The Dur-Kurigalzu ziggurat that medieval travelers mistook for the Tower of Babel

In the Iraqi desert, some 30 kilometres west of Baghdad, stands an impressive mound that, at first sight, looks like a simple rock eroded by the wind over the centuries. But nothing could be further from truth, for it is made of bricks and what is left of it was once the core of a 60-metre high ziggurat.

Aerial view of the ziggurat in 1932 / photo public domain on Flickr

Before ancient Babylon was discovered about 110 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital, travelers visiting Baghdad since the Middle Ages believed it was the mythical biblical city and identified the ziggurat of Dur-Kurigalzu as the Tower of Babel because of its proximity.

But Dur-Kurigalzu is much older than Baghdad, some 2,100 years separate the founding of both, the first one by King Kurigalzu I around 1400 BC and the second one by Al-Mansur in 761 AD.

The Tower of Babel, painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563) / photo pubic domain on Wikimedia Commons

Of the city, which had several temples and a royal palace, only the central structure of the ziggurat is still standing. Just two centuries after its foundation, it was abandoned in the face of the Elamite invasions and the fall of the Kassite dynasty. Only the temple area remained partially active.

The ziggurat, dedicated to the god Enlil, originally measured 69 by 67.6 meters at its base and over 60 in height. It was built with sun-dried, unbaked bricks, and every six layers another one made of cane mats was laid out, to facilitate drainage and keep the bricks together. On the outside, it was covered with a layer of fired bricks, which, according to an inscription found on one of them, was placed by Kurigalzu II.

Ziggurat detail / photo Jona Lendering on Vici

Precisely the fact that it has been preserved in that state makes it a valuable example for historians, who can see the inner details of the building system used 24 centuries ago.

The first description of the monument was made by Claudius James Rich in his 1811 book Narrative of a Journey to the site of Babylon, at a time when it was still believed that ancient Babylon had been where Baghdad stands today.

The first archaeological excavations were carried out between 1942 and 1945, in the middle of the Second World War, covering both the ziggurat and three of the temples and part of the palace, where more than one hundred cuneiform tablets from the Kassite period were found.

The Ziggurat in 2010 / photo US Army on Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s Saddam Hussein began restoration work that led to the reconstruction of the first level of the ziggurat. But during the U.S. invasion, the area suffered damage that also affected the ziggurat. This, coupled with the growth of the city itself, which is surrounded by industrial structures and suburbs, and other natural factors such as groundwater, means that it is at risk of further deterioration and even collapse if appropriate measures are not taken.

Sources: Oxford Archaeology / Ancient Mesopotamia (Don Nardo) / A History of Babylon, 2200 BC – AD 75 (Paul-Alain Beaulieu) / The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia (Trevor Bryce) / Wikipedia.