The ancient city of Ebla is identified with modern Tell Mardikh in north Syria, 34 miles south of Aleppo. It created a sensation when archaeologists uncovered the largest single find of third-millennium cuneiform tablets there. The University of Rome has excavated the site since 1964, under the leadership of Paolo Matthiae.
Ebla is poorly attested in the Early Bronze I–II Periods (c. 3200–2700 b.c.e.), with an absence of Uruk pottery. This suggests that Ebla did not emerge directly due to the development of Sumerian colonies along Syrian trade routes, by which means the “Uruk culture” was disseminated.
By 2400 b.c.e. Ebla had grown into an urban center of more than 135 acres. A palace constructed on the acropolis (designated as “Royal Palace G” by archaeologists) testifies to the increasing importance of centralized administration.
Ebla’s urbanization may possibly be interpreted in terms of the sociopolitical climate prevalent in Syria at that time. With the Mesopotamian city-states extending their influence through long-distance trade, those in Syria felt the pressure to organize and assert their political independence.
Upon excavation Royal Palace G revealed a large archive of cuneiform texts, dated to 2400–2350 b.c.e. The texts span the reigns of Kings Igrish-Halam, Irkab-Damu, and Ishar-Damu, as well as the tenure of important court officials such as Ibrium, Ibbi-Zikir, and Dubukhu-Adda.
The archive contained a grand total of about 1,750 whole tablets and 4,900 tablet fragments. A severe fire, which destroyed the palace, had fortuitously baked and hardened the tablets, thus helping to preserve them.
Scholars generally agree that these cuneiform texts were intended to be read in the local language, Eblaite. However, the texts tend to be written with numerous Sumerian logograms (word signs). This means that Eblaite pronunciation and grammar are often not reflected in the writing.
Some have considered Eblaite to be northwest Semitic, possibly an antecedent for the later Canaanite dialects. Others have noted its affinities to east Semitic languages, such as Old Akkadian.
It is conceivable that Eblaite represents a time before the northwest and east branches of the Semitic family were clearly distinguished. Alternatively, Eblaite may represent the dialect of a geographical region that was influenced by much interaction with both East and West.
Among the tablets are lexical texts that list the Sumerian logograms followed by their Eblaite translations. These represent the earliest attested bilingual dictionaries. Other lexical texts list words according to various categories, such as human vocations, names of fishes, and names of birds.
The sequence and arrangement of these lists are identical with those in southern Mesopotamia, signifying Ebla’s indebtedness to the Sumerian scribal tradition.
Several texts mention, “Young scribes came up from Mari,” and may suggest a means by which Mesopotamian scribal practices passed into the Syrian regions. The Ebla scribes, nonetheless, preferred their own method of number notation and system of measures, instead of adopting Mesopotamian forms.
The vast majority of tablets consist of administrative and economic records, which elucidate much of Ebla’s society. The highest authority at Ebla was designated by the Sumerian title EN, which is translated in Eblaite as malikum (king).
The Sumerian title LUGAL was used in Ebla for governors, who were subordinate to the king. This contrasts with the usage in Mesopotamia, where LUGAL typically denotes an individual of higher rank than an EN.
Royal inscriptions, which laud the king’s power and legitimize his reign, have not yet been found at Ebla. Also, Ebla does not follow the usual Mesopotamian practice of naming years according to significant acts of the king.
Such reticence has encouraged the view that Ebla’s king did not rule as an absolute monarch but as one reliant on leading tribal elders for aspects of state administration. The cult of dead kings is attested at Ebla, with ritual texts describing various sacrifices offered to previous rulers of the dynasty.
Ebla was divided into eight administrative districts. The districts on the acropolis were named saza, while those in the countryside were named ebla. It was the palace, rather than the temple, that chiefly directed the city’s economics.
The palace was responsible for the ownership of land, the sustenance of Ebla’s workforce, and even the record of animals used in religious sacrifices.
In Ebla, however, the system of labor management was not as highly developed as that of Mesopotamia. Agriculture and industry often remained under the management of local communities, which in turn reported to supervisors from the palace.
The most important deity at Ebla was Kura, who functioned as the patron god of the royal household. The pantheon at Ebla included a core of Semitic deities that persisted into later times and appear in Canaanite religion.
Native names were used for deities, and Sumerian gods were worshipped only when there was no Semitic equivalent. This selective appropriation of Sumerian deities suggests that the people of Ebla were well familiar with divine roles and cultic practices in Sumerian religion.
Ebla was strategically located at the junction of major trade routes and engaged in the commerce of products such as wool, flax, olive oil, barley, and wine. Its treasury of gold and silver was immense for its time. International contact extended as far as Egypt, and Ebla’s access to Anatolia supplied it with prized bronze tin.
Various cities between the Euphrates and Balikh Rivers, though far away from Ebla itself, actually came under Ebla’s control. Ebla was interested in northern Mesopotamian trade routes, which would allow it to bypass Mari on the way to southern Mesopotamia. Perennial conflicts ensued between Ebla and Mari.
Both Sargon and Naram-Sin boasted that they conquered Ebla, and the fire that destroyed Royal Palace G most likely dates to either of their reigns. Ur III records, however, imply that Ebla was rebuilt, and that its citizens had name types that show continuity with those of pre-Sargonic Ebla.
The archaeology of the Old Syrian Period (c. 1800–1600 b.c.e.) indicates that Ebla experienced resurgence during this time. However, around 1600 b.c.e. the Hittites king Murshili I destroyed Ebla and effectively ended its political power.