Pope may err by going to Ur

October 20, 1999|By Hershel Shanks

THE POPE is going to Iraq -- and the United States doesn't like it. Neither does Britain. However, France has no objection, said Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine after a recent 30-minute audience with Pope John Paul II.

The pope wants to visit Ur later this year, where the patriarch Abraham was born. However, the pontiff may be going to the wrong Ur.

In ancient times, there were a number of Urs, and the one John Paul intends to visit in southern Iraq, near the Persian Gulf, is one of the less likely candidates for Abraham's Ur.

When the Lord called to Abraham to leave his native land, he and his father, Terah, set out for Canaan, but settled first in Haran. Terah died while they were in Haran.

Virtually all scholars agree on the location of Haran. It is in Turkey, about 10 miles north of the Syrian border. But the Iraqi Ur is 1,000 miles southeast of Haran.

No one going from Ur to Canaan would first go north all the way to Haran, as a glance at any map will show. Ancient cuneiform records -- from places such as Ebla, Ugarit, Nuzi and Alalakh -- refer to an Ur (or several Urs) that appear to be in the vicinity of Haran.

It is very likely that Abraham started out from one of these, not the Iraqi Ur, as the eminent Bible scholar and Near East polymath, Cyrus Gordon, pointed out more than 40 years ago.

Indeed, it was not until the 1920s, when Sir Leonard Woolley began excavating what turned out to be an extremely rich Ur near the Persian Gulf, that anyone seriously suggested that Abraham would have started on his divinely ordained journey from a site as far south as the Iraqi Ur.

; The Iraqi Ur lies west of the Euphrates River . . . one more reason why the Iraqi Ur is unlikely to be Abraham's birthplace.

Woolley was a prolific popular writer with a flair for publicity, and soon he was referring to his site as "the biblical home of Abraham." However, he never stopped to consider whether his was the wrong Ur.

Abraham's grandson, Jacob, worked 20 years for Laban -- father of Rachel and Leah -- in the land of Abraham's birth. When Jacob finally returned to Canaan, he had to cross the Euphrates River.

Yet the Iraqi Ur lies west of the Euphrates River. You don't have to cross the Euphrates to get to Canaan from the Iraqi Ur. This is just one more reason why the Iraqi Ur is unlikely to be Abraham's birthplace.

There are several candidates for Abraham's Ur near Haran. One of them is Urfa, in southern Turkey, where local tradition insists that it is Abraham's birthplace.

The local mosque is called the Mosque of Abraham, and Urfa's pool of sacred fish is called "the Lake of Abraham the Beloved." Perhaps that's where the pope should go.

Hershel Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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