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Abraham at UR: THE STARTING-POINT

Terah took his son Abram, 1 his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter in law Sarai the wife of Abram, and made them leave Ur of the Chaldaeans to go to the land of Canaan. 2 (Bereshith 11:31)

This Scriptural annotation, with which the story of Abram begins, stands out with all the clarity of an etching, possibly with too much clarity for our taste. And so, as a historian, and with the help of the archaeological information which we possess at the present time, I shall try to reconstruct this scene, at least in its principal features.

Approximate date of the event: 1850 B.C.

Setting: the plain, near the city of Ur, in the delta of the Euphrates (see map below), skirting the Persian Gulf.

Ur was a city-state, the local capital, which was surrounded -like all the important urban centers of central and southern Mesopotamia of that period -by luxuriant vegetation encroaching on the desert. This agricultural wealth was obtained by a complicated and highly organized system of irrigation channels fed from the waters of the Euphrates. Right at the edge of this agricultural nucleus, in which cereal cultivation predominated, ran a narrow belt of rather poor pasture; this was a semi-desert area which the local farmers left to the wandering shepherds who were always ready to fold or put up their tents. These shepherds were unattractive characters in the eyes of local farmers because, it seems, they had a reputation for petty theft.

And so, on the plain bordering the cultivated fields, Terah's shepherds and those of Abram, his son, began to pullout the pegs and take down the tents. They were black tents, woven from goat's hair. The donkeys stocky beasts with wiry legs -carried the baggage: carpets, weapons (staves, javelins, bows and arrows), kitchen utensils of a rudimentary kind, water-skins filled with water and milk. There were unlikely to be camels, for it seems very probable that the camel was not domesticated before the end of the Bronze Age (about 1200 B.C.); nor were there horses, for these only appeared in the Near East with the invasion of the Hyksos (about 1800 B.C.).

While Terah's shepherds were putting the last touches to their preparations for departure, the local farmers of Ur went on with the tasks peculiar to the agricultural civilization of Mesopotamia. In the fields adjacent to the grassy plain peasants could be seen operating the heavy sluice-gates which controlled the opening and closing of the irrigation channels; the water running in these channels was vital for the fertility of the crops -of the wheat and barley especially.

It is hardly likely that anyone on this day, no different from any other, paid attention to the small party of shepherds setting out for a fresh camping ground. No one spared a glance for the small tribe of nomads surrounding the flocks of white sheep and black goats as they went on their way. No one, it is certain, had any idea that this tiny group already bore within it the spiritual destiny of a whole world.

Before we follow these nomads up the Euphrates on the journey along its banks for something like 800 miles, a journey which was to take them to the city of Haran in the Paddan-aram territory, we must endeavour to clarify our ideas on certain points on which the Scriptures is not very explicit.

THE FERTILE CRESCENT AND THE GENERAL OUTLINE OF ABRAM'S MIGRATION

This map is intended to show the general setting of Abram's great migration in about the year 1850 B.C.

Ur, the starting-place, in the delta of the Euphrates.

Purpose of this journey: to go to the Land of Canaan (nowadays Palestine, or the Qadash Land).

It will be noticed that the journey of the small Hebrew party took place entirely within the region called the 'Fertile Crescent' (shown here as grey),.

The journey took place in three phases:

(a) Up the right bank of the Euphrates (to avoid crossing the Syro-Arabian desert which would have proved deadly for the flocks).

(b) A fairly long halt in the Haran region (Paddan-aram).

(c) Down towards the southern part of the land of Canaan (through Shechem, Bethel, Hebron).

The map also shows the short journey into Egypt by Abram and his flocks.

1 We shall see later  in what circumstances his primitive name of Abram was changed to Abraham and. on the same occasion, the name of Sarai into Sarah.

 2 The land of Canaan (or Chanaan) is the name given by the Scriptures to the natural region occupied by Palestine. 

Ur of the Chaldees

 Abram was born in the region of Ur. In these surroundings he grew up and lived for many years before his departure for the land of Canaan, and this important Mesopotamian civilization must have left its stamp on Abram's mind, his manner of life and his psychology.

According to the Scriptures it does not appear that the Hebrews were ever very concerned about the exact topographical situation of Ur of the Chaldees, 3 which always remained a vague name, of no great interest. Yet it may well be that the name 'Hebrew', designating the men of Abram's tribe, signified 'the men from beyond the river', that is, 'the shepherds of the left bank of the Euphrates'. 4

3 There is an anachronism here. The Chaldean invasion did not reach Mesopotamia until about 1100 B.C., seven centuries, therefore, after Abram. At the period when the scribe was writing this text (fifth century B.C.) the southern part of the Euphrates was known as Chaldea; this explains the error in the name.

  4 The ancient city of Ur (nowadays, al Mugayyar, the mountain of pitch) is situated on the right bank of the Euphrates. But photography has shown that in antiquity the course of the Euphrates certainly passed to the south of the city. At that time Ur was on the left bank of the river. Thus the Hebrews could unmistakably be called 'the tribe dwelling on the other bank of the river', at least by the people occupying the land of Canaan, that is, Palestine at the present day. According to certain orientalists the word Hebrew may well originate in the name of the patriarch Heber (or Eber), Abram's ancestor, mentioned in the genealogy (Bereshith 1114). It may be added that the etymology of Hebrew in relation to the Apiru remains uncertain.

Ur, city of Sumeria
The Sumerians, the most surprising of men

Abraham's clan camped on the left bank of the Euphrates, then had to cross over onto the right bank. This is how they came to be called 'Hebrews' ('men from beyond the river').

Nowadays the ruins of Ur, in lower Mesopotamia, stand in the centre of an immense desert. All around the mound of ruins stretches bare sand under the burning sun. In Abram's day there stood here, in the delta of the Euphrates, a proud and powerful city, one of those city states with colossal religious architecture like others to be found on this immense plain: Uruk, Eridu, Lagash, Umma, Nippur, Adab (see map below). Around these fortified sites stretched a rich countryside, perhaps even more luxuriant than the agricultural lands of the valley of the Nile.

This result was not secured without considerable effort, for unlike the valley of the Nile, flooding occurs here unexpectedly, and it is savage and devastating. If not properly canalized it carries all before it, houses and men, cattle and cultivation. Thus in this Mesopotamian region at the end of winter great labour is needed to prevent the catastrophic overflowing of the rivers. For this purpose, in the part of the country with which we are concerned, the Euphrates was confined, as if in a strait-jacket, between enormous earthen banks to prevent its flowing out over the neighbouring countryside. On the other hand, there could be no question of allowing these mud-laden waters to flow into the gulf, for the mud they bore was the agent of fertility; in addition they also provided the humidity which was indispensable for agriculture and indeed for life itself. Thus these waters of the annual flood had to be caught, stored in vast reservoirs and stocks of them built up. Afterwards, at will and as required for irrigation, their redistribution in the plain was effected by means of a complex system of canals, locks, channels and drains to transport fertility to the outlying districts.

This original form of agricultural planning was not carried out by the Semites. The men of Abram's race had nothing to do with the development of the land of Sumer, at any rate so far as its main life was concerned. The originators of this economic policy were the Sumerians, a people who preceded the arrival of the Semites in this land by more than 1500 years, as we shall see.

Where did the Sumerian tribes come from? Possibly their successive waves had the Asiatic provinces as their starting-point. Some authors are inclined to think that it was Afghanistan or Baluchistan, others that it was the Caucasus. In any case, at the end of the fifth millennium B.C., these hordes appear to have set out, and by the end of the fourth millennium (3500) we find them firmly established in the wide marshy plain formed by the deltas of the Euphrates and the Tigris.

The Sumerians belong neither to the Semitic branch nor to the Aryan family. The extraordinary statue portraits, full of vitality, which they have left us, indicate their ethnic type with startling realism. They were of medium height with low foreheads and prominent noses; their mouths were small and thin lipped and their chins unobtrusive. Their hair, which they wore very long, was separated by a parting. In ancient times they wore thick spade beards, often artificially waved. Later, they shaved the head and face.

After settling in this country which was henceforward known by their name (land of Sumer; the Scriptures calls it Shinar) these newcomers from the valley of the two rivers were to found a civilization of powerful originality; they built fortified cities; they used a pictographic form of writing at a period when the rest of humanity (except for the groups settled at this time in the valley of the Nile) was still at the stage of fumbling with polished stone. When, elsewhere, primitive peoples were painfully acquiring a rudimentary level of social life, the Sumerians built cities, put up colossal buildings and carved impressive funeral effigies.

From the political point of view the picture presented by Sumeria is less remarkable. All those isolated cities scattered about in lower Mesopotamia like pawns on a chessboard were a law to themselves; governed by self-interest, they thought only of increasing their own wealth. When the opportunity offered they did not hesitate to resort to force to impose their supremacy on neighbouring cities. As a result, the continual quarrels meant that the country was constantly at the mercy of fire and the sword. On different occasions all the wealthy cities of Sumer were destroyed, plundered, or burnt down, as the excavators have been able to discover. Over the ruins of civilizations thus razed to the ground by war another city was built which a little later was itself laid low; and so it continued. Even at the time of Abram, in about 1850 B.C., Ur appeared like an enormous citadel astride a hillock dominating the river and the plain. And it was the same with all the other Sumerian cities. These man-made hillocks are called tells by modern Arabs and the term has been adopted by the archaeologists.

Abraham's clan camped on the left bank of the Euphrates, then had to cross over onto the right bank. This is how they came to be called "Hebrews" ('men from beyond the river').

VARIATIONS IN THE FINAL STAGES OF THE COURSES OF THE GREAT MESOPOTAMIAN RIVERS

1. At the time of Abram (2nd millennium B.C.)

Notice the projection of the interior arm of the Persian Gulf which at that time penetrated some distance inland.

At the time of Abram the three great rivers (Karun, Tigris and Euphrates) flowed into the waters of the Persian Gulf by three separate estuaries.

It is well to point out here the site of the city of Ur (situated then at about 100 miles from the sea) on the left bank of the Euphrates. The Hebrew tribe of Abram, originating in the city-state of Ur, could, in consequence, be perfectly correctly designated by the phrase 'the people from beyond the river'.

VARIATIONS IN THE FINAL STAGES OF THE COURSES OF THE GREAT MESOPOTAMIAN RIVERS

2. At the present time

The dotted line shows the encroachment of the land over the sea. All this alluvial land has been brought down at the time of the great floods. Because of this Ur is situated nowadays some 225 miles from the coast.

In addition, owing to the change in the course of the river, the mound of Ur is at present situated on the right bank of the river. It will be noticed that the three rivers, which formerly had each its own mouth, now flow into the Persian Gulf through a delta common to them all.

N.B. For the sake of clarity these diagrams show only the city of Ur For the general map of Sumer-Akkad, see map below.

Victory of the Semites of Akkad over the city-states of Sumer (about 2350 B.C.)

Towards the end of the third millennium, while Sumeria, an advanced centre of civilization, was weakened by wars between cities, a wave of invaders advanced insidiously from the North.

Whence came these warlike Semitic tribes who gradually made their way down the Tigris and Euphrates? Some historians have placed the origin of these nomads in Syria, others locate it in the Arabian peninsula. But it can be stated with certainty that after 3000 B.C. some of these invaders had started on the way to southern Mesopotamia. And soon, at the north of Sumer the Semitic kingdom of Akkad was established, compact and threatening, facing the divided principalities of Sumer. (See explanatory map below).  In about 2350 B.C. the Semitic sovereign of Akkad, Sargon I, called Sargon the Old, went to war against Sumer. His victory was complete, and so the kingdom of Akkad now stretched as far as the shores of the Persian Gulf. Together with the other cities of the delta, Ur -where five hundred years after these events Abram was to be born -was a dependency of the Semitic sovereign of Akkad whose palace and government were situated somewhere in the Babylonian region; his capital was Agade but its site has not yet been identified.

Directly after the conquest of Sumeria by the Akkadian armies, there occurred a process of assimilation between these two civilizations, which derived from such different stocks. Obviously the political fortunes of Sumer passed into the hands of the Akkadians -that is the rule of war. But the Sumerians, who were already in possession of a form of writing, an art, and the rudiments of science, continued, nonetheless, to exercise over the representatives of the 'occupying power' an influence as profound as it was incontestable. And it was willingly accepted.

THE GREAT URBAN CENTRES OF SUMER AND AKKAD

In about 3500 B.C. the Mesopotamian delta began to be occupied by Asiatic tribes who were neither Semites nor Aryans. The newcomers established themselves on the southern plain between the Tigris and the Euphrates. They were the founders of a very original civilization which, during the following centuries, was to develop successfully in Lower Mesopotamia. This was the period of the great independent city-states: Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Larsa, Lagash, Umma, Nippur, Adab, Isin etc.

In about 2500 waves of Semitic nomads began to arrive in Sumer; they came from the Arabian-Syrian regions by way of the middle Euphrates. They first settled at Mari. Shortly before 2350 Sargon founded the Semitic empire of Akkad (to the north-west of Sumeria). The site of Sargon's capital was Agade; this site has not yet been identified. Subsequently the wealthy, immense and magnificent Babylon was the capital of the State.

In about 2350 Sargon seized Sumeria. Sumeria and Akkad were united. The advanced civilization of Sumeria was to exert a great influence on the Akkadians.

It was within this curious and original Sumerian-Akkadian civilization that 500 years later the Semitic patriarch Abram was to be born (about 1900-1880 B.C.).

The city of Ur and its buildings

Sir Leonard Woolley's excavations have uncovered some of the houses of U r past which Abram must have walked from time to time. Without attempting to reconstruct the entire development of the city it will be worthwhile to examine some of its principal features.

The dwellings were more or less standardized, and bore a striking resemblance to the Arab houses to be found even nowadays in Baghdad or Basrah. The wall bordering the street was without windows, at least on the ground floor; the only opening was the door. On the upper floors facing the street the few narrow windows were shuttered by reed trellises. As a rule each house consisted of four buildings arranged in a square round a paved patio on to which the rooms looked out. On the first floor the rooms had a wooden balcony and the building was surmounted by a flat roof. Meticulous cleanliness was everywhere the rule. Beneath the paving of the courtyard a drain carried away the rain water and other seepage. In some of the corridors were lavatories of brick provided with a trough or channel leading to a soil-pit. Inside and outside the house the walls were whitewashed.

In the rooms there were cupboards and basket-work chests. The beds, made of wood, were furnished with mattresses and quilts, often embellished with ornament of some kind. There were tables, seats and carpets. All this formed the setting for a comfortable and civilized life with, on occasion, a certain luxury.

In striking contrast with the interior cleanliness of the dwellings was the repellent filthiness of the narrow, winding and maze-like streets. Refuse collection did not exist -'a filthy eastern city', is Sir Leonard Woolley's description.

At the centre of this city was the sacred area surrounded by a high wall, built in the shape of an oval of about two and a half miles in perimeter. On going inside, the Temenos, or sacred enclosure (400 yards long by 200 yards wide), which was easily recognizable, even at a distance, by its colossal, overwhelmingly massive architecture, one entered the specia

Opposite the entrance to the Temenos stood twin temples. One was set apart for Nannar and his wife, the goddess Nin-Gal; the god was supposed to retire there during the day. The other building harboured the numerous secondary deities who formed the retinue of the royal couple.

Close to these buildings, overshadowing them, stood a huge tower, the ziggurat, whose general shape and history have both been discovered by the archaeologists. Abram must often have observed this ziggurat either from the plain where he pitched his tents or from within the sacred enclosure.

This colossal brick building, rectangular in shape, was three storeys high, each of them standing back on the one beneath so that the general appearance was that of a stepped pyramid. The base measured seventy yards in length by forty-six in breadth. The sides sloped slightly inwards and were strengthened by buttresses to resist the considerable lateral thrust.

A building of this sort must have contained millions of bricks. Some of them were merely dried in the sun and these were used for the inside walls. The others, baked in an oven, were used for the outside surfaces exposed to the sun, the wind and the rain. Slave labour and prisoners of war were certainly used in the construction of this huge mass.

Although not so wealthy as in times past, in Abram's time the city buzzed with activity. The weaving shops worked non-stop and in the port the loading and unloading of ships went on continuously. The streets were filled with a motley and noisy crowd.

In the quarter surrounding the sacred area, crowds of pilgrims made their way to the shrine, bringing with them the beasts that they came to offer to the Moon -god. Before the temples the priests of Nannar were busy receiving and recording all these gifts in kind offered to the god. The cellars of the Temenos were crammed with provisions which the scribes recorded carefully on bricks of soft clay; archaeologists have unearthed them from the sacerdotal archives. This would be the situation which faced the young Abram early in the second millennium B.C.

A ziggurat: an enormous construction of bricks from Sumer.

Reconstruction of the ziggurat at Ur. (Le monde d'Ur, d'Assur et de Babylon, H. Schmockel)

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