The Bookshelves of Ancient Ebla

Cuneiform tablets preserved in the fire that devastated the Mesopotamian city of Ebla offer an extraordinary insight into life 4,000 years ago. 

A clay tablet discovered at Ebla engraved with cuneiform characters, third millennium BC.

The city of Ebla was set on fire by Akkadian invaders in 2300 BC, razing its royal palace and burning thousands of texts in the kingdom’s library. Located near what is now the battle-scarred city of Aleppo in north-west Syria, Ebla dominated the Levant from the establishment of its Bronze Age kingdom around 3000 BC until its first destruction seven centuries later. Ebla (Tell Mardikh in Arabic) would be rebuilt – and destroyed – two more times over the next thousand years, leaving an indelible material record of the kingdom’s long history buried in the Syrian plateau.

Ebla’s profile grew in the mid-1970s, when archaeologists discovered 18,000 cuneiform texts near the city’s royal palace during routine field excavations. While the texts have proven to be a trove of historical information about the political and social life of ancient Ebla, they also offer a window into library practices in ancient Mesopotamia. When the library burned in 2300 BC, wooden shelf collapsed upon wooden shelf, trapping the tablets more or less in situ, where they remained until archaeological excavations began in the late 20th century. Ebla’s Bronze Age cuneiform tablets were found on what is the oldest evidence of a systematic, shelved system for storing texts: the world’s oldest bookshelves.

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