Ebla (Arabic: عبيل، إيبلا) was an ancient city located in northern Syria, about 55 km 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 known today as Tell Mardikh, and is famous mainly for archives with more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets, dated from around 2250 BC, in Sumerian and in Eblaite — a previously unknown Semitic language similar to Akkadian.
In 1964, Italian archaeologists from the University of Rome La Sapienza directed by 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 approximately from 2500–2000 BC. About 20,000 well-preserved cuneiform tablets were discovered in the ruins. The tablets are written in a Semitic dialect that is being called ‘Eblaite’, as well as in Sumerian, demonstrating Ebla’s close links to southern Mesopotamia, where the script had developed. Vocabulary lists were found with the tablets, allowing them to be translated.
The name “Ebla” means “White Rock”, and refers to the limestone outcrop on which the city was built. Although the site shows signs of continuous occupation since before 3000 BC, its power grew and reached its apogee in the second half of the following millennium. Ebla’s first apogee was between 2400 and 2240 BC; its name is mentioned in texts from Akkad around 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 of northern Syria and Near East 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 was listed as Ebrium, or Ibrium, who concluded the so-called “Treaty with Ashur”, which offered the Assyrian king Tudia the use of trading post officially controlled by Ebla.
The fifth and last king of Ebla during this period was Ebrium’s son, Ibbi-Sipish, 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-Sipish 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, and Ebla is suspected in having a hand in Mari’s first destruction. 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 towards Mesopotamia (chiefly Kish), and contacts with Egypt are attested by gifts from 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 following Akkadian empire (ca. 2350–2150 BC).
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. Through the tablets we have learned the names of several “kings” among whom were Igrish-Halam, Irkab-Damu, Ar-Ennum, Ibrium and Ibbi-Sipish. Ibrium broke with tradition and introduced an absolute monarchy. He was followed by his son Ibbi-Sipish.
Some well-known Semitic deities appear at Ebla (Dagan, Ishtar, Resheph, Kanish, Hadad), and some otherwise unknown ones (Kura, Nidakul), plus a few Sumerian gods (Enki and Ninki) and Hurrian gods (Ashtapi, Hebat, Ishara).
Destruction of Ebla
Sargon of Akkad and his grandson Naram-sin, the conquerors of much of Mesopotamia, each claim to have destroyed Ebla; the exact date of destruction is the subject of continuing debate, but 2240 BC is a probable candidate. During the next three centuries, Ebla reached again a relevant economic position, possibly with the nearby city of Urshu, as is documented by economic texts from Drehem (a suburb of Nippur), and from findings in Kultepe/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 apogee lasting from about 1850 to 1600 BC. Its people were then known as Amorites; Ibbit-Lim was the first king.
Ebla is mentioned in texts from Alalakh around 1750 BC. The city was destroyed again in the turbulent period of 1650–1600 BC, by an Hittite king (Mursili I or Hattusili I).
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.
Here are some more photos from Ebla:
Photos from Ebla countryside: