The tablets discovered in Royal Palace G at Ebla in Syria by Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome are written in cuneiform script and dated to about the first half of the twenty-fourth century BCE. The texts were excavated between 1974 and 1976; since that time there have been only sporadic discoveries. The tablets recount activity during the reigns of three generations of sovereigns: Igriš-Ḫalab, Irkab-Damu, and Išar-Damu, for a period estimated to cover forty to fifty years. The only synchronism with other previously known dynasties is with Iblul-Il, king of Mari, who is mentioned in two documents that refer to the first contacts between the two Syrian cities. The lid of a vase with the cartouche of Pepi I, found in the same level as the tablets, constitutes a terminus post quem for the destruction of the palace.

Ebla Texts

EBLA TEXTS. Figure 1. Ebla tablets in situ. (Courtesy A. Archi)

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All the texts come from Palace G. The central archive was preserved in one room (locus 2769), on the east side of the internal portico of the Audience Hall (see figure 1). The tablets (1,727 of them) that are either complete or preserved in large part come from there, along with 9,483 fragments and numerous chips. The original number can be estimated at 2,500 documents. Except for the large tablets, which were placed directly on the ground, the tablets were stored on wooden shelving, which was completely burned. From the adjacent vestibule (locus 2875) come, in addition to 276 texts, fragments of bone that could belong to styluses and a stone for smoothing the surface of a tablet, an indication that this was one of the places where the tablets were written. Records concerning foodstuffs consumed at the court (242 texts) were found in a small room in the northeast corner of the Audience Hall. An additional twenty-two texts were found on a wooden table about 10 m west of there. A small archive of predominately agricultural texts, consisting of seventeen lenticular tablets and more than one thousand fragments, was found in the vicinity of an internal courtyard. Another room contained a group of thirty-two lenticular tablets.

Ebla Texts

EBLA TEXTS. Figure 2. The Sumerian-Eblaite vocabulary. (Courtesy A. Archi)

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Most of the texts are administrative in character and relate to palace activity. Also preserved in the central archive were guides for the correct use of the cuneiform script, which, in addition to syllabic signs for the Eblaite language, made use of numerous Sumerian logograms. Some forty lists contain Sumerian words arranged by subject: names of professions, of cities, of animals, and of objects. These are of Mesopotamian origin and present a canonical arrangement already fixed in the examples known from the archives at Shuruppak and Abu Salabikh. Another eight lists, with words or expressions arranged according to acrophonic principles (the longest has 1,204 terms), were composed at Ebla. One of these served as the basis for bilingual Sumerian-Eblaite lists, which are the most ancient dictionaries known (see figure 2). Manuscripts A and C contain approximately 1,200 Sumerian words, the greater number of which are given an Eblaite translation. The list continues in A2, which has about 350 additional words. Manuscript D, consisting of five smaller tablets, stops at number 880. A more recent recension is B, a large tablet that includes the entire list. Another eighteen smaller texts give various sections.

Literary texts are represented by one Sumerian hymn and two Semitic hymns (one of these and the Sumerian one are also known in versions from Abu Salabikh) as well as by eighteen incantations, the majority of which are in Sumerian. A long ritual for the enthronement of the royal couple, in two parallel versions written on the occasion of the marriage of the last two kings, describes cult rites for the gods and the deceased sovereigns. The chancery texts include political agreements (with Mari, Ibal, and Abarsal; this last one is made up of a long series of symmetrical clauses following a pattern that will reappear a millennium later in Syrian-Anatolian treaties), diplomatic reports, letters, and royal decrees. One letter from Enna-Dagan, king of Mari, in which he describes the conquests of his own ancestors, comes from the chancery of that city. [See Mari.] Compared to the economic documents, these texts show a less frequent use of Sumerograms.

The most consistent group of economic documents is made up of 543 monthly statements concerning the distribution of clothing to foreign kings and their officials and to dependents of the Eblaite administration; altogether it covers at least forty years. Twenty-seven annual registers (large tablets with up to thirty columns per side) concern consignments of gold and silver articles on the part of the administration. Sixty tablets are devoted to the palace revenues (mu-DU) remitted by the more important officials. Thirty of these date back to the most ancient phase (the reign of Igriš-Ḫalab); the others are dated to the vizier Ibrium and to his son and successor Ibbi-Zikir (seventeen and thirteen documents, respectively) and show an annual pattern. Other groups of texts are concerned with the assignment of fields, with accounts regarding agricultural production (primarily barley but also olive oil and wine) and the raising of animals, and with consignments of sheep for sacrifices to the gods and for meat consumption at the palace. In addition, there are hundreds of small- and medium-sized tablets with individual administrative records.

Eblaite is the oldest documented Semitic language and was spoken in all of northern Syria, although there may have been dialectic variants. It belongs to the archaic Semitic type, which continued in Mesopotamia with Akkadian, and of which some elements were preserved in the second millennium BCE in Ugaritic and surface later in the most ancient dialects of the southern Arabian Peninsula. However, Eblaite presents its own innovations (such as verbal nouns with the prefix t- and the infix -t-), and does not share some of those to be found in Akkadian (such as the declension of pronominal suffixes in the dual). [See Akkadian; Ugaritic.]

The archives reveal the history of central Syria in the third millennium. The entire area was organized into city-states that had their center in a palace, where the king and the queen, mal(i)kum maliktum, resided. [See Palace.] One offering list (ARET [=Archivi Reali di Ebla. Testi] 7.150) gives the names of ten kings of Ebla in chronological order: Abur-Lim, Agur-Lim, Ibbi-Damu, Baga-Damu, Enar-Damu, Išar-Malik, (I)kun-Damu, Adub-Damu, Igriš-Ḫalab, Irkab-Damu. This list appears again (TM [= Tell Mardikh] 74.G.120) giving twenty-six royal names, from Kulbanu, the most ancient, to Išar-Damu, the successor of Irkab-Damu and the last king of Ebla. The dynasty therefore goes back to about the twenty-seventh century BCE, proving that Semitic populations had settled in northern Syria by at least the beginning of the third millennium and that they are responsible for the process of “secondary urbanization” that took place in that epoch.

Ebla became a regional state under Irkab-Damu, when its territory included the plain of Antioch, Carchemish to the north, and Hama to the south. It finally succeeded in setting itself up in opposition to Mari, to which it had to pay a tribute for a period of fifteen years (from Iblul-Il to Enna-Dagan) that in its entirety amounted to 1,028 kg of silver and 63 kg of gold. Under Irkab-Damu, Ibrium was placed at the head of the administration, a post he held for at least fifteen years, during which time there was an annual flow into the palace of 200–300 kg of silver, 200–500 kg of copper, 3–5 kg of gold, and about 2,000 pieces of clothing. With Ibbi-Zikir, Ibrium's son, who became vizier during the reign of Išar-Damu, there was a notable increase: 420–730 kg of silver, the same amount of copper, 2–20 kg of gold, and at least five thousand garments. The structure of the state was strongly centralized: about five thousand lower officials, artisans, and workers, and eight hundred women—practically the entire active population of the city—depended directly on the palace. The production of woolen cloth was well developed, as was metallurgy, which employed as many as five hundred workmen. It is not possible to deduce from the texts which enemy brought an end to this period of splendor.

The pantheon included Semitic divinities and local ones. Among the latter is Kura, the principal god of the city, along with his wife Barama, the goddess Išḫara (more important than Ishtar), and possibly Idabal. Semitic gods are the weather god Hadda of Ḫalab (Aleppo), the sun goddess (written with the Sumerogram Utu), Dagan, Rashap, and Kamish. Il is a frequent element in the theophorous personal names, but it does not appear in the lists of gods; it expresses the visible manifestation of the divine (originally of the divinity of the group), but found no place in Ebla's polytheistic system. Il/El, the lord and father of gods and men described in the Ugaritic myths, is the product of later theological speculation.

The series Archivi Reali di Ebla. Testi (Rome, 1981– ) is dedicated to the publication of the texts; other documents have been published in the series Materiali epigrafici di Ebla (Naples, 1979– ).

[See also Cuneiform; Ebla; Eblaites.]


  • Archi, Alfonso. “The Archives of Ebla.” In Cuneiform Archives and Libraries, edited by Klaas R. Veenhof, pp. 72–86. Leiden, 1986. Description of the archives and general classification of the texts.
  • Archi, Alfonso. “How a Pantheon Forms: The Cases of Hattian-Hittite Anatolia and Ebla of Third Millennium BC.” In Religionsgeschichtliche Beziehungen zwischen Kleinasien, Nordsyrien und dem Alten Testament im 2. und 1. Jahrtausend, edited by Bernd Janowski et al., pp. 1–18. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, vol. 129. Göttingen, 1993. The first classification of the Eblaite pantheon.
  • Archi, Alfonso. “Trade and Administrative Practices: The Case of Ebla.” Altorientalische Forschungen 20 (1993): 43–58.
  • Conti, Giovanni. Il sillabario della quarta fonte della lista lessicale bilingue eblaita. Quaderni di Semitistica, vol. 17. Florence, 1990. Results of study of a section of the lexical lists.
  • Fronzaroli, Pelio. “Per una valutazione della morfologia eblaita.” Studi Eblaiti 5 (1982): 93–120. Short grammar of the Eblaite language.
  • Fronzaroli, Pelio, ed. Literature and Literary Language at Ebla. Quaderni di Semitistica, vol. 18. Florence, 1992. Up-to-date presentation of the literary and lexical texts.
  • Matthiae, Paolo. “The Archives of the Royal Palace G of Ebla: Distribution and Arrangement of the Tablets According to the Archaeological Evidence.” In Cuneiform Archives and Libraries, edited by Klaas R. Veenhof, pp. 53–71. Leiden, 1986.
  • Milano, Lucio. “Food Rations at Ebla.” Mari: Annales de Recherches Interdisciplinaires 5 (1987): 519–550. Study of the alimentary supply for the Eblaite court.
  • Pettinato, Giovanni. The Archives of Ebla: An Empire Inscribed in Clay. New York, 1981. The first evaluation of the archives, which needs extensive revision.

Alfonso Archi

Translated from Italian by Susan I. Schiedel