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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.

[Encyclopaedia Hebraica]

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Type of Government

Ur was a Sumerian city-state in southern Mesopotamia, in what is now modern-day Iraq. The city was governed by autocratic rulers who sometimes established hereditary monarchies. At various times different Mesopotamian city-states, including Ur, dominated the entire region.


Located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley in Mesopotamia, an area also known as the Fertile Crescent, the Sumerians established one of the earliest known civilizations. They developed sophisticated irrigation methods that enabled them to cultivate large areas of land, and by approximately 5000 BC these agricultural advancements led to the development of villages, where farmers traded their goods. To record their transactions, the Sumerians developed the first known written language—the cuneiform script—which consisted of pictographs, numbers, and syllabic symbols. The Sumerians are also thought to be among the first civilizations to have developed the wheel.

The village settlements of the Fertile Crescent prospered, and by 3500 BC a series of independent city-states had developed, each controlling an urban center and surrounding agricultural holdings. The most significant of these city-states were Adab, Agade, Bad-Tibira, Borsippa, Erech, Eridu, Girsu, Issin, Kish, Lagash, Larsa, Mari, Nippur, Shuruppak, and Ur.

What is known about the government of Ur comes from archaeological studies of the remains of the city and from surviving texts of the period. One of the most important of these is the List of Sumerian Kings , which purports to list the various rulers of Sumer. The list shows some of the limitations of archaeological study, because legendary rulers with impossibly long tenures (e.g., Ennenluana of Bad-Tibira is shown to have ruled for more than forty-three thousand years) are listed alongside independently confirmed historical rulers with more plausible terms of office, whereas some historical rulers—such as the priest-kings of Lagash—are omitted altogether. Because the list is not a reliable document, all dates referenced in any chronology of the Sumerian civilization are considered approximations.

Government Structure

Sumerian city-states such as Ur were built around a ziggurat (temple tower) that was dedicated to the city’s patron god. The patron deity of Ur was Nanna. The ensi (temple priest) controlled the city’s administration and finances. Written records found in Ur show that the city possessed a sophisticated administrative bureaucracy for the administration of resources, such as the rationing of grains and other foodstuffs; the collection of bala (regional taxes); and the settlement of property disputes by mashkim (magistrates).

In the third millennium BC the role of the ensi began to be supplanted by lugals —usually translated as “kings,” but most often they were simply large landholders. The Sumerians found themselves in a state of near-constant warfare as the rulers of various city-states attempted to gain control of larger areas. The List of Sumerian Kings shows that through alliance or conquest, various lugals claimed to rule the Sumerians as a group, with the “capital” of Sumer moving to different city-states depending on the provenance of the ruler.

Political Parties and Factions

The people of Ur were Sumerian speakers for much of the city-state’s history, but from 2450 to 2250 BC, Ur—and most of Sumerian Mesopotamia—was dominated by the Semitic-speakers of the Empire of Akkad. The Akkadians worked hard to assimilate the people of the empire to their language, with lasting effect. Even during the Sumerian “revival” of the Ur III Dynasty, it is believed the Akkadian Semitic dialect continued to be the common language of Ur, as attested by the fact that the last three kings of that dynasty each used the Akkad name “sin” (the Akkadian name for the moon god) in their names, rather than the Sumerian “nanna”.

Major Events

Perhaps the height of the Sumerian civilization came near its end, with an empire known as the Ur III dynasty. This dynasty was founded by a general, Ur-Nammu, who united the city-states of Mesopotamia from his capital in Ur. The Ur III dynasty marked a revival of Sumerian as the language of royalty and government.

The empire was administered by provincial governors who were accountable directly to the king. The first written code of laws is attributed to Ur-Nammu or to his successor, Shulgi (twenty-first century BC). This code established the king as the ultimate arbiter of justice by divine right. The Ur III dynasty endured for more than forty years after Shulgi’s death in approximately 2047 BC.


In roughly 2004 BC the Sumerians were overrun by two Semitic nations, the Elamites and Amorites, and they were soon eliminated as a political power. Their legacy lives on in their innovations, including their systems of writing and irrigation and the use of the wheel. Many of the principles of Ur-Nammu’s legal code were reflected in the later (and better-known) Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. The administrative bureaucracies of Ur and other Sumerian city-states, as well as the gubernatorial/provincial system for controlling large empires, influenced many of the governments that followed.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer: 39 Firsts in Man’s Recorded History . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Postgate, John Nicholas. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History . New York: Routledge, 1994.

Woolley, C. Leonard. The Sumerians . New York: Norton, 1965.

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Ancient city in southern Mesopotamia at a site now called Tell el-Muquaiyar, about 160 miles north of the present head of the Persian Gulf and almost ten miles west of the present Euphrates. The ancient city, however, which was called Urim in Sumerian and Uri in Akkadian, was situated right on the Euphrates and probably not far from the ancient head of the Persian Gulf.

According to the Hebrew text of Gn 11.28, 31 and Neh 9.7, Abraham's original home was in Ur of the Chaldees (Heb. 'ûr kaŝdîm ). It is usually assumed that this is the same city as the Sumerian-Babylonian city of Ur, even though there are certain difficulties in the identification. According to the Greek Septuagint, Abraham came not from Ur of the Chaldees, but "from the country of the Chaldees." Granted that the mention of the Chaldees [see chaldeans] is an anachronism, since this people did not appear in southern Mesopotamia until almost a millennium after the time of Abraham, there is still the difficulty that Biblical tradition did not connect the culture of the Patriarchs with that of southern Mesopotamia, as it did with that of Abraham's second reported home in Haran in northern Mesopotamia. On the other hand, it is remarkable that, after Ur, Haran was one of the most important centers of the worship of the moon-god Sin. It is therefore quite possible that Abraham's relatives, who were apparently devotees of this god in Haran, may have migrated northward from Ur after some destruction of this city.

Bibliography: c. l. woolley, The Royal Cemetery (London 1934) v.2, pts. 1 and 2 of Ur Excavations (London 1927), Joint Expedition of the British Museum and Museum of University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia; Ur of the Chaldees (rev. ed. Baltimore 1954). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 251820.

[j. e. steinmueller]

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Ur (ûr), ancient city of Sumer, S Mesopotamia. The city is also known as Ur of the Chaldees. It was an important center of Sumerian culture (see Sumer) and is identified in the Bible as the home of Abraham. The site was discovered in the 19th cent., but it was not until the excavations of C. Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 30s that a partial account of its history could be constructed. Remains found at the site seem to indicate that Ur existed as far back as the late Al Ubaid period (see Mesopotamia) and that the city was an important commercial center even before the first dynasty was established (c.2500 BC). Among the most important remains of the first dynasty, which has revealed a luxurious material culture, are the royal cemetery, where the standard of Ur was found, and the Temple of Ninhursag at Ubaid, bearing the inscriptions of the kings of the first dynasty. Ur was captured c.2340 by Sargon, and this era, called the Akkadian period, marks an important step in the blending of Sumerian and Semitic cultures. After this dynasty came a long period of which practically nothing is known except that a second dynasty rose and fell. The third dynasty was established c.2060 BC under King Ur-Nammu, who built the great ziggurat that has stood, although crumbled and covered with sand, throughout the centuries. An inscription in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in İstanbul was identified (1952) as a fragment of the code of Ur-Nammu. It predates the code of Hammurabi by 300 years and is the oldest known law code yet discovered. The third dynasty of Ur fell (c.1950 BC) to the Elamites and later to Babylon. The city was destroyed and rebuilt throughout the years by various kings and conquerors, including Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus in the 6th cent. About the middle of the 6th cent., Ur went into a decline from which it never recovered. A record dated 324 BC mentions it as being inhabited by Arabs, but by that time its existence as a great city was forgotten. The change in the course of the Euphrates, which had been the source of the city's wealth, probably contributed to the final decline of Ur. Ur is mentioned often in the Bible (Gen. 11.28,31; 15.7; Neh. 9.7) and was at one period known to the Arabs as Tall al-Muqayyar [mound of pitch].

See C. L. Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees (1930, repr. 1965), Excavations at Ur (1954, repr. 1965), and The Buildings of the Third Dynasty (1974).

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Ur (Ur of the Chaldees) Ancient city of Sumeria, s Mesopotamia. Ur flourished in the 3rd millennium bc, but Sargon I conquered it in c.2340 bc. The Akkadian period witnessed the integration of Semitic and Sumerian cultures. In c.2060 bc, the great ziggurat was built by King Ur-Nammu. In c.2000 bc, the invading Elamites destroyed much of the city. In the 6th century bc, Nebuchadnezzar briefly restored Ur as a centre of Mesopotamian civilization, but by the 5th century bc it was in terminal decline.

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Ur. Ancient city of the Middle East. The city of Ur is referred to in the Hebrew scriptures as the place of origin of the patriarchs (Genesis 11. 28, 31), although originally it was not realized that Ur was a place. Since the letters form the Hebrew word for ‘fire’, it was believed that Abram/Abraham came from the fire of the Chaldaeans. This was taken to be the fire of persecution, hence the elaboration of many stories concerning Abram's refusal of idolatry. Although resting on a mistake, these stories persist into Islam.

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Ur an ancient Sumerian city formerly on the Euphrates, in southern Iraq. It was one of the oldest cities of Mesopotamia, dating from the 4th millennium bc, and reached its zenith in the late 3rd millennium bc.
Ur of the Chaldees in the Bible, named as the original home of Abraham (the connection with the Chaldeans may be of later date). Ur of the Chaldees is sometimes referred to as the type of a place from the infinitely distant past.