Ebla was an Early Bronze IV (mid-3rd millennium B.C.E.) city that was refounded twice before being destroyed in the mid-2nd millennium B.C.E. Its ruins form Tell Mardikh, which is located near modern Mardikh (about 60 kilometers southwest of Aleppo, Syria).
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The discovery of Ebla city
Ancient inscriptions attested to the existence of a city. No one knew which of the many tells, or hillocks, dotting the Middle East should be sought. According to one text, Sargon, King of Accad, defeated “Mari, Yarmuti, and Ebla.” In another inscription, Sumerian king Gudea recalled the valuable timbers he received from the “mountains of Ebla.” It was also found in a list of ancient cities conquered by Pharaoh Thutmose III in Karnak, Egypt. It is easy to see why various archaeologists attempted to locate Ebla in the past.
The new excavations were successful. In 1968, a portion of a statue of Ibbit-Lim, ruler of Ebla, was discovered with an Akkadian votive inscription to the goddess Ishtar, who shone in the city. The finds began revealing “a new language, a new history, a new culture.”
The discovery of cuneiform tablets containing the ancient name Tell Mardikh. In 1974-75 confirmed that Tell Mardikh was an ancient city. Excavations also revealed that the town had at least two lives: after an initial apogee, it was destroyed; then, after being rebuilt, it was destroyed again. And centuries-long oblivion fell upon it.
One city, many stories
The earliest cities arose in alluvial areas where intensive agriculture was possible, such as the Tigris and Euphrates. Mesopotamia had the first cities mentioned in the Bible. 10:10 (Genesis) The name “Ebla” apparently means “white rock” and refers to the limestone substratum on which the city stood. The location of Ebla chose the site because the limestone stratum guaranteed the presence of natural water reserves, which were critical in this remote area far from the main rivers.
The precipitation in the city region allowed for only extensive cereal farming, with the addition of vine and olive cultivation. The environment was ideal for animal husbandry, particularly pastoralism. The strategic location between the Mesopotamian plain and the Mediterranean coast favored timber, semiprecious stones, and metal trade. The city dominated a region of perhaps 200,000 people, with the capital housing one-tenth of them.
The ruins of a large palace, entered through a portal 12-15 meters high, demonstrate the grandeur of this early phase of city culture. The structure had grown over time to meet the growing demands of an increasingly effective administration. The employees were organized in a complicated hierarchy, with the king and consort flanked by “lords” and “elders.”
A strategically suitable location for trade
Ebla was a trading power, with agriculture far less critical than in the Mesopotamian states, where river irrigation allowed abundant harvests. Textiles were the most prized commodity that Ebla exported. It was a tradition that would last through the centuries, if, even during the Roman Empire. When the city had been gone for over a thousand years, Syrian merchants were celebrated for their cloth.
The city was situated at a crossroads of routes that, on the one hand, led to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Palestine, and Egypt. And on the other, to Central Asia, crossing the Euphrates at the most appropriate point to reach the Mediterranean coast and the passes of the Taurus mountain range. This sunny location determined Ebla’s economy’s mercantile character as a place to exchange and circulate the most diverse goods.
How was the religion at Ebla?
Ebla, like other Ancient East civilizations, had a plethora of deities. Among them were Baal, Adad (whose name appears in the names of some Syrian kings), and Dagan. (1 Kings 11:23, 15:18, and 17:16) All of these deities were feared by the Eblaites, who also revered the gods of other peoples. Archaeological evidence suggests that deified royal ancestors were also worshiped, particularly in the Ebla of the second millennium B.E.V.
The Eblaites did not rely solely on their gods to protect the city: the new Ebla boasted an impressive double wall that impressed any adversary. The three-kilometer-long perimeter of the outer walls is still clearly visible today.
Even the rebuilt Ebla, however, came to an end. The Hittites may have finally defeated what had been a great power around 1600 B.E.V. Ebla was “shattered like a pottery vessel,” according to an ancient poem. It quickly faded from history. A document written by crusaders marching to Jerusalem in 1098 mentions the site where Ebla once stood, referring to it as a lost outpost in the countryside and referring to it as Mardikh. Ebla had been forgotten and would not be discovered again for many centuries.
Ebla in the Bible
As revealed by the archives, the city’s cultural life in the mid-third millennium is closely related to Mesopotamian scribal traditions, both Sumerian and Semitic. Ebla is where Mesopotamian school texts and mythological poems are transmitted and copied. Among them is a poetic text known as the “song of the heroic deeds of the “first St. George.” It recounts the battle between the god Hadda, lord of the storm, and a seven-headed dragon. This motif reappears centuries later (13th century B.C.E.) at the coastal city of Ugarit in northern Syria, within mythological texts celebrating the victory of the god Baal (“the Lord”) over Yam, the sea, and later Mot, death.
In terms of religion, the city worshiped deities unknown elsewhere, the interpretation of which we are still determining, such as the essential gods Kura and Nidakul. In addition, we find Creators from Semitic religious systems (Dagan, Haddu, Ishtar, Rashad, Ishara, Kamish = Kamosh of the Bible, and others) and Anatolian religious systems.
What do we know about the fall of Ebla?
The city was destroyed in the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. We are still determining who conquered it, but the Hittite rulers’ wars in Syria at the time. Their kingdom was located in present-day central Turkey—which led to the destruction being attributed to them. Fragments of an epic poem commemorating the victory over Ebla were discovered in the archives of the Hittite capital, ancient Khattushash (present-day Boazköy). Although it was still inhabited, the city was never completely rebuilt. It remained a pale shadow of what it once was.
The goddess, Ishtar’s shrine, remained active as a religious and worship center. Still, aside from this last relic of the past, Ebla was reduced to a little village.