The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          

 


Syria

Ebla

              

 

The ruins of an ancient city called Ebla (modern Tel Mardikh) -- whose lavish and richly productive culture, c. 2250 B.C., was amply documented in the Mari archives, and referred to as well in nearly every relevant library, inscription and archive from Carchemish to Qatna -- are strewn across the rolling green landscape of western Syria, some 55 kilometers south of Aleppo and just three kilometers east of the Aleppo-Damascus highway, in the jurisdiction of Idlib, 26 kilometers to the northwest.

Historical Ebla is mentioned specifically as a center of far-reaching political and military impact, as well as commercial influence, in Akkadian texts c. 2300 B.C., inscriptions from Alalakh (Tell Atchanah) in the Amuq plain, c. 1750 B.C., and from Emar (Meskeneh), c. 1400 B.C. References appear as well in the annals of Thutmose III as described on the walls of Karnak, and Hittite texts from Anatolia. Its precise whereabouts, however, was still a mystery, until the eventual soundings across sixty hectares, at a selected location on Tell Mardikh, revealed the ruins of the public buildings, perimeter walls, palaces and temples of the archaeological Ebla, "White Rock", referring to the natural limestone hill which ultimately evolved into the acropolis of a political and economic power stretching from the Taurus mountains to the north, the Euphrates to the east, and Hama to the south.

According to the findings, beginning in 1964, of the Italian archaeological mission from the Rome university of "La Sapienza", under the direction of Paolo Matthiae, Ebla reached its peak during the mid-Third Millennium as the capital of a mighty kingdom, with rich trade connections across the region, as documented in an astonishing cache of 8000 clay tablets unearthed between 1974 and 1976.

The Ebla tablets, written in a Semitic language now defined as Eblaite, were sufficiently detailed and convincing to have led to the revision of every prior assumption regarding Third Millennium urban structure, Amorite expansion of the period, and Ebla's role, not only as an independent kingdom but as a key player among the dominant regional hegemonies, particularly as an ally of the nearby kingdom of Yamkhad, with its capital in Aleppo.

Texts from Emar, says Amelie Kuhrt, along with the virtually contemporary material from Ugarit, texts from Alalakh IV and VII, and the vast archives from Mari, combined with the evidence from Ebla's own archives, provide "an extraordinarily vital picture of a cosmopolitan and distinctive regional Syrian culture", based on independent city-states whose destinies were interwoven as a result of their commercial and political alliances, as well as their inevitable rivalries. "They were frequently dominated by the larger empires to the north, east and south, but they nevertheless preserved their individual cultural identity, which has only begun to be understood more fully over the last half of the twentieth century."

Ebla, one of the most interesting and far-reaching among them all, has yielded invaluable archaeological material, including palaces, library, temples, a strongly fortified city-wall, and subterranean tombs analogous to those found slightly later in Ugarit, all of which indicate the city's ascendance, collapse and revival as an important urban center.

The Italians were initially attracted to Ebla because of indications of Early and Middle Bronze Age occupation, yet excavations revealed even earlier habitation, dating from the site of a late Fourth Millennium village, followed by an early proto-Syrian settlement, containing substantial remains of a singular pottery type known as khirbet kerak.

The "lower town" occupies nearly 45 hectares. It was enclosed by a high, fortified wall, in effect a gigantic rampart of earth and stone, penetrated by four gateways, presumably the accesses to the four quarters of the Bronze Age city, with its population numbering in the tens of thousands. One of these gateways, still on view, is lined with blocks of black and white stone, corresponding to the Middle Bronze Age (level IIIA).

In the center of the enclosure is the tel, or acropolis, crowned by the remains of palaces and administrative structures indicated, among other relics, by Bronze Age basalt basins, their frontal panels, or orthostats, exquisitely carved in relief in varying styles - with influence from Cappadocia to Carchemish to the Euphrates-and a turreted temple. The inscribed fragment of a votive statue, unearthed in this temple during the 1968 archaeological season, bears a cuneiform dedication to Ishtar, with a commemorative text attributed to the Amorite monarch Ibbit-Lim. Sources are divided as to whether he was a king of Ebla or of Mari. It may be reasonable to assume he was king of Mari at a time of Amorite domination of Ebla, thus placing it under Mari's jurisdiction. In any case, the inscription, corresponding to the Middle Bronze Level I period (contemporary with the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2000 B.C.), allowed the site of Tell Mardikh to be identified with Ebla.

Excavations in the area of the Ishtar temple revealed a courtyard and two walls that had presumably formed part of a brick palace dating from the Early Bronze Age (Period IIB1, c. 2400-2300 B.C.) A low dais, possibly part of a throne, occupies a space to one side of the entranceway to the courtyard. Adjacent stairs were decorated with mosaics on wooden panels that are now exhibited in the on-site museum a short distance from the excavations.

At right angles to the throne a wider flight of graceful and well-proportioned stone steps rose very gently to an upper level of construction, now vanished. Projecting into the courtyard was the small room where the clay tablets were stored. The palace had been thoroughly and maliciously torched, but the fire, instead of contributing to the deterioration of the mud-brick tablets, served to preserve them, hard as rocks and for all practical purposes, indestructible.

Over two thousand documents were recovered from this one deposit. The tablets had been imprinted by local scribes employing the regional version of the cuneiform tradition. Translations have revealed a variety of letters, treaties, administrative documents dealing with taxes -- usually associated with textiles or metals -- lists of supplies for the royal family, procedures for visitors, rather pragmatic ritual texts, instructions relating to incantations or magical spells without any special theological or mystical obsession, and political chronology. Ebla's most powerful king was listed as Ebrium, or Ibrium, who concluded the so-called "Treaty with Ashur", which offered the Assyrian king Tudia the use of trading post officially controlled by Ebla.

The fifth and last king of Ebla during this period was Ebrium's son, Ibbi-Sipish, the first to succeed in a dynastic line, thus breaking with the established Eblaite custom of electing its ruler for a fixed term of office, lasting seven years. This absolutism may have contributed to the unrest that was ultimately instrumental in the city's decline. Meantime, however, the reign of Ibbi-Sipish was considered a time of inordinate prosperity, in part because the king was given to frequent travel abroad. It was recorded both in Ebla and Aleppo that he concluded specific treaties with neighboring Armi, as Aleppo was called at the time.

The Third Millennium archives offer nothing in the way of literature, as such. They do, however, offer a microcosmic view of an industrious, energetic, well-ordered style of living in a prosperous kingdom, with control over the sources of timber in the mountains to the west; and particularly occupied with the raising of sheep and the producing of woolen textiles. The textiles of Ebla are in fact mentioned in documents from as far away as the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.

Two palace complexes, jointly referred to as "Palace G" - including the so-called "Ceremonial Wing", the "Administrative Wing", the "Residential Wing", and the royal archives -- occupy the area around the base of the tel. Since Ebla was destroyed on two occasions the structures may have been contemporary but more likely they were superimposed. The earlier destruction is generally attributed to Sargon of Akkad, who claimed that Dagan had "given him" Ebla and Mari, among other key sites in the region. On the other hand, it was his grandson, Naram-Sin, who claimed the god Nergal had given him Armanum (possibly Aleppo) and Ebla, "which no king had previously destroyed." Archaeology has nonetheless determined that the archaic palace was occupied in two phases, one in the Early Bronze IV and again in the Middle Bronze II, the second structure built over the ruins of the prior construction, which thus determined its shape, as well as the distribution of the rooms. These included a room filled with appliances for the grinding of grains. Archaeologists have referred to the grain as "corn", which could only have been the case in the event of an exchange with Mesoamerica, feasible, not unlikely, but to date not fully documented.

Objects unearthed in the palace ruins suggested constant contact with Babylonia, or with the styles in vogue there. Decorative items or objects of personal adornment had been confected of gold, lapis lazuli and ivory, while cylinder seals portray variations on Babylonian motifs. Among the most important pieces are the diminutive statuette of a kneeling, human-headed bull, its wooden body covered with gold leaf and the dressed Assyrian style beard of steatite; but limestone figures representing soldiers or priests, deities and deified animals were also found, in an aesthetic similar to the Sumerian style patent in Mari but confected not of crystallized gypsum, as along the Euphrates, but rather of various combinations of steatite, lapis lazuli, white limestone and gold. Especially remarkable is the stylized leopard standing perfectly erect on its hind legs. And really amazing is the rustic abstraction of an anthropomorphic Euphrates ox, with his stylized, almost infantile, beard. Curiously however, the fragments of carved wooden furniture had been inlaid with mother-of-pearl or stone, sometimes gold-plated, in a style more commonly associated with Egypt.

A group of royal tombs was discovered by sheer accident, to one side of the palace complex. The collapse of a roof revealed the rich contents in the chambers below. Pieces discovered inside the "Tomb of the Lord of the Goats", for example, included an Egyptian mace handle in silver, gold and alabaster, bearing the name of a Thirteenth Dynasty pharaoh -- Hetepibre Harnejheryotef, who reigned between 1775 and 1765 B.C. -- as well as lovely gold jewelry in styles associated both with Babylonia and the Levant, and ivory carvings in the Egyptian fashion of the time. These may have been gifts of state from the various rulers across the region.

Ebla was again sacked by the advance of the Hittite armies, under Murshili I or Hattusili I, c. 1600 B.C., bound for their conquest of Amorite Babylonia. Corresponding to this period are the Western Palace (Palace Q, called "The Palace of the Crown Prince") with the royal necropolis, as well as the Northern Palace ("Palace P"), Palace E, and various temples - dedicated to Shamash, the Sun God; to Hadad, God of Storms, Rain and Fertility of the Earth; to Reshef, God of the Underworld; and to the Royal Ancestors, as well as a newer version of a temple to Ishtar -- among other constructions. Yet despite the rampant destruction, Ebla continued to thrive well into the Middle Bronze Age.

The Italian team also found subsequent settlement strata, including traces of occupation during the Aramean period, 720-535 B.C., the Persian period that followed, and into the Hellenistic period until about 200 B.C. Roman remains, however, are practically nonexistent, and Byzantine habitation is confined to the discovery of a small Christian hermitage at the foot of the acropolis, dating from the seventh century A.D. After that, it would appear, Ebla was abandoned and forgotten.

Ebla's importance, however, and its impact on the archaeological assessment of a long period of cultural history over a wide geographical area, can never be overestimated. The beauty of the site, furthermore, and its rich aesthetic, make its ruins as attractive as are its artistic treasures, on display in the on-site museum, as well as in the museums of Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus.

 
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