The opening verse of the Book of Abraham places the beginning of the patriarch’s story “in the land of the Chaldeans” (Abr. 1:1). Several references to the city of Ur and “Ur of the Chaldees” are also present in the text (Abr. 1:20; 2:1, 4, 15; 3:1). This location is said to be the “residence of [Abraham’s] fathers” and Abraham’s own residence and “country” (Abr. 1:1; 2:3).
The Book of Abraham gives some specific details about Ur and this “land of the Chaldeans” that are not found in the Genesis account (Gen. 11:26–32; 12:1–5). This includes an apparent degree of Egyptian cultural and religious influence in the area (Abr. 1:6, 8–9, 11, 13) and being in or near the vicinity of “the plain of Olishem” (Abr. 1:10).
Where exactly is Abraham’s “Ur of the Chaldees”? For centuries, the traditional location for Muslims, Jews, and Christians was the city of Urfa (modern Sanliurfa in southern Turkey). In the 1920s, however, the excavations of Sir Leonard Woolley at Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq identified an ancient Sumerian city called Urim or Uru.1 Woolley argued that this site was the location of Abraham’s Ur, not the traditional site in Turkey. Woolley’s argument has since gained widespread acceptance among biblical scholars.
While Woolley’s identification of Urim with the biblical Ur has remained popular, other scholars have challenged it. Chief among them has been Cyrus Gordon, a member of Woolley’s excavation team2 who disputed Woolley’s identification on linguistic and archaeological grounds.3 He and a vocal minority of scholars have argued for candidates in northern Syria and Turkey as being Abraham’s Ur and have urged scholars to look there for correlations with the topography of the Abraham stories in Genesis.4
An additional complication besides locating Abraham’s Ur is identifying the ancient “Chaldeans” or “Chaldees” mentioned in both the Book of Abraham and the book of Genesis. Our best current evidence suggests they were a nomadic Semitic tribe from modern Syria that emigrated into Mesopotamia and established a dynasty that eventually came to power as the Babylonian Empire.5 The infamous biblical king Nebuchadnezzar was a descendant of these Chaldeans, and by his time the name Chaldean had become synonymous with Babylonian.6 Unfortunately, we have little inscriptional or archaeological evidence for the identity of the Chaldeans before they entered Mesopotamia long after Abraham’s lifetime. We therefore still have large gaps in the archaeological record that do not permit us to say much about the Chaldeans during Abraham’s day.
Latter-day Saint scholars who have approached this question have pointed out that a northern Syrian-Turkish location for Ur appears more favorable for the Book of Abraham than a southern Mesopotamian location.7 For one thing, as mentioned, the Book of Abraham depicts some kind of Egyptian cultural influence or presence in and around Abraham’s homeland of Ur. Abraham’s kinsfolk included “the god of Pharaoh” in their ritual worship (along with a priest to lead them in that worship who served both a god named Elkenah and the Pharaoh) and practiced ritual human sacrifice “after the manner of the Egyptians” (Abr. 1:6–13). There is presently no evidence for Egyptian influence in southern Mesopotamia during the lifetime of Abraham (ca. 2000–1800 BC), but there is evidence for Egyptian influence in northern Syria at this time.8 This does not necessarily preclude a southern location for Abraham’s Ur, since absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but a northern Ur would appear, based on current evidence, to converge better with what is depicted in the Book of Abraham.
Additionally, the proximity of Abraham’s Ur to “the plain of Olishem” is an important geographical detail that works best in a northern location as opposed to a southern one. The Book of Abraham’s Olishem has been plausibly identified with the ancient city of Ulisum or Ulishum located somewhere in southern Turkey (although the precise location remains debated).9
Taken together, the evidence from the Book of Abraham text and external archaeological and inscriptional sources can reasonably point us in the direction of modern northern Syria and southern Turkey as the ancient homeland of Abraham. While there are many questions that scholars still grapple with, enough evidence has surfaced over the years to paint an overall plausible picture of the historical and geographical world described in the Book of Abraham.
Hoskisson, Paul Y. “Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?” In The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, edited by H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr., 119–36. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989.
Smoot, Stephen O. “‘In the Land of the Chaldeans’: The Search for Abraham’s Homeland Revisited.” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2017): 7–37.