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Volume 29, Number 2March/April 1978

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City of the White Stones

"The greatest archeological discovery of the generation—perhaps of the century."

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

Until 1975 the golden age of Middle East archeology semned to be over. Between 1821 and 1928, Jean-François Champolion had unlocked the mystery of the Rosetta Stone; Howard Carter had found and opened King Tut's tomb; Paul-Emile Botta, Austin Layard, and Charles Leonard Woolley had electrified the West by unearthing the magnificent ruins of Sumer, Akkad, Nineveh, Nimrud, Ur and Babylon - and men like Major Rawlinson, George Grotefend and George Smith had cracked the ancient codes of the cuneiform tablets found amid the ancient rubble.

Other archeologists, to be sure, had been subsequently digging away in the almost innumerable tells and ruins of the Middle East. Kathleen Kenyon, for example, had made important finds at Jericho and Jerusalem while Geoffrey Bibby's excavations on Bahrain had linked the Arabian Gulf with the Euphrates. And in Saudi Arabia Dr. Abdullah Masry - now director of the Kingdom's Department of Antiquities - uncovered evidence showing that the 'Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia had ties with the cultures of what is now the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. But none of those discoveries, important as they are, quite compared with the announcement, in 1975, that a team of Italian archeologists had found Ebla, a name that may mean "city of the white stones."

Unlike the series of exciting, mid-19th century discoveries in Mesopotamia - where the first thrust of the spade seemed to disclose some precious artifact - the discovery of Ebla demanded 12 years of determined digging at Tell Mardikh, an archeological site 40 miles south of Aleppo in Syria. And in the first five years - 1063 to 1968 - the University of Rome archeologists found no indication of the identity of the site.

Tell Mardikh, obviously, had once been an extensive urban center, as both the size of the tell and the number of shards indicated. Arid, equally obviously, it had an extremely long history; pottery fragments from 3000 B.C. to the Hellenistic period - 325-50 B. C. - were found on and about the site. But until 1968 Giovanni Pettinato and Paolo Matthiae, the archeologists in charge of the dig, did not know what the site was, or even if, as they suspected, it filled a gap in the history of northern Syria.

Then, in 1968, they found a basalt votive statue with a 26-line Akkadian inscription. Because the name "Ebla" was mentioned twice in the inscription, Professor Pettinato postulated that Tell Mardikh, was identical to the ancient Ebla - a place mentioned obscurely in Akkadian and Assyrian records. Like many of the great archeological theories, it was daring assumption - but then, in 1975, his hypothesis was triumphantly vindicated: the team announced the discovery of more than 15,000 clay tablets in the Royal Palace of Ebla – and subsequently raised the total to more than16,500.

From those tablets the archeologists concluded that Ebla was a flourishing kingdom in the third millennium B.C. that was apparently a commercial and political rival to the powerful states of Mesopotamia. Ebla also seems to have traded with civilizations in Anatolia, Palestina and western Iran, made treaties with its neighbors, and conquered the powerful city-state of Mari in Mesopotamia.

Even more surprisingly - in the light of previous theories on ancient history - the Eblan tablets were written in a North-West Semitic language that is, a language related to Hebrew and Phoenician and one much older than any previously known Semitic language. The texts date from 2400 B.C.

To transcribe, translate and publish those texts will, of course, take many years, But it is already clear that the early history of the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Middle East will have to be carefully re-evaluated. For the discovery at Ebla, as Tor Eigeland wrote after a recent interview "was nothing less than an original cultural center of the ancient world, a lost empire complete with documentation."

—The Editors

The outside world has come to ancient Tell Mardikh, something that has not happened for a long, long time. Not for some 3,000 years.

The first invasion took place in 1963 when a team of Italian archeologists came to excavate the huge mound called Tell Mardikh and see if they could shed some light on the relatively unknown history of northern Syria in ancient times.

The second invasion began when the archeologists announced the discovery of some 15,000 cuneiform tablets, in a previously unknown language, that confirmed the existence of a state called Ebla. Archeologists and journalists, sensing the importance of the find, began to pour into Syria clamoring for interviews with one of the men in charge of the dig, and I, last fall, was one of them.

My interview was with Professor Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome, a handsome, sun-burned, intense young man, who gave generously of his time and knowledge and made it plain at the outset that the discoveries at Ebla were not made by chance. "The sensation of this discovery must not make one forget that it did not happen by chance, but after 14 years of scientific hard work. Sometimes one forgets this in the light of a sensational discovery."

Seated at a plain wooden table loaded down with papers and notes, surrounded by walls full of charts, maps and shelves of bits and pieces of broken pottery, Professor Paolo Matthiae also made it dear that his team's work since 1964 was based on a firm belief that there was something important hidden beneath Tell Mardikh. "From the first moment," he said, "we were sure of the great importance of the city - really, right from the beginning - because the site was very large -140 acres, with a diameter of 3,575 feet.

"From the beginning in 1964 till 1973, we worked on the later great phase of the flourishing of the city between 2000 and 1600 B.C. This is the age of the great Amorite dynasty, the age of Hammurabi of Babylon. From 1973 until now and surely for the next several years, we will work on the early great phase of the city: the third millennium, between roughly 2400 and 2250 B.C. The topography of the city is very dear, as you can see, with some great ramparts or fortifications at the exterior line, a very large lower city and a small citadel almost exactly in the center. This is the site for the public buildings, royal palaces and administrative buildings. The lower city had the entrance, with four great gates at four corners of the perimeter."

Professor Matthiae, speaking in careful, precise English, went on to say that his team had had to persevere for years without solid evidence. "We knew nearly nothing, but we became sure of the truly great importance in 1968 when we came to identify definitely the Tell Mardikh with Ebla. Before, it was thought that Ebla was somewhere in southern Turkey or elsewhere in northern Syria. In 1968 we found an inscribed statue, with a dedicatory inscription in Akkadian by Ibbit-Lim, son of the king of Ebla. Previously we knew only something very general about Ebla from royal inscriptions of the third millennium B.C. from Mesopotamia said that they had conquered Ebla about 2300 or 2250 B.C."

Even so, he said, it was not until 1974 that they were certain that they had made a spectacular find. "From 1974 on, it was possible to be sure that we had a really sensational discovery because before our excavation it was unimaginable to have archives from the third millennium in Syria. Only Mesopotamia was a great center of civilization and all scholars thought that in Syria, writing was not known until millennium. Nobody thought there was an important city with a great urban life here. But by 1974 it became clear that we had not only archives, but also a great palace and not only written documents but a whole great civilization within this royal palace. We had found tablets with cuneiform inscriptions before, but in 1975 we found a room - the room of the archives - full of tablets."

That, he added, was not an exaggeration. The room they had found contained Ebla's state archives: nearly 15,000 tablets, a total that was subsequently raised to more than 16,500. "Not all intact, of course, but a great many were. All the tablets were kept on wooden shelves verv similar to of Akkadia, and during this fire the shelves were destroyed and collapsed, leaving the clay tablets along the walls in the room."

And the tablets themselves contained surprises, Professor Matthiae went on: a hitherto unknown language. "The script of these tablets was the classical cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia. Surely this kind of script was borrowed from Mesopotamia, perhaps from the beginning of the third millennium. But the language was a local language. According to Professor Pettinato, our epigrapher, this is an ancient north-west Semitic dialect defined as Paleo-Canaanite, to indicate that it is completely different from Amorite which, until then, was believed to be the oldest of west Semitic languages. The name also implies that it has similarities to Phoenician and Hebrew. So we have a language unknown until now. Of course, with languages, and also with analogies to the Akkadian language, the great Semitic language of Mesopotamia."

Professor Matthiae stressed the importance of that fact. "This establishes Eblaite as a language, neither Phoenician nor Hebrew, which has now been documented as more than 1,000 years older than either-which makes it contemporary with the old Akkadian at the time of Sargon."

Translation of just a fraction of the wealth of material available has already thrown light on a number of things, he said. "We have found documents belonging to the administration for finance and trade indicating that textiles were an important state-controlled export industry. Many documents registered the taxes and tributes given to the dry. Others, but only a few tablets so far, concerned political affairs such as international treaties, the most important of which was the one between Ebla and Assyria.

"One of the most interesting historical texts was a letter sent by an Eblaite general to the King of Ebla regarding the success of a military campaign against a great city of the third millennium, the city of Mari. Mari was an independent state between Syria and northern Mesopotamia and now we know it was conquered twice by Ebla - about 2500 B.C. and again around 2250 B.C.

"Also very important are some tablets that we name 'lexicotexts' with lists of words in Sumerian, the language of Mesopotamia, and bilingual vocabularies in Sumerian and Eblaite - at times listing Sumerian pronunciations. It seems we have nearly 1,000 entries of words in Sumerian and Eblaite languages. They are really the most ancient vocabularies in the world. The Akkadians made some vocabularies, but several hundred years later, nearly at the time of Hammurabi of Babylon, close to 1800 B.C. when the Sumerian language was almost forgotten and no longer spoken. The Sumerian language by the age of Hammurabi had become only a ritual language for ceremonies of the temple - like Latin now".

Because of the victories mentioned in the text, he continued, it is clear that Ebla was an important power during those centuries. "Ebla was the center of a great political power and it surely dominated, directly, northern Syria, parts of Mesopotamia and part of lower Anatolia. We know too that the network of trade was very large, from eastern Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean coast and from Anatolia to Palestine."

As he talked, Professor Matthiae unearthed an article he had written detailing some of the other finds. They included, the article read, "friezes...with a series of standing figures, mythical and legendary. First there were group scenes of lions in an erect position, tearing goats apart. There were also remains of nude heroes piercing rampant lions with swords and of bull-men frontally engaged in battles with lions and bulls. In the second group there were soldiers girt with tight, short skirts and wearing heavy helmets on their heads, all stabbing one another with short swords. There were also other figures of wonderful delicacy and sober plasticity - notably the bust of a girl. This is a typically Syrian inspiration."

From that and other evidence, it is logical to assume that the position of women in Ebla was different from that in Mesopotamia, he said. "From such hints," Professor Matthiae said, "it is possible to consider that the woman's position was higher than in Mesopotamia and surely all the social life in Ebla was more open than in Mesopotamia. The palace, for instance is a completely open building, not like the dosed fortresses of Mesopotamia. And, unlike Mesopotamia, names of women of the royal household are mentioned."

On the other hand, he went on, there were probably many such differences in the various civilizations of Mesopotamia. "In modern times we are accustomed to consider the ancient Near East all a unitary world, from the beginning until the age of the Persian kings. This is a very mistaken consideration, of course, because in nearly 3,000 years, tremendously important developments took place. Also, the Sumerian man of the third millennium was surely very different from an Assyrian of the same millennium, not unlike the difference between a modern-day Roman and, say, a German. There were many important differences, but from our distant perspective we tend to consider all these worlds in a unitary way, which is a big mistake.

"Another thing," - Professor Matthiae shows a slight irritation here - "is that the international press has sometimes followed the lines of non-existing relations between Ebla and the Bible, thus forgetting the real importance of the discovery... But, as some important newspapers underlined clearly, the real importance is historical."

Warming to his subject, Professor Matthiae said that the tendency of many Westerners to see ancient times in the Middle East just as "Biblical times" can distort their historical importance. "If we consider the history of the ancient Near East in a non-religious perspective, we see that this was the seat of many really revolutionary developments in the history of mankind, for instance the neolithic revolution. This is the beginning of the social and economic organization of the life of the later ages. Above all, we see the same kind of life we are living now... This eastern urban life was the origin of our own western urban civilization. Now the Bible, of course, is an important account of these lands, but this is but one aspect of a more general conception of history, economy and social life of the ancient Near East."

Ebla's historical significance, he went on, is immense. "For the first time, we know a properly Syrian culture existed in the third millennium. And it was a great, highly sophisticated urban civilization. Furthermore, we have another important source of written documentation from Syria and the horizon of this new source is not only northern Syria; it includes all of the Near East in the third millennium. And the third millennium is the real beginning of the urban civilization for the whole world, as I have said.

"Also in a more detailed perspective we must change our view of this period. About 2300 B.C. Akkad was a world power, the only world power known in the Near East. Now we know that there were two world powers - Ebla in northern Syria and Akkad in southern Mesopotamia. We now know too that this was a period of struggle and tension between the two great powers, that about 2250 B.C. Ebla was destroyed by a great king of Akkad - Naram Sin. This great king says, in an inscription, that he destroyed Ebla and another city of northern Syria. Arman, which was perhaps the ancient name for Aleppo. It is typical that Naram Sin says that no one before him succeeded in destroying Ebla and Arman and that never since the creation of mankind had anyone conquered these cities. This is a very boastful speech, but surely he alluded to the great political power of Ebla.

"We now definitely have a beginning of a general innovation for our studies for all the ancient Near East because apart from the commercial and financial texts we have these lexicotexts, historical texts and literary texts; we now have the beginning of a real great revolution in our work and studies."

As Professor Matthiae brought his interview to a close he added still another important point - that the discovery is only at its beginning. The digging inside the great palace has just started and only a fraction of the over 16,500 tablets has been studied. Translation, indeed, is so vast a job that an international committee of 10 scholars in 10 different countries has been named to help get the job done. And the expectations are so high that Dr. Atif Bahnassi, the Syrian Director General of Antiquities, plans to publish the results of the explorations in a journal to be called EBLAICA. For archeology, it seems, another golden age is already underway.

This article appeared on pages 10-19 of the March/April 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1978 images.