezida, first born son of Nabopolassar.  The Esagila was the temple dedicated to Marduk, the chief god of Babylon and the Ezida was a temple to the god Nabu located at Calah (Nimrud).  For a clear drawing of the impressed cuneiform symbols found on Nebuchadnezzar’s bricks, see the examples in Wiseman (1985: Plate 8b), Finkel and Seymour (2008: 46, Figure 27; 85, Figure 62).  The standard Babylonian brick measured 33 by 33 cm with a thickness of 8 cm to increase stability (Finkel and Seymour 2008: 46).

 

Parallels

 

The Horn Museum collection includes other bricks from Babylon.  A fragment of glazed brick (64.0002), donated by Dr. Roy S. Cornell in 1964, probably displays part of a cuneiform sign and allegedly comes from the ruins of a temple in Babylon.  Long recognized as a great triumph of Babylonian art, finely fired, brilliantly glazed bricks of various colors and depicting reliefs of lions, bulls and mythical creatures as well as texts, adorned the surfaces of many monumental structures in Babylon.  Most recognizable are those on the famous Ishtar Gate complex, palace and the Processional Way.  These are on display at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where workers painstakingly reconstructed and restored the bricks of these ancient wall panels (e.g., Finkel and Seymour 2008: 41-46, Figures 25-26, 50-53, Figures 31-35, 56-58, Figures 38-40, 72-73, Figure 54; 85, Figure 63).  Other Horn Museum bricks include a burnt brick (66.0042) from a Babylon milieu, donated by Melvin Jacobson in 1966.

 

Bibliography

 

Arnold, Bill T.

2004    Who Were the Babylonians?  Archaeology and Biblical Studies 10:  Atlanta:  Society of              Biblical Literature.

 

Beaulieu, Paul-Alain

2018    A History of Babylon 2200 BC-AD 75.  Blackwell History of the Ancient World.                            London:  Wiley-Blackwell.

 

Fagen, Brian M.

2007    Return to Babylon:  Travelers, Archaeologists, and Monuments in Mesopotamia.                        Revised edition.  Boulder:  University of Colorado.

 

Finkel, Irving L., and Seymour, Michael J., editors

            2008    Babylon.  Oxford:  Oxford University.

 

Homsher, Robert S.

2012    Mud Bricks and the Process of Construction in the Middle Bronze Age Southern                        Levant.  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 368: 1-27.

 

Horn, Siegfried H.

1954a  Visits to Old Babylon Part 1:  The Size of Ancient Babylon.  Advent Review and                          Sabbath Herald 131 (February 25): 3-4.

 

1954b  Visits to Old Babylon Part 2:  Biblical Prophecies Fulfilled.  Advent Review and                            Sabbath Herald 131 (March 4): 5-7.

 

1954c  Visits to Old Babylon Part 3:  Locating the Tower of Babel.  Advent Review and                           Sabbath Herald 131 (March 11): 4-6.

 

1954d  Visits to Old Babylon Part 4:  The Fiery Furnace, The Banquet Hall of Belshazzar, and                the Lion’s Den.  Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 131 (March 18): 5-6.

 

Oates, Joan

1986    Babylon.  Ancient Peoples and Places.  Revised edition.  London:  Thames and                            Hudson.

 

Parrot, André

1955    The Tower of Babel.  Studies in Biblical Archaeology 2.  Translated by Edwin Hudson                from French.  London:  SCM.

 

1958    Babylon and the Old Testament.  Studies in Biblical Archaeology 8.  Translated by B.E.              Hooke from French.  London:  SCM.

 

Saggs, H.W.F.

1988    The Greatness that was Babylon:  A Sketch of the Ancient Civilization of the Tigris-                    Euphrates Valley.  Great Civilization Series.  Second edition.  London:  Sidgwick &                      Jackson.

 

1995    Babylonians.  Peoples of the Past 1.  Norman:  University of Oklahoma.

 

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick

1996    Babylon—Place of Creation of the Great Gods.  Pp. 194-233 in Royal Cities of the                        Biblical World, edited by Joan Goodnick Westenholz.  Jerusalem:  Bible Lands                           Museum.

 

Wiseman, Donald J.

1985    Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon.  The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1983.                Oxford:  Oxford University.

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