The Stones of Ebla

by Habeeb Salloum

EBLA, Syria -- The sun's rays were barely visible on the horizon as we set out from Aleppo for Tell Mardikh (Tall Mardikh) where the ruins of the city-state of Ebla are located. The excellent four-lane highway was bordered on both sides by flourishing trees where, a few years previously, there had been only a bare landscape. The green fields whose rich red soil has been toiled for centuries, stretched as far as the eye could see. A short distance after passing the town of Saraqab, we were in Tell Mardikh, 64 km (40 mi) south of Aleppo.

It was a farmer while ploughing his field who first discovered Ebla. His discovery - a water basin for purification and decorated with bearded men on one side and fierce lions on the other dated back to 1900-1850 B.C. However, the official name of the location was not known at the time. In 1964, when the University of Rome archaeologists led by Professor Paolo Mathiae began excavation work no one could have imagined the importance of Tell Mardikh.

It was in 1968 that the identity of the city-state unfolded due to the discovery of a basalt statue of a man with the head and part of one of the shoulders missing. Upon the statue were inscribed Akkadian and Sumerian cuneiform writings, which were familiar to the archaeologists. The statue was offered by the king of Ebla, Ibbit Lim (a prince of) the son of Ajresh-Hiba, to the to the goddess Ishtar in Elba’s temple. It was the first evidence that identified Tell Mardikh with Ebla.

Considered to be the most important archaeological site discovered in the last century, the excavations unveiled several centuries of 3rd millennium history about which very little had previously been known. From among these excavations, there was revealed the existence of Eblaic, a hitherto unknown ancient Semitic language. The remains uncovered left no doubt that Ebla had been the centre of a proto-Syrian culture that emerged during the 3rd millennium B.C. in northern Syria.

One of the most prestigious archaeological discoveries in Syria, this ancient city, now only an imposing mound, was the cradle of a civilization older than that of Mari, Ugarit and the Nile Valley. Once a major commercial and political centre, it covers an area of some 56 ha (138 ac) with an acropolis of 3 ha (7.5 ac). In its days of glory, the city was circular and surrounded by a 20 to 30 meter thick wall, perforated by four gateways guarded by bastions.

Because of its strategic location on the passageway leading from the Euphrates region to the Mediterranean, it allowed its kings to prosper and extend their domination to large parts of Syria. The city flourished, with an estimated population of 30,000, between 2500 and 1600 B.C. until it was first destroyed by the Akkadian kings of Mespotamia in 2300 B.C., then finally by the Anatolian Hittite kings in 1600 B.C. However, a small town persisted long after its destruction. In 1450 B.C., an Egyptian recorded on a monument in Karnak that his armies marched through Ebla on their way to the Euphrates.

In 1975, Mathiae unearthed in its ruins a royal library with 17,000 clay tablet filled with new historical material in both the Eblaic and Sumerian languages. Archaeologists believe that these cuneiform tablets are older than those found in Mari and Ugarit. The tablets relate to children’s exercises, the first record of olives in history; aspects of the economy, administration of the city, commerce, marriages and political alliances; and recorded poems and religious hymns. They tell of the splendour of the Eblan civilization and enabled specialists to retrace its history. Today, most of the tablets, housed in the Aleppo Museum and National Museum in Damascus, are being slowly deciphered.

The tablets have established that Syria was at the very foundation of Middle Eastern civilizations. From the deciphering of these earliest written records in Syria it has been learned that Elba was at one time a prosperous city. For example, one of the tablets relates that the king of Elba owned a field of olive trees which covered 1,430 ha (3,532 ac). Another indicated that a system of weight units and measurements was introduced - a system that remained in use until the end of the Hellenistic Age.

The great prosperity, which Ebla reached in the 3rd millennium B.C. could not have happened suddenly. Other tablets reveal that Ebla was the capital of a large kingdom whose people were of Amorite descent and spoke Eblaic - a close relative to Arabic and the ancestor of Canaanite - the oldest Semitic language in western Syria, paralleling that of Akkadian in Mesopotamia. The name Ebla is the same as the Arabic ablaq (white), referring to the many white stones in the region.

To amateur archaeologists, it appears that the site has been barely touched. Only a tiny portion of the huge mound covering the ruins has been excavated. Four temples, dating back to 2000 - 1800 B.C., with rooms for worshipping, sacrifice altars and statues, have been unearthed. However, most of the excavation occurs around the Royal Palace site where a spacious audience assembly hall and burial chambers have been uncovered.

Large quantities of lapis lazuli originating from Afghanistan, Egyptian Pharaonic cups and alabaster vases were found in the palace's courtyard, indicating that Ebla was an important trading centre. These and finely engraved cylinder seals, female figurines holding their breasts, stone cisterns carved in bas-relief with banqueting scenes and military parades uncovered in the ruins are now displayed in the National Museum in Damascus.

Professor Paolo Mathiae works with 150 workers on the excavation and renovation of the site. According to Adnan our guide from Tell Mardikh, Mathiae is a great archaeologist and a modest man – one who has literally uncovered Syria’s history. “Mathiae is not interested in finding gold and jewels but is passionately concerned in proving that Ebla was once the oldest and largest empire in the Greater Syria area.”

After exploring the excavation site, we returned to Aleppo, then quickly made our way to visit the Ebla section in the Aleppo museum. It is said that if the Ebla section in the Aleppo Museum was the only tourist attraction in the city, it would be worthwhile for ones who are interested in history to travel to Aleppo, simply to examine the exhibited relics.

In the years to come there is little doubt that Ebla will become a visitor’s mecca. In the last week of October of 2002, Asma al-Assad, wife of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, opened a newly established park around the ancient city.


photos: Habeeb Salloum

Things To Know:

1. All foreigners entering Syria require a visa, which is best obtained from an embassy or consulate outside of Syria. Visas are valid for 15 days, but can be extended once inside the country.

2. Convert money only in banks - some located in hotels. New exchange rates have eliminated the once thriving black market. Currently $1. U.S. equals about 54 Syrian liras in banks.

3. Syria is safe for travellers despite some negative publicity from western media. Even women travelling alone find few problems.

4. City transportation in Aleppo is efficient - taxis are metered and dirt-cheap.

5. For foreigners, all hotel bills must be paid in U.S. dollars - much more expensive than that charged for Syrians and Lebanese who can pay in Syrian liras.

6. Many consider Aleppo as the Middle East’s gourmet capital. The city's food is varied and usually very tasty and reasonably priced.

7. Internet cafes are found in all the major cities in Syria. Many use DSL and are very up-to-date. In luxury hotels Internet prices start from $6 and in cafes prices are from $1.

Places to Eat:

Al Challal Restaurant, Al Azizieh, Tel: 2243344 – cost of meal $5.
Hogop Restaurant, a peoples’ eating-place offering the finest kabab in Aleppo since 1961 - costs about $3.
However, for the mother of all meals, a buffet in the Chahba Cham Palace on Friday and Saturday should not be missed. It includes the top foods in the Middle East - cost about $20.

Places to Stay in Aleppo:

The best places to stay in Syria are the Cham Palaces and Hotels, a deluxe chain available throughout the country. For reservations and prices for Cham Palace Hotels in Syria, check

In addition, there are a series of budget hotels in Aleppo like the run-down but renowned Baron Hotel where a double room, including breakfast, costs about $40. per day.
Note: All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars.

For Further Information, Contact: Syrian Embassy, Ottawa, 151 Slater Street, Suite 1000, Ottawa Ontario, Canada, K1P 5H3. Tel: 613-569- 5556. Fax: 613-569- 3800. E-mail: or Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington D.C., 20008 U.S.A. Tel. 202/232-6313. Fax : 202-234-9548. email : or see website:

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