Review: Ebla – A New Look at History, by Giovanni Pettinato

(Originally published on Amazon 3/9/2003)


Between 1974-1976, nearly 20,000 tablets or fragments of tablets were unearthed at an excavation site known as Tell Marduk, in northern Syria. The tablets proved to be the royal archives of an ancient trading empire known as Ebla, which flourished around 2500 BC but the location of which had long since been lost to time. Because of their completeness, the archives of Ebla proved to be an earthquake in ancient near-east studies, disrupting many long-standing assumptions and forcing a new interpretation of our understanding of 3rd Millennium BC middle east. Most importantly for biblical scholars, it seemed to provide some tantalizing hints at Old Testament connections, including the firm identification of “Eblaite” as a semitic-tongue predating Hebrew and the possible mentioning of biblical names such as Abraham and Sodom. Giovanni Pettinato, who was the first to interpret these tablets and who is credited with having “cracked” the Eblaite language, has had no small role in this shake up, and this book continues with his (sometimes controversial) theories about Ebla and the archives true meaning.

Ebla: A New Look at History is in some ways an update of Pettinato’s previous book The Archives of Ebla, which was published in Italian in 1980 and translated into English (with some revisions and additions) in 1981. In his previous book, Pettinato sought to introduce the archeological finds at Ebla and to make some tentative steps toward casting them into a better understanding of the ancient middle-east. However, The Archives of Ebla was hamstrung by the fact that the finds were (at the time of its publication) still relatively new, and much work had not yet been performed on archival translating and interpretation, to say nothing of the ongoing excavation work going on at Tell Marduk/Ebla. With more than a decade of additional scholarly activity, Pettinato is here better able to place Ebla in context with the more well known ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. He also is better able to back up some of his assertions regarding biblical/old testament connections, a position which sometimes has put him in direct conflict with even the archeological team excavating Ebla.

Pettinato’s book brings the entire state of Ebla studies up, if not to the present, to the present at the time of it’s publication (1991). This makes the book more valuable than most of the other books on this subject, which along with The Archives of Ebla were all published in the first few years immediately after the initial discovery. Besides offering Pettinato’s interpretation of much of the Ebla finds, Ebla: A New Look at History recounts the circumstances behind the discoveries as well as offering a fairly rounded summation of what we know about Mesopotamian civilization at the time of Ebla’s apex. If the book has a fault it is that Pettinato is perhaps a bit too firmly encamped in the biblical-connections field of thought, tending to sell his critics short and asserting as fact which might more fairly be considered as conjecture. But despite this, Ebla: A New Look at History does work as a very readable introduction to this fascinating and evolving subject. While it is in general aimed at the layman, it is aimed at a layman who at least has a passing knowledge of ancient history; therefore, some familiarity with the ancient near-east studies is recommended, but not necessary.

For those interested in archeology and ancient or biblical history, this is probably the best introduction yet published on Ebla and its implications. Highly recommended.

4 Stars out of 5 Stars