Ebla​—An Ancient City Emerges From Oblivion

In the summer of 1962, Paolo Matthiae, a young Italian archaeologist, surveyed the plains of northwestern Syria with uncertainty. The interior of Syria was considered archaeologically poor. Yet, from the excavations begun two years later at Tell Mardikh, about 40 miles [60 km] south of Aleppo, would emerge what many consider ‘the most important archaeological find of the 20th century.’

ANCIENT inscriptions attested to the existence of a city named Ebla. However, no one knew under which of the many tells, or mounds, scattered throughout the Middle East the city might be found. One text told of the victory of Sargon, king of Akkad, over “Mari, Yarmuti, and Ebla.” In another inscription, the Sumerian King Gudea mentioned the precious timbers that he received from “the mountains of Ibla [Ebla].” The name Ebla also appeared at Karnak, Egypt, in a list of ancient cities that Pharaoh Thutmose III conquered. You can understand why archaeologists had tried to find Ebla.

Further excavations, though, proved fruitful. In 1968, part of a statue of Ibbit-Lim, a sovereign of Ebla, came to light. It bore a votive inscription in the Akkadian language revealing that it had been dedicated to the goddess Ishtar, who “shone in Ebla.” Yes, archaeological finds began to reveal “a new language, a new history, and a new culture.”

Confirmation that Tell Mardikh corresponded to ancient Ebla came in 1974/75 with the discovery of cuneiform tablets that repeatedly bore that ancient name. Excavations also showed that the city had had at least two lives. After a first period of influence, it had been devastated. Then Ebla was rebuilt, only to be devastated again and to fall into centuries-long oblivion.

One City, Many Histories

The most ancient cities were built on alluvial plains, such as that between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where intensive agriculture was possible. The first cities mentioned in the Bible were located in Mesopotamia. (Genesis 10:10) It seems that the name Ebla means “White Rock,” referring to the limestone substratum on which the city stood. The site was evidently chosen because the limestone layer guaranteed the presence of a natural water supply, important in a region far from major rivers.

Precipitation levels in the Ebla area limited extensive cultivation to cereals, vines, and olive trees. The area was also suitable for raising stock, particularly sheep. Ebla’s strategic position​—between the Mesopotamian Plain and the Mediterranean Coast—​favored trade in timber, semiprecious stones, and metals. The city dominated a region inhabited by some 200,000 people, up to a tenth of whom lived in the capital.

 The remains of a great palace testify to the grandeur of this phase of Eblaite civilization. Access to the palace was gained through a portal some 40 to 50 feet [12-15 m] high. The palace had been enlarged over the course of time to make way for the growing needs of an increasingly powerful administration. Officials worked under a complex hierarchy​—the king and his consort were aided by “lords” and “elders.”

More than 17,000 clay tablets and fragments have been found. Originally, there were probably more than 4,000 complete tablets, carefully placed on wooden shelves. These documents give evidence of the vast extent of Ebla’s trade. For example, the city did business with Egypt, as shown by the royal symbols of two pharaohs. The tablets were written mainly in Sumerian cuneiform. But some were in Eblaite, a very ancient Semitic language that could be deciphered, thanks to these documents. Orientalists were surprised to discover such an old Semitic language. You may find it interesting that some tablets contain bilingual Sumerian-Eblaite lists. The book Ebla​—Alle origini della civiltà urbana (Ebla—​At the Origins of Urban Civilization) calls these “the oldest dictionaries known to us.”

Ebla was evidently a military power, for excavated carvings depict Eblaite warriors in the act of executing their enemies or presenting severed heads. Yet, Ebla’s splendor ended when its history intersected that of the rising powers of Assyria and Babylon. It is not easy to trace those events exactly, but it seems that first Sargon I (not the Sargon mentioned at Isaiah 20:1) and then his grandson Naram-Sin moved against Ebla. The archaeological evidence shows that the encounters were violent and the raids ferocious.

As mentioned, though, after a time the city rose again and even gained importance in the region. The new city was constructed according to a precise plan, accentuating its grandeur. In the lower city was a sacred area dedicated to the goddess  Ishtar, also viewed as a fertility goddess by the Babylonians. You may have heard of the famous Ishtar Gate, uncovered in the ruins of Babylon. A particularly imposing building at Ebla seems to have been used to house the lions that were held as sacred to the goddess Ishtar. This brings us to Ebla’s religion.

Religion in Ebla

Like elsewhere in the ancient East, Ebla had a pantheon of gods. Some of them were Baal, Hadad (a name appearing as part of the names of certain Syrian kings), and Dagan. (1 Kings 11:23; 15:18; 2 Kings 17:16) The Eblaites feared them all. They even honored the gods of other peoples. Archaeological finds indicate that, particularly in the second millennium B.C.E., worship was also given to deified royal ancestors.

The Eblaites did not trust in their gods entirely. The new Ebla also had an imposing ring of double walls, which might impress any enemies. The outer walls had a perimeter of almost two miles [3 km]. They are still clearly discernible.

Nevertheless, even the reconstructed Ebla came to an end. Possibly the Hittites in about 1600 B.C.E. inflicted the final defeat on what had been a great power. According to an ancient poem, Ebla was “shattered like a ceramic vase.” It soon began to vanish from history. A document written by crusaders marching on Jerusalem in 1098 mentions the site where Ebla once stood, referring to it as a remote outpost in the country, named Mardikh. Ebla had been virtually forgotten, to be rediscovered only after many centuries.

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An article published in 1976 in the Biblical Archeologist magazine aroused the curiosity of Bible scholars. The decipherer of the Ebla tablets raised the possibility that, among other things, the tablets cited names of people and places mentioned centuries later in the Bible. Perhaps going beyond what the article actually said, some began to write that Ebla had yielded archaeological proof of the trustworthiness of the Genesis account. * Jesuit Mitchell Dahood claimed that the “clay tablets [from Ebla] are illuminating the obscurities of the Bible.” He believed, for example, that they could shed light on “the problem of the antiquity of the name of the God of Israel.”

Now these texts are being examined with greater objectivity. Given the fact that both Hebrew and Eblaite are Semitic languages, it cannot be ruled out that some names of cities or individuals may be similar or identical to those in the Bible. Yet, this does not prove that they refer to the same locations or people. How far discoveries at Ebla will influence Biblical studies remains to be seen. As to the divine name, the writer of the Biblical Archeologist article has denied that he ever said that “Yahweh” was mentioned in the Ebla texts. For some, the cuneiform sign interpreted as ja indicates just one of the many deities in the Eblaite pantheon, while a number of other specialists explain it as no more than a grammatical sign. In either case, it does not refer to the one true God, Jehovah.​—Deuteronomy 4:35; Isaiah 45:5.


^ par. 19 For a discussion on how archaeology supports the Bible account, see chapter 4 of the book The Bible​—God’s Word or Man’s? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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Ebla (Tell Mardikh)

Euphrates River

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Archaeologist: Missione Archeologica Italiana a Ebla-Università degli Studi di Roma ‘La Sapienza’

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A gold necklace dating to about 1750 B.C.E.

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Remains of a great palace

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Artist’s rendering of clay tablets kept in the archive room

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Cuneiform tablet

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Egyptian royal club, 1750-1700 B.C.E.

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Eblaite warrior with enemies’ heads

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A stela dedicated to the goddess Ishtar

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Missione Archeologica Italiana a Ebla-Università degli Studi di Roma ‘La Sapienza’

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All images (except palace remains): Missione Archeologica Italiana a Ebla-Università degli Studi di Roma ‘La Sapienza’