Did Pope Francis Make Pilgrimage to the Wrong Country?


On his second-day of a three-day trip, Pope Francis toured the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in southern Iraq, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham. During his tour, the Pope held an interfaith service at the ancient city where the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is thought to have lived. However, between 1999–2000, Pope John Paul had too planned to tour this ancient site. This tour, however, did not materialise and was met with criticism by Prof. Giovanni Pettinato, one of Italy's leading experts on ancient Mesopotamia. Prof. Pettinato had stated "The Pope will be going to the wrong place, because Abraham has nothing to do with the Sumerian city of Ur,".

So, where is Abraham's Ur?

Abram's Departure from Ur

In the Book of Genesis, Abram is introduced to the reader along with a genealogical record about his father Teraḥ and the identification of his hometown:

Gen 11:27 And these are the generations of Teraḥ. Teraḥ begot Abram, Nāḥōr, and Ḥarran; and Ḥarran begot Lot. 11:28 And Ḥarran died before Teraḥ his father, in the land of his birthplace, in Ur-Kasdim (ʾur kaśdim, “Ur of the Chaldeans”).

After briefly noting Abram and Nāḥōr's marriages, the text, without offering a reason, goes on to explain that Teraḥ moved his family out of Ur:

Gen 15:7 I am YHWH who brought you forth from Ur-Kasdim, to give to you this land [Canaan], to inherit it.

This event is echoed in the prayer recited by the Levites in the Book of Nehemiah (part of which is recited in the Jewish daily morning prayers):

Neh 9:7 You are YHWH God, who chose Abram, and you brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans; and you changed his name to Abraham.

Additionally, the text informs us that Abraham left Ur-Kasdim to God, and it speaks as if Abraham travelled directly from Ur to Canaan. However, the account in Genesis 11 provides a slightly different story. According to this pericope, Abram's father Teraḥ, for an unspecified reason, heads to Canaan, taking with him his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarai, and his orphaned grandson Lot.

Furthermore, this journey does not take them forthwith to Canaan. Instead, when the group reaches the city of Ḥarran, they dwell there. Teraḥ dies in that city and never ventures to Canaan (Gen 11:32). Abraham himself, accompanied by Sarai and Lot, arrive in Canaan in the following chapter, after God specifically tells him to leave Ḥarran and go to the land that God will show him.

Today, Ḥarran is situated in south-eastern Turkey, 16 kilometres north of the Turkish-Syrian border. The city is attested in various cuneiform sources, reaching back to the 3rd millennium BCE., and continuing through the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE as well.

But where is Ur-Kasdim?

Ur in Southern Mesopotamia

The most popular identification of the biblical city of Ur-Kasdim is that with the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (located in modern-day southern Iraq). This identification was first proposed by British archaeologist Henry C. Rawlinson (1810–1895), but it was Sir. Leonard Woolley (1880‒1960) who popularised this idea. Woolley famously excavated this site during the years 1922‒1934 and made some of the most significant archaeological discoveries of his time. Given the spirit of the time, Woolley assumed that this was the biblical homeland of Abraham. This identification has since remained the most popular and present in all introductory textbooks of the Bible and the ancient Near East. However, there are several problems with this identification. First, there exists not a single shred of independent evidence to prove that the ancient Sumerian city of Ur was ever associated with the ancient Chaldeans. Second, the ancient Chaldeans appeared in cuneiform records at a much later time and this proves to be problematic from a chronological point of view. Indeed, the ancient Chaldeans were present in southern Mesopotamia, bordering Elam. However, the ancient Chaldean settlements were predominately situated in the marshlands on the tip of the Persian Gulf and not in Sumerian Ur. 

Beyond the River?

In the Book of Joshua, Teraḥ is described as having lived "beyond the River".

Joshua 24:2 Thus said YHWH, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nāḥōr—lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods. 24:3 But I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through the whole land of Canaan…

In the Bible, when the phrase 'beyond the River' appears without further designation, it refers to the Euphrates River. However, the Sumerian city of Ur is not "beyond the Euphrates", but rather to the western side of the Euphrates. The implication of the phrase "your forefathers dwelt beyond the River in olden times" implies that the original homeland, which was Ur-Kasdim according to Genesis 11 and 15, was also situated beyond the Euphrates. It is also worth noting that, in Genesis 24:4, 10, Abraham instructs his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The passage reads: "... you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac". The servant then "arose and went to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nāḥōr". The city of Nāḥōr is situated in north-western Mesopotamia, and not in southern Mesopotamia. 

According to the twelfth-century Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan-Archbishop Basil bar Shumna, his city of Edessa— Ūrhāy in Syriac — was non other than the biblical Ur Kasdim. This ancient city is today known as Urfa or Şanlıurfa and is situated in modern-day south-east Turkey, not far from the city of Ḥarran. According to local Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions, the city of Şanlıurfa is the birthplace of Abraham. This identification is strengthened due to the fact that this city is situated 'beyond the River' and fits the biblical narrative. In ancient times, the city of Şanlıurfa was also referred to as Ura and a journey from this site to Canaan would certainly pass through Ḥarran.

One scholar who was vocally against Woolley's identification was non other than Cyrus Gordon (1908–2001). Although Gordon dug with Woolley at the Sumerian city of Ur in the 1930s, he could not accept Woolley's conclusion. Instead, Gordon noted that if Teraḥ and his family left Ur-Kasdim to travel to Canaan, but stopped en-route in Ḥarran, then the location of Ur-Kasdim should be to the north of Ḥarran— to which Şanlıurfa most certainly is. Remarkably, the names of Nāḥōr and Serūḡ are actually the names of cities in the general region of Şanlıurfa.

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