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Ur of the Chaldees
By Amer Hedow :: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 :: 95160 Views :: Community & Culture

UR of the Chaldees was the port of CHALDEA (Babylonia), a major trade and commerce post.  Citizens of the region along with dwellers on the gulf with distant countries of India , Ethiopia , and Egypt. Change in economics and political power left the port abandoned about 500 B.C., but long continued to be a sacred city.

UR means light, or the moon city, a city of the Chaldees, the largest city of SHINAR or Northern CHALDEA, and the principal commercial centre of the country as well as the centre of political power.  It stood near the mouth of the Euphrates River, on its western bank, and is represented by the mounds (of bricks cemented by bitumen) of El-Mugheir, i.e., "The Bitumined," or "The Town of Bitumen," now 150 miles from the sea and some 6 miles from the Euphrates River, a little above the point where it receives the Shat el-Hie from the Tigris River. It was formerly a maritime city, as the waters of the Chaldean Gulf (mistakenly called Persian Gulf ) reached thus far inland.

Located some 350 km (220 mi) SE of Baghdad, covering an oval area approximately 910 by 730 m (1000 by 800 yds), are the ruins of ancient Ur, known in antiquity as Urim. The major mound was called Tell el-Muqayyar (“mound of pitch”) by the Arabs because of the bitumen used here and there as mortar for the bricks. Other sites have been suggested as the location of the biblical “Ur of the Chaldeans” (AV “Ur of the Chaldees”) but the present site is accepted by almost all scholars, especially because of its association with the southern Babylonian Chaldeans.

The chief deity of the city was Nanna, the Sumerian moon-god; for him and his consort Nin-gal several temples and the great ziggurat were built. It is noteworthy that at Haran, Abraham’s ancestral home, the Semitic moon-god Sin was the chief deity worshiped.

Today, and for centuries past, the area of Ur has presented a most unprepossessing aspect. From the top of the ziggurat one looks out in every direction upon a flat barren plain virtually devoid of plant life or human habitation. But four thousand years ago, when the city and its environs encompassed about 10 sq km (4 sq mi) and had a population of 300,000 to 400,000, the vast plain must have been a patchwork of irrigated fields, orchards, and gardens.

Twice in its history, during its 1st and 3rd dynasties, Ur was “capital of the world.” Doubtless the end came when the Euphrates, which originally flowed along the western side of the city in a bed several feet above the level of the plain, broke through its banks and ultimately assumed its present course 19 km (12 mi) to the east. If this catastrophe occurred during the declining years of Ur’s history, when the inhabitants of the city were either too poor or too weak to remedy the situation, oblivion would have been swift and sure.

Earlier excavations were carried out at Ur and nearby Tell el-Ubaid by J. E. Taylor (1854), H. R. Hall (1918–19), and R. Campbell Thompson (1918); their finds were minor but provided evidence of the importance of the ruins.

A joint expedition of the British Museum and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of C. L. Woolley, excavated at Ur for twelve seasons between 1922 and 1934. In addition to the ziggurat and royal tombs (see below), the excavators recovered the palaces of Ur-Nammu and Šulgi of the 3rd Dynasty, the palace of the Chaldean king Nabonidus, temples from various historic periods for Nanna, Ningal, and Enki, and many private houses from both the Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian periods.

Prehistory and History

Ur was one of the oldest and most important cities in the Sumerian era of Mesopotamian history. Its occupation goes back, however, to the prehistoric Ubaid period. Sedentary occupation in what is now southern Iraq seems to have begun ca 4000 b.c., when Eridu was first inhabited. The prehistoric Ubaid culture gradually developed in Eridu and at several other sites, including Ur. Although no buildings from this period have been uncovered at Ur, the number and variety of Ubaid pottery types found there indicate a sizable population. The next prehistoric periods, Uruk and Jemdet Nasr, are also represented at Ur by pottery and fragmentary walls.

At the very dawn of recorded history there were three important centers in the part of Mesopotamia known as Sumer: Kish, Ur, and Uruk (biblical Erech). From the Early Dynastic I period several hundred archaic cuneiform tablets have been recovered at Ur.

One document relates that Mes-anne-pada of Ur defeated Agga of Kish and thus established the 1st Dynasty of Ur ca 2600 b.c. Mes-anne-pada and his son Mes-kiag-nunna are both mentioned in later chronicles as kings of this dynasty, and the former name has been found on several seal impressions at Ur. This Ur dynasty is the first historical dynasty in Mesopotamian history known from both later chronicles and contemporaneous archeological materials. After about a century of hegemony, however, the 1st Dynasty of Ur fell to the superior power of Gilgamesh of Uruk. There followed a long period in Sumerian history, including a 2nd Dynasty of Ur, for which no names or events survive.

For an illustrious period of nearly a century the kings (or governors) of Lagash and Girsu, of whom Gudea is best known, ruled Ur. Gutian invaders cut this period short, but Utu-hegal of Uruk eventually repulsed them ca 2120 B.C. A few years later Ur-Nammu of Ur defeated Utu-hegal to found the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, which lasted until ca 2000 B.C.

An able general and administrator, Ur-Nammu conquered Lagash and extended his power over Nippur, Uruk, Adab, and Larsa. He also built or rebuilt temples and ziggurats all over Sumer, repaired canals, and restored Ur’s foreign trade. He is credited with the first known law code in history. Unfortunately the extant text of this code is brief, containing only a large part of the prologue and five short paragraphs of law.
From a broken tablet describing Ur-Nammu’s arrival in the underworld it appears that he died defending Ur against the Guti. In any event, his sixteen-year reign was followed by the forty-eight-year reign of his son Šulgi. Šulgi extended the royal power of Ur over Elam to the east and even over Asshur to the far north. His queen, an able woman with the Semitic name of Abisimti, continued as dowager under Šulgi’s successors. Šulgi, like Ur-Nam-mu undertook many building projects throughout his realm.

A shell-inlay mosaic set in bitumen on the end of a lyre sound-box. Celebratory scenes (from top to bottom) show: a bull-man wrestling with two bulls, a lion and a dog acting as servants, a bear dancing to a lyre played by a donkey, and a scorpion-man walking in front of a gazelle who carries two drinking glasses (25th cent B.C., from the king’s grave) (courtesy of the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania)

Šulgi was succeeded by his two sons Amar-Sin and Šu-Sin, each of whom reigned for nine years. They both served apprenticeships as governors of lesser cities during Šulgi’s reign. Both Amar-Sin and Šu-Sin faced increasing migrations of Amorites, which virtually amounted to invasions of whole tribes. Abraham’s ancestors probably came to Ur from their original home in Haran at this time.

During the rule of Ibbi-Sin, who followed Šu-Sin, droves of Elamites joined the Amorites. Although Ibbi-Sin held on to his throne for twenty-four years, the power of Ur waned, and the cities that it once controlled were forced one by one to fend for themselves. With the downfall of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur came the rise of the Amorite city-states, which soon led to the 1st Dynasty of Babylon and its illustrious king Hammurabi. His accession marks the end of Sumerian political control of Mesopotamia.

The 3rd Dynasty of Ur was the most prosperous and most literate of the Sumerian period, if not of the entire history of Mesopotamia. A century of relative peace allowed business, agriculture, and the arts to develop. Ur’s population is conservatively estimated at about 300,000. Roughly fifteen thousand cuneiform tablets have been published of the approximately 100,000 excavated from many cities during this period. They contain information regarding every conceivable aspect of life; family affairs, government, religion, business, agriculture, medicine, law procedures, arts and crafts, building, mathematics, and various types of literature.

Ur was never again a leading city, although the cult of the tutelary deity, the moon-god Nanna, always retained an important place in the life of Sumer and later Babylonia. Records indicate building in Ur by Old Babylonian, Kassite, Assyrian, Chaldean, and even Persian monarchs. And the city must have had a sizable population down to the time of Cyrus. The latest dated tablet found there is from the twelfth year of Alexander the Great. Afterward, and possibly largely because the river shifted its course, the region disappeared from history.


The ziggurat of Ur is the best-preserved example in Mesopotamia. The various levels of the terrace indicate that it had antecedents during the Uruk and Early Dynastic periods, but they remain buried beneath the core of the Ur III structure. Ur-Nammu began and Šulgi finished the Ur III ziggurat (2100 B.C.), which was the prototype of many built at this time in other major cities controlled by the kings of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur. A stele celebrating the construction of this ziggurat was restored from many broken pieces found in the debris at its base. It pictures Ur-Nammu receiving instructions (or authorization) for the project from the moon-god Nanna and his consort Nin-gal.

The Ur-Nammu ziggurat apparently consisted of three stages, with a temple to Nanna on the top. The overall measurements were 62 by 43 by 20 m (203 by 141 by 66 ft). A long central staircase and two long flanking staircases led to a gatehouse on the first stage. Smaller staircases led to the temple.

The function of the ziggurat is by no means clearly understood. It was neither a tomb nor an observatory. The separation between the temple at the top and that at the base might have represented the distance between the heavenly and earthly residences of the deity.

Royal Tombs

Perhaps the best-known discoveries at Ur are the treasures from the royal and private graves and tombs. Surely they are among the richest finds in the history of archeology. These burials span the Early Dynastic and Sargonid periods, including the 1st Dynasty of Ur. A team found them during the first season in 1922 while searching for the Nin-Mah Temple. But digging was suspended until 1926, when the workmen were better trained and more information was available.

By Woolley’s reckoning there were over eighteen hundred private graves and tombs and sixteen royal tombs, including six “death pits” that contained mass burials of retainers. Several of the so-called private tombs, however, rivaled even the royal tombs in the wealth of their funerary furniture. Three of the royal tombs are identified with specific persons (Mes-anne-pada, A-kalam-dug, and Šubad  by inscribed seals and vessels. Nearly all the royal tombs were plundered by robbers in antiquity, but the quantity of the remaining gold and silver vessels, jewelry, and other richly inlaid furniture testifies both to the skill of the ancient craftsmen and to the wealth and power of the Chaldean aristocracy, since excellent techniques of working stone and metal were employed, and the raw materials were imported from great distances.

The mass burials of the death pits pose intriguing questions. Some of them contained chariots and oxen as well as humans, and one contained seven men and sixty-eight women. At first it was thought that these burials were related to the celebration of the “sacred marriage” at the annual New Year Festival. Now, however, they are thought to reflect a time when the servants of the deceased monarch were put to death and buried with him so that he would be properly equipped in the next world. In this respect the burials have parallels in Egypt, where the furniture was customarily included even in private graves; profuse wall reliefs and paintings are also common to the tombs of both Ur and Egypt. In fact, excavations at Saqqârah from the 1st Dynasty of Egypt have shown sacrificial customs similar to those at Ur.

Relationship of Ur to Abraham

Since the discovery and excavation of Tell el-Muqayyar, particularly by Sir Leonard Woolley, it has popularly been identified with Ur of the Chaldees. According to the tradition which Stephen accepted, Abraham was in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran (Acts 7:2), further described as “the land of the Chaldeans” (v 3). In Gen. 12:1 God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” The word translated “country” is more accurately rendered “land of your birth” (so RSV in 11:28).

Gen. 11:28 indicates that Haran (or Terah) was born in Ur of the Chaldeans, as were Abram and Nahor. Abraham’s wife Sarah came from the same place, and Abraham and Sarah accompanied Terah and his family from Ur of the Chaldeans “to go into the land of Canaan,” but they settled at Harran, possibly because of Terah’s ill-health, which eventuated in his death (11:31f). The call of Abraham, it would seem, preceded the decision to leave Ur of the Chaldeans, since the goal was Canaan, not Harran (cf. Gen. 15:7).

Some scholars (e.g., Gordon) have questioned whether “Ur of the Chaldeans” was in southern Mesopotamia, since the Sumerian city of Ur, identified with Tell el-Muqayyar, is never called “Ur of the Chaldeans” in ancient texts.

It is simply “Ur”. Therefore, it is reasoned, “Ur of the Chaldeans” must have been used to distinguish it from the better-known Ur in southern Mesopotamia. But if not there, then where? A Sumerian word uru, written with another logogram, means “city,” and was used of a number of cities (much as we might say, “I’m going to the city,” meaning any nearby city not named but understood by the hearer). “Ur of the Chaldeans” could mean a city occupied by or in the region of the Chaldeans.

A region in eastern Turkey, in the general vicinity of Lake Van, was occupied by the Khaldi (or Chaldians; other scholars claim that this was the name of the deity, not of the people, who are more properly called Urartians. The route from this region to Canaan by way of Harran would be reasonable, whereas the most likely route from the Sumerian Ur, it is claimed, would not go by way of Harran. An older identification of Ur was Urfa, a city 35 km (20 mi) NW of Harran, but, as has been pointed out, the linguistic problems in equating Ur with Urfa are formidable. It should also be noted that Khaldi was an Indo-Aryan deity and the Urartians were not Semites; Terah and his family were clearly Semites (Gen. 11:10).

The Kaldu, on the other hand, are well known from antiquity, and while it is true that the name often refers to the Neo-Babylonian (or Chaldean) kings, it also can refer to the people of the Sea-Land at least as early as the 10th cent b.c. Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 b.c.) placed the Kaldu S of Babylonia (ARAB, I, § 470), and Shalmaneser III spoke of the sea of Kaldu, “which they call Bitter Sea,” i.e., the Persian Gulf (ARAB, I § 641).

Thus the biblical evidence strongly favors the location of Ur of the Chaldeans in a region such as Sumerian Ur.

comment @ Saturday, November 14, 2009 3:42 PM
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