In 1933, after some local peasants dug up an ancient statue, the French archaeologist André Parrot began excavating at Mari, or Tell Hariri, an obscure site on the Euphrates River near Syria’s present-day border with Iraq. Within several years Parrot had unearthed the well-preserved remains of a grand palace dating to the early second millennium B.C., including largely intact archives containing nearly 25,000 cuneiform tablets. He also found a temple dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and several other sanctuaries.

Since Parrot made his impressive discoveries, scholars have learned much more about Mari, which was a major power in the Near East during the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2200–1550 B.C.). Once home to a West Semitic population that spoke a dialect related to Hebrew, Mari offers new insights into the world of early Israel.

Settlement at the site of Mari dates as far back as the early third millennium B.C. In its earliest phase, Mari was a town built on a circular plan with a canal linking it to the Euphrates. It had a small market, at least three temples and a royal palace. Around 2200 B.C. many buildings in Mari were destroyed, probably by invading Akkadians. The Akkadians then built a new, 300-room (or larger!) palace and adjacent structures that together covered an area of 6 acres; this is the palace complex excavated by Parrot. Its remains, in particular its thousands of royal documents, reveal a great deal about Mari in the time of the Amorite Lim dynasty.

Under the rulers Yahdun-Lim (reigned c. 1820–1800 B.C.), Zimri-Lim (reigned c. 1780–1760 B.C.) and their kin, Mari came to play an important role in commerce, acting as a “middleman” (to use Avraham Malamat’s term) between the Mesopotamian cities to the southeast (such as Babylon and Ur), and cities to the west, in Syria, northern Palestine and even the Levantine Coast. Cuneiform tablets recovered at the Mari palace mention locales as far afield as Hazor, in northern Israel, and Kaptara (Crete).

These tablets–written in Mari’s official language of Akkadian, a Semitic language related to Hebrew–also provide a fascinating glimpse into day-to-day life at the palace. During the reign of Zimri-Lim a man named Mukannisum, apparently the king’s chief assistant, oversaw all the bureaucratic activities at the palace complex. Surviving tablets reveal that Mukannisum managed store-rooms, supervised various workshops and dispatched supplies to the king on his travels. Also closely involved in the administration of the palace was Sibtu, Zimri-Lim’s queen, who handled correspondence and met with officials when the king was away. In fact, the prominence of upper-class women seems to have been a distinctive feature of life in Mari.

Lists of foodstuffs kept by the king’s butler contain more prosaic details–from them we learn, for example, that the people of Mari ate two daily meals, a heavy lunch and a light supper. Clay baking-molds found in the palace, like the mold of a woman (possibly Ishtar) discussed in the accompanying interview, attest to the sophistication of the royal household.

There is strong evidence for Mari’s cultural (and possibly ethnic) links to early Israel. Certain words appear only in Mari documents and in the Bible–one such word is nawum (Mari)/naweh (Hebrew), “pasturage.” Both societies appear to have been tribal and semi-nomadic, and their languages reflect this: Mari and early Israel used, respectively, the terms gayum/goy (a tribal unit) and hibrum/heber (a nomadic association).

Mari’s achievements peaked during the reign of Zimri-Lim, and came to a sudden halt when Hammurabi of Babylon occupied Mari in 1760 B.C. Before burning the city, Hammurabi’s forces ransacked the palace complex for treasure, passing over less valuable items, including the royal documents (and the beautiful mother-of-pearl wall-frieze shown above, which depicts the sacrifice of a ram and dates to the mid-third millennium B.C.). To their oversight–or avarice, rather–we owe our knowledge of this unique civilization.