(ehb' law), a city in northern Syria that created a powerful political and commercial empire before 2000 B.C. The city of Ebla, ideally situated near the intersections of ancient trade routes, established political and economic ties with Asia Minor, Egypt and her Mesopotamian neighbors. Known only in Sumerian and Akkadian inscriptions, the earliest historical reference to Ebla, which was assumed to be somewhere in northern Syria, is found in a Sumerian economic text of the Early Dynastic IIIB period (about 2500-2400 B.C.). Later inscriptions recorded repeated conflict with Sargon the Great (about 2350-2295 B.C.) and the city's final destruction by fire during the reign of Naram-Sin (about 2269-2234 B.C.), king of Akkad.
The city now is identified with tell Mardikh, a 138-acre mound about 30 miles south of Aleppo, Syria, where, since 1964 the Italian Archaeological Mission in Syria for the University of Rome, under the direction of Dr. Paolo Matthiae, has attempted to define and clarify the origin and development of ancient Syrian urban culture and the history and culture of this important site. From 1964 to 1972, excavations at various locations on the tell uncovered three temples, a fortress on the eastern ramparts of the city, two gates, and three districts of private houses. In 1973 excavation began of a large, impressive public building—the royal palace—that had been destroyed by an intense fire. This destruction was dated about 2250 B.C., during the reign of Naram-Sin of Akkad, who boasted in his military annals of capturing Armanum and Ebla, cities in the west that never before had been captured. Igrish-Khalam, whose annals are preserved in the Ebla archives, was the first king of this dynasty. If the palace construction may be identified with him, then this royal palace was built about 2400 B.C. and served the six kings of his dynasty who ruled this dynamic commercial and cultural center for 150 years. Tell Mardikh is identified with Ebla by the recovery of a statue torso with an Akkadian inscription of dedication by Ibbit-Lim, son of Igrish-Kheb, king of Ebla and a member of this dynasty.
Two rooms adjoining a large “audience” court of the royal palace became the repositories for the official documents of the dynasty. A small stateroom contained about 1,000 cuneiform tablets, mostly economic and administrative documents, such as rations of food and drink possibly dispensed to messengers and functionaries about to depart on official state journeys. A larger room was part of the court library where a majority of its 14,000 texts dealt with an international textile trade and the payment of taxes and tribute in metals, mainly silver and gold.
Excavation since 1974 has contributed additional collections of tablets to the Ebla library and archive that now include over 17,000 items. Their Northwest Semitic language is different from the Old Akkadian and Amorite of the same period. It has similarities to Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Hebrew; but because it is more than one thousand years earlier, it has been classified as “palaeo (old)-Canaanite.” The scribes of Ebla not only adapted the cuneiform writing invented by the Sumerians, but they used the Sumerian language as well. In fact, about 80 percent of the texts were written in Sumerian and only 20 percent in palaeo-Canaanite.
The size and age of the Eblaite archives has made this archaeological discovery especially significant. They appear to belong to the mid-third millennium B.C. (2400-2250 B.C.). The oldest collection of texts in the Northwest Semitic language prior to 1974 was the Ugaritic tablets written between 1400,1200 B.C. For the first time contemporary documents portray the region of Syria-Palestine as a series of independent kingdoms bustling with military and commercial activity. Maintaining sophisticated diplomatic and trade relations, Ebla was at the center of a vast exchange network. If its political control ever reached the extent of its commercial influence, Ebla dictated terms to vassals from the Sinai peninsula on the border of Egypt in the south to Kanish and Hatti-land in the north, and from the Zagros mountains on the eastern fringe of Mesopotamia to Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Biblical place names such as Salim, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, Gaza, Dor, Sinai, Ashtaroth, and Joppa seemingly appear repeatedly in the Ebla texts.
Syria appears to have become a great cultural center during the mid-third millennium B.C. with Ebla its primary city. During a 150-year period, about 2400-2250 B.C., a dynasty of six kings (Igrish-Khalam, Ar-Ennum, Ebrum, Ibbi-Sipish, Dudukhu-Ada, and Irkab-Damu) not only directed the city's growth and prosperity, but conducted successful military campaigns of expansion.
The threat of such military aggression probably prompted the expedition of Sargon of Akkad that resulted in Ebla's defeat. The city, however, was not destroyed and under her next king, Ebrum, renewed her expansionist policies. She maintained domination over Mari, had successful campaigns against Akkad, established treaty agreements with Asshur, and brought Carchemish in Anatolia within her economic and possibly political sphere of influence. Ultimately, however, during the reign of a weak king Irkab-Damu, Naram-Sin of Akkad captured the city and destroyed both Ebla and Arman, the second most important city of the kingdom. At stake had been the control over the Euphrates River (and possibly even the Tigris) and the trade routes along which the wood, metals, and raw materials flowed to Mesopotamia from Syria and Anatolia. The economic and technological supremacy of Mesopotamia depended on their control, and Ebla was vying with Akkad for supremacy of the entire trade network.
The king, queen, crown prince, other sons of the king, and a variety of state dignitaries are identified in the tablets as the principal political institutions at Ebla. The queen is always mentioned with the king and seems to have enjoyed a prominent status in the hierarchy. Internal affairs and administration of the kingdom were conducted by the crown prince, whose close association with the king may indicate coregency. Foreign affairs were under the direction of the second-born.
The kingdom or state of Ebla appears to have had three forms of governmental and territorial control. The cities directly dependent upon Ebla were ruled by a king who was “son of a king” or a “judge.” Foreign cities under military control, such as Mari, were ruled by an Eblaite dignitary as king. Independent cities related to Ebla either by treaty (for example, Asshur and Hama) or the payment of tribute, (for example, Akkad and Kanish) were independently ruled by local kings.
The nature of Ebla's foreign policy also is being clarified. Mari's refusal to pay tribute to Ebla prompted a military campaign in which the armies of Iblul-Il, king of Mari, were defeated. The king was forced to abdicate, and the city was required to pay 11,000 pounds of silver and 880 pounds of gold in tribute and to accept Ebla's general Enna-Dagan as king. Ebla seemingly attempted to build an empire based on commercial allegiances rather than on military action and mutual military defense pacts. As a consequence, its defeat by Naram-Sin of Akkad appears to have resulted from inadequate military force made up of hired mercenaries.
At least five major categories of texts have been classified: economic-administrative, lexical, historical and historical-juridical (legislative), literary, and grammatical. The economic-administrative texts (the largest category) reflect a highly sophisticated culture with far-flung commercial interests. Agriculture, animal husbandry, textiles, wood, precious stones, and metal industries are subjects dealt with in detail. The commercial tablets indicate that distribution centers existed far beyond the major urban centers in Syria. Byblos may have served as an outlet for Eblaite merchandise to Egypt. Carchemish, Emar, Tuttul, and Mari are mentioned frequently as destinations of Eblaite export. Trade expeditions to Asshur provided distribution of Ebla's goods to various centers of Upper Mesopotamia, especially Haran. Akkad also was a primary trade terminal, since it maintained economic control over Kish and the other Sumerian centers in the south.
The historical and historical-juridical texts include royal ordinances, edicts, letters by state officials, lists of cities in subjection to Ebla, state marriages, and international treaties including an agreement between Ebla and Asshur concerning the statutes of a commercial city. Purchase and sale contracts, partition of goods, and codices of law are included in the juridical texts.
Literary texts include stories with a mythological background, hymns to divinities, incantations, and collections of proverbs. Most of the texts deal with the well-known Mesopotamian deities Enki and Enlil, as well as Utu and Inanna. Legal codes and epic literature also are represented. A “flood” account refers to a god sending “seven days of rain,” a god whose name may have the same root as the Hebrew “Yahweh.”
Lexicons, used by the scribes to learn Sumerian, grammatical texts with verbal paradigms in Eblaite, and bilingual (Sumerian and Eblaite) vocabularies make up another important class of tablets. The many bilingual lexical texts provide an unusual opportunity for the comparative study of Semitic languages, especially Eblaite and Old Akkadian in the third millennium B.C., and more recent Northwest Semitic languages. One text alone, with eighteen duplicates, contains nearly a thousand translated words.
Major elements of the religious environment at Ebla continued into the first millennium B.C. Principal among the five hundred deities mentioned in the Eblaite tables is the god Il or El of the Ugaritic texts. Ya achieved a dominant role during the reign of King Ebrum when his name was substituted for Il as the theophoric element in personal names. Other deities, known from the Ugaritic texts and mentioned in the Bible, are identified, as are Sumerian and Hurrian gods. The tablets refer to the temples dedicated to Dagon, Ashtar, (Astarte), Kamosh (Chemosh), Rasap (Reshaph), and offerings of bread, drink, and animals. Religious functionaries included various categories of priests and priestesses and two classes of prophets. “Dagon of Canaan” mentioned at Ebla is similar to the biblical title “Dagon of the Philistines” and suggests that the ethnic designation “Canaanite” may be much older than previously had been believed. The decipherment, study, and interpretation of the Eblaite records promises a panoramic historical setting for the emerging Semitic world over five hundred years before the Hebrew patriarchs.
George L. Kelm