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A sharp east wind arose as Dheif Mushin guided me around the site of the ancient city, which covered about 120 acres (49 hectares). Founded sometime in the fifth millennium b.c., Ur was unearthed during the 1920s and '30s by an expedition under the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley. Along with the ziggurat the team found royal tombs and the remains of houses on city streets, which Woolley gave such incongruous names as Church Lane and Paternoster Row. The tombs held scores of stunning objects in gold, silver, and precious stones, confirming that Ur was at the heart of a rich and powerful civilization.

"This is the house," declared Mushin, a slim, blue-eyed man of 41. We had come to the corner of Church Lane and Broad Street and were staring into a shallow pit near the remains of the palace of Ur's glorious third dynasty, which lasted from 2100 to 2000 b.c. In the pit were a square stone floor and partly restored walls—the ruins of one of the largest houses Woolley excavated in Ur—dating from between 2000 and 1595 b.c. Woolley made much of his "discovery" of Abraham's birthplace, for which he was knighted. Although the possibility that Abraham had actually lived in this house was remote, I couldn't help but be excited by the thought.

"You must imagine Ur as it was," Piotr Michalowski, an authority on ancient Mesopotamia at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told me before I left for Iraq. "In the third millennium Ur was the metropolis of Mesopotamia—a port on the Euphrates very close to the Persian Gulf." The river brought rich alluvium down to Ur, creating a floodplain that gave generous sustenance to a population of perhaps 12,000 at the city's peak around 2100 b.c. Since then, said Michalowski, the coastline retreated a hundred miles (161 kilometers), leaving Ur behind—to the sands.

We owe our knowledge of the region to the Mesopotamians, who invented cuneiform writing around 3200 b.c. They produced hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and cylinders chronicling life; Ur alone has yielded thousands of texts just from the third dynasty.

"We have many archives from about the 19th century b.c. dealing with seagoing enterprises," said Michalowski, who is editor of the Journal of Cuneiform Studies. "I see a thriving urban center, with bustling, narrow streets full of shops, where craftsmen were making everything from leather goods to precious ornaments. Ur was a major commercial center—one might think of Venice in later days." Traffic in river vessels and cattle carts and donkey caravans linked Ur and Mesopotamia with present-day Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan, as well as with Syria, Israel, and Egypt. Date palms grew in the countryside, and irrigation canals from the Euphrates and the Tigris, which then flowed closer to the city, made farming possible: barley, lentils, onions, garlic. Sheep and goats supplied ghee and wool.

It was beguiling to think of an Abraham growing up in Ur—I imagine a thin teenager of middle height, dressed in comfortable leather and wool, going to school, playing with his brothers, Nahor and Haran, and their friends. "Only a very small proportion of the population could read and write," said Michalowski. "If Abraham was literate, that would mean he had taken schooling at the house of a priest or bureaucrat who would have taught him a broad range of skills. He would have studied languages, arithmetic, and accounting, but above all else he would have been immersed in Sumerian literature. This would be the intellectual milieu he grew up in."

I see Abraham developing into a tough, compact young man with evident leadership skills. He may have worshiped Sin, the god of the moon and Ur's chief deity. "Mesopotamians worshiped a pantheon of deities, including major ones like Sin," said Michalowski, "but each person also had an additional, personal god." I wondered if, somehow, Abraham's reflections on the moon god had led him to the idea that the world is governed by one God.

In my quest for Abraham, divine inspiration would have helped. It was frustrating to find myself continuously suspended between different sets of legends—like virtual realities—with no facts to direct my investigation.

For the scriptural recorders the concept of time was so elastic that Abraham's family history strains credulity. In Genesis the entire story of Abraham's lineage is told in breathless, compressed language, starting with Noah and the flood, then proceeding with Noah's son Shem and Shem's brothers and their progeny. If this genealogy is taken literally, it would have covered centuries—ten generations from Noah to Abraham.

Given the vacuum of evidence, it is understandable that historians and archaeologists are locked in debate about the patriarch's existence and time of birth. Abraham Malamat, a spry septuagenarian who is emeritus professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, believes Abraham may have lived sometime between 2000 and 1800 b.c. "The Bible and the entire body of ancient Israelite history make this the most plausible time frame for Abraham," Malamat told me one snowy evening in his Jerusalem apartment. "We are possibly the closest people on the subject. A historian is closer than an archaeologist."

Israel Finkelstein, who is chairman of the archaeology department at Tel Aviv University, argues that written documents are not the only source for reconstructing history. "In the past 20 years archaeology has become the main tool for studying the earliest phases of ancient Israel. Archaeology is sometimes the only tool." There is no archaeological evidence, Finkelstein says, that camels—which are often described in Genesis as beasts of burden—were widely used for carrying goods until after 1000 b.c. He sees this as but one clue that the way of life reflected in the stories about Abraham is that of a much later time than the period of 2100 b.c., which some scholars arrived at by studying lineages in the Bible. "Whether there was a historical Abraham or not, I cannot say. But much of the reality behind Abraham in Genesis should probably be dated to the seventh century b.c."

Ur is another case in point. The writers of Genesis refer to it as Ur of the Chaldees, but scholars agree that the scriptures are confusing, because the Chaldees did not appear in Mesopotamia until early in the first millennium b.c. Finkelstein suggests this is further confirmation that the Genesis stories emerged at that time, as the people of Judah sought to build a national identity in a hostile world.

I asked Abraham Malamat about these confusions. "There are anachronisms like the camels—you might have a few anachronisms—but this doesn't destroy the overall picture." Rather, he says, these inconsistencies should be seen as later additions by biblical writers and therefore as hardly relevant for dating purposes.

Amid all the uncertainties, one thing seemed clear as I climbed the famous ziggurat in Ur with Dheif Mushin: To the ancients the three-tiered tower must have been a mighty symbol of the solidity of traditional beliefs. The great monument brought me closer to understanding the magnitude of Abraham's break from those beliefs. We can never know, but perhaps his early experiences in Ur prepared him for the spark of inspiration that carried him—and humanity—on a great journey.

In ancient Mesopotamia as in the Middle East today, armed conflict was frequent. Cuneiform texts record an attack by Elamite armies from present-day Iran around 2000 b.c., and a disruption of this kind may have contributed to Abraham's leaving Ur. Whatever the reason, Genesis tells us that he left toward the land of Canaan with Terah, Sarah, and his nephew, Lot, and they came to Haran and settled there.

"Settling and starting off again, waging war and making peace, fighting battles and concluding treaties"—this was to be the basic rhythm of Abraham's life, writes Karl-Josef Kuschel, a theology professor at Germany's University of Täbingen. The 600-mile (966 kilometers) journey from Ur must have taken the family and their caravan of donkeys several months as they progressed northward up the Euphrates Valley to Haran. The city lay on the banks of the Balikh River at the crossroads of important trade routes in the Fertile Crescent. Like Ur, it was a major center of worship of the moon god, Sin.

In Haran, Abraham would have found himself in the midst of a clamorous community of Amorites, Hurrians, and other ethnic groups. Haran today is a dusty Turkish village of around 500 people living in beehive-shaped clay houses, joined by arches to increase the shade and air circulation. Numerous archaeological excavations show that builders in ancient times also sought, by using thick walls and wide-open yards, to moderate the effects of temperatures that can exceed 120°F.

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