Let us now leave 5th century B.C. Athens, Greece and take a trip back in time 1600 years to the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. A distance of 1400 miles separates the two cities. We leave the mild Mediterranean climate and the sophisticated life of the Athenians with their stately marble temples and travel to a semiarid climate in a much more rugged part of the world. As you can see from the map below, Ur was located in what is today southern Iraq.
Abraham of Ur
By the time that Abraham appeared on the scene in 2000 B.C., Ur had already been in existence for 1800 years.1 It would continue to be inhabited until 450 B.C., fifty years after the death of Socrates. Ur was a significant and bustling port city in Mesopotamia. Because of its location near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, it was a central point for trade that welcomed ships as far away as India. As you can imagine, it was very wealthy. In fact, it was the wealthiest city in Mesopotamia. The city was lead by a Priest-King which was typical in that part of the world where the two functions were usually combined. We will see this later in the the story of Abraham and Melchizedek. The focal point of the city was the Ziggurat which was the center of religious ritual. It was home to about 12,000 people and if you walked through the narrow, crowded streets, you would smell and see cattle and donkeys as well as encounter merchants and artisans selling their goods. The fields surrounding the city produced dates, onions, garlic, lentils, and barley. Ur was at the height of its prosperity at the time that Abraham lived there.
The Houses of Ur
Compared to what we are used to today, the streets of Ur were laid out in a random manner.2 Streets looped around in a seemingly haphazard manner, with some streets coming to a dead end for no apparent reason. The sized and styles of homes varied, as you can imagine, based on wealth. Most houses were two stories tall. There was a single door that entered off the street on the first level that entered into a small lobby. That lobby led to a courtyard that other rooms were arranged around. The rooms on the first level were used for guests and as workrooms. A staircase led to the second floor that had a balcony and more rooms that were used for sleeping and leisure. Centuries later, we find Roman villas that had a similar design.
The homes in Ur were rather sophisticated and even attractive.3 The walls consisted of mud bricks onto which plaster and whitewash were applied, giving the appearance of modern stucco. Just like Roman villas centuries later, there was a drain at the center of the courtyard that channeled rainwater into a storage cistern. Archaeological evidence shows that some of the wealthier homes had indoor plumbing. Windows were small, but the central courtyard created an open an airy feeling as well a good source of light during the day. At night torches or oil lamps provided light. Interestingly, some omens or charms have been found that were used to provide protection against a snake or scorpion crawling into people’s beds at night!
The People of Ur
In modern culture, we are used to clothing styles that change quickly. It was quite the opposite in ancient Ur.4 Evidence shows that clothing, with minor variations, stayed the same for over 350 years. Men had an outer garment that resembled a Roman toga. There was a plain version and a version with a decorative fringe. Most men had beards, but some were clean shaven. Women used jewelry for variety Women had a variety of hairstyles, where men’s hairstyles were more limited. Men and woman both used sandals and simple hats.
As mentioned above, Ur’s location in Mesopotamia yielded a wide variety of foods. Along with fruits and vegetables, they ate various kinds of meats including beef, duck, fish, goats, oxen, and pork. In addition, they enjoyed beer and wine. They also drank milk and juice. As is true in most cultures, the wealthier enjoyed more variety as well as a healthy diet of meat, whereas the poorer citizens had a simpler diet as well as little opportunity to eat meat.
Polytheism in Ur
The citizens of Ur were polytheists and, like all of Mesopotamia, worshipped many gods.5 Some gods had a higher ranking than others, and each city-state had its chief protector god. The chief protector god of Ur was Nanna. Nanna is the Sumerian name for the moon god and probably referred to the full moon.6 The cult of Nanna started in the marshes of the lower Euphrates River where it was closely associated with the cattle herds, the livelihood of the people in that region.
Nanna’s emblem was a crescent and was sometimes represented by the horns of a great bull.7 Most gods were connected to fertility of humans and animals and also the success of crops. Of course, this makes sense for without the success of those things, then all else is for naught. According to Britannica online, “Nanna bestowed fertility and prosperity on the cowherds, governing the rise of the waters, the growth of reeds, the increase of the herd, and therefore the quantity of dairy products produced.”
Ancient cities in that time period had three key components – a temple or altar, a market, and a city wall for protection. As mentioned above, the Ziggurat was the focal point of religious life. It towered over the city as if to leave no doubt of what was most important. When approaching any ancient Mesopotamian city, the first and most conspicuous thing observed would be the Ziggurat. In the same manner today as our skyscrapers dominate the skyline of large cities. Rather than establishing the supremacy of the deity though, ours rather testify to the primacy of the large secular corporation, very appropriate for a philosophically materialistic culture. It is not the deity that will save you, but rather the insurance company or bank.
As time went on, the pantheon of pagan deities continued to grow. By some estimates, by the time of Abraham, there were probably over 4000 deities. There were cattle gods, fertility gods, gods of childbirth in particular, gods of the trees, gods of the sun, and god of wars. There was a god for anything and everything. There was a god Pasag, for example, that protected travelers. This large and evolving pantheon kept the theologians working overtime. Can you imagine trying to keep track of all of those gods? Everyone was expected to worship the deities, with the chief end of life being devotion to and worship of the gods. Theology in Ur was more a matter of guiding the practice of worship than the systematic type of theology that developed in modern times.
Daily Life in Ur
Abraham was born in the 3rd dynasty of Ur which was founded around 2040 B.C. by King Ur-Nammu.8 He wrote a law code, the fragments of which survive today, making it the oldest known law code in existence.9 It preceded Hammurabi’s law code by 300 years. The culture was highly sophisticated. At the top were the priests and scribes. Then there were the artisans, physicians, merchants, and farmers. At the bottom were the slaves who were comprised of captured foreigners. Lavish tombs have been found where the royal members of society were buried. Ur was a part of the Sumer civilization, and the Sumerians were technologically astute people. Some of their inventions included the plow, the chariot, hydraulic engineering, textile mills, mass-produced pottery and bricks, metallurgy, and advancements in mathematics.10 They invented a mathematical system based on the number 60 which is still with us today in the form of how we keep time. Probably the two biggest gifts that Sumerians gave the world were the invention of the wheel and the invention of writing in the form of cuneiform. Both of these inventions spread throughout the entire world. This wealthy and highly sophisticated city-state of Ur was the setting in which Abram (Abram was his name before God changed it to Abraham) found himself around 2000 B.C. Below is an example of what Abram’s house would have looked like:
Now that I have described the setting in which Abram lived, in the next post I will discuss the circumstances surrounding his call from God.
References to Abraham in Mesopotamian Tablets
The following are references to a man named Abraham on cuneiform tablets. While probably not the Abraham of Genesis, they give us a glimpse into the daily life that Abraham experienced.12
“Abraham Leased a Farm To the patrician speak, Saying, Gimil-Marduk whishes that Shamash and Marduk may give thee health!”
“Concerning the 400 shars of land, the field of Sin-idinam, Which to Abamrama To lease, thou hast sent; The land-steward the scribe Appeared and on behalf of Sin-idinam I took that up. The 400 shars of land of Abamrama as thou hast directed I have leased.”
“Abraham Hired an Ox: One ox broken to the yoke, An ox from Ibri-sin, son of Sin-imgurani, From Ibni-sin through the agency of Kishti-Nabium, son of Eteru, Abamrama, son of Awel-Ishtar, for one month has hired. For one month one shekel of silver he will pay.”
Ancient Love Poem
Finally, I leave you with some erotic poetry. Shu-Sin was a king of Ur who some scholars date to around the time of Abraham.13 He was the main character in a series of erotic love poems that have been unearthed. Here is an excerpt from a poem entitled “The Love Song of Shu-Sin”:
“Bridegroom, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet, Lion, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.”
“You have captivated me, let me stand trembling before you. Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber, You have captivated me, let me stand trembling before you. Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.”
“Bridegroom, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savory than honey, In the bedchamber, honey-filled, Let me enjoy you goodly beauty, Lion, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savory than honey.”14
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Amazon Reviewer: “This is the most important book about ancient Mesopotamian art and architecture in decades. Finally someone understands the importance of this material and treats it with the respect and wonder it deserves. There is something for everyone in this book filled with beautiful illustrations. The book will appeal to the historian, art historian, cultural historian, artist, philosopher, and the general reader. The specialist in the field will also be captivated by the author’s fresh approach with many new insights brought forward by her tremendous grasp of the subject. Bahrani’s ability to narrate a story of the very development of human thought as expressed through the origins of art is breathtaking in its scope and profound in its presentation.”
- Woolley, Leonard. “Ur”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Ur.
- Hoerth, Alfred J., Archaeology of the Old Testament, pp. 60-61, Baker Books, 1998
- Ibid., pp. 61-62
- Woolley, Leonard. “Ur”. Encyclopedia Britannica
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sin”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Apr. 2009, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sin-Mesopotamian-god
- Boylan, Patrick Canon. “Ur and Abraham.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 18, no. 69, 1929, p. 16, JSTOR
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Cuneiform law”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Jan. 2011, https://www.britannica.com/topic/cuneiform-law.
- Kijer, Patrick J., “9 Ancient Sumerian Inventions That Changed the World” https://www.history.com/news/sumerians-inventions-mesopotamia
- Barton, George, Archaeology and the Bible, pp. 344-345, The (Classic Reprint) Hardcover – August 24, 2018, Forgotten Books
- Mark, Joshua J., “The World’s Oldest Love Poem,” World History Encyclopedia, August 13, 2014
- Kramer, Samuel Noah, History Begins at Sumer, pp. 246-247, University of Pennsylvania Press; 3rd edition (April 1, 1988) as referenced in Ibid.
Bibliography and Resources:
Barton, George, Archaeology and the Bible, (Classic Reprint) Hardcover – August 24, 2018, Forgotten Books
Boylan, Patrick Canon. “Ur and Abraham.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 18, no. 69, 1929, pp. 1–19. JSTOR
Crawford, Harriet, author and Harrison, Thomas, series editor, Ur: The City of the Moon God, Archaeological History Series, Bloomsbury Academic, New York, 2015
De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015
Hoerth, Alfred J., Archaeology of the Old Testament, Baker Books, 1998
Kramer, Samuel Noah, History Begins at Sumer, University of Pennsylvania Press; 3rd edition (April 1, 1988)
Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character Revised ed. Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971
Time-Life Books, editor, Sumer: Cities of Eden, Lost Civilization Series, Time Life Education, 1993
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Zainab, Bahrani, Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, Thomas Hudson publisher, High Holborn, U.K., 2017