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New Discoveries ...  KRONOS   Fall 1976

Ebla Excavation

The recent archeological discovery of the ancient Canaanite city of Ebla has attracted a certain amount of attention ever since it was first announced here last June in a fifteen-page memorandum issued by Professor David Noel Freedman of the University of Michigan (editor of the Anchor Bible).

The importance of this discovery, coupled with the rather sensational accounts which have appeared in the press, has prompted the editors of KRONOS to gather as much accurate information for its readers as possible.  At present the basic facts of the discovery are the following:

1)   The site discovered is that of the ruins of the city of Ebla located in a mound called Tell-Mardikh some thirty miles south of Aleppo, Syria.  Here excavations are being conducted by a team of Italian archeologists of the University of Rome headed by Dr. Paolo Matthiae, 36, Professor of Archeology and of the history of the Ancient Near East, and Dr. Giovanni Pettinato, 41, a language expert and Professor of Assyriology.  The team is working under the direction of Afif Bahnassi, Director General of Syrian Antiquities.

2)   The initial excavations began in 1964 and the chief find, made in September 1975, consists of some 15,000 clay tablets found thirteen feet below ground level in two rooms off the courtyard of a palace of which only a small part has been excavated.  The tablets, largely undamaged, have since been packed into a hundred boxes and are presently stored in the Museum of Aleppo.

3)   The texts of the tablets are inscribed in a mixture of cuneiform logograms and syllabic units and are written in the earliest known Semitic language yet found.  This language is related to Hebrew and has been designated as Eblaite (or Eblaic) by archaeologists.  The texts are said to cover the period 2400-2250 B.C., the criteria being supposed Akkadian accounts of the destruction of the city of Ebla by King Naram-Sin.

4)   Eighty percent of the tablets consist of economic and commercial transactions.  The rest consist of treaties (e.g., between Ebla and the king of Emar, the latter of whom married the daughter of the Eblan king), military reports (e.g., of a campaign against the king of Mari), religious texts (incantations, spells, descriptions of rites and sacrifices), and stories of the Creation and the Flood.  One tablet contains a thousand-word Eblaic-Sumerian glossary which indicates how the Sumerian words are pronounced.  Other tablets contain such Semitic names as Ab-ra-um (Abraham), E-sa-um (Esau), Sa-ul-um (Saul), Da-iv-dum (David), Mi-ka-ilu (Michael), Ib-rum (Eber), and Is-ra-iu (Israel).  Eblaite and Sumerian were apparently taught together in the Eblan schools, the latter as a learned language.

It is important to note that these tablets do not represent the Royal Archives of Ebla, per se, but are rather a miscellaneous collection of material stored away in two rooms of the palace.  If found intact, the Royal Archives could greatly exceed the tablets already found, both in number and importance.

5)   The so-called Empire of Ebla was a Canaanite political formation and it would appear from the texts that it was a third hitherto unsuspected, major power in the Middle East, competing with Egypt and Akkad for control of the many lesser states of Palestine and Syria at the end of the third millennium B. C.

6)   The tablets indicate that there reigned at Ebla a dynasty of six kings, the most important of whom was Ebruum or Ibrium, who may possibly be the Eber of the Old Testament (Genesis 11: 14).  The king of Ebla was assisted by two ministers and a Council of Elders.  The queen appears to have played a prominent role in Eblan affairs being listed second after the king.  The Crown Prince of the realm received extensive training for rulership beginning as an ambassador to a small city, then to a larger one, then as governor of a large territory, then as king of a tributary state.  Once sufficiently trained, he returned and gradually took over control of the administration.

7)   Ebla imported—besides wine—gold, silver, bronze and copper and apparently processed these metals and then exported them to the other parts of the Middle East.  Ebla also exported metals, textiles, marble, and timber to Hazor, Megiddo, Gaza, A La Siya (Alasiya, i.e. Cyprus), and to a city called Urusalima, which can only be Jerusalem.  Commercial and military texts mention the names of some 100-150 cities with which Ebla had relations.

8)   Ebla, which had a population of some 260,000, appears to have been destroyed during an invasion by King Naram-Sin of Akkad supposedly in 2250 B.C. (though it should be noted that there was more than one King Naram-Sin so that this date may possibly be subject to revision).

9)   The discovery of the Ebla tablets is on a par with the discovery of the Ras-Shamra tablets at Ugarit by Claude Schaeffer in 1929 and of the Mari tablets by Andre Parrot in 1933.  While it will take years before the entire collection of tablets is translated and edited, it is already clear that they should shed considerable light upon the origin of the Hebrews whose culture appears to have had more in common with that of Ebla than it did with those of Egypt or Mesopotamia.  Dr. Matthiae calls the finds at Tell-Mardikh "a sensational discovery" and describes Eblan civilization as the background for that which produced the Old Testament, i.e., that it reflects the conditions which existed in Syria and Palestine when the Hebrews first arrived upon the scene.

10) The implications of the Ebla find for Velikovskian studies are less obvious at present but if it is possible to use them, like the Amarna correspondence, as a means of synchronizing the rulers and states of the period, then the discovery of chronological discrepancies and other anachronisms between the data on the tablets and the known "facts" of the history of the period may well shake further the already fragile structure of the traditional chronology.

Prof.  Matthiae and Prof.  Pettinato visited the United States in October and November of 1976.  There, they addressed archaeologists and historians in St. Louis and later at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the Universities of Michigan and Chicago. - R. H. Hewsen

Some 30 years later we now know that an archive of about 20,000 cuneiform tablets have been found there, dating to around 2350 BC. Written in both Sumerian and Eblaite and using the cuneiform, the archive has allowed a significantly better understanding of the Sumerian language.

Apparently, the kingdom of Ebla was one of if not the first documented world powers, rivaling those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its discovery came a s somewhat of a shock to the archaeological world.

Because many ancient Hebrew words have limited or singular usage in the Old Testament, and their definition has been unknown or uncertain, the Eblaite language has also revealed the meaning of many Biblical words which up until now wer translated with just a guess. Some have suggested that when the Ebalite tablets and words are fully translated and the impact fully assayed, a fair amount of the Old Testament should be retranslated.

The content of the tablets has also had an impact on ancient Canaanite chronology and dating of ancient literature, sometimes making a case for moving the date back some 1500 years. Of course, BC chronology is a tangled mess worse than AD/CE chronology. An example of the confusion is that scholars wanting to use Ugaritic texts to shed light on problematic parts of the Old Testament were cautious because the Ugaritic material was so much older. Now, because of Ebla, some are joking that the Ugaritic texts may be too recent.


THE BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW, II, 3 (Sept 1976), pp. 36-37; Science News, 8/21/76, pp. 117-118.  For what we already know of "Ibla", Cf. CAH (3rd ed.) 1, pt 2, pp. 322-7 passim.


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