c.3000 BC – c. 1600 BC
On from Elam, we stay in the Middle East for now, but head over to the other side of it and talk about Ebla, the city state in Western Syria that held sway over the surrounding countryside for about as long and perhaps, even longer, than Elam did in its older period. Shorter than Elam on the whole but then it was only a mere city and it did have those Akkadians to contend with. Who are coming up VERY shortly, I promise. Just their late starting date means that a lot of other surrounding powers get first pick at a history post. And my decision to include Ebla in this does, I know, cast some doubt on my decision to do Sumer as one, but you know that we’d just be doing those forever. Sumer was a collection of city-states mostly united in banding together in the local area. Ebla was a city-state in competition with and at times, conquering and subduing its local area.
It’s the first city state I’ve covered on ‘History Of A Nation’ and it certainly won’t be the last. I should say (and I’ll probably say this more often when I get to more modern times) that ‘nation’ as a descriptor in my series title (have been wondering if I should change it to ‘I See States’ as a play on my blog name, but I don’t think that clearly explains that history is the focus) is not supposed to mean any level of state, it is just the catchiest out of the available synonyms, nation, state, polity, civilisation that encompass all kinds of these constructs. My policy is and will always be as I go forward to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and I will explain my reason for including any on the cusp, it may be that it’s an interesting tribe I want to talk about or it may never have been recognised, doesn’t matter, if it’s interesting, I will talk about it. However that does mean I will skip over smaller city-states with little to talk about, including them by name in articles like these. For Ebla, it’s here because for millennia it was a locally dominant independent city with good control over its surroundings, it is quite well in the ballpark of a nation even for a city state.
You’ll immediately notice from the map that this is one of the busiest maps I’ve done yet, accurate to roughly 2500 BC, and I’ve done that to give a rough idea (borders being meaningless at this stage of course) of the political situation that Ebla was in, because the important thing about this ancient state is that it was in a continual rivalry with the neighbouring state of Mari and that shaped where it expanded. Right at the centre of the world at this point it had allies in the smaller city-state of Nagar between it and Mari, at least in the earlier period. It was a very successful trading kingdom, getting better at it as time went on and trading with all of the settlements around it, artifacts from Ancient Egypt, trade with neighbouring Byblos, an ancient city with many ties to Egypt, wealth on par with Sumer. And that seems natural. Look at its position, it’s right in the centre of the ancient world between the two most powerful civilisations of its time, it’s going to be a valuable conduit for trade and therefore, anyone who controls that area will be incredibly rich.
While it was just a city state, why it had so much power over the neighbouring regions is that it exerted a hegemony over all of the neighbouring cities, as many as sixty of them with their own minor kings, such that they were vassals and inferior to Ebla at the centre, although it appears that the King of Ebla owned a large amount of land in this area for himself. This stretched at the greatest extent from the western Syrian coast, to Damascus in the south and to Haddu in the east, such that it covers a very similar region to modern Syria, minus the eastern part which is covered by its ally Nagar. However I think I’m safe in saying that Ebla was a far more successful political force than that poor modern state, of all of the political forces in this area in the third millennium BC it appears to have held out against expansionist forces from the east the best.
Ebla is quite old, possibly being inhabited as early as 3500 BC, but the reason I’ve put it now is that we estimate its royal palace was constructed around about 2700 BC, which puts it on a par with Elam that it establishes an effective kingdom. We only start getting written records, written in the traditional cuneiform script , but exhibiting a language that’s arguably quite near to proto-Canaanite, making this the closest nation I’ll do to actually doing something about the Canaanites, who never organised themselves into a centralised state. Unless I make an exception to my ‘no tribes’ rule because of the interesting biblical stuff available on them, I’ll get back to you on that. Anyway, that went off on a tangent. Start again. We only get written records, written in the cuneiform script that is sort of like Canaanite, around about 2300 BC, before that, we have to rely on excavations to find out things like that. There is a wealth of stuff available in the dry Syrian climate, most of it not available to researchers right now, sadly, but numerous sources to draw upon archaeologically. At around this time there is a ‘first destruction’ and a gap in the record where the palace was burned, potentially by invading Akkadians (Sargon of Akkad, a guy we will get to soon, claims to have destroyed it but we aren’t sure on that claim), or Mariotes, or just a natural catastrophe. Either way, a new kingdom quickly rises and continues with a connection to the older kingdom. And then, because everything in the ancient world has to work in threes, that then is destroyed by either fire or a Hurrian invasion around 2000 BC. The third kingdom continues on for four hundred years, with much reduced power until it was destroyed by the Hittites in 1600 BC. Syria may be rich but one thing that hasn’t changed from then to now is that it’s never safe from would-be conquerors. Ebla never recovered from that as an independent kingdom and the city declines into history, the excavation site now called Tell Mardikh.
We do (thankfully) know the names of some of the Eblaite kings. We know this wasn’t an absolute monarchy, there was a grand vizier and council of sorts, and the queen seemed to have nearly as much power as the king, despite him still being the figurehead. And of course there were all the vassals competing for power. We know the names of the kings because, like Egypt, the Eblaites practiced posthumous monarch worship, and we have tablets listing their names, more on that soon. The first king is listed as Sakume, but we know nothing about the early ones aside from their names, so have a few more, Namanu, Sagisu, Talda-Lim, Aber-Lim, Enar-Damu, Kun-Damu. That should fill a good line or two. Later on, during the reign of Irkab-Damu and his successor Isar-Damu, we get the rise of a vizier called Ibrium, who started or was at least part of a line of viziers parallel with the royal family. Ibrium seemed to personally wage some wars against smaller city-state kingdoms in the area, including Armi (possibly modern-day Aleppo), that was one of the more powerful vassals that Ebla had under its control. Isar-Damu himself was the monarch to lock down an alliance with Nagar. He was also considered to be the first kingdom’s last monarch. We have no monarch names for the second kingdom so it’s possible that they abandoned the practice of monarch worship or just didn’t write them down. In the third kingdom we have a few names, including Immeya, who we know shared some correspondence with Egypt at the time, but as the power was declining, they weren’t as important people. My apologies to their immortal souls.
On that note, let’s turn to religion. Ebla shares some similarities in that area with many Canaanite deities, Dagon, a fertility god and the chief Eblaite god, Ishara, goddess of the royal family, and Hadad, god of storms and rain are among some of the polytheistic deities they worshipped. There have been connections made between Ebla and the early Bible but none have been proven and the whole connection caused a bout of controversy leading to what seems to be a firm push for Ebla to be studied as a civilisation in its own right. Which it certainly is. And we know this because of its famous tablets, that are the main reason it’s known at all.
These tablets, found untouched for millennia in the old palace archives in the 1970s, include some of the first known references to Lebanon and Canaan, the king lists, the trade empire, virtually all the information I have given you so far, and have become a key source on the early Middle East. That’s partly why they triggered controversy, so close to Biblical lands in that time period led to a push to try and find some evidence that early Genesis texts could be proven historically. That has since been abandoned.
What the tablets do tell us about Eblaite culture, is that they were a centre of learning, there are numerous copybooks among the tablets, they give lists of festivals, hymns, rituals, proverbs for clues on how the Eblaites ran their daily lives.There were even found guides for translating Sumerian into Eblaite, very helpful for paleo-linguists, I can imagine. And, there were found economic records indicating that Ebla was, among other things, a place where beer was brewed, including a brand named after its home city. First mention of alcohol I’ve found in this project, although I’m sure it wasn’t the first overall. But still, that’s a milestone. Up the Eblaites.
Women seemed to be remarkably equal in Ebla as well, they had equal pay (insert something relating to modern wage gap here), they could ascend to all sorts of positions as well. Perhaps it’s just a rose-tinted interpretation that I’m getting from the esteemed archaeologists who have deciphered all this but Ebla (in times away from its destruction) seems to be yet another ancient kingdom that would have been a great place to live. There was probably even only a minor bit of human sacrifice!
Anyway, next time, we’re not going far, we’re going to Nagar, and then, finally, we get to the Akkadians. Mari for after the Akkadians, it’s not strictly in order but I want to break up this trio a little)