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.
Polytheism in Ur
The citizens of Ur were polytheists and, like all of Mesopotamia, worshipped many gods.2 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.3 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.4 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.”
Daily Life in Ur
The video below gives an idea of what Ur was like in the time of Abraham.
Abraham was born in the 3rd dynasty of Ur which was founded around 2040 B.C. by King Ur-Nammu.5 He wrote a law code, the fragments of which survive today, making it the oldest known law code in existence.6 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.7 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.
An ancient Sumerian Proverb says:
“What can compare to humility? It is set within goodness.”8
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- Woolley, Leonard. “Ur”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Ur.
- 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
Sources and Resources:
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
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