Published: December 2001
Journey of Faith
By Tad Szulc
In the Old City of Jerusalem—flash point for an ancient religious and political conflict—medics evacuate a Palestinian man who was wounded in a recent clash with Israeli police. "Religious extremism has deepened the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but basically it is a struggle over land and national identity," says Philip Wilcox, the former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem and the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

Was there ever, thousands of years ago, a personage named Abraham whom more than three billion people—more than half of humanity—venerate as the father, patriarch, and spiritual ancestor of their faiths? Two billion of them are Christians, 1.2 billion are Muslims, and close to 15 million are Jews. And had Abraham verily spoken with God and celebrated with him covenants that became the foundations of these religions?

The outlines of Abraham's life appear first and most fully in Genesis, the first book of the holy scriptures of Judaism and the Christian Bible's Old Testament. Abraham also makes frequent appearances in other Jewish and Christian writings, including the Talmud and the New Testament, and he is mentioned time and again in the Koran, the holy book of Islam.

Christianity accepted Abraham as its patriarch almost at its own birth. Paul the Apostle wrote in the New Testament's Epistle to the Romans of that faith of our father Abraham.

And in the Magnificat in Luke, the Virgin Mary says the Lord helped his servant Israel in remembrance of mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever. The Prophet Muhammad, who taught the principles of Islam in the seventh century, similarly honored Abraham, whom the Koran recognizes as one of Islam's prophets: We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob. The Koran elevates Abraham's story to religious practice. Muslims are commanded to prefer the religion of Abraham the Hanif (monotheist), and the Koran says God took Abraham as Khalil, his "friend."

Yet when I asked scholars the question, "Was there ever a man called Abraham?" as often as not they were respectful (we can't disprove it) but convinced of the futility of trying to find a flesh-and-blood individual. "Abraham is beyond recovery," said Israel Finkelstein, a biblical archaeologist at Tel Aviv University. Without any proof of the patriarch's existence, the search for a historical Abraham is even more difficult than the search for a historical Jesus.

The important thing, we are told, is to assess the meaning and legacy of the ideas Abraham came to embody. He is most famously thought of as the founder of monotheism, although Genesis never credits him with this. The stories do, however, describe his hospitality and peaceableness and, most important, his faith and obedience to God.

Whatever scholars may say about the history of Abraham, Genesis provides an irresistible narrative. So I set out during the year 2000, following him through Genesis, keeping other scriptural writings and modern scholarship within reach. As Genesis tells it, Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees, journeyed to Haran, thence to Canaan and west to Egypt. He returned to Canaan, to Hebron, where he died and was buried in a cave next to his wife Sarah.

When might these wanderings have taken place? Islamic scholarship does not delve into Abraham's origins, and in the other two religions there is no firm consensus. Working with the lineages recorded in the Bible, some scholars place Abraham around 2100 b.c. A number of historians who have married biblical history with archaeology converge on the period from 2000 to 1500 b.c.; others argue that the most you can say is that an Abraham figure could have preceded the Israelite monarchy, which began about 1000 b.c.

For all his mystery, Abraham remains intensely alive today. In fact, we may even be witnessing a renaissance of his memory. Pope John Paul II—Abraham's ardent champion—earnestly hoped to make a pilgrimage early in the millennial year in honor of the patriarch, because Jews, Christians, and Muslims all regard themselves as Abraham's spiritual offspring. In 1994 the pope told me that going to Ur was his dream. "No visit to the lands of the Bible is possible without a start in Ur, where it all began," he said. But at the last moment, in late 1999, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, canceled the invitation.

The pontiff announced that instead he would hold in the Vatican "a spiritual commemoration of some of the key events of Abraham's experience." On February 23, 2000, Rome witnessed a huge Vatican auditorium being turned over to Abraham. When the pope lit branches on an altar recalling the site of Abraham's impending sacrifice of his son, smoke and incense filled the auditorium. For a moment 6,000 of us relived the story.

Why is Abraham so vividly alive today? Faith—Judaic, Christian, and Islamic—and his majestic yet elusive presence provide one answer. But the most eloquent explanation I've heard originated with Rabbi Menahem Froman, who lives near Hebron. He said, "For me Abraham is philosophy, Abraham is culture. Abraham may or may not be historical. Abraham is a message of loving kindness. Abraham is an idea. Abraham is everything. I don't need flesh and blood."

And Terah took Abram his son and Lot son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law . . . and he set out with them from Ur of the Chaldees toward the land of Canaan. (Genesis 11:31)

My pursuit of Abraham began with a 500-mile (805 kilometers) taxi ride from Amman, the capital of Jordan, to Baghdad, in Iraq. This was followed by a 200-mile (322 kilometers) dash southeast through a wasteland of sand and scrub grass. Crossing the Euphrates River, I passed through a half dozen military checkpoints, arriving at last in Ur, widely believed to be Abraham's birthplace. My first impression was one of utter disappointment: Ur was dusty and forlorn, with no discernible pulse. The only visual point of reference was the pyramid-like brick tower, or ziggurat, built in tribute to Sin, the moon god, around 2100 b.c.

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.

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.

In Nablus I met up with Avner Goren, an archaeologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical history. We went looking for evidence of Abraham's Shechem but found nothing that could be tied to the patriarch. Everything seemed harmonious while we were there, but before long lethal battles would erupt between Palestinians and Israelis. Automatic arms' fire would fill the air around the tomb thought to be that of the Prophet Joseph, Abraham's great-grandson. Canaan is still a battlefield, as it has been on and off for thousands of years.

Genesis says nothing about how long Abraham remained in Shechem. All we learn is that from there he pulled up his stakes. . .for the high country east of Bethel and pitched his tent with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east, and he built there an altar to the Lord, and he invoked the name of the Lord. Some scholars believe that since Bethel was a Canaanite cultic site, the Bible, by directly connecting Abraham to it, provided a way for the Hebrews to claim it as their own.

From Bethel, the modern Arab town of Baytin, Abraham journeyed south to the Negev desert. It was mainly downhill traveling, over brushland and into the barrens. Irrigation makes the Negev bloom today, but in Abraham's time a dry, rocky expanse filled the landscape between Beersheba and the Gulf of Aqaba. To make matters worse, an especially severe drought struck the Negev soon after his arrival, forcing him to move again. Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was grave in the land. The attraction of Egypt was the Nile and its extravagantly fertile delta.

At this point Abraham must have been questioning God's promises that he would give him a child and a homeland. He was still childless, and after reaching Canaan, he had been uprooted yet again.

One spring morning I drove from Cairo to Avaris, an archaeological site at Tell el Daba, where Abraham may have established himself. The area produces rice, corn, cotton, and, during the spring months, wheat. I was cordially received by Manfred Bietak, chairman of the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Vienna, who is leading the excavation of the site.

"Absolutely blank," was his immediate reply when I asked what the Egyptian historical sources say about Abraham. "As far as the Egyptians are concerned," he said, "it's as if Abraham never set foot in the delta."

The timing of Abraham's arrival in the delta is as indeterminate as where he settled. Some scholars believe that an Abraham figure could have come to Egypt at the time of the Hyksos (an Egyptian word meaning "foreign rulers") in the first half of the second millennium b.c., but most argue he would have been there much earlier.

Whoever the pharaoh was during Abraham's stay in Egypt, he was implicated in Abraham's life in the most intimate way. As Abraham approached the Egyptian border, he said to Sarai his wife, "Look, I know you are a beautiful woman, and so when the Egyptians see you and say, 'She's his wife,' they will kill me while you they will let live. Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well with me on your count and I shall stay alive because of you."

Genesis continues, and Pharaoh's courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house. That Sarah was no longer a young woman did not seem to have discouraged the pharaoh.

Genesis offers no moral judgments on this peculiar turn of events, nor does it go into any other aspect of Abraham's life when Sarah was presumably in the pharaoh's harem. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, a compilation of largely Roman Catholic biblical studies, suggests that Abraham's deception calls into question his faith that God would protect him and fulfill the promise that, To your seed I will give this land. The JPS Torah Commentary, a Jewish analysis, makes the point that Abraham would have erred if he had expected God to work a miracle to get him out of this fix. As it turned out, God did intervene. And the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with terrible plagues because of Sarai the wife of Abram.

The lack of detail about Abraham's behavior is a frustrating example of the gaps spawned by the transformation of oral traditions into the written stories of Genesis. If Abraham's deception is open to interpretation, the pharaoh's reaction was abundantly clear. And Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She's my sister,' so that I took her to me as wife? Now, here is your wife. Take her and get out!"

Abraham was a rich man when he left Egypt—heavily laden with cattle, with silver and gold. By now I see him, consciously or not, beginning to lay the foundation for the establishment of monotheistic religion. To understand Abraham's connection with monotheism, says James Kugel of Harvard University, you have to look beyond Genesis itself, which says nothing directly about it. "Centuries and centuries after Abraham might have lived, there were interpreters who read his story in Genesis. These interpreters lived from around the third century b.c. on. When they got to chapter 12, they said, 'Oh, why does God start speaking to Abraham and promise him all these wonderful things, like making him a great nation?' Eventually they went to the Book of Joshua, where it says that Abraham's family all worshiped other gods." Kugel says the interpreters concluded that Abraham was the only one who didn't worship these other gods.

In numerous later works—including the Book of Jubilees (found with the Dead Sea Scrolls), the New Testament, early Christian writings, and the Koran—Abraham is presented as a model of faith and pure monotheism. The idea caught on and became fixed.

After returning to Canaan, Abraham settled a land dispute between his herdsmen and those of his nephew, Lot, who had left Egypt with him. He did this not by fighting but by letting the younger man decide. Lot picked the verdant valley of the Jordan River down to the southernmost shore of the Dead Sea, where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah stood. Abraham—known ever more as a peacemaker—was content to remain among the mountains and deserts of the Promised Land, making his temporary home under terebinth trees in Mamre.

By now God had appeared to Abraham, reconfirming his gift of the Promised Land. "Raise your eyes and look out from the place where you are to the north and the south and the east and the west, for all the land you see, to you I will give it and to your seed forever. . . . Rise, walk about the land through its length and its breadth, for to you I will give it."

In the ancient Middle East, walking around a property was a ritual for taking final possession of a piece of land. Genesis makes no mention that Abraham fulfilled God's order to walk about the land. But the Genesis Apocryphon, an interpretive text found in the 1940s among the Dead Sea Scrolls, fills in this blank, describing at length a journey Abraham made around the Promised Land.

To show his gratitude to God, Abraham built an altar in Hebron, which lies in a hollow in the mountains of Judah some 15 miles (24 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. Although Israel largely withdrew its military forces from the overwhelmingly Arab city in January 1997 as part of the peace process with the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government kept control of a strip including a small Jewish neighborhood along al Shuhada Street in the center of the old town. Some 450 Jews live on al Shuhada Street (with 210,000 Arabs around them), which was closed to Arab traffic and guarded at either end by Israeli soldiers. I found it eerie driving along the silent, empty street, with the storefronts shuttered.

In Hebron, Abraham suddenly found himself an active military commander. An emissary brought him word that Lot had been captured in Sodom by four warmongering kings. Genesis, which at times is very precise, recounts that Abraham marshaled 318 of his retainers and struck the enemy at night, chasing them north past Damascus in Syria and freeing Lot.

Returning in triumph, Abraham reached Salem—the town that most likely became Jerusalem, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It may have been there that he had a "conversation" with God in which he expressed his doubts about the divine promises. As Robert Alter of UC Berkeley points out, "This first speech to God reveals a hitherto unglimpsed human dimension of Abram." God's promise of a very great reward prompted Abraham to complain about what he thought had been the Lord's failure to fulfill earlier pledges. He said, "O my Master, Lord, what can You give me when I am going to my end childless. . . . to me you have given no seed."

God replied, "Look up to the heavens and count the stars. . . . So shall be your seed."

On that day, Genesis says, God made a covenant with Abraham: "To your seed I have given this land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates."

From Salem, Abraham went to Mamre and Hebron, where he now spent most of his time. I visualize him as a grand old man, sitting under a tree, dispensing wisdom, overseeing the family finances, and, of course, talking with God.

At this point Genesis records an event that would profoundly influence the course of world history. In the ancient Middle East wives who could not bear children encouraged their husbands to procreate with slaves or concubines. Thus Sarah, who was barren, convinced Abraham to have a child with Hagar, an Egyptian slave who had probably stayed with them since the clan's expulsion by the pharaoh.

The birth of Ishmael, Abraham's first son, foreshadowed the emergence in Arabia in the seventh century a.d. of a new religion—Islam—under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad. The Koran calls Abraham's first son an apostle (and) a prophet ... He was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord. Ishmael's pedigree lent legitimacy to the new faith, but the Koran never mentions Hagar's name.

Abraham first, then Ishmael, are the perfect models of piety for Muslims. Abraham's name appears in 25 of the 114 chapters of the Koran, and to this day Ibrahim and Ismail are common first names among Muslims. "The Koran explains that all true revelations come from God," says John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "It is the record of the divine revelation, which is shared by all the scriptures."

There is no doubt that Muhammad and his inner circle of disciples believed in Abraham as the founder of their faith. The Koran orders Muslims to follow the religion of Abraham. Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, . . . and he joined not gods with God.

Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570. There he was surrounded by Jewish and Christian communities—although Muslims do not believe that these faiths influenced the revelation of Islam. In 622 Muhammad moved to Medina, where his following quickly grew. He was recognized as the last in a series of prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, all of whom appear, redefined, in the Holy Book of Islam.

The Koran reports that Abraham and Isma'il raised the foundations of the House. The "house" is the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam's holiest shrine. One of the four corners of this small rectangular structure is a sacred black stone that is a remnant of the original building. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, when Muslims from all over the world circle the Kaaba, reinforces the central role of Abraham and Ishmael in the Islamic faith.

The Koran does not give particulars about the birth of Ishmael, but Genesis goes into great detail. It reports that after Hagar became pregnant, Sarah resented her. She complained to Abraham that when the Egyptian "saw she had conceived, I became slight in her eyes," and she went on harassing the girl. Abraham replied meekly, "Look, your slavegirl is in your hands. Do to her whatever you think right."

Consequently Hagar fled from Sarah into the desert wilderness. Sarah's motivations are blurred, but what intrigues Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is that she acted independently of Abraham when circumstances required. As the rabbi put it, Sarah and Abraham were as much partners as a married couple, and "she would allow Hagar to be an instrument of procreation but would not allow her the honor and privilege of being Abraham's beloved wife-companion." By law, Steinsaltz said, "women were quite independent. They had the right to own property, and they had standing. Sarah had a say, in one way or another." I asked him if this makes Sarah the first great feminist. "Yes," the rabbi shot back.

God, for his part, took another view of the situation. An angel intercepted Hagar when, apparently heading home to Egypt, pregnant, she stopped at a spring near Kadesh in the Negev. Hagar told the messenger she was fleeing from Sarah, but the angel ordered her to "return to your mistress and suffer harassment at her hand." As a consolation the angel said to Hagar, "Look, you have conceived and will bear a son and you will call his name Ishmael for the Lord has heeded your suffering." Hagar obeyed. Ishmael (whose name in Hebrew means "God has heard") was born. Abraham was said to be 86 at the time.

Thirteen years after Ishmael's birth the 99-year-old Abraham was summoned by God, who made explicit his choice of Abraham as the father to a multitude of nations. To symbolize the significance of this new, exalted status, God changed his name from Abram to Abraham. God also changed the name of his wife, Sarai, to Sarah. Then God announced that "I will also give you from her a son," and upon hearing this, Abraham flung himself on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, "To a hundred-year-old will a child be born, will ninety-year-old Sarah give birth?"

In their next meeting, God appeared to Abraham when he was sitting outside his tent. Looking up, Abraham saw three travelers among the trees. In a customary display of hospitality to strangers, he fetched water to wash their feet and treated the visitors to curds and milk and a calf he had cooked. Waiting on them as they ate (the scene depicted in Rembrandt's famous etching "Abraham Entertaining the Angels," owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.), he heard God repeat the promise that Sarah would have a son. Sarah, who had been listening from inside the tent, laughed inwardly, expressing her doubts. "After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old?...Shall I really give birth, old as I am?"

After playing host at Mamre, Abraham moved from Hebron back to Beersheba. Within a year his son Isaac ("he who laughs" in Hebrew) was born. Abraham circumcised him on the eighth day, in keeping with God's order that every male be circumcised.

Genesis then speaks of a second expulsion of Hagar. Sarah demanded this after observing the much older Ishmael playing and laughing with Isaac; she wanted to assure Isaac's inheritance, even though he was not the firstborn. Now God took Sarah's side, ordering Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. He told him that "through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slavegirl's son, too, I will make a nation, for he is your seed."

Hagar and her son were banished to the desert, but they were not alone. God provided for them, giving them a well of water when Hagar had lost all hope. Ishmael, Genesis says, grew up and dwelled in the wilderness, and he became a seasoned bowman. The Bible reveals little else except that his mother procured him an Egyptian wife and he helped bury his father. This is the last mention of Hagar. Muslim tradition holds that mother and son stayed together in Mecca, and they are said to be buried in a common grave—Hijr Ismail—next to the Kaaba.

Accompanied by Avner Goren, I followed Abraham to Beersheba. When we stopped at one Bedouin settlement, children rushed forward to beg: for water, not money. Abraham, too, needed water, and he dug a well in Beersheba, hoping to live in peace with the local inhabitants. He also planted a tamarisk tree, a symbol of plenty, invoking the name of the Lord, everlasting God. At this stage I envision Abraham as a full-time proselytizer and one-God activist.

The day of our visit to Beersheba was unusually raw; the Negev had just had more than half a foot of snow—one of the heaviest snowfalls in 50 years—and the whitened palm trees looked festive and beautiful. Beersheba was the patriarch's home for a number of years. A well said to be the one dug by Abraham still exists in the center of town, just off busy Hebron Road. (But it no longer provides water.)

Recognizing the city's spiritual importance, in 1979 Anwar Sadat, then president of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, came to Beersheba to begin peace negotiations between their two nations. But as Goren and I stood in the snow at Abraham's well, three Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter-bombers roared overhead. The message was plain: The Middle East is still far from real peace. Achieving it, repairing Abraham's fractured spiritual legacy, will demand an extreme act of faith from Palestinians and Israelis, whose common heritage is now a matter of scientific proof. A recent study of the DNA of male Jews and Middle Eastern Arabs—among them Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese—shows that they share a common set of ancestors.

The ultimate test of Abraham's faith in the only God appears to have arisen in Beersheba, when God ordered Abraham to take Isaac to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains.

When Abraham and Isaac reached their destination—which Jewish and Christian tradition holds to have been the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the site today of the Dome of the Rock shrine—the patriarch erected an altar. He bound Isaac and placed him on a pile of wood on the altar. But when Abraham raised the cleaver to kill his son, God's messenger called out from the heavens, "Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God." A ram, caught by its horns in a nearby thicket, was presented as a burnt offering instead of Isaac.

In the Koran, God similarly tests Abraham's faith by ordering the sacrifice of his son, but the son and the place are not named. In sura, or chapter, 37:102, 112 Abraham said, "O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice." When Abraham shows his willingness to comply with God, he is promised another son, Isaac. And We gave him the good news of Isaac—a prophet,—one of the Righteous. Most Muslims therefore believe that Ishmael was the one to be sacrificed and that this test occurred in or near Mecca.

In Genesis, Abraham returned to Beersheba. Sarah died in Qiryat Arba, near Hebron, at the age of 127. Abraham buried her in the Cave of Machpelah, in a tomb he bought for 400 silver shekels. He then dispatched a servant to the city of Nahor in northern Mesopotamia, near Haran, to find a wife for Isaac. Rebekah was the chosen woman. Back in Hebron again, Abraham had to be the busiest old man in all of Canaan. He found himself a new wife—a woman named Keturah, who gave him six children.

Abraham died at the ripe old age of 175. Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Machpelah cave next to Sarah.

In a sense Abraham never died. On the highest religious level Abraham and his monotheism was a model for Jesus and his early Christian disciples and, much later, Muhammad and his Muslim followers. Today he still stands out as a unique spiritual figure, transcending the frontiers of great religions. However questionable the accuracy of the scriptures, however thin the archaeological and historical evidence, Jews, Christians, and Muslims still revere him as the patriarch.

One of the most touching expressions of devotion to Abraham I encountered on my travels was a short poem, "Hymn to the Blessing of Abraham," given to me at Istanbul Technical University. It was written by a Muslim, Cengizhan Mutlu, and tells of King Nimrod, who plotted to kill Abraham for his monotheism. My Turkish guide, Aydin Kudu, provided an impromptu translation.

Idol made of pure gold

Gives no hope, no food.

Nimrod doesn't comprehend this.

Wood burns (for the stake),

Smoke reaches the sky,

Ibrahim is thrown into the fire.

He feels no pain, he doesn't groan.

He says, "My God will save me."

Two angels had said it rightly.

Embers turn into ashes,

Sparkles turn into roses.

"My God will save me." In these five simple words is the essence of Abraham and his astonishing endeavors. They spell out his fundamental belief that there is one God. That belief changed the world forever.