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Royal Palace at Ebla. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

First Kingdoms: The Forgotten Mesopotamian Kingdom of Ebla


Spectacular things were happening in Mesopotamia in the period we call the Early Bronze Age, particularly in the southern part of it, commonly called Babylonia. It was here that the wealthy, sophisticated Sumerian civilization developed, its growth and prosperity greatly spurred by the invention of writing. A magnificent assortment of beautifully wrought items, like those unearthed from the so-called royal tombs of Ur and now on display in the British Museum, testifies to the high level of craftsmanship of the Sumerian civilization at its zenith.

In the wake of the Sumerian Early Dynastic period ( 2900–2334 BC), there arose in southern Mesopotamia the first great empire in Near Eastern history—the Akkadian empire ( 2334–2193 BC) founded by Sargon, which at its peak extended through the whole of Mesopotamia, and north-westwards into south-eastern Anatolia. Early Bronze Age Mesopotamia’s archaeological remains and prolific tablet-finds provided rich and exciting fields of investigation for archaeologists, historians, and linguists alike.

But across the Euphrates in Syria, the picture was much bleaker, so it seemed, if you happened to be any of these. Up until the 1960s, third millennium Syria was generally thought of as no more than ‘an illiterate backwater of small communities far removed from the great developments of civilization occurring in Mesopotamia and Egypt’. But there must have been more to it than this! And indeed, it was quite possible that the numerous unexplored mounds (tells) throughout the region did include remains of settlements of various kinds contemporary with the first great civilizations of Mesopotamia.

But attention was too much focused on other regions that offered surer prospects of significant finds, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Palestine. None the less, an Italian archaeologist, Paolo Matthiae, believed that Syria should not be entirely neglected. And he selected a site now called Tell Mardikh in northern Syria, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) south-west of Aleppo, for further investigation.

Excavations of Ebla in the desert of Syria. (siempreverde22 / Adobe)

Excavations of Ebla in the desert of Syria. (siempreverde22 / Adobe )

The Secrets of Ebla

Potsherds found scattered over its surface gave an indication of its early date, and the unusually large dimensions of the tell which marked the site persuaded Professor Matthiae that it was worth a closer look. The upshot of this was that in 1964 he led the first of what were to be many campaigns at Tell Mardikh as head of the Italian Archaeological Expedition of the University ‘La Sapienza’ of Rome. It soon became evident that there was in fact a major settlement on the site at the time of Syria’s so-called ‘backwater period’. But it took four years before the site could actually be identified.

Ebla - modern Tell Mardikh, Syria, ancient city about 55 kilometers (34 miles) southwest of Aleppo. (siempreverde22 / Adobe)

Ebla - modern Tell Mardikh, Syria, ancient city about 55 kilometers (34 miles) southwest of Aleppo . ( siempreverde22 / Adobe)

That happened in 1968 when part of a statue was found , with an inscription. The statue was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar, by a man called Ibbit-Lim, king of Ebla. So, Tell Mardikh was in fact the ancient city of Ebla—a city already known to us from a wide range of texts. The earliest of them record the conquest of Ebla by Akkadian kings, Sargon and his grandson Naram-Sin, and the city appears later in economic texts of the Ur III empire (i.e. the empire of the Third Dynasty of Ur; 2112–2004 BC).

These written records clearly established Ebla’s existence as early as the 24th century BC. Its subsequent existence, after the Ur III empire, is attested in texts from Alalah in northern Syria, dating to the 17th and 15th centuries BC, and in the latter century it appears in the list of Syro-Palestinian conquests of the pharaoh Tuthmosis III.

Plaque determined to be the goddess Ishtar was discovered in ancient Ebla. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Plaque determined to be the goddess Ishtar was discovered in ancient Ebla. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

So the site of Ebla had been discovered, and information about it was available from a range of external sources. But could Ebla also speak for itself? The answer to that question came in 1974, as Matthiae and his team worked patiently through the site’s layers. Up till then, Ebla had attracted little interest outside the world of Near Eastern archaeology, and indeed relatively muted interest within it. The 1974 excavations dramatically changed all that. Already the year before, Matthiae’s team while excavating on the western slope of the acropolis came upon signs of a major building complex just below the mound’s surface.

The full extent and significance of this complex became clear in the 1974 excavations. It was a large, sprawling structure, whose walls in parts still reached a height of seven metres, built around two sides of a large open area now called ‘the court of audience’, with a raised dais made of mudbrick against its north wall. Was this the base of a royal throne? There was no doubt that the building was a royal palace. It is now called, rather prosaically, ‘Palace G’, and in archaeological terms it belongs to what is called the Mardikh (or Ebla) IIB1 period.

Palace G of the ancient city of Ebla. (COHBot / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In itself this vast, multi-chambered complex was an important archaeological discovery—the earliest structure of its kind found anywhere in Syria, clearly distinguishing Ebla as a major regional centre. But the most spectacular aspect of the find was a massive collection of thousands of clay tablets, often in fragments, inscribed with the cuneiform script and located in various rooms of the palace. Above all else, the tablet finds, excavated between 1974 and 1976 (there have been only occasional discoveries since), brought Ebla to world attention.

Dating as they do to the 24th century, they provide us with early evidence for writing in Syria. Particularly interesting is the fact that many of them are written in a local Semitic language, now dubbed ‘Eblaite’, and are thus the oldest significant evidence we have for any Semitic language in written form. There are also a number of Sumerian texts , including a hymn, and some lexical lists with Eblaite and Sumerian equivalents, described as the most ancient dictionaries known.

A tablet from the ancient city of Ebla. (Codas / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A tablet from the ancient city of Ebla. (Codas / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The actual contents of the great majority of the tablets are fairly mundane. Apart from the few ‘literary texts’ (hymns etc.) and lexical texts, they are very largely administrative documents, arranged in a number of different archives, to do with the administration of Ebla and the surrounding region. They indicate the existence of an enormous royal, highly centralized bureaucracy, staffed by numerous officials, and a broader workforce of artisans and labourers, all documented in the palace records along with the food rations for their sustenance.

That much of the wealth of Ebla was agriculturally based is reflected in the palace records which indicate the large flocks of sheep owned by the king, and the thriving textile industry associated with wool production. The tablets tell us of the distribution of these products, both to local officials within the Ebla region and to important foreigners.

Mundane though they may be, we learn much from the tablets about the highly efficient organization of the Eblaite state and its strict administrative and social hierarchy.

But the tablets are also important more broadly for what they tell us about social, political, and economic conditions in northern Syria in the mid third millennium, that is to say in the middle of the Early Bronze Age, and the pattern of city-states in the region at this time, with king, royal officials, and ‘elders’ at the top of the hierarchy. A large assortment of economic, administrative, legal, lexical, literary, diplomatic, and epistolary texts provide valuable insights into the administration, daily life, and culture of Ebla and its relations with its surrounding region during this phase of its existence, including its competition with Mari on the middle Euphrates (to which we shall return).

Ruins of the mesopotamian kingdom of Ebla, Syria. (siempreverde22 / Adobe Stock)

Ruins of the mesopotamian kingdom of Ebla, Syria. ( siempreverde22 / Adobe Stock)

A number of other finds in Palace G provide further evidence of the richness of this phase of Ebla’s history. Contacts with Egypt are indicated by fragments of alabaster and diorite vessels from the land of the Nile, and large quantities of lapis lazuli indicate trading links as far afield as Afghanistan.

The high level of Eblaite craftsmanship in this period is reflected in a human-headed bull figurine of steatite and gold foil attached to a wooden core, and limestone inlays applied to wooden panels used for wall decoration. Fine works fashioned in gold, lapis lazuli, and ivory found in the palace are Babylonian in origin, or inspiration.

More generally, there is no doubt that the development of Ebla as a politically, commercially, and culturally sophisticated centre owed much to its strong cultural links with a number of contemporary cities of Babylonia.

From both written and archaeological sources, we can build up a picture of Ebla as the most politically and commercially powerful kingdom of northern Syria in the Early Bronze Age .

Archaeologically, it is extremely important for our understanding of Syria’s urban and commercial development in this period. By then, Syria contained a complex of city-states, each ruled by a king, whose relations with the rulers of Ebla are recorded in the Palace G archives.

The territory over which Ebla held sway was clearly a substantial one—as it needed to be, given the region’s relatively low rainfall and the necessity of having a large area to graze the flocks that produced abundant quantities of wool for a flourishing textile industry. Clearly too, Ebla’s wealth and importance derived from its centrality within an international trading network, with links with southern Syria, central Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and regions further to the east.

For a brief time, Ebla was a tributary of Mari, but it regained its independence after about fifteen years and became Mari’s chief political and commercial rival. This we learn from the kingdom’s archives, which tell us of three kings who ruled Ebla during the three-generation period covered by the tablets—Igriš-Halab, IrkabDamu, and Išar-Damu.

But there were many more Eblaite kings. An offering-list found in the archives gives us the names of ten of them, of whom Išar-Damu was the last. There were more names still. An augmented version of the offering-list came to light in Mari’s archives, and this version of it names no fewer than twenty-six Eblaite kings.

This tells us that the royal dynasty at Ebla, and hence the royal city itself, extended back at least three centuries before the peak of its power in the 24th century. That is to say, the origins of dynasty and city date back at least to the 27th century BC.

Statue of seated ruler from ancient Ebla. (Daderot / Public Domain)

Statue of seated ruler from ancient Ebla. (Daderot / Public Domain )

24th–21st Centuries BC

The end of this great phase of Ebla’s existence was due to its destruction by an Akkadian king, almost certainly Sargon, though Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin claimed responsibility. It may well be that one or other of these rulers believed that the kingdom was getting too powerful, to the point where it threatened Akkadian territorial ambitions west of the Euphrates, or at least refused to cooperate with the Akkadians in their western enterprises.

But Ebla’s lifespan was far from at an end. It had a first new lease of life when a modest new settlement, designated Mardikh IIB2, was built on the northern part of the site following the Akkadian destruction. The most significant building of this phase, now called the ‘Archaic Palace’, was probably the residence of a new or revived line of local kings, possibly collaborators if not subordinates of the rulers of the Ur III empire, successor to the Akkadian empire.

But the new city was short-lived. It too was destroyed, about 2000, around the time the Ur III empire was finished off, and perhaps by the same agents (see below). Ebla would rise again. As we shall see, it was to have at least one major regeneration before its final decline and abandonment.

Approximate borders of the second Eblaite Kingdom. (Attar-Aram Syria / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Amorites

At this point, we should say something about the Amorites, who will figure prominently, in one way or another, through much of the next part of our story. They are probably best known today as one of the peoples of the Old Testament, where they are listed in the Table of Nations amongst the tribal groups, occupying parts of Canaan, whom God ordered the Israelites to destroy:

‘However, in the cities of the Nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave anything alive that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you’ (Deut. 20:16–17).

(We shall come back to other members in this list.)

Speakers of a northwest Semitic language , the Amorites consisted originally of a number of nomadic groups who inhabited parts of Syria and Palestine. By the 24th century, some of them had moved to Ebla and settled there, as we know from Amorite names in the city’s archives. No doubt the secure, prosperous, and culturally sophisticated environment which Ebla offered, as did places further south like Qatna and Hamath which probably also had Amorite populations at this time, were inducement enough for the traditional pastoralists to exchange their nomadic lifestyle for a more settled urban one.

Cuneiform clay tablets of Ebla mention Amorite names in the city’s archives. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Cuneiform clay tablets of Ebla mention Amorite names in the city’s archives. ( पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain )

But as their tribal cousins were settling into the comforts and security of a Syro-Palestinian urban existence, other Amorite groups who maintained their traditional lifestyle began spreading eastwards into southern Mesopotamia. Perhaps drought conditions forced them to seek new pasturelands for their flocks and herds across the Euphrates.

As their numbers east of the river grew, so did the threat they posed to the kingdoms and city-states of their new homeland. Amorites now show up in Sumerian texts, under the name MAR.TU, meaning ‘west’ (that is to say, they came from the west), and the references to them are distinctly hostile.
A Sumerian literary composition speaks of them as boorish, rootless, uncultured savages:

‘The MAR.TU who know no grain . . . no house nor town, the boors of the mountains. The MAR.TU who digs up truffl es . . . who does not bend his knees (to cultivate the land), who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after his death . . . ’.

Amorites show up in Sumerian texts, they came from the west and the references towards them are hostile. (Jonund / Public Domain)

Amorites show up in Sumerian texts, they came from the west and the references towards them are hostile. (Jonund / Public Domain )

What the relationship is between the Amorites referred to here and those attested in the Eblaite texts of the same period is unclear. In any case, the Akkadian kings Sargon and Naram-Sin became involved in conflicts with the intruders.

Naram-Sin finally defeated them when he quashed the ‘Great Revolt’, a widespread uprising of his subject cities, at a place called ‘the mountain of (the land) Martu’ (Basar, modern Jebel Bishri). But the Amorite menace persisted.

After the fall of the Akkadian empire, Amorite groups consistently pressed upon territories claimed by the new overlords of Babylonia, the kings of the Ur III dynasty. In an attempt to keep their lands free of the Amorites, the kings built a chain of fortifications or watchtowers across northern Babylonia. Their efforts failed. But the Ur III empire was soon to end anyway.

Around 2004, it was destroyed—not, as it happened, by the Amorites but by invaders from south-western Iran called the Elamites. The situation was ripe for exploitation. Amorite chieftains moved quickly to fill the power vacuum in the region left by the Elamite victory, setting themselves up as rulers of a number of Babylonian cities formerly subject to the Akkadian and Ur III kings, including Larsa, Babylon, Kish, Marad, and Sippar.

Discarding their ancestral nomadic origins, the Amorites had by now completely assimilated to urban society.

Top image: Royal Palace at Ebla. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Trevor Bryce

© [Oxford University Press]

This article is an extract from, Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History , by Trevor Bryce, published by Oxford University Press, available in hardback, paperback and eBook formats, £14.99

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