The Exquisite Statue of Ebih-Il, an Important Heirloom of Ancient Mari
The ancient realm of Mesopotamia is still very much clouded in enigma. It existed so far back in time, that our knowledge about its cities and civilizations will never be 100% clear. Still, archaeology helps us learn a great deal about the powerful figures of this era, about kings and priests, and about their beliefs. The Statue of Ebih-Il is one of the most magnificent discoveries from the ancient Semitic city-state of Mari. Exquisite in its manufacture, the statue survived virtually unscathed for centuries, before seeing once more the light of day in modern times. Who is the person it depicts? And what was its original purpose?
The Exquisite Statue of Ebih-Il, an Important Overseer
Mari was an important Semitic city-state in ancient times. It flourished from 2900 BC as a powerful trade center between Sumer and the Eblaite Kingdom . Its rich history, however, ended in destruction by King Hammurabi in 1759 BC. During its heyday, Mari enjoyed wealth and power due to its position on an important trading route. But it could not survive the wrath of the Old Babylonian Empire . When destroyed, the city never again recovered in earnest, and this means that many of its ruined riches lay buried for centuries. For the archaeologists of the 20th century, this meant a world of wonders, and Mari proved to be a site rich with important discoveries.
The Statue of Ebih-Il was discovered by French archaeologist André Parrot. The statue was his first major find at Mari, and was unearthed on 22nd and 23rd of January, 1934. The statue was initially broken, but still well preserved. The head was found on the pavement of the outer court of what was once the great Temple of Ishtar. Just a few meters away, the body was also discovered, and the two were quickly connected. The statue was in good overall shape, despite being buried for centuries. The arm was broken at the elbow, but all these were minor issues. The full statue was made complete by experts, with no real challenge. All that remained was to discover who did the statue depict?
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A High Degree of Ancient Craftsmanship
The statue measures some 52.5 centimeters (20.7 in) in height, and 20.6 centimeters (8.1 in) in width, with almost 30 centimeters (12 in) in depth. Scholars generally agree that it was made in 2400 BC, in the classic style of the Sumerian civilization . It is carved out of smooth translucent alabaster, and only the eyes were made from another material. Particular care and attention went into the making of the eyes: the craftsman outdid himself in the creation of the striking, lifelike blue eyes. Eyelashes and eyelids were made with flakes of schist, the corneas were made from shells, and the wide irises were made from exquisite lapis lazuli. The latter was a sought after and luxurious precious stone, and had to be imported from the east, as far as Afghanistan.
Close-up of the statue displaying precision in the details, such as the eyes. ( Public Domain )
The rest of the statue displays a high degree of skill and attention to the minutest details. The man is seated on a wicker low seat, a small chair. He is shown in a devotional, praying posture, with his hands clasped against his chest. Common to the time and the region, he is shown wearing a long beard, with the mustache shaved. His head is completely shaved.
Likewise, his torso is naked, popular to the times, and he wears a Sumerian-style ceremonial kaunakes woolen skirt. Such skirts were often made from either sheepskin or goatskin, and were worn with the animal’s tail at the back. Sadly, the feet of the statue were never recovered, but small attachment points are evidence that they were initially present.
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The Mysterious Mariote from Alabaster
Who was this mysterious praying man? That was the most important thing to understand. Luckily, researchers had an easy job doing it. On the rear shoulder of the figure was a proto- Cuneiform inscription, which indicates the man who made the votive offering in the form of the statuette.
“dul, Ebih-il, nu-banda, dIštar Nita, sarig” it reads, "This statue, Ebih-il, the overseer, to Ishtar, he dedicated".
Ebih-Il statue inscription (JastrowTranscription: पाटलिपुत्र/CC BY 2.5 )
The mystery was quickly solved. The figure was found in the remains of the Temple of Ishtar, a major Mesopotamian goddess. Thus, the statue of Ebih-Il was a votive offering to this goddess. She is described in the inscription as “Ishtar Virile”, a clear nudge to her role as a fertility goddess . And we also learn that Ebih-Il was an overseer, a superintendent of Mari. He held a lofty and prominent position in the city’s hierarchy, and thus certainly could afford the creation of such an exquisite votive statue.
The Statue of Ebih-Il remains one of the most valuable discoveries from the ancient city-state of Mari. It has been commonly described as "a masterpiece by virtue of its craftsmanship, state of preservation, and expressive style." A distinct Mesopotamian work of art, it remains one of the most important pieces of heritage from this ancient civilization.
Flynn, R. 2014. Statue of Ebih-Il, Superintendent of Mari, ca. 2400 B.C. Available at: https://impressionstravl.com/2014/08/07/statue-of-ebih-il-louvre/
Jaiswal, S. 2022. Statue of Ebih Il. Available at: https://alchetron.com/Statue-of-Ebih-Il
Parrot, A. 1935. Les fouilles de Mari (Première campagne). Institut français du Proche-Orient.