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By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Ebla (originally tel Mardeep) was an ancient city in modern Tell Mardikh (65 km south of Aleppo in Syria) whose destruction in ~2250 BC by a Mesopotamian king preserved an archive in Eblaite, a Semitic cuneiform found only in Ebla (after this destruction, Ebla was immediately rebuilt).

When Ebla was at its peak and keeping these archives, its capital city spanned 56 ha and sustained 15,000-20,000 people. Ebla's hegemony extended southward toward modern Hama and eastward toward the Euphrates. Ebla traded with (but was depended upon by) Mediterranean port cities to the west and Anatolia to the southeast (north of Carchemish/Karkamish).

Ebla also dominated a pocket of cities between the Euphrates and the Balikh rivers, on the Carchemish-Harran axis.

Ebla entered a prolonged war with Assyria over control in this region, culminating in Ebla being set ablaze (likely by Sargon of Akkad, a city in north central Mesopotamia). Within a few centuries, Ebla had rebuilt and, according to documents, flourished again. However, the Hittite king Murshili I dealt the city its final destruction and it never regained its political power.

Although Ebla remained only a small village, it was a frequent setting of myths and poetry and retained its style of names and unique Eblaite language.

EB I and IIInitial EB I and EB II occupations at Tell Mardikh are poorly documented. An absence of Uruk pottery (found elsewhere in Syria) at Tell Mardikh negates a southern Mesopotamian influx in such an early period.
EB III and IIIAmidst a steady shift toward urbanization was an EB IVA1 predecessive stage, epitomized by a multi-level food processing facility just north of the Ceremonial Staircase. The shoddy EB III building G2 was replaced by storerooms and workshops for a new palace. The completed palace (Mardikh IIB1) reflected the city's growth, with two entire rooms allocated for archives (indicating a meatier administration and accounting system). Service sectors were set in the EB II settlement while ceremonial quarters were located the periphery on the western slope of the tell.

The urban development of Mardikh IIB1 and other calciform sites started later than sites of the upper Khabur, although the economies (dry farming, extensive animal rearing) were analogous. This is because the urbanization was endogenous. The Early Dynastic period brought the Mesopotamian frontier, forcing many city-states, such as Ebla, to strive to appear like an independent political power. However, Ebla's rain-dependent agriculture had low yields. Ebla compensated by forming a capital city with an administrative network borrowed from Mesopotamia, including writing and accounting.

Once urbanization initiated at Ebla, it increased rapidly: writing in Ebla cannot antedates the brief proto-urbanism of EB IVA1, allowing only 200 years for Sumerian literary and school tradition to be assimilated by Ebla scribes and for cuneiform to be adapted for Eblaite. Ebla's ensuing hegemony over autonomous minor urban centers forced the tribes (ábba.ábba) and leading families (lugal.lugal) to cede to Ebla as their conduit for grazing rights and circulation of goods. Royal Palace G, atop an acropolis at Tell Mardikh, vividly manifested the shift from proto-urban EB III structures to a 56 hectare EB IVA (~2,400-2,200 BC) urban center.

Ebla's Social Hierarchy and Political Organization

Sheep rearing (and other animal husbandry), textile production and metalwork drove Ebla's economy. The king owned multiple herds -- some as large as 67,000 head -- and the state owned ~700,000 head. These flocks roamed the hill country to the north and south, outside of Ebla's limits. Ebla's productivity and quality of wool was unmatched until Ur focused intensely on wool during it's Third Dynasty late in the 3rd millennium BC. Ebla's palace ran the textile workshops, which were managed by women of the king and employed women; this is evidenced by food ration archives.

Textiles were used for export and tribute, though Ebla lacked long-distance ventures and most receipts pertain to taxes and redistributions. Ebla's metalwork was mostly jewelry and pure or alloy metal containers made by government standards for hoarding. Their distribution has only been documented in dowries, temple donations and gifts and taxes paid by government officials. However, Ebla certainly had access to large amounts of gold and silver; this is evidenced by the combined 63 kg of gold and over 1,000 kg of silver that it paid as tribute to the Mari kings Iblul-Il, NI-zi and Enna-Dagan.

The kingship had a low profile, and kings were oft mentioned just by their title; en and lugal referred, respectively, to the king and high-ranking officials (the reverse of Mesopotamian usage). There was no royal inscription genre to boast of the kingdom and proclaim the king as directly linked to the gods. There were only sporadic year names whereby a king would name an entire year after the prior year's main achievement or a notable official.

The royal household (sa.zaxki) included extended family, the court, elders (ábba.ábba) and at least fifty gangs of workmen (women were separate). In a radical departure from Mesopotamia there was a generic term ugula for the overseer of any workers belonging to Ebla, from masons to laborers. Workers were organized into gangs (guruš of men; dam of women) each containing ~20 people who relied on their ugula for food rations. Records of palace food rations detail administrative sectors and their location in the city.

The king's mother ( en) and primary wife (maliktum) enjoyed an autonomy that continued through Canaanite and Hebrew societies, and could access and manage palace goods. The royal harem included women of the king (dam en) who lived in a separate building and had a plastic hierarchy based on the king's affections. Ebla princesses inherited this hierarchy (with maliktum daughters at the top), and a princess' rank helped choose the foreign leader she would marry.

At Ebla the palace was responsible for the city's economic organization. The palace managed its own farms, scattered mostly across northeast Ebla, to grow barley, wheat, grapes and olives. It is unclear how much land the palace owned due to the muddle of hundreds of urban villages in the region, although there are records of land gifts where entire villages (uru.uru) were transferred or given in inheritance. There are no mentions of land (ie, for farming) managed by temples nor labor that depended on temples, although temples may have kept archives for other purposes. This contrasts the Mesopotamian temple institution but anticipates a typical Syro-Palestinian temple in later times.

Temples carried out sacrifies and disbursed the sacrificial meat, but the palace accounted for animals as either suitable for sacrifice in central tamples (inside) or suitable for peripheral sanctuaries (outside). Also, state and private agreements, including division of an inheritance or donation of real estate, were confirmed by taking an oath before Kura in his temple (shared by Barama, a goddess attached to his cult). Interestingly, Ebla's deities have ethnically diverse name: Dagan, Ishtar and Hadda/'Ada are Semitic; Ishkhara and Ashtapi are Hurrian; and Nidakul and Kura are unidentified.

Palace G

Built amidst the shift at Ebla from EB III proto-urbanism to a large EB IVA 56 hectare urban center, Palace G was contemporaneous with the rise of Mesopotamian city-states' power.

Due to its key position at the Mesopotamian frontier, right between the Mediterranean and the big bend of the Euphrates, Ebla connected the west and Sumer.With the hyper-urbanization in Mesopotamia during the Early Dynastic, Ebla also began to urbanize and grew to be a local hegemon; it was established as part of the network including Ur/Uruk, Kish and Mari. In the context of this growth and urbanization, and Mesopotamian influence, construction of Palace G began and its famous archives were born.

Ebla Archives

Along with the inscriptions at Lagash which detail the Lagash-Umma border conflict, the archives at Palace G at Ebla form one of the brightest lights illuminating the Early Dynastic era.

They were within a shelved room with an adjacent vestibule, containing ~2,100 tablets spanning topics relevant to an administration that was growing rapidly and had specialized in: textiles and metalwork; tax deliveries; temple offerings; letters; state reports; and scribal exercises. The palace archives were homogeneous documents on daily and monthly expenditures of grain to sustain the palace's inhabitants; these records were kept on file no more than three years, and were periodically destroyed to make room for new ones.

Ebla scribes adopted Sumerian book-keeping techniques and terms.

However, Ebla scribes sometimes also misused Mesopotamian nomenclature for certain texts. It seems that the archival system and bureaucratic organization were less sophisticated at Ebla than in contemporaneous Mesopotamian cities, and indeed less specialized. Yet Ebla scribes did develop an accounting tradition that discarded Mesopotamian number notations in favor of one that incorporated Sumerian and was more friendly to the Semitic tongue of an Eblaite.


Milano, Lucio. 1995. Ebla: A Third-Millennium City-State in Ancient Syria. In Jack M. Sasson (ed.) Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol II. Simon & Schuster, 1219-1230.