The ancient City of Ebla: A study in the free-market

People are forever claiming that anarchy could never work. “You people are crazy; or naive” I hear over and over. And yet examples abound in history of what liberty minded folks are talking about. There are, in fact, shining moments in man’s history where the free market was uppermost in men’s minds and freedom, wealth and security came from trusting in the market.

The ancient city state of Ebla (literally “White Rock”), located in what is now northwestern Syria, is named for the limestone on which the city was built. It was not until 1975 that a vast treasure trove of city archives was discovered that tells us about the history of this city. The archives date back to the 3rd millennium BC.

In the archives was found bilingual dictionaries and this tells us that the people of this city traded extensively throughout the middle east. The people themselves spoke a dialect of Hebrew or Phoenician.

The tablets of the massive archive have shown that Sumerian teachers came to Ebla to ply their trade as educators. There is evidence that educators of other areas also went to the White Rock. These facts and the educational materials themselves tell us that Ebal was a highly educated people for the time, living in a major educational center. The tablets also reveal that Ebla had long-standing trade agreements with cities and peoples throughout the middle east and western Asia.

The records reveal not military might but that these people used trade and business to grow extremely wealthy. Imagine that! Their sphere of influence was based on economic leadership and appears to have extended to as many as 17 city-states throughout what is now Lebanon and southeastern Turkey; areas rich in silver and timber.

Missing from the records are accounts of glorifying military conquests and capturing hoards of slaves that we find in many other historical records of the Middle East. It turns out that the people of Ebla did have an army, but not one made up of the general population. Rather they had one that was one hired to to defend its trade routes and protect against invasion. Ebla utilized trade and diplomacy to solve international disputes; and the records record only a couple of times that armed conflict arose.

The Eblaites were very wealthy and that wealth was grounded in the rich agricultural land of northern Syria were they raised barley, wheat, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives and flax. The first known official documentation of olive oil production and trade comes from these Ebla records. Surprisingly there are records of some families having 200,000 head of livestock. Wool and linen cloth appears to have been the bulk of the export trade; but these people were also masters in metal working. All in all, Ebla a major manufacturing and distribution center and the people of Ebla were extremely wealthy.

The Ebla people elected rulers from the merchant class to one term only and this appears to be the first known democracy. The “merchant king” was limited in power to protecting the trade routes, protecting the city, and using diplomacy to secure trade agreements with foreign cities. He was the head of 14 governors and these governors limited the king’s powers. We don’t know how these men were paid, if at all. There is no record of any taxation. That does not mean there was none at all, but tax records are normally very prominent in any government’s records.

It would appear that The White Rock had only such “government” as was required to oversee the protection of their merchant activities which provided the people with great wealth. It is stories like this that should be taught to our young in history class.


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