Not to be confused with Elba.

Part of the excavated city of Ebla
Shown within Syria
Alternate name Tell Mardikh (Arabic: تل مرديخ‎)
Location Idlib Governorate, Syria

35°47′53″N 36°47′53″E / 35.798°N 36.798°E / 35.798; 36.798

Type settlement
Founded 1st city: c. 3000 BC
2nd city: ca. 1850 BC
Abandoned 1st city: c. 2240 BC
2nd city: ca. 1600 BC
Periods Bronze Age
Cultures Amorites
Site notes
Excavation dates 1964—present
Archaeologists Paolo Matthiae
Ownership Public
Public access Yes

Ebla (Arabic: إبلا‎, modern Tell Mardikh, Idlib Governorate, Syria) was an ancient city about 55 km (34 mi) southwest of Aleppo. It was an important city-state in two periods, first in the late third millennium BC, then again between 1800 and 1650 BC.

The site is most famous for the Ebla tablets, an archive of about 20,000 cuneiform tablets found there,[1] dated from around 2250 BC, written in Sumerian script to record the Eblaite language — a previously unknown language that is now the earliest attested Semitic language after the closely related Akkadian.

Discovery and excavation

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 BC. About 2,500 well-preserved cuneiform tablets were discovered in the ruins.[2] About 80% of the tablets are written using the usual Sumerian combination of logograms and phonetic signs,[3] while the others exhibited an innovative, purely phonetic representation using Sumerian cuneiform of a previously unknown Semitic language, which was called Eblaite.[4] Bilingual Sumerian/Eblaite vocabulary lists were found among the tablets, allowing them to be translated. Giovanni Pettinato and Mitchell Dahood believed the Eblaite language was West Semitic, however I. J. Gelb and others believed it was an East Semitic dialect, closer to the Akkadian language.[5] Now it is commonly accepted that Eblaite is part of the East Semitic branch of Semitic, and very close to the Akkadian language.[6]

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 BC

It has been suggested that a possible explanation of the word "Ebla" is "white rock", referring to the limestone outcrop on which the city was built.[7][8] Although the site shows signs of continuous occupation from before 3000 BC, its power grew and reached its peak in the second half of the following millennium. Ebla's first apex was between ca. 2400 and 2240 BC; its name is mentioned in texts from Akkad from ca. 2300 BC.

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 B.C. 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 of this period was listed as Ebrium, or Ibrium, who concluded the so-called "Treaty with Ashur", which offered the Assyrian king Tudiya the use of a trading post officially controlled by Ebla.[9]

The fifth and last king of Ebla during this period was Ebrium's son, Ibbi-Zikir, 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-Zikir 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.


At that time, Ebla was a major commercial center. Its major commercial rival was Mari, with whom it fought a lengthy war estimated as lasting 80–100 years.[10] 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 (by river-boat) towards Mesopotamia (chiefly Kish). The main palace at Ebla was also found to contain "antiques" dating from Ancient Egypt with the names of 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-Zikir broke with tradition and introduced an absolute monarchy. Matthews & Benjamin make mention of the initial excitement caused by this decision along with the name of their patron Ya seeming identical to Abraham and his god Yah instituting a hereditary rule through Isaac, although eventually this equation did not continue to carry much weight.[11]

Kings of Ebla (short chronology)


3rd millennium Ebla was a polytheistic society.[12] Some well-known Semitic deities appear at Ebla, including Dagan (written as dBE), Ishtar (Ashtar), Resheph (Rasap), Kamish, Hadad (Hadda),[13] Shapash (Shipish), and some otherwise unknown ones (Kura, Nidakul[14]), plus a few Sumerian gods (Enki and Ninki) and Hurrian gods (Ashtapi,[14] Hebat, Ishara). The four city gates were named after the gods Dagan, Baal (Hadda), Rasap, and Utu.[13] Overall, about forty deities are mentioned in the tablets as receiving sacrifices.[13]

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’il to Mikaya. He regards this as evidence for an early use of the divine name Yah, a god who he believes later emerged as Yahweh (YHWH). Bottero has suggested that this shift may instead indicate the popular acceptance of the Akkadian god Ea, introduced from the Sargonid Empire. Archi[15] and Rainey,[16] on the other hand, have suggested that the "-ya" is actually a diminutive ending used in shortened forms of personal names, and Müller has argued that the cuneiform sign NI should be interpreted, in this case, as an abbreviation for ì(-lí) ("god") rather than as ià (*Yah)—a view that Archi has since adopted with a modification, his reading been ì or lí.[17] In any case, no list of gods or offerings mentions a deity by the name of Ya,[17][18] and the connection with Yahweh is largely rejected today.[19][20]

Many ancient Hebraic names that have not been found in other Near Eastern languages have been reported to occur in similar forms in Eblaite (Adamu, H’à-wa, Jabal, Abarama, Bilhah, Ishma-el, Isûra-el, Esau, Mika-el, Mikaya, Saul, David, et al.). A large number of Biblical locations (many of them known from other sources) have also been reported to occur in the texts: for example Ashtaroth, Sinai, Jerusalem (Ye-ru-sa-lu-um), Hazor, Lachish, Gezer, Dor, Megiddo, Joppa, Ur etc.[21][unreliable source?] Giovanni Pettinato has also claimed to find references to Sodom and Gomorrah. However, much of the initial media excitement about supposed Eblaite connections with the Bible, based on preliminary guesses and speculations by Pettinato and others, is now widely deplored as "exceptional and unsubstantiated claims" and "great amounts of disinformation that leaked to the public".[22][23] Contrary to many earlier claims, the present consensus is that "Ebla has no bearing on the Minor Prophets, the historical accuracy of the biblical Patriarchs, Yahweh worship, or Sodom and Gomorra".[22] In Ebla studies, the focus has shifted away from comparisons with the Bible, and Ebla is now studied above all as an incipient civilization in its own right.[22] The tide turned after a bitter personal and scholarly conflict between the scientists involved, as well as what some described as interference by the Syrian authorities on political grounds.[24][25]

Three versions of a text described as an Eblaite creation hymn have been found. They have been translated by Pettinato as

Lord of heaven and earth:
the earth was not, you created it,
the light of day was not, you created it,
the morning light you had not [yet] made exist.[12]

Some versions of Pettinato's translation use "he" instead of "you".

These lines seem to have points in common both with known Sumerian creation stories and with the Biblical account. Nevertheless, Alfonso Archi has objected that the original text is unclear to the point of being incomprehensible[26] (texts from Ebla are difficult to read in general[23][25]), leading him to conclude that "there is no Genesis creation story" in the Ebla documents.[22][26]

The destruction of Ebla

Sargon of Akkad and his grandson Naram-sin, the conquerors of much of Mesopotamia, each claimed to have destroyed Ebla; the exact date of destruction is the subject of continuing debate, but 2240 BC is a candidate. Michael Astour wrote the "History of Ebla" for the Eblaitica journal (Vols 3 & 4), where he discussed the competing theories, tentatively concluding that the main palace G containing the royal archives had been burned down some time prior to Lugalzagesi's sacking of Kish, i.e. in the late pre-Sargonic era, ca. 2290 BC (Middle chronology).

During the next three centuries, Ebla was able to regain some economic importance in the region, but it 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 Kanesh.

Ebla in the second millennium BC

Several centuries after its destruction by the Akkadians, Ebla managed to recover some of its importance, and had a second apex lasting from ca. 1850 to 1600 BC. Its people were then described as Amorites. The first known ruler of Ebla in this period was Megum, an Ensi (governor) for Ur III during the reign of Amar-Sin of Ur. [27] Ibbit-Lim was the first attested king.

Ebla is mentioned in texts from Alalakh from ca. 1750 BC. The city was destroyed again in the turbulent period of 1650 – 1600 BC, by a Hittite king (Mursili I or Hattusili I). This is attested to only by the fragmentary Hurro-Hittite Song of Release.[28]

Ebla never recovered from its second destruction. The city continued as a small village until the 7th century AD, then was deserted and forgotten, until its archaeological rediscovery.

The first document recovered from the area would be later identified as the royal library was a historical text, an international treaty. Thanks to it Ebla was revealed as the center of a previously unknown and highly civilized world.


See also

Ancient Near East portal


  • Archi, Alfonso. "Eblaite and its Geographical and Historical Context," in The Akkadian Language in its Semitic Context (ed. N.J.C. Kouwenberg and G. Deutscher. Leiden: Publications de l’Institute historique-archéologique néerlandais de Stamboul, 2006), pp. 96–109.
  • Rubio, Rubio. "Eblaite, Akkadian, and East Semitic," in The Akkadian Language in its Semitic Context (ed. N.J.C. Kouwenberg and G. Deutscher. Leiden: Publications de l’Institute historique-archéologique néerlandais de Stamboul, 2006), pp. 110–139.
  • Matthiae, Paolo The Royal Archives of Ebla (Skira, 2008)
  • Beld, Scott G., Hallo, William W., and Michalowski, Piotr The Tablets of Ebla: Concordance and Bibliography (Eisenbrauns, 1984)
  • Gordon, Cyrus and Rendsburg, Gary eds. Eblaitica: Essays on the Ebla Archives and Eblaite Language (Publications of the Center for Ebla Research at New York University / Eisenbrauns, in 4 vols. 1987, 1990, 1992, 2002)
  • Pettinato, Giovanni The Archives of Ebla: An Empire Inscribed in Clay (Doubleday, 1981)

External links

  • Ebla (Tell Mardikh) Suggestion to have Ebla (Tell Mardikh) recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site
  • Carol Miller, capsule history of Ebla.
  • Ebla - Tell Mardikh with photos and plans of the digs (Italian)
  • , by E. Ascalone and L. Peyronel (pdf
  • . F. Pinnock (pdf)

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