Abraham is believed to have first heard God’s voice in Ur, which is not just an example of Iraq’s storied past but also of how Abrahamic religions are joined at the hip
At an inter-faith gathering in Iraq’s Ur in March 2021, Pope Francis quoted a passage from Bible’s first book Genesis about God asking Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how numerous his descendants will be. Francis told his audience that Abraham saw the promise of his descendants in those stars. ‘…he saw us,’ Francis told the gathering, referring to Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
The pope invited the Christians, Muslims, and members of Iraq’s other minority religions in the audience to see in the stars a message of unity. ‘They illumine the darkest nights because they shine together,’ he said.
Francis drew on Abraham’s unifying appeal to make a fervent call for solidarity. He underlined hostility, extremism, and violence are not born of a religious heart but are betrayals of religion.
The Pope said believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion. He praised Iraq’s Muslims for helping repair churches and monasteries and building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred terror group ISIS created after overrunning parts of the country.
He said the blessed place, Ur, where Abraham is believed to have been born, has brought them back to their origins and that they seem to have returned home. From Ur, the Pope said, where faith was born, ‘from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.’
The Pope’s visit to Iraq, calls for unity, and acknowledgment of inter-faith cooperation was a major boost to Iraq’s attempts to attract investment, tourists, and pilgrims as it emerged from dictatorship, occupation, and civil war.
The conflict in Iraq, which is full of remnants of biblical antiquity, has overshadowed the country’s glorious past and pivotal contributions to civilisation that Ur, also known as Tal al-Muqayer, in southern Dhi Qar province is an example of.
The ruins excavated in Ur about a century back rival those found in Egypt’s Tutankhamen’s tomb. They include a 6,000-year-old pyramid-style neo-Sumerian mud-brick ziggurat (terraced compound), a residential complex believed to be Abraham’s house and palaces.
The ruins are the remnants of one of the world’s oldest cities that thrived under Nebuchadnezzar II’s kingdom in the cradle of civilisation.
In her report for Religion News Service on the Pope’s visit, Claire Giangravé cited the seminal influence of Ur on humanity as a whole. She quoted University of Notre Dame associate professor Abraham Winitzer:
The wheel was invented in ancient Mesopotamia. The Code of Hammurabi (rule of law) was also first established there. The use of oil as a source of energy, too, began in ancient Mesopotamia, where Ur emerged as one of the first main urban centres over 6,000 years ago.
The agricultural revolution and the creation of permanent settlements, the concept of minutes and seconds, writing and poetry, and even the cornerstone of religion — the idea of a covenant of rules binding humanity to God — all stem from ancient Mesopotamia and places like Ur.
Ur went on to become the hub of the world’s economy and a source of carpets and wool clothes for Mesopotamia and the world beyond. The ruins in Ur are among the significant archaeological sites in Dhi Qar along with those in Eridu, Lagash, Gisu, Umma, and Bad-tibira (the Wall of the Copper Workers) nearby.
Sumerians built the walled city of Ur as their capital when they settled in what is now Iraq around 3,500 BC. They established markets, workshops, and agricultural villages inside the walls, and began the development of primary commercial transportation routes for trading items such as wheat and barley.
The excavations in Ur, which began in the early 20th century, continue. The treasures discovered there suggest Ur’s residents lived luxurious and prosperous lives. Iraqi and American researchers resumed the halted excavations in the region after dictator Saddam Hussein’s fall.
In 2007, they discovered around 100 tablet artefacts of a miniature library and ancient texts. Their surveys suggest there are 15,000 archaeological sites throughout Iraq with Nasiriya near Ur having about 1,200 of them; the equivalent ‘to all of the antiquities of France and Italy combined.’
Iraq’s spine—the Tigris-Euphrates valley—also holds the ruins of the world’s other earliest cities such as Uruk, Babylon, and Nineveh apart from Ur, making the country site of one of the richest archaeological heritages globally. Colonial powers plundered them.
Nineveh’s Assyrian carvings were shipped and kept in the British Museum in the 19th Century. Babylon’s Ishtar Gate was robbed of its tiles, which were sent to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.
Ur is not just an example of Iraq’s storied past but also of how Abrahamic religions are joined at the hip. Muslims, Christians, and Jews trace their roots to and revere Abraham, who is believed to have first heard God’s voice in Ur, as their spiritual forefather.
Ur is mentioned in both Muslim and Christian scriptures as his homeland. He is believed to have left it to found a new nation in Canaan—encompassing Palestine and Syria—to become the founder of monotheism following God’s command.
God promised Abraham that his ‘seed’ would inherit the land. Jews are believed to have descended from Abraham’s son, Isaac, to whom Jesus also traced his lineage. Prophet Muhammad was a descendant of Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael.
Ur is a powerful reminder of how there is more that unites than divides the world’s major religions whose followers account for over 50 percent of the world’s population. The ancient city was a major attraction for tourists from around the world until the 1980s.
Ur is among myriad places in Iraq that hold the key to the revival of tourism to boost the country’s economy. Its importance to inter-faith harmony particularly cannot be overstated. It is among the places in Iraq that testify how Abrahamic religions are intertwined.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide