Research and Perspectives: Where Was the Ur of Abraham?


Most people have an interest in the material settings of the scriptural accounts they hold sacred. Beyond this interest, physical settings become particularly important when scholars locate scriptural sites on present-day maps, because on this basis scholars augment and supplement our body of scriptural knowledge with facts from the indicated sites. For instance, many scholars place the site of Abraham’s Ur in southern Mesopotamia, and on that basis suggest that Abraham had contact with and was influenced by the dominant cult of that Ur, the cult of the moon god. With the aid of the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, I will suggest an alternate location for the Ur of the Chaldees in the story of Abraham. 1

Aside from the fact that ancient tradition allows a southern Mesopotamian location (as well as two northern Mesopotamian sites), those who opt for the southern Mesopotamian location base their conclusion on three pieces of evidence.

First, the ancient name of tell al-Muqayyar is similar in sound to the Hebrew Ur (in the original cuneiform documents, the name can be read either Urim or Uri). These words are similar to the Hebrew Ur, but the similarities are not without problems. For example, the Hebrew, if it were based on the original cuneiform name for al-Muqayyar, would have to disregard the Sumerian vowel and the possible final m.

Second, the Chaldeans Abraham mentions in conjunction with Ur have been equated with the Kaldu, Aramean people living in southern Mesopotamia in the first millennium B.C. However, equating the Kaldu of the cuneiform documents with the Chaldeans of Genesis results in several problems. One problem is that the Kaldu did not arrive in southern Mesopotamia until long after the time of Abraham. A related problem lies in the King James Version translation of Genesis, wherein the word Chaldees appears for the Hebrew word kasddim. There are two possible referents for the Hebrew word kasddim—neither of which matches the history of Abraham as we have it in the Pearl of Great Price. One possibility is that the referent may actually be the Kaldu of the first millennium B.C. Unfortunately, as noted above, this referent is chronologically out-of-place. The other possibility, based on speech sounds, is that it refers to the Kassites, a non-Semitic group that became the ruling class in Babylon during the second half of the second millennium B.C. Equating the kasddim with the Kassites, however, still presents anachronistic and phonological problems.

And third, because Abraham settled for a time in Haran, a known major center of the moon-god cult, scholars have theorized that the city of origin for Abraham must also have been a major center of the moon-god cult. The fact that Ur in southern Mesopotamia was also such a site tended to confirm that Abraham did indeed have his origins there. This assumption is not warranted, however, because the book of Abraham indirectly says that Abraham left Ur partly to get away from the local cult. He would hardly have gone to another location of the same cult. This would also probably exclude Ur in southern Mesopotamia as Abraham’s city of origin.

Where, then, could Abraham’s Ur have been? The book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price provides some background that helps in the search. From this book we learn that not only Abraham but also Abraham’s ancestors had lived in the land of the Chaldeans (Abr. 1:1) We also learn that priests of Pharaoh attempted to sacrifice Abraham on an altar at Potiphar’s Hill in the plain of Olishem (Abr. 1:10) in Ur of Chaldea (Abr. 1:20).

God told Abraham to leave the land of the Chaldees—partly because the priest of the Pharaoh had put Abraham’s life in danger, partly because there was a famine in the land, and partly because the ultimate territorial goal God had in mind for Abraham was Canaan. Abraham therefore went to a place called Haran and stayed there until he eventually moved on to Canaan (Abr. 2:3–4.)

With this in mind, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the location of Ur:

First, the Book of Abraham is not the result of numerous transmissions, as is the Bible. Therefore, the term Chaldeans in the Book of Abraham is not likely to be out-of-place chronologically. Since we can safely date Abraham to at least the Middle Bronze Age, and since neither the Kassites nor the Kaldu were in southern Mesopotamia by the end of the Middle Bronze Age, neither group could possibly be the referent for the Hebrew kasddim. It is quite possible, then, that Abraham’s Ur of the Chaldees was in an area other than southern Mesopotamia.

Second, the Ur of Abraham was under strong Egyptian influence. 2 The only area in Asia that we know was under Egyptian influence at any time is an area comprising approximately all of present-day Israel, Lebanon, and western Syria from Ebla to the coast. In fact, southern Mesopotamia has never been under Egyptian cultural or religious influence, and on that point alone, it could be ruled out as the site of the Ur of Abraham.

Third, when Abraham left the land of the Chaldees, he most likely went to a place outside the direct influence of Egypt. However, he would probably not have moved in a direction away from the land of Canaan. Abraham’s first stop was in Haran, a site that is located (with relative certainty) on the east of the Euphrates on the Balih River just north of the present-day Syrian-Turkish border. If Abraham’s Ur were in northwestern Syria or southern Turkey, Haran would not be much out of the way for Abraham on his journey to Canaan.

Fourth, when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, there was a famine in Haran as well as in Ur. Therefore, Ur of the Chaldees and Haran likely lay within the same ecological system. Since Haran lay within the Fertile Crescent, normally an area with adequate annual rainfall, Abraham’s Ur was probably within the Fertile Crescent as well. Both northwest Syria and southern Turkey are within the Fertile Crescent. Ur of southern Mesopotamia, however, lies below the Fertile Crescent, in an arid plain where irrigation is necessary.

As a result of these insights provided by the book of Abraham, some Latter-day Saint scholars increasingly feel persuaded that Ur of the Chaldees was located somewhere in or near northwestern Syria.

Paul Y. Hoskisson, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, serves as a Primary teacher in the Edgemont Sixth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.

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    Notes

  1.   1.

    For more detail, see Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, Religious Studies Center Monograph Series 14, eds. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate, Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1989, pp. 119–36.

  2.   2.

    The words Egypt or Pharaoh appear in Abr. 1:7–11, 13, 17, 20–23, 25–27.