[still in draft form]
The Ebla tablets contain an inscription boasting that the ruler Naram-Sin had slain the cities Arman and Ibla and from the Euphrates river to an “Ulisim” (alternatively Ulišim, Ulisum, Ulisu, or Ullis) (see here pg 76 Col. II. The ancient city or land referred to, Ulisim, may correspond to new ruins found at Oylum Höyük.
The Book of Abraham discusses a hill on which human sacrifices were performed in the land of Ur “at the head of the plain of Olishem.” The existence of a city named Ulisim somewhere near Haran (another city in which Abraham apparently lived) mentioned in approximately the time period in which Abraham is conjectured to have lived according to standard biblical chronology
Ur adjacent to the plains of Olishem and its location (west of Haran) seems to make it a putative source for the phrase “plains of Olishem” in the Book of Abraham (so, the idea would be that the plains were named after the city, which may have been impressive in its time).
The idea that the existence of “Ulisum” provides evidence for the Book of Abraham (BoA) was recently mentioned here and this comment points to a chapter from No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues called Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View.
The Ulisum/Olishem connection is also discussed in depth by John Gee here.
Problems with this potential match have been discussed at RFM:
- The name is close, but is not really an exact match (compare “Ulišum” and “Olishem”). This may seem like nitpicking, but loose matches are far more likely to occur by random chance than exact matches. [note: I’ve read an analysis (Gee or Muhlstein?) arguing that the Akkadian shift (??) makes Ulisem and Olishem an exact match; if so, this criticism is mostly or completely defused; add the citation when I find it again.]
- The location isn’t a good fit relative to the ancient city-state of Ur (but note that LDS scholars postulate that the Ur identified by most scholars as Ur was not the Ur discussed in the BoA—they claim Abraham’s Ur was somewhere not far to the east of Haran).
A possible scenario for how Joseph Smith could have derived the name from his study of the Hebrew language has been advanced:
Joseph Smith was learning Hebrew at the time he was producing the Book of Abraham, and obviously using that knowledge in his text (“Kokaubeam” really is Hebrew for “stars”). He likely invented the name from Hebrew ‘olah’ (“burnt sacrifice” or “evil”) and ‘shem’ (“name”): “Olishem” is Smith’s made-up Hebrew word for “name of a place for evil sacrifice.”
The plains of Olishem appear to be adjacent to Abraham’s Ur (Abraham 1:10, 20):
Even the thank-offering of a child did the priest of Pharaoh offer upon the altar which stood by the hill called Potiphar’s Hill, at the head of the plain of Olishem.
Behold, Potiphar’s Hill was in the land of Ur, of Chaldea …
Based largely on internal evidence from the BoA, LDS scholars abandon the traditional location of Ur for one much closer to Haran.
This explains Gee’s discussion of the location of Ur:
Ur should be in the same plain and about five to twenty miles from Olishem.
If indeed tablets from Hittite from the site identify it as Ullis, the it is probably the Ulisum that Naram-Sin attacked and is a likely candidate for Olishem. If Oylum Höyük is Olishem, the Ur of the Chaldees should be one of the dozens of Middle Bronze II sites in the Kilis plain. We await further discoveries and publications. At present, given the many uncertainties, we can regard this identification as promising but not proven.
So, the location of Olishem is internally consistent but only if we abandon the traditional location for Ur (which there may be some good reasons to do; for instance, here is an argument in favor of Urfa as the biblical Ur) in favor of some unknown location in the Kilis plain.
Some have associated Ur with Urfa (see this map showing a walking path between Sanliurfa [Urfa or Ur], Harran [Haran] and Oylum Höyük [Ulišum or Olishem]), but this means the plains associated with Oylum Höyük, or Olishem, wouldn’t necessarily be adjacent to Urfa. Perhaps this is why Gee proposes an unknown city in the Kilis plain (which is to the west of Haran) rather than Urfa?
It is worth noting that if we assume that Ur is the Ur much farther to the Southeast (the Ur of current scholarly concensus) or Urfa (another proposed site for Ur), then the support for the BoA is weakened (Oylum Höyük is ~730 miles away and Urfa doesn’t seem adjacent to any plains that could be associated with Oylum Höyük).
Map of the walk between Ur and Oylum Höyük (Olishem) (~730 miles or ~1180 km)
Ur, Haran, Canaan and Olishem
Genesis 11:31 and Abraham 2:15 set up a geography where Haraan is in between Ur and Canaan. If that is the case, then Olishem in the proposed location of Ulisum seems inconsistent with those descriptions.
Complete argument summarized here.
Abraham as a historical figure
All of the above discussion assumes that Abraham was an actual historical figure, which most scholars today doubt. To begin with:
we have no extrabiblical information about prominent biblical figures such as Abraham and Moses, or even David and Solomon. source
Textual analysis of the Abraham story itself shows evidence of later composition (see here and also fits a needed narrative of some later Israelites:
A common hypothesis among scholars is that it [the Abraham story] was composed in the early Persian period (late 6th century BCE) as a result of tensions between Jewish landowners who had stayed in Judah during the Babylonian captivity and traced their right to the land through their “father Abraham”, and the returning exiles who based their counter-claim on Moses and the Exodus tradition. (from Abraham in Wikipedia)
Of course, for a believing member the existence of the Book of Abraham is evidence for a literal Abraham. Perhaps God facilitated its translation in order to buttress wavering faith in the historicity of Abraham? Needless to say, the skepticism of scholars in a historical Abraham weighs at least somewhat against the legitimacy of the BoA in total—if we grant that findings for the historical Abraham would increase our confidence that the BoA is a legitimate record then evidence and arguments against the historical Abraham ought to weaken our confidence in the BoA.
Maps with words like Olishem
Two older maps of the Saudi Arabian peninsula also contain word variants similar to Olishem and which are located on the map in roughly the position Joseph Smith might have expected Olishem to have been.
A map located in Allegheny College (in Pennsylvania), a few hundred miles from where Joseph Smith lived during the Book of Mormon translation, also contains the words ‘Barrai-al Sham’ right where the plains of Olishem would be located. Next to the name is written: “In this Desert are found the Ruins of several ancient Cities”. Not far below is written the text “Beled Shemer”. Someone seeing this map could easily notice the last part of Barrai-al Sham (“al Sham”) and convolute it with the “Shem” from Shemer right below to form “Olishem”.
-al Sham + Shem => Olishem
Note that “al Sham” preserves all of the consonants of “Olishem”, while Ulišu Note that the same map also contains “Nehem” in its approximate location.
Another old map of the Arabian Peninsula, “Accuratissima et Maxima Totius Turcici Imperii Tabula”, has the word “Olim” right in the middle of the top part of the peninsula roughly where we’d expect the plains of Olishem to be located. Adjacent to the word “Olim” is written “Meschel Ocem” which could have easily provided the ‘sh’ sound for “Olishem”.
Olim + "sh" sound from "Meschel Ocem" => Olishem
I have no information at present about how accessible or widespread the “Accuratissima” map may have been in Joseph Smith’s day.
In conclusion, I agree with the tenor of John Gee’s conclusion about a potential link between Ulišu and Olishem when he stated:
At present, given the many uncertainties, we can regard this identification as promising but not proven.
And we can also agree with the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, who cautioned that the association between Olishem and the ruins found at Oylum Höyük are:
tenuous and no doubt premature
The linkage between Ulišu and Olishem would be consistent with the Book of Abraham, and may be considered evidence in favor of the historicity of the Book of Abraham, especially if we are willing to abandon existing positionings for the city-state Ur.
For the naturalist, several potential sources for the name “Olishem” present themselves based on Hebrew roots Joseph may have been studying at the time and/or maps from the era of the northern Saudi Arabian peninsula (or western Mesopotamian region) with similar word variants (“-al Sham” and “Olim”), both positioned in the approximate location as the plains of Olishem mentioned in the BoA.