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ANE – Ebla / 2 – End

Original Date
May 28, 2009

Eblaite language

Eblaite language (also known as Eblan) is an extinct, perhaps East Semitic language, which was spoken in the 3rd. millennium BCE in the ancient city of Ebla, in modern Syria. It is considered to be the oldest written Semitic language. The language, closely related to Akkadian, is known from about 17,000 tablets written with cuneiform script which were found between 1974 and 1976 in the ruins of the city of Ebla (Tell Mardikh).

All our knowledge about the Eblait language is from the 1970s thousands of cuneiform texts dated to the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE. (in archaeological terms, EB IV, or Early Bronze Age IV) were discovered at the site of Tell Mardikh. The language reflected in these texts was neither Sumerian nor  Akkadian, two well-known languages of the period written in cuneiform, but rather was determined to be a previously unattested language, called “Eblaite” by scholars.

Scholars continue to debate the specific date of these texts. The main issue is whether they are pre-Sargonic (i.e., from a time before the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2270–2215 B.C.E. according to one standard opinion)), or whether they are contemporary with the Sargonic period. The discovery of an object bearing the cartouche of the Egyptian pharaoh Pepi I is an important find – attesting to trade relations between Ebla and Egypt, though perhaps only indirectly, through the intermediation of Byblos  – but unfortunately the date of Pepi I (and all the 6th Dynasty monarchs) is not fixed (2332–2283 BCE is one approximation), and thus this artifact cannot help answer the chronological question definitively.

The issue of whether the heyday of Ebla is pre-Sargonic or Sargonic hinges in the main on who or what caused the destruction of Ebla (well attested in the archaeological record) during this period. Was the city destroyed by Sargon, by his grandson Naram-Sin, or by accidental fire that simply could not be controlled? Without attempting a definitive answer to these questions, for our present purposes we will side with those scholars who view the Ebla texts as pre-Sargonic. Accordingly, we proceed with the statement that Eblaite is the earliest attested Semitic language, antedating the oldest Akkadian material by about a century, though perhaps by only a few decades.

Another scholarly debate concerns the exact identification of the Eblaite language. Some scholars hold that the language reflected in the Ebla texts is nothing more than a dialect or variation of Old Akkadian; according to this opinion it would be incorrect to speak of a separate language called Eblaite. Other scholars, meanwhile, hold that Eblaite is sufficiently distinct from Old Akkadian to merit the identification as a separate Semitic language. Among the latter, though, there is still no consensus: some hold it to represent an independent branch of Semitic to be called North Semitic, while others group Eblaite in the West Semitic branch. To be sure, there are quite a few lexical and grammatical links between Eblaite and the later attested Amorite (early second millennium) and Aramaic (first millennium), thus suggesting a Syrian Sprachbund [1] incorporating these three languages. An important piece of evidence is the first person singular independent pronoun ana ana ‘I’, exactly as in Amorite and Aramaic (in contrast to Akkadian an?ku).

The debate over the language is due in part to the nature of the texts written in Eblaite. The Eblaite texts use a very high percentage of Sumerograms, that is, words written as Sumerian signs though meant to be read as Eblaite words. Often, however, we do not know what Eblaite words lie behind these Sumerograms. For example, in the expression si-in i-li-lu A-MU DINGIR-DINGIR-DINGIR, appearing in an incantation text, we can understand the words to mean “to Elil father of the gods.” But the only Eblaite words that we learn are the preposition si-in, to be normalized as sin, “to,” andthe name of the deity i-li-lu, to be normalized as ilîlu, “Ilil” or “Elil.” The remaining words are A-MU and DINGIR-DINGIRDINGIR, whose meanings are clear as “father” and “gods,” respectively. But these are the Sumerian forms. When the Eblaite scribe read this text aloud, he would have pronounced these words as their Eblaite equivalents. And while we can be almost certain that the former was based on the root ab and that the latter was based on the root il (as in all the Semitic languages), we lack the precise information in this case. When one multiplies this example several hundredfold, it becomes clear how scholars can differ over the issue of the exact identification of Eblaite.

Most of the Ebla texts were found in several rooms of Palace G from the 24th century B.C.E. (as per the statement above that the tablets are pre-Sargonic). The total number of texts is about 2,000 complete or nearly complete tablets and about 10,000 fragments. The discovery of this archive in 1974 came as a complete surprise to scholars. No one had imagined that a city in northern Syria might be home to such a literate culture. Even for the heartland of Mesopotamia at this time, the discovery of such a large archive would have been astonishing. Moreover, the previous scholarly consensus held that the Tigris and Euphrates valley at one end of the Near East and the Nile valley at the other end were the two great centers of culture, already in the third millennium BCE., but that the vast area in between, including Syria, was a cultural backwater, populated mainly by pastoralists with their flocks, with no great urban centers of the type found in Egypt or Mesopotamia. The excavations at Ebla and the discovery of this large archive changed everyone’s conception.

The corpus of Ebla texts includes a wide variety of documents. The greatest number by far are administrative texts, recording in great detail the activities of the palace, the economy of Ebla centered mainly on textile production and the growing of barley and other grains, the far-reaching trade with cities throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, and so on. The second group consists of texts of a historical nature; these include some important treaty texts. The best preserved of the treaty texts is a highly detailed pact with Abarsil on the upper Euphrates; it includes about two dozen articles regulating commerce, taxation, emissaries, and the like. The third group is made up of lexical texts, the most important of which are the bilingual dictionaries providing us with the Sumerian and Eblaite equivalents of hundreds of words. While these dictionaries do not give us the words in literary contexts, they provide us with very valuable information about the Eblaite vocabulary . Finally, there is a series of incantation texts (a line from one was quoted above). (There have been some reports about literary texts found at Ebla; but at present only one such text has been published, and that composition is a duplicate of a document known from Abu Salabikh in southern Mesopotamia.)

The administrative and historical texts reveal that Ebla had contacts with hundreds of cities throughout the region. Many if not most of these cannot be identified with any confidence, but the toponyms that can be identified give us an indication of Ebla’s power and influence. Here we may mention important urban centers such as Gublu (= Byblos) on the Mediterranean (though not all scholars agree with this reading); Emar and Mari, both on the middle Euphrates; and Kish, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates near Babylon; as well as KURki la-ba-na-an, “the mountain-country of Lebanon.” (When the Ebla tablets first were discovered, there were reports that the five cities of the plain listed in Genesis 14 appear at Ebla as well; but there is no substance to this claim.)

The quantity of materials appearing in the administrative texts is sometimes staggering. One text (ARET 2:20) gives a total of 548,500 barley measures distributed (and of this amount 360,400 appears in one line and 182,600 appears in a second line). Eblaite, in fact, attests for the first time in any Semitic language a word for 100,000, namely ma-i-at (obviously based on the pan-Semitic word for “hundred”; cf. Hebrew ???).
The deities attested at Ebla are better known from later West Semitic sources than from East Semitic sources. Important gods are Dagan, Hadd/Ba’al, Rashap, Ashtar, Kamish, Malik, and Qura, as well as the sun and moon deities, though their Eblaite names are unknown since the Sumerograms UD (“sun”) and ITI (“moon”) respectively, are used consistently. (There is absolutely no validity to the claim (reported in the early days of Ebla studies) that Ya (a shortened form of Yahweh) appears in personal names.)

Of particular interest is the god Kamish: the name appears in the city name Kar-Kamish (Carchemish) in northern Syria; it is attested in the pantheon of Ugarit on the Syrian coast from the Late Bronze Age, spelled alphabetically as kmt and syllabically as ka-ma-ši (= kam?t); and most prominently it appears much later as the national god of the Moabites, spelled ???? and vocalized kamôš in the Bible. Note, however, that in one passage, Jeremiah 48:7, the name of the Moabite god occurs as ???? in the Ketiv. While previous scholars typically assumed a confusion between waw and yod in the scribal transmission of this text, we now must consider another possibility, that the Ketiv in Jer 48:7 preserves an ancient alternative pronunciation, Kamish, harking back to the Early Bronze Age as attested at Ebla.

An important deity hitherto unknown is Qura (typically spelled Kura in Ebla studies), clearly a major god given the number of times the name occurs, including some prominent contexts. Apart from Ebla, we know nothing about this deity. The name resurfaces, however, about 3,000 (!) years later as the first element in the name of the angel Quriel, attested in Aramaic, Syriac, and Greek magical texts of the first millennium CE. In one passage Quriel occurs as the father of a demoness; this invites comparison with the demotion of  Ba’al, worshipped throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages as a major deity, but appearing in the New Testament as ruler of the demons in the form Ba’al-zebul.

Whenever a new Semitic language is uncovered, the natural tendency among Hebraists and Biblicists is to mine the new source for information that can help elucidate problems in the Bible and can supply cognates for Hebrew lexemes [2] . Several examples of this process were noted above. The remainder of this entry will present additional instances of contributions from the study of Eblaite to the study of Hebrew (notwithstanding the temporal and geographical distances between Eblaite in third millennium northern Syria and Hebrew in first millennium southern Canaan).

A number of Hebrew words, which hitherto had no cognates within Semitic (see the standard dictionaries), now gain etyma from the Eblaite lexicon. Examples include the following: ni-zi-mu (to be normalized as nizmu), “a type of jewelry” ≈ ???, “nose-ring, earring”; a-a-tum (to be normalized as ayyatum), “a type of bird” ≈ ???, “a bird of prey”; bar-su-um (to be normalized as parsum), “a type of bird” ≈ ???, “a bird of prey.” The first of these items appears in an administrative text; the latter two appear in the bilingual lexical lists as the Eblaite equivalents of Sumerian forms classified as birds due to the presence of the MUšEN determinative. The common Hebrew word for “cedar” is ???, but a unique feminine form ???? occurs in Zephaniah 2:14. This now has a parallel in Eblaite ar-za-tum, presented in the bilingual dictionary as the equivalent of Sumerian GIš-NUN-SAL (the GIš determinative indicates a type of tree).

The above represents but a handful of Hebrew lexemes with parallels in Eblaite. In truth, however, the very large Sumerian-Eblaite dictionary (attested in multiple copies at Ebla) affords the scholar of ancient Hebrew much fodder for lexical exploration. We permit ourselves one further example here. The root ???, “cut, incise, divide,” yields the hitpael  [3] form ??????, “make incisions upon oneself ” (Deut. 14:1; I Kings 18:28, etc.) and the noun ????, “troop” (cf. English “division” in a military sense). Cognates to this word occur in various Aramaic dialects (Biblical, Samaritan, Jewish Babylonian, Syriac). The verb gad?du, “separate off,” occurs in Akkadian, but only in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian, and thus scholars conclude that the word is a borrowing from Aramaic. The bilingual dictionary from Ebla glosses Sumerian TAR-TAR with Eblaite ga-da-dum; since Sumerian TAR means “cut,” it is clear that Eblaite ga-da-dum represents an Early Bronze Age forerunner of later Hebrew and Aramaic ???.

 The Destruction of Ebla

 Sargon of Akkad and his grandson Naram-sin, the conquerors of much of Mesopotamia, each claim to have destroyed Ebla; the exact date of destruction is the subject of continuing debate, but 2240 BCE is a probable candidate. During the next three centuries, Ebla was able to regain some economic importance in the region, but never reached its former glory. It is possible the city had economic ties with the nearby city of Urshu, as is documented by economic texts from Drehem (a suburb of Nippur), and from findings in Kultepe/Kanesh.

Finally, we may note that Ebla was rebuilt after the major destruction noted above and achieved a second floruit (active period) c. 2050–1950 B.C.E., that is, during the Ur III period. We possess very few Eblaite literary remains from this period [4] .


[1]  A Sprachbund , from the German word for “language union” (lit. “language-bunch/truss”), also known as a linguistic area, convergence area, or diffusion area, is a group of languages that have become similar in some way because of geographical proximity and language contact. They may be genetically unrelated, or only distantly related. Where genetic affiliations are unclear, the sprachbund characteristics might give a false appearance of relatedness.
[2] A minimal unit (as a word or stem) in the lexicon of a language; ‘go’ and ‘went’ and ‘gone’ and ‘going’ are all members of the English lexeme ‘go’
[3]  grammatical formation of  a Semitic languages some kind of conjugation.
[4]  A. Archi, (ed.), Eblaite Personal Names and Semitic Name-giving (1988); R.D. Biggs, in: ABD 2, 263–70; G. Conti, Il sillabario della quarta fonte della lista lessicale bilingue eblaita (= Miscellanea Eblaitica 3 = Quaderni di Semitistica, 17; 1990); C.H. Gordon and G.A. Rendsburg (eds.), Eblaitica, vols. 1–4 (1987–2002); P. Matthiae, Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered (1980); P. Matthiae, Ebla, la città rivelata (1995); L. Milano, in: CANE, 2:1219–30; G. Pettinato, Ebla: A New Look at History (1991); idem, Ebla, nuovi orizzonti della storia (1994); idem, Testi lessicali bilingui della bibliotheca L. 2769 (1982).


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