With Aydin Kudu, a young guide from Istanbul, I visited the remains of a house on a small hill in the center of Haran, where, according to local legend, Abraham lived. Judging from its configuration, this spacious construction had belonged to a large and prosperous family. Sitting on a low wall, Aydin and I speculated that Abraham's family must have been quite affluent during the years they lived in Haran. After Terah, his father, died, Abraham, as paterfamilias, would have supervised the family's flocks, traded wool for wheat with farmers, and recruited local people for his growing clan. Seeing the multitude of sheep around Haran, it struck me that the scene today was probably not very different from that in Abraham's time.
Later, I tried to extract at least one new Abrahamic legend out of Suleyman Sanäar, a village elder. Sanäar, a dignified 63-year-old Muslim with an impressive white beard, had invited me to his house for ceremonial tea and pita bread with a few friends. But all I got was the suggestion that a king of the region early in the second millennium b.c. was Abraham's uncle. Such stories exist to please visitors, small groups of whom—mainly Christians—come by bus every week to search for Abraham's heritage.
If archaeology denies us any direct evidence of Abraham, Terah's name appears tantalizingly in cuneiform tablets. Ömer Faruk Harman of Marmara University in Istanbul cautions that "Terah" almost certainly is not a personal name. It is probably a clan name or the name of a town in extreme northern Syria or, more likely, southeastern Turkey, not far from Haran. Still, Abraham was a son of Terah, which may establish the connection between Abraham and Haran.
While in Haran I made a side trip to a place that claims its own intimate connection with the patriarch. Şanliurfa (known as Urfa until World War I) is a pleasant, relaxed city of nearly half a million an hour's drive away. Some scholars believe that because Şanliurfa is so much closer to Haran than Ur, it is the more logical candidate for Abraham's birthplace. Either way, paternity of Abraham is a boon to tourism, and the city has instituted annual Abraham festivals that swell city coffers.
Not surprisingly, Şanliurfa is rife with legends about Abraham. One says he was born in a cave at the foot of a rock outcrop in the southern part of the city. According to this tale Abraham aged a month on the first day after his birth and turned 12 on his first birthday. His faith in a single God led him to smash figures of deities and idols. Furious, King Nimrod ordered Abraham burned, but a huge pool of water materialized, dousing the fire, and flaming logs turned into fierce fish that saved Abraham. A few steps from the cave two large pools—Halil üÖr Rahman and Aynzeliha—symbolize the miracle. They are stocked with a plethora of fat carp that are believed to be sacred: He who eats Abraham's carp will be struck blind.
Many of Şanliurfa's pilgrims come from Iran, and buses arrive a few times a week with Muslim worshipers, chiefly women, their heads covered with scarves. Worshipers enter the cave through a small mosque with a minaret, spend a few minutes inside praying, then leave. Some pray outside at the low stone wall around the mosque, bowing over it or prostrating themselves on the ground. The afternoon of my visit, a lone elderly woman in a black head scarf was praying at the wall as lightning flashed overhead.
Wherever Abraham was born—Şanliurfa or Ur or somewhere else—it was in Haran, Genesis says, that he received the words that established his obedient relationship with God. Once again, he would have to leave his home. And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father's house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing."
As Robert Alter of the University of California, Berkeley, writes, "Abram, a mere figure in a notation of genealogy and migration... becomes an individual character...when he is here addressed by God."
The only time I came close to glimpsing the patriarch as an individual was in Jerusalem, when Abraham Malamat showed me a book containing reproductions of a fresco painted in an ancient palace in Mari, Syria, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) southeast of Haran. Dating from the early second millennium b.c., which Malamat believes is the right period for Abraham, the palace—along with tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets—was excavated by a French expedition starting in 1933.
What I saw was a rather unheroic-looking man with brownish skin and a small black beard. He is wearing a black cap with a white headband, and the two-horned head of a sacrificial bull reposes by his lap. "His face is characteristic of the western Semitic type," Malamat said. "So are the cap and the bull. I think it most likely that Abraham descended from western Semitic nomadic tribes, probably from Syria or southern Mesopotamia.
"This picture in my opinion comes close to Abraham," Malamat continued. "Maybe he's a concept, but his figure makes sense. There are pictures on the Mari walls, figures that may be close to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."
It was the old conundrum: Without clear proof, the only thing you can ever say about Abraham is: "In my opinion."
Abram being seventy-five years old when he left Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all the goods they had gotten . . . and they set out on the way to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.
As best as can be reconstructed from imprecise maps of the ancient Fertile Crescent, Abraham traveled southwest from Haran across Syria, past Damascus. A large body of retainers would have accompanied him. Abraham's crossing into Canaan gave me the sensation that I was emerging from a fog and beginning to see the historical landscape. Not only is Genesis a more detailed road map from this point on—it names Canaan and specific locations there—but history itself is reasonably explicit about the region and the people Abraham would have encountered in the Promised Land.
Flowing with milk and honey, as the Bible describes it, Canaan stretched roughly from Syria in the north to Egypt in the south. Canaanites produced an unusual purple dye made from shellfish, so much so that the region came to be called "the land of purple." They were active traders—one meaning of "Canaanite" was "merchant"—and as such were subject to the influences of their flanking civilizations, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Around the time Abraham may have arrived, Mesopotamia was an especially important source of goods, people, and ideas.
And Abram crossed through the land to the site of Shechem, to the Terebinth of the Oracle, proclaims Genesis. Shechem is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East, dating from the beginning of the second millennium b.c. Situated west of the Jordan River, it is today's Nablus, a bustling city of 130,000 under the control of the Palestinian Authority. In Shechem, God appeared to Abraham, saying, "To your seed I will give this land." Genesis gives no response from Abraham but notes that he built an altar to the Lord.
As to Canaanite religion, Abraham would have encountered a fertility-centered religion with seasonal festivals and animal sacrifices. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Bible portrays the Canaanites as idol worshipers who held human sacrifices and engaged in deviant sex, practices seen as a threat to an emerging monotheism, but neither archaeology nor Canaanite texts support this description of the Canaanites.