UR, one of the largest towns in Sumer and later in Babylonia. Today it is a wide expanse of ruins in which stands a high tell, the ruins of the Ziggurat of Ur, known as al-Muqayyar. Ur developed on the bank of a large canal, which carried water from the Euphrates to the area and served as an important trade route, through which trade boats passed to Ur's two ports. In present times the canal is silted up and the entire region is desolate.
The origin of the name Ur is not clear. Some maintain that it is the Sumerian word uru, meaning "town." Some point to the group of cuneiform symbols in which the Sumerian name is written, and translate the name as: "the place of the dwelling of light." In the Bible, the city is referred to as Ur of the Chaldeans (Heb. אוּר כַּשְׂדִים), since in the biblical period it was included in the area occupied by the Chaldeans.
According to the legendary tradition of Sumer, Ur was settled even before the flood and was the center of a dynasty of rulers, each of whom reigned for thousands of years. In later periods too the rule of Sumer and Akkad was in the hands of a dynasty of kings, whose capital was Ur. The English scholar Taylor was the first to undertake excavations on the site (1854), and it was he who identified the tell of Ur, on the basis of an inscription from the time of Nabonidus king of Babylonia. At the end of the 19th century, an expedition on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania excavated at Ur, but the results of this excavation were not published. In 1918, the English scholar Campbell Thompson conducted an experimental excavation on behalf of the British Museum, and a short while later (1918–19), the English scholar Hall excavated, on behalf of the same institution, at Ur, Eridu, and el-Ubaid, near Ur. A joint expedition on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum led by Sir Leonard *Woolley excavated at Ur for 12 consecutive seasons (from 1922 to 1934). Although only a small section of the area of ruins was excavated, the reports of the last expedition make it possible to know the history of the town and its cultural development from its beginnings to its final destruction. It began in the Chalcolithic Era (beginning of the fourth millennium B.C.E.).
At the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E. there are sudden signs of a new culture. After a long period there was a great flood that (according to Woolley) wiped out most of the settlements in an area of 100,000 sq. km, in the region of the lower reaches of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Only the towns located on high places, including Ur, were saved. Outside the wall of Ur, in its lower environs, Woolley found a layer of red soil without any archaeological remains, about 2.5 m. deep, which separated the early remains (below) from the later ones (above). According to Woolley it is possible that a reference to this terrible tragedy is reflected in the Sumerian-Babylonian flood mythology. However, his theory is not accepted by other scholars.
Above this "barren" layer from the time of the flood is a large cemetery from the time of the first dynasty of Ur (26th–25th centuries B.C.E.) with which the historical period of Sumer and Akkad begins. Here were found the tombs of several kings and queens. Later, Ur was transferred from one conqueror to another. Among these, mention should be made of Eannatum king of Lagash, Lugal-zagge-si king of Umma and Erech (Uruk), and Sargon of Akkad, all of whom left sacred vessels in the temple at Ur. In the 22nd century, Ur was apparently again ruled by a dynasty of local independent rulers. However, Ur reached its peak of power and development during the "Third Dynasty of Ur" (c. 22nd–21st centuries B.C.E.). Ur-Nammu, founder of this dynasty, was at first the governor of Ur on behalf of Utu-hegal of Uruk. After freeing himself from the domination of Uruk, he apparently succeeded in extending his rule to all the towns of Sumer. He also called himself "king of Sumer and Akkad," though the extension of Ur's domination outside the boundaries of Sumer occurred primarily in the time of his son and heir Shulgi, who called himself, like the kings of Akkad, "king of the four corners of the earth." During his reign, which lasted 47 years, Shulgi extended the borders of his kingdom and conquered Assyria. However, at the end of Shulgi's time the danger of the Amorites was already threatening Ur from the northwest. In the time of his successors there was an additional danger from the northeast: the consolidation and expansion of Elam. In the time of Ibbi-Sin, the last king of the third dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian and Akkadian monarchy of Ur was defeated in its battles against the invading Western Semites (Amorites) and Elam (in the northeast). Ur never recovered from this blow, although it did enjoy some additional periods of religious or economic flourishing, such as in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. (in the time of Kurigalzu I, of the Kassite dynasty of Ur) and the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. (in the time of Essarhaddon's active governorship). From the 11th century B.C.E., the area was occupied by the nomadic tribes of the Chaldeans; hence the biblical combination Ur of the Chaldeans. The numerous architectural changes made in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (beginning of the sixth century B.C.E.) in the religious sphere of Ur attest to this king's attempt to infuse a new spirit into the cult of Sin in Ur. This too, however, did not help Ur. Similarly unhelpful were the attempts of Nabonidus (in the middle of the sixth century) to encourage this cult. From that time on there is no mention of Ur in the historical sources. The latest commercial document discovered in Ur is from 400 B.C.E., i.e., from the time of Persian rule. It may be assumed that not long afterward the town was destroyed and abandoned, although a Hellenistic tradition from the second century B.C.E. can be interpreted to mean that during that period the place still served as a kind of center for nomadic Arab tribes.
According to biblical tradition, Ur was the place of origin of the Patriarchs (Gen. 11:28, 31). Indeed, the first quarter of the second millennium B.C.E., with the economic decline of Ur after the downfall of the third dynasty and the emergence of the Amorites from the west, was a fitting time for the migration from Ur of various families who were not tied to Ur as were farmers who were enslaved to the soil. From there the Patriarchs wandered to Haran; this wandering too is explained by the special ties between these two centers of the moon-cult.
L. Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees (1929); idem, Ur, The First Phases (1946); idem, Excavations at Ur (1954); W.F. Albright, in: BASOR, 140 (1955), 31–32; 163 (1961), 44; C.H. Gordon, in: JNES, 17 (1958), 28–31; H.W.F. Saggs, in: Iraq, 22 (1960), 200–9; A. Parrot, Abraham et son Temps (1962), 14–52; A.F. Rainey, in: IEJ. 13 (1963), 319; P. Artzi, in: Oz le-David (1964), 71–85; I. Ben-Shen, ibid., 86–91.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.