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Updated May 17th 2019

Encyclopedia Judaica Second Edition -- Volume 13 (2007)

MARI -- one of the principal centers of Mesopotamia during the third and early second millennia B.C.E. The archaeological and epigraphical discoveries there are of prime significance for the history of Mesopotamia and Upper Syria. The Akkadian-language documents from Mari date from the Old Babylonian period and are thus centuries earlier than those of the Hebrew Bible. However the residents of Mari were western Semites, ultimately related to the Israelites and Arameans who first surface in the late second millennium but who are best known from the first. In consequence, although there is no demonstrable direct connection with the history of ancient Israel as was once thought, there are numerous linguistic -- cultural and social data from Mari that aid us in the study of ancient Israel and the Bible. Mari was located at Tell Ḥarīrī, at present some 1.5 miles (2.5 km) west of the Euphrates, near Abu Kemal, around 15 miles (25 km) north of the modern Syrian-Iraqi border. It was in an optimal position for contacts with the West and its location on the river artery, yet immediately adjacent to the desert, was decisive in the shaping of its fortune and character.

A. Excavations and Discoveries

The French excavations at Mari were instituted in 1933 under the direction of André Parrot and exploration continued as regularly as the international situation allowed. The archaeological evidence indicates that Mari was founded in the fourth millennium B.C.E. at the very beginning of the Early Dynastic period (ED I) [approximately 3100 B.C.] and reached a cultural-artistic peak during the first half of the third millennium B.C.E. Dating to this period are a ziggurat and several sanctuaries including a temple where the earliest list of the Mari pantheon was discovered, temples to Shamash -- Ninḥursag and Ishtar and the pair of temples of Ishtarat and Ninni-Zaza. Although Sumerian culture was predominant the character of the cultic installations, the appearance of bearded figures in art and especially the occurrence of particular divine and private names are all clearly indicative of a basic Semitic element from earliest times with Semitic rule there centuries before the rise of Akkad.

Since 1964 the excavations have revealed two superimposed palaces from pre-Sargonic times, most impressive in themselves, including a royal chapel with an earthen altar, the sacred tradition of which was preserved even in the Old Babylonian palace built there some 700 years later (see below). Within the palace complex a jar came to light containing a “treasure” including a lapis lazuli bead with a votive inscription mentioning Mesannepada, founder of the First Dynasty at Ur. This indicates a close contact between Mari and Ur at an early date as do other finds from Mari such as shell inlays essentially identical with those of the “Ur Standard” (war panel). The pre-Sargonic palace was destroyed either by Eannatum of Lagash (mid-25th century B.C.E.) or rather by Lugal-zaggesi of Uruk (mid-24th century B.C.E.).

After Sargon’s conquest in the second half of the 24th century B.C.E. Mari became a vassal city within the empire of Akkad; among the epigraphic evidence from this period are the names of two daughters of Naram-Sin, king of Akkad. In the final two centuries of the third millennium B.C.E. Mari was a sort of loose dependency of Third-Dynasty Ur, flourishing anew under (local) governors who bore the title šakkanakku (eight of whom are known by name). Indeed a ruler of Mari is known to have given his daughter in marriage to a son of Ur-Namma, king of Ur.

The pre-eminence of Mari throughout the third millennium B.C.E. is well reflected in epigraphic sources: in the Sumerian King List it appears as the seat of the tenth postdiluvian dynasty; in the inscriptions of Eannatum mention is made of the penetration and repulse of forces from Mari as far south as Lagash; and it also appears in the inscriptions of Sargon and Naram-Sin of Akkad. At the close of the third millennium B.C.E. Ishbi-Irra -- “a man of Mari” -- founded the Isin Dynasty and facilitated the collapse of the empire of Third-Dynasty Ur. After an obscure period of two centuries (from which several economic texts and 32 inscribed liver models are known) Mari reached its final period of glory in the 18th century under West Semitic rule. This latter was quashed by Hammurapi, king of Babylon, and Mari never regained its former position.

In the 13th century Tukulti-Ninurta I conquered the meager settlement there and stationed a garrison in the city for a short time. The uppermost layer on the site dates to the Seleucid-Roman period.

In the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. Mari was still sufficiently important to be mentioned in the Nuzi documents (horses and chariots were sent there); in recently found texts at Ugarit (“Ishtar of Mari” in an alphabetic text and in an epithet of another deity in a Hurrian text); and in the Egyptian geographical lists of Thutmosis III and probably also of Ramses III. The land of Mari appears in the neo-Assyrian geographical treatise describing Sargon’s Akkadian empire (on the basis of which W.F. Albright identified Mari with Tell Ḥarīrī long before the start of excavations there).

The discovery of greatest impact on historical and biblical research comprises the more than 20 000 cuneiform tablets from the several archives in the palace (there was no library) written in the Babylonian language ... The texts published so far (2005) have shed much light on the administrative -- economic -- cultural and political facets mainly of Upper Mesopotamia and Upper Syria in the 18th century B.C.E. -- regions previously known only vaguely.

B. Mari under West Semitic Rule

The origins of the West Semitic or “Amorite” dynasties are shrouded in darkness though there are clues pointing to North Syria for the local line at Mari ... The site of ancestor worship for both the local and the “Assyrian” dynasties at Mari lay at Terqa [which is] around 44 miles to the northwest at the mouth of the Khabur River. Hence the immediate origin of the West Semitic rulers at Mari would appear to be in the Terqa region.


Zimri-Lim’s reign during the tumultous interval between Assyria’s decline and the rise of the empire of Hammurapi marks Mari at its apogee. It is this period which is best represented by the archives found at Mari which provide a thorough insight into the organization of the kingdom ... Mari had become a principal political force in Mesopotamia alongside Babylon -- Larsa -- Eshnunna -- Qatna and Yamhad (as is known from a contemporary political report).


Mari was bound closely with the lands to the west (Syria and even northern Palestine) in economy -- politics -- culture -- religion and ethnic background.

C. Mari and the Bible

The Mari documents bear indirectly upon Israelite history geographically; the “patriarchal homeland” Aram-Naharaim -- so called at a later date) lay within Mari’s horizons; ethniclinguistically the Hebrews were of the same West Semitic (or Amorite) stock as that strongly manifest at Mari (see above); and sociologically -- for the descriptions of tribalism comprise the most extensive insight into the nomadic and settled phases of the Israelite tribes.

1. PATRIARCHAL HOMELAND --- The cities of Harran and [or] Nahor (cuneiform Naḥūr) in the Upper Balikh Valley -- which figure in the Bible as ancestral habitats of the Patriarchs -- are well documented as important dependencies controlled by governors from Mari. Both cities were foci of tribal foment: at the temple of Sin in Harran a treaty between the “kings” of Zalmaqum and the Yaminites was sworn against Mari; while at Nahor reinforcements had often to be called in to quell local uprisings inflamed by the Habiru. Alongside the West Semitic peoples in this region was a considerable Hurrian element which may well have left an imprint upon the initial ethnic and cultural composition of the Hebrews. The picture revealed in the Mari archives, of far-reaching tribal migrations (such as those of Yaminite groups) and caravan conditions between the Euphrates region and Syria-Northern Palestine, provides an analogy for the biblical narratives of the patriarchal wanderings between Aram-Naharaim and Canaan.

2. ETHNO-LINGUISTIC AFFINITIES: THE WEST SEMITIC IDIOM --- Evidence for the West Semitic (or Amorite) origin of the majority of the people figuring in the Mari documents is revealed in the onomasticon (name-stock) and specific linguistic features of the Mari dialect. Many of the hundreds of proper names known from the Mari texts are paralleled in the Bible especially in the patriarchal narratives and the Exodus-Conquest cycle which demonstrate a strong archaizing tendency.

3. PATRIARCHAL TRIBAL SOCIETY --- The Mari archives provide the most abundant and fruitful source material concerning West Semitic tribes of any Ancient Near Eastern source -- shedding invaluable light on Israelite tribal society, its structure and organization, as well as its institutions. The wide range of the tribes mentioned at Mari -- from fully nomadic to fully sedentary -- and their confrontation with the indigenous population, bear directly upon an understanding of the gradual process of the Israelite settlement in Canaan and their ensuing relationship with its inhabitants. The most revealing material at Mari concerns the broad tribal federations of the Haneans and Yaminites. The former were concentrated principally along the Middle Euphrates and comprised an appreciable segment of the general population (and of the army) of Mari.

4. TRIBAL TRADITIONS -- FUNCTIONAL AND RELIGIOUS --- The convergence of the West Semitic tribes at Mari with urban Mesopotamia involved a dual process of friction and strife alongside symbiosis and mutual adaptation; this interaction between a tribal heritage and an established civilization was characteristic also of the settlement of Israelite tribes in Canaan. In Mari this was especially evident at the court where despite the process of assimilation of Sumero-Akkadian civilization, much of tribal tradition was still preserved.

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