by Roderick Conway Morris

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Putting Ebla on the Ancient Map

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 22 April 1995
Archeological Museum, Idlib, Syria
Stele to the Goddess Ishtar with animal symbols prefiguring the four Christian Evangelists, c.1800 BC



Ebla, which flourished between about 2,400 and 1,600 BC, was one of the ancient world's largest and most thriving cities. Yet attempts from the late 19th century onwards to locate its remains repeatedly failed to find any trace of it.

'There are a number of references to Ebla in ancient Mesopotamian, Anatolian and Egyptian texts. But some of these were interpreted as suggesting that it was to the north of Aleppo,' said Professor Paolo Matthiae of Rome's La Sapienza University, who finally succeeded in finding the fabled lost kingdom. 'It actually turned out to be about 60 kilometres to the south of modern Aleppo. When, in 1968, while excavating at Tell Mardikh we came on a torso of a statue with an inscription identifying it as of Ibbit-Lim 'King of Ebla', and realized that we really had found Ebla at last, the archeological world was so accustomed to believing that it had to be somewhere to the north of Aleppo that many simply did not believe us.' Irrefutable confirmation came in 1975, however, with the unearthing of Ebla's immensely rich and miraculously intact Palace archives, containing nearly 2,000 inscribed clay tablets.

Matthiae and his team's annual excavations have continued for 30 years, but the sometimes sensational discoveries they have made, which have radically altered our picture of the pre-classical Near East, have remained better known to scholars than to the wider public. This is being remedied by a fascinating, superbly-presented show of over 500 finds, loaned for the first time by the Syrian government, at Palazzo Venezia (till 30 June), which will be travelling over the next two years to Trieste, Austria, Germany, France, the US and Japan.

In stark contrast to its contemporary cities in Mesopotamia and Egypt, Ebla grew up not on the banks of a major river but in the middle of a vast agricultural plain. The richness of the soil and ample rainfall allowed the cultivation of cereals, olives and vines and the raising of sheep and cattle, and Ebla's strategic situation between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean coast, with access to the sea routes to Egypt, enabled the city to become a wealthy trading center. Unlike the cities of Mesopotamia, which grew out of conurbations of scattered villages, Ebla seems to have been consciously founded and planned as a city. And, surrounded by massive walls that encompassed an area of 150 acres, at the height of its prosperity it is reckoned to have had a population of some 20,000.

Ebla was twice sacked by rival kings, once by Sargon of Akkad in the second half of the 3rd millenium BC, from which it soon recovered, and again in about 1,600 BC, probably by the Hittite king Murshili I, which proved the city's demise. This second conquest indirectly assured the preservation of the city's archives. When the Palace was put to the torch the wooden shelves on which the thousands of clay tablets were stacked upright in rows, like files in a filing cabinet, burned down, baking the tablets before depositing them on the floor, where they lay undisturbed until the Italian archaeologists discovered them in the 70s.

Aside from providing a wealth of detail on the economy, religious and social life of the city, the tablets include some notable historical 'firsts'. One, an accord between Ebla and neighboring Abarsal, is the earliest-known international treaty between states (Ebla in due course violated it, overrunning its weaker rival). Another set of tablets lists over 1,500 Sumerian words and their equivalents in the language of Ebla - the first ever bilingual dictionary.

This astonishingly large lexical work has played its part in the decipherment the oldest surviving literary text in a Semitic language: a hymn of over a 100 lines to the Sun God, Shamash. These verses refer to the god as the special protector of Ebla's merchants - who, like the sun, traveled to distant lands - whose journeys, indeed, took them as far as Afghanistan in search of lapis lazuli.

'Given that in this period there were no precious stones, because there was no means of cutting them, lapis lazuli was especially highly-prized,' said Matthiae. And it was through Ebla that the precious ore - a store of 22 kilos of which has been found there - reached Egypt, Matthiae added.

Although sharing a common Semitic culture, Ebla was distinct from its neigbors in many respects. 'For a Babylonian to go to Ebla would have been rather like an Italian going to Paris, or an Englishman to Brussels,' said Matthiae.

The organization of Ebla was markedly secular in that all the political and economic power rested in the hands of the king and his court, and temples were purely places of worship, whereas in Mesopotamia the temples and priesthood were major landowners, rivaling kings in riches and influence. In Ebla there was also a well-established hereditary aristocracy comprising over a dozen families, whilst in Mesopotamia it was the priestly hierarchy that dominated the non-monarchical upper class.

Equally striking was the superior social status of women in Ebla. 'In Mesopotamia where years are identified by events such as the donation of a gold statue to a temple or a successful conquest, only the king is mentioned, but in Ebla we very often find formulae such as ' in the year in which the Queen gave birth to such and such a prince' or 'the Queen visited such and such a place'. The Queen and other women at court received annuities, which they appear to have been able to spend as they wished - in contrast to Mesopotamia, where the recipients of state largesse were all male.

Among some fine jewelry, ceramics and other artefacts on display there is an exceptionally elegant alabaster bowl and lid, and some lively friezes and unexpectedly expressive statuary carved of grey-blue basalt.

Of outstanding interest is a basalt stele dedicated to the goddess Ishtar, decorated on all four sides with humans, animals and mythical beasts. One is a hitherto unparalleled sphynx-like creature, not only with human and leonine elements but also eagle's wings and the hind legs of an ox - the symbols of the four Christian Evangelists. These mystical emblems have previously been attributed to the vision of Biblical patriarch Ezekiel - and yet here they are together, something like a thousand years before the time of the Old Testament Prophet. This, and other finds, suggest that ancient Syrian theology may have played an unsuspected role in the development of Near Eastern religious imagery.

'When I began my studies, Syria it was regarded very much as a peripheral region between Egypt and Mesopotamia,' said Matthiae. 'But what Ebla has now revealed is that ancient Syria had a strong, sophisticated, autonomous culture, and exercised a lasting influence on the pre-classical and classical world.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023