In 1964, a team of archaeologists from the University of Rome La Sapienza, led by Paolo Matthiae, began excavating at Tell Mardikh, a site located 55 kilometers southeast of Aleppo, Syria. Their goal was to demonstrate that Syria had hosted its own cultures in ancient times.

Over the years, the discoveries accumulated: ancient palaces, statues, fragments of wooden furniture with mother-of-pearl inlays, silver objects, Egyptian jewelry, and other artifacts. In 1968, the discovery of a statue of the goddess Ishtar allowed the identification of the site.

The sculpture had an inscription with the name Ibbit-Lim, king of Ebla. Indeed, the site was the ancient city of Ebla, known only until then through inscriptions found in the archives of Mari (discovered in 1933), which spoke of a city-state with that name.

But the greatest discovery was still to come in the following years. Meanwhile, the findings positioned Ebla as a significant commercial and power center from the third to the mid-second millennium BCE, comparable to Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Since its foundation in the early Bronze Age, around 3500 BCE, until its destruction by the Hittites around 1600 BCE, Ebla flourished, creating a vast trade network covering the entire northern and eastern regions of present-day Syria. Goods from Sumer, Cyprus, Egypt, and even the Middle East passed through it.

The city was controlled by merchants who elected a king from among themselves to oversee commercial activities and defense, handled by mercenaries, as well as the expansion of trade routes. The king, who was elective, was controlled by a council of elders, and his power was limited by that of the queen, who had effective influence in both state and religious affairs.

Ebla survived an initial destruction around 2250 BCE at the hands of the Akkadians, who burned the city and razed the palaces. It was abandoned but regained its splendor four centuries later, between 1850 and 1650 BCE, with Ibbit-Lim as its first king in this new period and the settlement of the Amorites, a Semitic people of nomadic origin.

The second and final destruction occurred between 1650 and 1600 BCE. This time, it was the Hittite king Mursili I (or perhaps Hattusili I), and Ebla never recovered, remaining deserted and forgotten until archaeologists began excavations more than 3,500 years later.

However, the fire of 2250 BCE precisely led to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history. In 1974, Paolo Matthiae’s team found in the so-called Palace G two small rooms facing a larger one with a raised platform. In these rooms, more than 20,000 clay tablets were discovered, many broken into multiple fragments, with cuneiform writing dating from 2300 to 2250 BCE.

The tablets were in the place where they fell when the wooden shelves supporting them burned. Some clay labels, used for orderly archiving on the shelves, were also found. The fire that destroyed the palace had baked the tablets, preserving them for posterity, and as they fell, they remained arranged on the floor as they were originally in the palace archive.

One room stored economic and bureaucratic records, while the other contained ritual and literary texts, many used in training new scribes. The problem was that the tablets were written in two languages, some in Sumerian (whose decipherment was completed by Arno Poebel in 1923) and others in an entirely unknown language but using Sumerian cuneiform as a phonetic representation.

These Sumerograms are cuneiform characters used to represent sounds in languages other than Sumerian, so those who wrote them did not necessarily have knowledge of the Sumerian language. It is the first example of known phonetic transcription (use of a system created for another language in representing sounds) and marks a key point in the history of writing.

Many tablets contained lists of bilingual words in both languages, allowing the decipherment of this unknown language by Giovanni Pettinato, the expedition’s chief epigraphist. He realized its Semitic origin but earlier than Ugaritic and Hebrew. He had discovered the Eblaite language, actually a lingua franca of merchants spoken in many other places in the area, not a language of daily use.

This, along with the position of the tablets when discovered, led to the conclusion that they had originally been organized on the shelves by themes, with corresponding labels. They were placed vertically and separated by fragments of baked clay. Additionally, the tablets show evidence of classification and cataloging to facilitate retrieval, as well as arrangement by shape, size, and content. Excavations in Mesopotamia have not found such advanced archival practices.

The information provided by the tablets revealed the city’s commercial importance. They reflect economic records and inventories of import and export trade relations. One of the most significant curiosities they report is the production of various types of beer, including one called Ebla, possibly the first known beer brand. They also contain lists of kings, ordinances, edicts, and diplomatic treaties with other cities, the oldest found to date.

One of these treaties is the Ebla-Abarsal, dated around 2350 BCE, established between the two cities (Abarsal has never been found) nearby. It delineates Ebla’s areas of influence, sets fines and penalties for non-compliance, and regulates the use of water, among other things.

Today, the tablets, which Robert Hetzron claims make up the largest known archive of the Bronze Age, are scattered across various museums in Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib. Most of them, along with their transliterations, are digitized in the Ebla Digital Archives, a project of the University Ca’Foscari of Venice available for online consultation.

However, there seems to have been some censorship by the Syrian government regarding the tablets, related to alleged connections found in the Ebla texts with the biblical framework of Genesis, which Pettinato claimed to have discovered: mentions of patriarchs, Yahweh, Sodom, and Gomorrah. After the controversy and academic conflict, Pettinato retracted his statements and, according to J.J.M. Roberts, was removed from the committee responsible for the publication of the texts.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 11, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo los arqueólogos descubrieron los primeros tratados diplomáticos, escritos en una lengua desconocida hasta entonces


Giovanni Pettinato, Ebla, una ciudad olvidada | Robert Hetzron, The Semitic Languages | Michael Dumper, Bruce E.Stanley eds., Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia | Ebla Digital Archives / J.J.M.Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East | Wikipedia

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