Where was Abraham born?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 21 2003 5:59 PM

Where Was Abraham Born?

Reporters attending the Washington-sponsored coalition talks in the Iraqi city of Ur last Tuesday noted that the summit took place in the "birthplace of Abraham." The phrase turned up in reports on Nightline, NBC Nightly News, the Associated Press, and the New York Times. Was Abraham really born in Ur?

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This idea is understandably appealing because Abraham, through his sons Ishmael and Isaac, is considered the spiritual father of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. There's only one problem: The Bible doesn't say where Abraham was born.

Abraham first appears in the Bible in Genesis 11:27, which says that Terah, a descendant of Noah's son Shem, begets three children: Abram, Nahor, and Haran. (Abraham is called Abram at the moment, which means "the father is exalted." Not until he has a child of his own, decades later, will God change his name to Abraham, which means "father of many.") The next verse suggests that Abraham's youngest brother, Haran, was born in a place called Ur of the Chaldeans, where he dies (though not before fathering a son, Lot). It does not say that Abraham was born in Ur.

As the text makes clear, Terah and his family were pastoral nomads, wandering from place to place for varying periods of time. So, it's not inconceivable that Abraham and even Nahor might have been born someplace else. But where? And where was this place called Ur of the Chaldeans?

The answer is: We don't know. Despite two centuries of searching, there is no archaeological evidence that the events in the first five books of the Bible ever took place. As a result, everything on this question is conjecture.

The leading assumption among Jewish and Christian scholars for the last century and a half has been that Ur of the Chaldeans refers to the ancient metropolis of Ur, capital of the mini-empire Sumer, which was, indeed, located in southeastern Iraq not far from Nasiryah. But this has problems. First, scholars now agree that the term Chaldeans is almost assuredly an anachronism, as it refers to a Semitic people who didn't show up in Ur until the 7th century B.C Abraham, by contrast, would have lived 1,300 years earlier, closer to 2,000 B.C. Second, nomadic people did not have a habit of settling alongside major cities.

Muslim commentators (and increasingly some Jewish and Christians ones) propose a radically different alternative. The Genesis story says that after leaving Ur of the Chaldeans, Terah and his family settle alongside the town of Harran, where Terah lives for 60 more years. Harran almost surely corresponds to the ancient trading center that is located today in southeastern Turkey, on the border with Syria. Considering that they were headed for Canaan, which is due west of Sumerian Ur, it makes no geographic sense that Terah and his family would travel 550 miles out of their way to southern Turkey. It seems more likely—as Muslim tradition suggests—that biblical Ur is actually in Upper Mesopotamia, closer to Harran. The town of Urfa, Turkey (notice the shared root with Ur), is less than 20 miles from Harran and contains an ancient cave where Muslim tradition says Abraham was born.

Regardless of how he got there, Christians, Jews, and Muslims agree that while he is in Harran, Abraham receives the commanding call from God to "go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." It is this call—holy to half the world's believers today—that sets him out toward the Promised Land and marks the symbolic start of monotheism.

Bruce Feiler is author of four books, including Learning To Bow and Under the Big Top. His most recent book, Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville, was published last month.