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ANE – Ebla / 1

Original Date
May 27, 2009

A Short History of Ebla

Ebla (Tell Mardikh, Syria) was an ancient city about 56 km southwest of Aleppo. It was an important city-state in two periods, first in the late third millennium BCE, then again between 1800 and 1650 BCE. The site is most famous for the archive of about 15,000 cuneiform tablets found there [1] , dated from around 2250 BCE, written in the Sumerian language and in Eblaite — a previously unknown Semitic language.

In 1964, Italian archaeologists from the University of Rome La Sapienza under the direction of Paolo Matthiae began excavating at Tell Mardikh. In 1968 they recovered a statue dedicated to the goddess Ishtar bearing the name of Ibbit-Lim, a king of Ebla. That identified the city, long known from Egyptian and Akkadian inscriptions. In the next decade the team discovered a palace dating ca. 2500 – 2000 BCE. About 15,000 well-preserved cuneiform tablets were discovered in the ruins.[2]  About 80% of the tablets are written in Sumerian[3] , the others in a previously unknown Semitic language which was called Eblaite .[4] Vocabulary lists were found with the tablets, allowing them to be translated. Giovanni Pettinato and Dahood believe the Eblaite language is West Semitic, however I. J. Gelb and others believe it is an East Semitic dialect, closer to the Akkadian language[5] . Ebla’s close link to southern Mesopotamia, where the script had developed, further highlights the links between the Sumerians and Semitic cultures at that time.

It now appears that the building housing the tablets was not the palace library, which may yet be uncovered, but an archive of provisions and tribute, law cases and diplomatic and trade contacts, and a scriptorium where apprentices copied texts. The larger tablets had originally been stored on shelves, but had fallen onto the floor when the palace was destroyed. The location where tablets were discovered where they had fallen allowed the excavators to reconstruct their original position on the shelves: it soon appeared that they were originally shelved according to subject.

Ebla in the third millennium BCE. The name “Ebla” means “White Rock“, and refers to the limestone outcrop on which the city was built. Although the site shows signs of continuous occupation from before 3000 BCE, its power grew and reached its apogee in the second half of the following millennium. Ebla’s first apogee was between ca. 2400 and 2240 BCE; its name is mentioned in texts from Akkad from ca. 2300 BCE.

Most of the Ebla palace tablets, which date from that period, are about economic matters; they provide a good look into the everyday life of the inhabitants, as well as many important insights into the cultural, economic, and political life in northern Mesopotamia around the middle of the third millennium BCE. The texts are accounts of the state revenues, but they also include royal letters, Sumerian-Eblaite dictionaries, school texts and diplomatic documents, like treaties between Ebla and other towns of the region.

Ebla’s most powerful king was listed as Ebrium, or Ibrium, who concluded the so-called “Treaty with Ashur“, which offered the Assyrian king Tudia the use of a trading post officially controlled by Ebla.

The fifth and last king of Ebla during this period was Ebrium’s son, Ibbi-Sipish, the first to succeed in a dynastic line, thus breaking with the established Eblaite custom of electing its ruler for a fixed term of office, lasting seven years. This absolutism may have contributed to the unrest that was ultimately instrumental in the city’s decline. Meantime, however, the reign of Ibbi-Sipish was considered a time of inordinate prosperity, in part because the king was given to frequent travel abroad. It was recorded both in Ebla and Aleppo that he concluded specific treaties with neighboring Armi, as Aleppo was called at the time.

Location of Ebla, Ugarit, and Mari

Economy and Government. At that time, Ebla was a major commercial center. Its major commercial rival was Mari, and Ebla is suspected in having a hand in Mari’s first destruction. The tablets reveal that the city’s inhabitants owned about 200,000 head of mixed cattle (sheep, goats, and cows). The city’s main articles of trade were probably timber from the nearby mountains (and perhaps from Lebanon), and textiles (mentioned in Sumerian texts from the city-state of Lagash). Most of its trade seems to have been directed towards Mesopotamia (chiefly Kish), and contacts with Egypt are attested by gifts from pharaohs Khafra and Pepi I. Handicrafts may also have been a major export: exquisite artifacts have been recovered from the ruins, including wood furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and composite statues created from different colored stones. The artistic style at Ebla may have influenced the quality work of the Akkadian empire. The form of government is not well known, but the city appears to have been ruled by a merchant aristocracy who elected a king and entrusted the city’s defense to paid soldiers. Ibrium and his son Ibbi-Sipish broke with tradition and introduced an absolute monarchy.

Religion. Some well-known Semitic deities appear at Ebla (Dagan, Ishtar, Resheph, Kanish, Hadad), and some otherwise unknown ones (Kura, Nidakul), plus a few Sumerian gods (Enki and Ninki) and Hurrian gods (Ashtapi, Hebat, Ishara).

Among Pettinato’s controversial claims, he has also suggested that there was a change in the theophoric names shown in many of the tablets found in the archive from *El to *Yah, indicated in the example of the transition from Mika’el to Mikaya. This is considered by some to evidence an early use of the divine name Yah, a god who they believe later emerged as Yahweh (YHWH). Bottero, for example, has suggested that this shift may indicate the popular acceptance of the Akkadian God Ea, introduced from the Sargonid Empire which may have been transliterated into Eblaite as YH. This theory has not gained universal acceptance, however, and other scholars have insisted the sign in question is correctly transliterated IA.[6]

Many Old Testament Genesis names that have not been found in other Near Eastern languages do have similar forms in Eblaite (a-da-mu / Adam, h’à-wa / Eve, Jabal, Abarama/Abraham, Bilhah, Ishma-el, Isûra-el, Esau, Mika-el, Mikaya, Saul, David, etc.). Also found are many Biblical locations: for example Ashtaroth, Sinai, Jerusalem (Ye-ru-sa-lu-um), Hazor, Lachish, Gezer, Dor, Megiddo, Joppa, etc. Giovanni Pettinato has also claimed to find references to Sodom and Gomorrah. [7] Three versions of the Eblaite creation hymn have been found.


[1]  Gordon, Cyrus H. Forgotten Scripts: Their Ongoing Discovery and Decipherment (Basic Books, New York, 1982) pg. 155
[2]  An up-to-date account for the layman, written by the head of the archaeological team that uncovered Ebla is Paolo Matthiae, The Royal Archives of Ebla (Skira) 2007
[3]  Naveh, Joseph Early History of the Alphabet: an Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography (Magnes Press – Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1982) pg. 28
[4]  Four volumes of essays on the Ebla archives and the reconstructed Eblaite language were published by the Center for Ebla Research at New York University, as Eblaitica
[5]  Pettinato, Giovanni The Archives of Ebla; Gelb, I. J. “Thoughts about Ibla: A Preliminary Evaluation” in Monographic Journals of the Near East, Syro-Mesopotamian Studies 1/1 (May 1977) pp.3-30
[6]  Gordon, Cyrus H. ed. Eblaitica : essays on the Ebla archives and Eblaite language (Eisenbrauns, 1987)
[7]  An early assessment was Clifford A Wilson , The impact of Ebla on Bible records: The sensational Tell Mardikh (1977).


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