Back in 1975, the stunned Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae could only liken his discovery to an earthquake ''that puts very many things in doubt.'' After 11 arduous, dusty seasons of digging into a huge mound in northwest Syria, he and his team had suddenly broken through to the archives of a lost civilization that once thrived north of Palestine a thousand years before Moses.
Its name: Ebla.
Nothing like it had been found since a young Bedouin goat-herder happened upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, bringing to light a lost library from the time of Jesus.
In its early days, the Ebla ''earthquake'' stirred up as much confusion and doubtful speculation as it did solid insight.
Only now has the smoke begun to clear. Confusion is giving way to more sober conclusions - in fact, to a whole rewriting of the history of the origins of civilization.
New books by Dr. Matthiae and the original tablet-decoder (epigrapher), Giovanni Pettinato, have recently appeared in English translation. These are giving the English-speaking world its first detailed look at the Ebla findings.
Eblaite language is also being introduced as a field of study in universities - this year at New York University (NYU), next year at Harvard's Divinity School.
And although early claims of links to the Bible have been discarded, Ebla appears to be revolutionizing thinking about the historical and geographical backdrop of the earliest biblical events.
The story of Abraham, for one, may never look quite the same.
Before the discovery, the ancient Near East of 4,000 to 5,000 years ago appeared to be a fairly simple bipolar world. At one ''pole'': Egypt and the dynasties of the Pharaohs along the Nile. At the other: Mesopotamian civilization, with its cities and ziggurats (terraced pyramids) dominating the Tigris-Euphrates River valley. The region in between the two poles, from Syria down through Palestine, seemed a cultural backwater. In Matthiae's terms: ''a blank canvas.''
Now the canvas teems with forms and colors.
Ebla, and the northwestern Syrian region just north of today's Lebanon, turn out to have been a thriving commercial center with an advanced culture, its own dynasty and distinctive language, a bilingual educational system, and a state archive that housed meticulous records of widespread trade in finished goods - from textiles to finely crafted objects in metal and wood.
Eblaite civilization reached its zenith at about 2250 BC with a population of nearly a quarter million.
Whether Ebla was an empire of far-reaching political and economic control or just a commercial outpost of Mesopotamian civilization is still under debate. But in his new book, ''Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered,'' Dr. Matthiae opts for the more spectacular view. Ebla was nothing less, he says, than ''the centre of the most ancient great culture of Western Asia yet to enter historical record,'' and ''one of the critical turning points in the spread of city civilization to the West.''
Its buildings were concentrated in a spectacular walled city on a mound known today as Tell Mardikh. A ''tell'' is a mound that accrues as cities are built, demolished, and rebuilt on top of each other, as was Ebla. When the city was abandoned, wind-blown sands turned the site into a rounded hill.
Some of the buildings were monumental in scale, particularly the royal palace complex that housed the archives, temples, and government chambers. The palace walls were nearly 50 feet high.
But far more intriguing to the archaeologists has been the state archives and its some 10,000 tablets - the earliest major archives ever discovered.
Eblaites developed a distinctive written language that had been totally lost for over 4,000 years. Early after the discovery Dr. Pettinato concluded that the ''Eblaite'' language is a member of the Semitic family (of which Hebrew and Arabic are also a part). Further study has proved him right, although debate rages over the significance of the Semitic link.
The tablets themselves had been stacked on wooden shelves. When the palace and archives were captured by invading armies sometime between 2150 and 2350 BC, the library was set ablaze. But the flames - which rapidly reduced the shelves to ashes - only served to bake the clay tablets hard. Thousands of specimens of Eblaite script were perfectly preserved in a soft bed of ashes.
The tablets not only revealed vastly detailed records of trade. They have also turned up names of people or cities at remote distances in Anatolia (modern Turkey), eastern Mesopotamia, Cyprus, and even Egypt.
There also appear names related to those of the biblical period: Micah, Michael, and Ishmael. ''Ebrium,'' the name of a long-ruling Eblaite king, may also be a linguistic cousin of ''Eber,'' a forefather of the biblical Abraham.
The discovery of such names doesn't mean the Eblaites ''invented'' the names to begin with. Ebla's civilization never came into direct contact with the Hebrew civilization that emerged well on in 2nd millennium BC. But the Ebla findings add new evidence that these Bible name types circulated widely in the Mesopotamian region in the pre-biblical period.
Early in the game, epigrapher Pettinato even claimed to have found the names of the five mysterious cities named in Genesis 14:2 - Sodom, Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah, and Zeboim. These cities have never been found by archaeologists. If found, they could add credence to the historical validity of the Bible's accounts of Abraham.
But as so often occurs with the discoveries of antiquity, the artifacts were playing tricks on the experts. Dr. Pettinato revised his claim and now says that only the first three names appear. Other experts question even that, saying that the names are indeed in the tablets, but the cities are not the biblical ones. Other scholars, like Dr. Robert Biggs of the University of Chicago, says the names are not the biblical names at all, but names for metals.
Given the deciphering difficulties and the span of centuries between the Eblaite and Hebrew civilizations, most Ebla specialists now warn strongly against pushing biblical links too far. Still, some scholars continue to see implications.
The Rev. Mitchell Dahood of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome has argued that the Ebla texts yield clues for clearing up hard-to-translate Old Testament passages. He also argues that the very existence of its sophisticated literary culture suggests that the Bible's early literature should be taken more seriously as historical material.
For the scholars thinking through biblical implications, the patriarch Abraham continues to attract much of the attention.
Older historical textbooks had tended to create a very misleading image of the patriarch, says Prof. Cyrus Gordon, who teaches NYU's new Ebla program.
Abraham is often portrayed, he says, as something of a wayward, illiterate, backward nomad drifting like a desert sheikh from southern Mesopotamia northwest through the culturally backward Syrian region and eventually southward into Palestine. However, the great wealth the Bible attributes to him, along with his contacts with royalty like Pharaoh and Abimelech, never quite squared with the textbook image.
Ebla may help to resolve the apparent contradiction. The findings indicate a great deal of freedom of movement among peoples and traders through the ancient Near East in pre-Bible times. Dr. Gordon concludes that Abraham may have been an aristocratic merchant in touch with peoples and traders from Mesopotamia through Syria, down into Palestine and Egypt - an image that would fit quite well with his wealth and the sophistication he must have had to mix with kings and nobles.
Another centuries-old puzzle Ebla's archives might solve is that of Abraham's birthplace. The Bible's accounts in Genesis seem to contradict themselves by pointing to two cities. One, ''Ur of the Chaldees'' (Gen. 11:28, 31) has long been assumed to be the southeast Mesopotamian city by that name. Other accounts have been thought to designate the northern Syrian region and a town named Haran (Gen. 24:4, 10; 27:43; Joshua 24:2).
Now Ebla's tablets, says Dr. Pettinato, reveal that a city named Ur existed in Syria in the area of Haran (and Ebla). If true, this may show that the two cities mentioned in Genesis are actually one, and finally clear up the contradiction.
As for the general relevance of Ebla for understanding Abraham, it will ultimately depend on when you think he lived. Some scholars date him as early as the 3rd millennium BC; others as late as the late 2nd millennium BC. Some doubt his historical existence altogether, but most scholars gravitate to a date around 1800 BC.
Dr. Matthiae has been trying hard to discourage all speculation about biblical links.
''It has been said,'' he writes, ''that in the texts of the State Archives of . . . Ebla there is proof of the historical accuracy of the Bible patriarchs, news of a cult of Yahwe(h) at Ebla, a mention of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah . . . , and a literary text with the story of the Flood. These are tales without foundation.''
That plea goes to the heart of Dr. Matthiae's sharp differences with epigrapher Pettinato, differences that got Pettinato into political hot water with Syrian authorities and eventually removed from the Ebla excavations altogether.
Matthiae has been adamant in placing Ebla in the context of civilizations east of Ebla. Pettinato, on the other hand, stressed Ebla's links to civilizations toward the southwest in Canaan-Palestine and their languages. That view made the Syrian authorities uneasy, fearing that the discovery would get too closely associated with the modern state of Israel and its biblical heritage.Third and last part of story is in SEBLA2.
The politicization has been a great disappointment to many scholars. ''Ebla has no real modern political significance at all,'' says Prof. David N. Freedom of the University of Michigan. Other says that even if Ebla were shown definitively to shed light on the biblical Abraham, such a finding could be acclaimed not only by the Judaeo-Christian world, but also by Muslims, since the Koran finds its own spiritual roots in the patriarch.
Another set of doubts enshrouds texts once thought to prove the astonishingly far-reaching economic dealings of Ebla. On the one hand, Ebla appears to have traded with places like Kish to the east on the Tigris River, Cyprus to the west , and Anatolia to the northwest. Early on, Dr. Pettinato had discerned mention of a treaty between Ebla and the king of Ashur, a city far to the east on the Tigris River. But some analysts now think that this ''Ashur'' and other ''remote'' cities actually refer to towns much closer to Ebla, says Professor Biggs.
The perplexing changeability in conclusions being drawn about the Ebla tablets stems largely from the tantalizing, chameleon-like nature of Eblaite language itself.
Eblaites combined elements of their own Semitic speech and grammar with the cuneiform script invented by the Sumerian civilization, a society that dominated much of Mesopotamia for the first half of the 3rd millennium BC.
Cuneiform conveys its messages by configurations of wedgelike shapes punched into wet clay. Sumerian wedge-pictures - ''logograms'' - are so prominent in Eblaite writing that Ebla's scribes had to be trained in the ''classical Sumerian'' to be able to write their own language. Bilingual dictionaries have been found that list Eblaite equivalents next to Sumerian words.
''You might say that what Latin and Greek are to us, -Sumerian was to the Eblaites,'' Professor Gordon observes.
But the combination of linguistic elements in Eblaite are so unusual that the decoders have been tantalized by their task.
Sumerian logograms are intermingled with the grammar and word forms of Ebla's spoken Semitic speech. Certain words are abbreviated using Sumerian logograms, but obviously stand for totally different Eblaite words. A parallel in English would be the abbreviation of the Latin word ''libra.'' We see ''lb.,'' but we say ''pound.''
To compound the decoding difficulties, the same sign can sometimes represent more than one sound. One sign, for instance, can be used in the Ebla texts for the sounds g, k, and q; another for d, th, and t; and another for fourtypes of ''s'' sounds.
As a result, various analysts can look at the same configurations of wedges and see very different things.
Nevertheless, the scholars have found keys for breaking the Eblaite code with remarkable facility: Sumerian texts already known from Mesopotamia, the Eblaite-Sumerian ''dictionaries,'' and the fact that Eblaite grammar is Semitic, a grammar that had already been studied.
For all the progress to date, new - and sometimes fantastic - theories about the abundant Ebla data continue to pour forth.
Professor Gordon is toying with the idea that Eblaite may have been a kind of lingua franca, a common language of trade and commerce. This could explain, he theorizes, why Genesis 10 refers to a time when all the peoples of the earth spoke a common language.
One of the latest speculations of Professor Matthiae surrounds the name ''Ebla'' itself. The origin of the term, he says, is hard to pin down precisely and can be variously interpreted. But it likely referred to ''a site of rock emerging from a natural limestone hillock and gleaming white in the sun.'' At Tell Mardiek, he says, such a rock slab rises under the ruins toward the city's acropolis.
Professor Matthiae also speculates that Ebla originated a crucial concept of universal kingship that eventually spread widely throughout the ancient Near East.
Ebla, he writes, appears to have conceived of the world in a quadripartite - four-part - way. Possibly to symbolize this, and Ebla's central place in it, the city was divided into four quarters. These were arranged something like the quadrants of a circle, with the city's acropolis at the center. Ebla's kings, he concludes, may have used the quadripartite concept as a metaphor for speaking about their rule over ''the whole world.''
More time is needed before all speculation is more fully sorted out from fact; only a fraction of all Ebla's tablets have been fully studied.
But without a doubt the Ebla findings have already given the pre-biblical period a totally new face.
''If you look at the textbooks published several decades ago,'' reflects Professor Gordon, ''you get the impression that the early Bronze Age was prehistory. Even Abraham of later centuries and his religion were portrayed in this primitive light.
''But to me, when you have large intellectual cities like Ebla with students being trained in classics (Sumerian), being put through their paces in bilingual education, and thousands of tablets in a single archives - this isn't prehistory. We see that even well before Abraham, there had been a long history of intellectual development and international exchange of a highly sophisticated kind.''