“And he caused a great tower to be built on the hill north of the land Shilom.” (Mosiah 11:13.)
Close your eyes and do a little time traveling by trying to visualize this verse of scripture. Try to see in your mind’s eye the hill, the tower, and the builders toiling. Can you? What does the word tower mean in the Book of Mormon context? Most of us probably form no concrete image at all or else interpret the word in terms of our own culture and see a temple spire, the battlements of a Norman castle, or the lashed-pole tower at Scout camp. Wouldn’t it be more enlightening to be able to interpret tower and other words in the Book of Mormon in more concrete terms?
The earliest tower mentioned in the Book of Mormon was in Mesopotamia—today’s Iraq—on the plain near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Israelites, referring back to it years later, called it the tower of Babel. But the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon called it simply “the great tower.”
This great tower and others like it might have influenced the pattern for those built by the Book of Mormon peoples in America.
In Mesopotamia, where the Jaredites started their journey that was to lead them part way around the world, perhaps the only structures that could be thought of as towers were brick pyramids called ziggurats—first built a little before 3000 B.C. In the ancient Akkadian language, ziqquratu means pinnacle or mountain summit. The builders thought of mountains as being close to the home of God. Thus, when the builders of the great tower in Mesopotamia thought they could build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven” (Gen. 11:4), they probably meant that this was a holy spot where heaven could be contacted. In fact, the first of these temple-towers that we know about was likely named “Gate of God” (“Babel”).
The prophets of Israel had this same tradition; for example, the Old Testament refers to “the mountain of the Lord’s house.” (Isa. 2:2.) Note that Moses approached God atop Sinai, and the Savior, with Peter, James, and John, climbed the Mount of Transfiguration for a great spiritual experience. In the Book of Mormon the idea is similar. Nephi’s great vision of our day (1 Ne. 11:1) was given to him on top of a mountain. A mountaintop was considered to stand “between the heavens and the earth.” (Alma 1:15.)
The first Mesopotamian ziggurats we know about were constructed in three or more levels, with a terraced appearance. The levels symbolically represented the earth, the heavens, and the underworld, making the ziggurat a kind of model of all creation. Important people might be buried in or near such an artificial mountain; after all, that put them first in line to move into heaven through the gate. A sacred building was sometimes constructed atop a ziggurat as a special place of worship.
This same basic thinking about sacred elevations, whether natural or artificial, seems to have prevailed among the Book of Mormon peoples. We read that the prophet Nephi went onto his own private “tower” to pray. This was in his own garden, but the top of the structure was visible from the nearby street. When he knelt down and was “pouring out his soul unto God upon the tower,” passersby wondered at the vigor of his praying and stopped to comment. (Hel. 7:10–14.)
The Zoramites “had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head.” (Alma 31:13.) Whoever wished to worship went up on this tower, stretched forth his hands toward heaven, and addressed God. “The place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.” (Alma 31:21.)
King Benjamin, wanting to address his people, had them “come up” to the temple (it was on some elevation, as was usually the case), but then had to build a tower to speak from because the crowd couldn’t fit inside the temple yard. (See Mosiah 2:5–8.) Later, the wicked King Noah built a high tower near the temple in the city of Lehi-Nephi (see Mosiah 11:12–13), and then another on a hill nearby.
These towers had a political as well as a sacred significance. After all, to construct a large public monument was a kind of demonstration of the power of the ruler to organize and order his people—a symbol of government. So it had been with the great tower of Genesis 11 [Gen. 11], which God considered a defiant symbol of the builders’ sense of independence.
Later on, some Nephite leaders who were ambitious for personal power and wealth refused to support the central government. The patriot Moroni raised a flag, “the title of liberty,” rallied the majority, and subdued the rebels. He forced the local leaders to show their loyalty by causing “the title of liberty to be hoisted upon every tower which was in all the land which was possessed by the Nephites.” (Alma 46:36.)
A bit later the rebellious King-men had to be subdued in the same manner; when defeated, they too “were compelled to hoist the title of liberty upon their towers, and in their cities.” (Alma 51:20.) Local leaders apparently communicated their loyalty by the symbols on their towers.
When the wicked Nephite Amalickiah got control of the Lamanite government by trickery and murder, “he did appoint men to speak unto the Lamanites from their towers” in order to “inspire their hearts against the Nephites.” (Alma 48:1–2.)
These cases demonstrate the degree to which towers had political or legal significance as well as a sacred meaning. In fact, religion and government were so closely connected in ancient times that it is artificial to even talk about them separately.
The primary archaeological evidences so far discovered that might be related to the towers in the Book of Mormon are the platform pyramids. Their ruins cover Mexico and Central America today. Perhaps the most spectacular is the great Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, near Mexico City. It is a good deal bigger than any of the early ziggurats discovered in Mesopotamia, but in concept it is very similar to them. Archaeologists say that it was built in the first two centuries after the birth of Christ. Even after it was abandoned, people from great distances would visit it as a holy shrine.
When the Spanish conquerors came to Mexico, they were amazed at the number and size of these sacred pyramids. They called them towers (torres). These could have been the same type of structures Joseph Smith mentioned in translating the Book of Mormon. They noted that there were different types of towers ranging from central, dominating pyramids, which served a whole city, down to neighborhood and even family or clan structures (remember Nephi’s tower).
To look at most of today’s ruins of former temple-towers may not be very impressive, for much of the color, life, and action that characterized them in former times is now missing. They seem stark and lifeless, the quiet symbols of people now passed from the scene, but if they were the towers mentioned in the Book of Mormon, they add another puzzle piece to our understanding of its culture.
The Old World: “Mountain of God”
Babylonian myth placed the birth of the great gods on the “Mountain of the World.” Here was found the home of the gods on earth, where priestly representatives ascended to communicate with them. “Bond Between Heaven and Earth” was a name given to one famous ziggurat. The best preserved of these ziggurats, found at Ur, Abraham’s home, is shown in the artist’s rendering. It rose to a height of about 85 feet above the flat, flood plain of the Euphrates River. Plants growing on the terraces furthered the illusion of the structure being a mountain.
Among the Israelites, the temple of Solomon was erected on an elevated platform atop Mount Zion at Jerusalem. Pagan “high places,” which we know now were sacred mounds constructed as bases upon which apostate ceremonies were performed, were condemned vigorously by many of the Old Testament prophets. One such mound that has been excavated near Jerusalem was about 75 feet across and probably dates to Lehi’s lifetime. While not as impressive as the true ziggurats, such elevations were similar in concept.
Cuicuilco: The Victim of Xitle
This once rich area in the southwestern part of the Valley of Mexico was covered by lava from the small volcano Xitle around the time of Christ. Even by then the round temple platform at Cuicuilco had fallen into disuse since that was the period when Teotihuacan, only 50 miles away, was beginning to dominate the area.
The earliest core of the Cuicuilco structure could be as old as 600 B.C. In any case several additions and reconstructions went on to bring the stone-lined, round tower to its final form. When the volcano finally spewed its lava around the base of the structure, it covered vestiges of the ancient life of the builders, which have only been uncovered in recent years.
As one of the earliest large public monuments of central Mexico, the pyramid of Cuicuilco was somewhat crude and not huge—it is about 80 feet high.
Teotihuacan: Pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon
Teotihuacan was the greatest city in ancient Mexico. At the peak of its glory it may have contained 200,000 souls spread over eight square miles. Research reveals that both the major “towers” were constructed within a few decades, quite certainly within the period from A.D. 50 to A.D. 200.
The Pyramid of the Sun is very nearly the same height as the Salt Lake Temple, and the base of the structure covers a little more ground than Temple Square. The nearby Pyramid of the Moon is 70 feet lower.
Tunneling in the larger structure suggests that an enormous tomb might be at its heart. A late tradition holds that the pyramids were built over “the gods who sacrificed themselves.” In any case, as Dr. Millon, the leading expert on Teotihuacan, puts it, “The building of the Pyramid of the Sun must have been inspired by a powerful and living faith.”
Archaeological evidence indicates that the glory and immense influence of the metropolis collapsed in some kind of social or military struggle between A.D. 300 and 400. By the time the Spaniards arrived the zone had been largely abandoned for a thousand years, but reverential visitors had continued leaving offerings there through all those years.
Izapa: Stories on Stones
No other ancient American site has as impressive a set of stone monuments; at least 87 have been recovered, many of them upright (stelae) and carved in low relief. Pyramid mound construction is less spectacular at this site, yet it was a vital feature. Scientific dating methods indicate that Mound 30a was already a sizable 30-plus feet tall well before 600 B.C. It was further increased in size by more than one-third no later than the time of Christ. At least 75 other pyramid structures of varying sizes are also found at Izapa.
The extensive studies carried out by the BYU-New World Archaeological Foundation since 1962 at this site on the Mexico-Guatemala border have demonstrated that Izapa was a major art and religious center for more than 2,000 years. Most of the remarkable, carved monuments were probably put in place during the last two centuries before Christ.
Monte Alban: Hills upon Hill
The striking 1300-foot hill near the capital city of the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, upon which the site of Monte Alban was built, was no doubt already sacred by virtue of its elevation, but the builders of the ceremonial center on its summit added a whole series of structures that further sanctified the place by their raised tops. Archaeological excavations show that the hilltop had been scraped to its present flat form by the first century before the time of Christ’s birth, and tombs and elevated temples had begun to surround the long plaza. What appears to have been a kind of observatory was in use by then too.
Details of construction and symbolism varied over the centuries, but the essential form and sacred nature of the place continued little changed. The structures we see today are reconstructions of originals of various dates from about the second century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. Monte Alban too was abandoned around A.D. 600, although it had by then long since passed the peak of its glory.