This week’s Torah reading of Lekh l’kha begins with God’s famous command to Abraham to leave his homeland and his father’s house to travel to Canaan. But at the end of the previous chapter, we get the impression that the journey had begun already:
Teraḥ begot Abram, Naḥor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. And Haran died before Teraḥ his father, in the land of his birthplace, in Ur of the Chaldeans [in Hebrew, Ur Kasdim]. And Teraḥ took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, . . and they went from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan, and they came until Ḥaran, and they dwelt there.
Since the 19th century, scholars have identified Ḥaran with the ancient city of Harran, in southern Turkey, and “Ur of the Chaldeans” with the Sumerian city of Ur, a major metropolis of the time, located on the west bank of the Euphrates in what is now southern Iraq. But Gary Rendsburg identifies a simple geographic problem with this theory:
Anyone traveling from Ur of Sumer [to Canaan] would first have traveled upstream on the Euphrates, since no one would travel due west from Ur in southern Mesopotamia through the Arabian desert; even with camels the journey would be too arduous and too dangerous to allow such a crossing.
Instead, people on such a journey either would stop at Mari, [further up the Euphrates], and then head west across the Syrian Desert, using the great oasis of Palmyra as the waystation before reaching Damascus, or they would continue even further north along the Euphrates, to the Great Bend, and then head west and south via such cities as Aleppo, Hama, [and] Homs en route to Damascus, from where it was a relatively easy jaunt to Canaan.
But this is not what Teraḥ and family do, according to those who would identify Ur Kasdim with Ur of Sumer in modern-day southern Iraq. These scholars would have one believe that, rather than heading toward Canaan, Teraḥ and company instead continued north [past Mari and the Great Bend] by traveling upstream along the Balih River, one of the tributaries of the Euphrates, to reach Ḥaran. If Ḥaran was not the destination, but rather only a waystation on the route from Ur to Canaan (as per Gen 11:31), it makes little or no sense for Teraḥ to have gone there.
For this and other reasons, writes Rendsburg, it is far likelier that Abraham and Teraḥ began their journey in what is now the Turkish city of Urfa, known in ancient texts as Ura, located some 27 miles due north of Harran. It’s quite likely that someone traveling from Urfa to Canaan would first go to Harran, and from there follow the major trade route through Syria. Indeed, notes Rendsburg, local legend—shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—considers Urfa to be Abraham’s birthplace, and there is a mosque there dedicated to him. (Maps are included at the link below.)