Students of the Bible know that Abraham was from the city of Ur, now clearly located in Lower Mesopotamia. What is not often realized is that the location of Abraham’s city of origin was not known until the 20th century.
Between 1922 and 1934, the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, excavated Tell al Muquayyar (Mound of Pitch), as it was known to the inhabitants (a place repeatedly ravaged by treasure hunters), with a serious intention of discovering the civilization that lay beneath the mound.
Sir Leonard soon realized that he was excavating the site of the biblical home of the father of the Hebrew nation. The result of his long and arduous work was the removal of the biblical patriarch’s birthplace from the list of unknown locations and its placement, for the first time in history, on the map of Sumer by the Persian Gulf.
Some critics questioned the accuracy of Sir Leonard’s conclusion that the southern Ur was the home of Abraham. As Genesis 24:4-10 mentions Haran, in the north as Abraham’s “country and land of his kindred,” they preferred to seek a northwestern location for Ur.
The reference to Haran as Abraham’s “country” and “land of his kindred,” however, is not a strong objection to Sir Leonard Woolley’s discovery. Given either location for Ur, it would have been natural for Abraham to visit Haran, as long as his kindred were there.
In favor of the southern location, it can be shown that the archaeological evidence from Sir Leonard’s excavation indicates a high culture in the southern Ur, with laws that fully account for Abraham’s behavior with respect to legal inheritance, burial customs and general conduct.
The river civilizations first came to the attention of Western scholars in the 17th century. In 1625, Italian nobleman and explorer Pietro Della Valle returned from a visit to Mesopotamia, bringing with him tablets written in an unknown script that needed deciphering.
Neither this first explorer nor many who came after him from Denmark (1761), France (1845) and Britain (1854) understood scientific excavation. The expeditions conducted during these three centuries were no more than searches for museum pieces that would attract the attention of visitors.
More often than not, the “excavations” that were carried out by these groups did serious and permanent damage to valuable relics that had been safely buried for millennia.
The whole area encompassed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which is now known by the Greek name Mesopotamia (“land between the rivers”), became a focal point for archaeologists only during the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th.
Excavations at the lower part of the city revealed flint implements and a mud-hut culture that Sir Leonard Woolley placed in pre-flood times.
The implements and the dwellings revealed a community whose mainstay was farming and husbandry. Fishing was also an essential part of life (the coastline was closer to the city at that time than it is today). Since the loom, too, was already in use, the inhabitants were not necessarily dressed in skins. At the same time, they were not what we might term a civilized society. The Sumerians moved into Ur at a later time with an advanced culture. They were skilled in use of metals, and surviving records show that they excelled in the art of writing.
The invading Sumerian tribes captured Ur, along with surrounding areas, rebuilt it with burnt brick and constructed a wall around it. The archaeological finds from this period included the wheel, and the examination of the pottery reveals that the potter’s art, even at that time, included the use of the wheel.
Like their predecessors, the Sumerians were farmers, but they also conducted trade with other peoples as far east as the Indus valley and as far west as Egypt. By far the most important discovery at Ur was the vast number of written documents. The Sumerian language is the oldest known to us with surviving records.
No similarity has yet been established between this language and any other in the world. It is a known language, however, and had been classified among the agglutinative languages. The Sumerian language was such an established feature of culture at Ur that even after the city declined, with the rise of Babylon this language continued to be the means of expression for arts and letters.
A modern parallel is the literary role of Latin in European culture. Latin was so established in Europe that, as late as the 16th century literature was written exclusively in Latin, even though countries used their own languages in daily life.
Scribes in Sumeria were specialists who had devoted much time and effort to the art of writing. The Sumerian name for scribe (tupshar) meant “one who writes on tablets.”
Sir Leonard Woolley was able to draw up a plan of the city, incorporating details that had come to light during the excavation. The city of the patriarchal times had narrow, winding, unpaved streets. Its houses were slightly raised off the ground, perhaps as a practical precaution against inundations from the river. Its temple and shrines were in prominent places.
There was, of course, a cemetery, which has yielded most of the information we have today about Sumerian culture, and the whole city was surrounded by walls. The architecture of houses and other buildings is impressive, given their historical setting of four millennia ago along with the desert conditions and the total lack of stone for building purposes. The lower part of the houses was constructed with burnt brick, which provided strength. The upper part of the houses was of ordinary (mud) brick.
The Sumerians were artistic enough to realize that the combination of two types of brick was unsightly and in need of hiding. Houses, therefore, were covered with plaster and whitewash.
Far from all expectation, the houses consisted of two levels and comprised 13 or 14 rooms carefully arranged around an open courtyard. In one corner of the courtyard were the stairs, which led to the upper level. The rest of the courtyard led to a kitchen, reception rooms, servants’ quarters, a chapel and rooms used for storage.
The condition of these relics was not as bad as might have been expected. Some of the ovens, for example, were soon restored and used for baking fresh bread for the archaeologists working on the site.
The large amount of evidence that came to light from these excavations moved Sir Leonard to make a profound statement regarding the culture in which Abraham spent his early years:
“We must revise considerably our ideas of the Hebrew patriarch when we learn that his earlier years were spent in such sophisticated surroundings; he was the citizen of a great city and inherited the traditions of an ancient and highly organized civilization. “The houses themselves reveal comfort and even luxury” (Ur of the Chaldees, Sir Leonard Woolley, Pelican, 1938, p. 90).
If Sumerian houses revealed comfort and even luxury, the legal and governmental structures of Ur were very advanced, even by 20th century standards. The numerous clay tablets provide us with the full text of laws and the governmental system.
The head of the government was the “lugal” or “prince.” He was a monarch – not an absolute monarch like those of Europe, but, at the same time, not a figurehead either. He was a powerful ruler and the ultimate authority for all appeals of the community. Under the lugal was a cabinet of ministers of war, communications, agriculture and finance.
A vital aspect of the governmental structure was the function of the scribes. The scribes were highly specialized in keeping records. It was their duty to keep the calendar up to date, to proclaim the month by each new moon and to insert an extra (13th) month whenever it became necessary. It was also the duty of the scribes to keep track of the receipts deposited in the temple by all citizens.
The scribes’ records show that the kind of a city often had control of surrounding areas, too. The government in such cases was somewhat decentralized. Scholars who have tried to analyze these records believe that, although wars between cities broke out from time to time, in general there was stability and progress.
The greatest period of Ur is considered to be that of the third dynasty (circa 21st century B.C.), especially the reign of Ur-Nammu. King Ur-Nammu rebelled against Ur-Khegal of the city of Erech and made Ur the capital of a large empire. His ascension to authority was seen as a special appointment by the god Nanna.
Ur-Nammu’s dynasty was followed by that of Isin and Larsa, and then the Sumerian civilization came to an end with the rise of Babylon. In spite of the tremendous achievement in government, bureaucracy was pervasive in Sumerian culture. This may be a natural outcome of the ease with which the Sumerians kept records. Tax collectors were especially hated in Ur because they seem to have left nothing untaxed, but the heavy taxation did not detract from the effective legal system
The legal system at Ur was based on specific codes that have survived. Ur-Nammu’s legal code is the oldest in existence, antedating the code of Hammurabi by more than 300 years.
The excavation carried out in the Royal Cemetery brought to light an abundance of small objects that indicate a sophisticated use of gold and expert decorative techniques with precious stones: beads, earrings, daggers, pins, cylinder seals, tools, weapons and various clay vessels.
A golden dagger, for example, discovered in 1926-27, had a golden blade with golden studs. A lyre showed the same artistic qualities: It had a golden head of a bull with eyes and beard of lapis lazuli, and decorative illustrations along the side of the sound box. Larger objects found in the cemetery did not have the same charm as small objects. They were rather on the unattractive side. Statues, for example, have a head that is too large for the size of the body, and eyes that are too large for the size of the head.
This disproportion has attracted considerable attention as inconsistent with the advanced culture of Ur, and has led to the theory that these works of art betray foreign influence from northern Semitic Akkad. This theory, however, is not without weaknesses, since there is no archaeological evidence to justify the conclusion that the local art was of a higher quality than that of Akkad.
In any case, the religious nature of the art of Ur may hold a better explanation for the incongruity. After all, it is known that the Etruscans and the Egyptians, who likewise had reached great heights as engineers and goldsmiths respectively, exhibit artwork that is not significantly different from that found at Ur. An understanding of the religious beliefs in Ur may shed light on their art and approach to life.
Among the religious edifices that made the greatest impression on archaeologists are: 1) The ziggurat – a tower about 200 feet long, 150 feet wide and 70 feet high, 2) the temples and shrines to various gods and 3) the Royal Cemetery.
The religious significance of these finds lie in the conclusion that the civilization of Ur was dominated by religion. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the biblical statement that Abraham’s ancestors worshiped many gods (Joshua 24:2).
It is generally accepted that the Sumerians, who captured Ur, brought a worship of the “high places” with them; they must have come from areas that afforded mountain habitations for their gods. The Mesopotamian areas, however, afforded no such luxuries, and this natural deficiency prompted them to build towers that would function as high places.
The ziggurat was called “Hill of Heaven” or “Mountain of God” and was a standard feature of every Mesopotamian city. The steps of the ziggurat led up to a shrine that may have functioned as a post for the observation of the stars. The ziggurat was an impressive structure, not unlike the Egyptian pyramids, by its sheer size.
The ziggurat at Ur was built by Ur-Nammu and stood by the main temple, which was dedicated to Sin. Its four corners pointed to the four points of the compass, possible as an indication of an extensive influence in the world.
At the base of the ziggurat were temples dedicated to various deities. The main temple was also the kings’ palace; he was, after all, the vice-regent of heaven. Here, in the temple, was his cabinet of ministers and, of course, his harem. The harem has persisted through history as a privilege of eastern kings and other potentates, the temples and the shrines speak for themselves in all cultures and the ziggurat has developed into the minaret and church steeple.
The excavation of the Royal Cemetery has had the most profound effect on our understanding of the religious life at Ur. Here are some brief extracts from Sir Leonard’s own description of the excavation in the Royal Cemetery:
“We found, in another part of the field, five bodies lying side by side. Below them, a layer of matting was found and tracing this along we came to another group of bodies. We found the earth side of the pit in which the women’s bodies lay and could see that the bodies of five men were on the ramp.
“Following the pit along, we came upon more bones which at first startled us by being other than human. In front of the chariot lay the crushed skeletons of two asses with the bodies of the grooms by their heads. At the foot of the ramp lay six soldiers, ordered in two ranks, with copper spears by their sides and copper helmets crushed flat on the broken skulls.
“Against the end wall of the stone chamber lay the bodies of nine women wearing the gala head-dress of lapis and carnelian heads from which hung golden pendants in the form of beech leaves, great lunate earrings of gold the whole space between them and the wagons was crowded with other dead, women and men” (ibid., pp 23-51).
It is known, now, that the custom in the city of Ur was that a royal person had to be accompanied to the grave by his entire staff in perpetual attendance. The king, in this case, was accompanied by 65 men, and the queen by 25 people in all.
The order which the dead were arranged around the royal person and the decency evident in their dress indicated to Sir Leonard that they probably had been marched down to the grave (perhaps in a drugged state) and their bodies arranged accordingly before the pit was filled in and the soil was trampled down on top of them.
The clear division of the royal tombs into different levels and floors showed that the pit was filled in stages and with appropriate ceremonies. These ceremonies included a human sacrifice at each level, until the top was reached.
Discoveries show the religious life of the inhabitants included magic, interpretation of dreams, astrology and fertility rites. This is suggested even by jewels in the shape of ears of corn, pomegranates and bulls.
Sir Leonard’s discoveries from 1922 to 1934 are an important benchmark for biblical studies. Ur was placed firmly on the map of historical cities, and clearer light was shed on the early life of Abraham.
Abraham emerges, on the strength of the discoveries, as a man with a background of refined culture, an heir of a body of literature and an artistic tradition and a product of a society that understood law and order and strong government. The archaeological discoveries have at last provided a cultural framework that can be valuable in developing a deeper understanding of the home life and mission of Abraham.
How the Findings at Ur Relate to Us Today
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are mentioned by name in the opening chapters of the Bible as proceeding from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:14). Some of the most influential cultures in the history of the world flourished on the banks of these rivers: Sumerian, Assyrian, Hittite, Babylonian and others. Sumeria has bequeathed its cultural legacy to the modern world in many ways. An example is the sexagesimal system, by which the day is divided into 24 hours, each hour into 60 minutes, each minute into 60 seconds and the circle into 360 degrees.
Mesopotamia and Sumer in particular, was the first culture to establish commercial banking, to standardize weights and measures, to make legal contracts and to codify civil laws and statutes in writing.
Some 20th century religious buildings had their beginnings in Abraham’s city, including the church steeple and the minaret.