Photo of ziggurat by Nik Wheeler. Photo of Pope John Paul II by Joe Rimkus, Jr./Catholic News Service.

The massive stairway of the ziggurat at Ur seems to lead up to the heavens. Some people even believe it was the inspiration for the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). About 150 years ago, excavations began at the top level of the tower. Hidden in the brickwork were clay cylinders with lengthy cuneiform inscriptions giving the building’s history. These sixth-century B.C.E texts indicate that the ziggurat was built around 2100 B.C.E. to support a temple to the Sumerian moon god Nanna. More importantly, the inscriptions identify the site as Ur. Ever since the discovery of these inscriptions, people have believed that this site in southern Iraq is Biblical Ur, Ur of the Chaldees, the Ur of Abraham—an identification made famous by Leonard Woolley’s excavations here in the 1920s and 1930s.

Pope John Paul II may visit this city during his millennial visit to Biblical sites in the Middle East. But has he chosen the wrong Ur?

The ancient city in Iraq reveals few clues. Woolley’s excavations unearthed inscriptions bearing the names of kings of Ur, but the Bible doesn’t tell us who ruled Abraham’s hometown. We have to look elsewhere for proof that this Ur is Abraham’s. And the other Biblical evidence seems to point in a different direction—to an Ur in southern Turkey or northern Syria.