History Mystery: Ur The Legendary City Of Abraham Part.V
Separate from the cornfields, were the gardens and orchards, which produced cucumbers, gourds, lentils, melons, onions, and pomegranates destined for the markets and the palace and temples warehouses. Beyond the fertile valleys, sheep and goats grazed in the pastureland that spread along the desert margin. The coarse grasses were not suitable for feeding cattle, so they were fattened on stocks of barley brought from the plain. Official caravans passing through these upland regions to gather tithes went with escorts of soldiers armed with lance and dagger. The routes were well-worm, but raiding tribes from the desert were always a menace.
In about 2000 BC, the Amorites from the west and the Elamites from the foothills of Iran to the east descended on the capital in a cloud of destruction. Sir Leonard Woolley’s team unearthed the evidence: temples had been sacked, monuments had been smashed, and buildings had been razed to the ground. Yet Ur not only survived but continued to flourish, although on a reduced scale, into the time of Abraham, who is thought to have been alive in about 1500 BC.
Could this great city really have been the home of Abraham, a Semite always thought of as a tent-dwelling nomad? It Abraham’s family lived in Ur, they can only have done so temporarily – by 1500 BC the city was an age-old metropolis, and its citizens had been living the urban life for more than two thousand years.
It is likely that the tribe of Abraham was one among many who drove their flocks from the wastes of Arabia into the fertile plain. They must often have passed through the swarming, urban communities that sprawled before them. Coming from the calm silence of the desert, they would have experienced an acute culture shock as they gazed on the city’s grand palaces, temples, and busy workshops. And Sumerian legend left its mark on the tribe in one immensely significant respect: in the Bible story of the great flood. The Sumerians’ royal chronicles allude to a colossal rising of the waters which once engulfed their land. The flood legend is also at the heart of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a favourite myth of their civilization. Gilgamesh – half-god, half-man was said to have been king of the powerful city – state of Uruk.
Part of the epic relates how the gods decided to wipe out mankind in a deluge. Only one faithful believer, a certain Uptnaishtim, was to be spared from the catastrophe. He built an ark and loaded it with the ‘seed of all livings things’. The storm raged for six days and nights, and on the seventh, it subsided. ‘All mankind had turned to clay,’ and the ark lay stranded on a mountain top. Three birds were then sent out in succession, just as in the Bible, to look for dry land.
When exploring Ur, Wooolley came upon something which seemed to tie the flood to a specific time and location.
Digging below the royal cemetery he discovered a clear layer of silt 3m (10ft) thick interrupting the continuous evidence of prehistoric human habitation. Broken vessels dating back to about 4000 BC were discovered above and below the silt, but not within it. The clean clay was a flood deposit: the sign of a massive inundation which partially buried the original settlement.
Was this evidence of the flood described in the scriptures, a huge deluge that had engulfed the entire valley of the Tigris and Euphrates? Initially, Woolley thought it might be. Today, scholars are more cautious. The inundation was not as extensive as Woolley first believed. Other major floods had occurred at various times in Sumerian history. And since flood myths are found all round the world, it is even conceivable that all date back through tribal memory to the melting of the waters at the end of the Ice Age in around 8300 BC. Cultures as distant as Aztec Mexico and Hindu India speak of a great purification of the earth by water. Whatever the truth, it is clear that the Sumerian myth caught the imagination of the Semitic tribe of Abraham, and helped to shape the from which the Biblical version was to take.
Much of modern civilization can be traced back to the inventive Sumerians: the wheel, the plough, patterns of city life and social organization – even the art of writing itself. It seems incredible today that this vibrant culture could ever have been forgotten.
Yet such was its fate.
During the course of the 1st millennium BC the centre of civilization in the Middle East shifted from Mesopotamia to the Iranian plateau, where a Persian dynasty with alien gods was building a mighty empire. The ancient cities of Sumer declined. Various rulers of Ur tried to restore the city to some of its former glory – notably Nabonidus, a 6th century Babylonian king who rebuilt parts of the great ziggurat. But Ur was slowly dying and, in about 316 BC, an unexpected event dealt a fatal blow to the great city. The Euphrates, whose waters had so long nourished the prosperity of Ur, changed its course. It started to nun some 14 km (8 ½ miles) east of the city.
Ur was starved of its shipping trade. The canals which had once watered the fields were dry, and the city was stranded like a beached leviathan on a flat desert waste.
The remaining inhabitants abandoned the site. Wind and sandstorms did the rest, eroding walls and monuments and heaping up accumulations of dust, until all that remained was a series of gentle hillocks overlooked by a hump-backed monument – a hump which the Bedouins called Tell al-Muqayyar - the Mound of Pitch.