Gubla, Ancient Byblos: Inconvenient Goddess, Ch 5

By the beginning of the Early Bronze Age (about 3000 B.C.) Canaanite Gubla had developed into the most important timber shipping center on the eastern Mediterranean and ties with Egypt were very close, and Egyptian influence can be seen in its art and its religion. The Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom needed the cedar wood and other wood for shipbuilding, tomb construction and funerary ritual. In return, Egypt sent gold, alabaster, papyrus rolls, papyrus rope and linen. Thus began a period of prosperity, wealth and intense commercial activity.

Byblos was called Gubla by the Phoenicians. Later the Greeks renamed the city Byblos from its exportation of papyrus paper (called by the same word); later this Greek word came to mean books in general, which is how the Hebrew/Christian scriptures have come to be called the Bible.

Remains of the Temple of Baalat Gebal, dedicated to the “Lady of Byblos,” the goddess who presided over the city for over two millennia. Constructed when Gubla had close ties with Egypt, this large and important temple was rebuilt a number of times, remaining in use until the Roman period when it was replaced by a Roman style structure.

Excerpt from Chapter 5: Gubla, Ancient Byblos

The Mediterranean seaport of Byblos was much different thirty-five hundred years ago when it was called Gubla, a loosely controlled Egyptian outpost. It was run by a mayor named Rib-Hadda, born into the position like his father and his father before him. The title had been in their family for generations. Today, Mayor Rib-Hadda was worried as usual.

“Are you ready?” he asked his scribe Girgous.

Wringing his hands, the mayor paced back and forth anxiously before the scribe’s desk.

“Yes,” Girgous replied as he plopped a lump of wet, red clay onto the tabletop. He rolled it flat until it was five by nine inches. Grabbing an eight-inch long, wedge-shaped reed stylus for a pencil, he looked up at the mayor expectantly.

Rib-Hadda remained distraught, wandering in small circles, unable to shake worry away. He pulled his head-wrap, a plain white keffiyeh, from his head and placed it on his chair. Pacing, he tried to think things through. The political makeup of this region of Egypt’s empire was changing. Locally, the Amurru, a group of castaways, outlaws, and dispossessed were threatening not only Gubla, but also Tyre, Beirut, and Arwad. Regionally, the Hittites, a warrior kingdom north were pushing south, wresting Qadesh from Egyptian control, threatening Baalbek and ultimately Gubla.

The Mayor of Gubla worked diligently to be the first to let his Great King, Akhenaten know any news occurring in his neck of the woods.

“Start with this,” Rib-Hadda said and began dictating. “May Ištar, the Mistress of Gubla, grant power to my lord. At the feet of my lord, my sun, I fall seven times and seven times. Let the king, my lord, know that Gubla, your…” The mayor paused, stopped pacing, and stared out the doorway. This was his harbor, and he was still missing ships. He requested Akhenaten’s help retrieving two boats the Mayor of Beirut borrowed but never returned. Akhenaten never replied. How could he instill in the Pharaoh the sense of dire emergency he felt? He must do so in a mild, yet supplicating manner as he did not want to make Akhenaten angry.

Egyptians coveted Canaan’s mineral and agricultural wealth. As early as the third millennium B.C. the Egyptian kingdom established trading posts in the coastal city of Ashkelon and in Gezer, using donkeys to transport products to Egypt. A few centuries later the Egyptians began trading by ship with the seaports of Tyre, Gubla, Simyra, and Arwad on the ancient coast of Lebanon.

In Gubla, poor Rib-Hadda woke up every morning wondering how soon the ever-present battles would come his way. His was a small but essential outpost, and he relied on Egypt to protect him. His newest threat came from the Amorite tribes pushing into Gubla from their homeland in the hills north and east. Rib-Hadda felt he was in dire peril and help from the Pharaoh was his only hope.

Rib-Hadda truly believed he was the most essential vassal of Pharaoh. Like Abimilku of Tyre and ‘Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem, Rib-Hadda was educated in Egypt and enthroned by the Pharaoh. But Akhenaten was faced with many issues, south, east, and west of the Nile, as well as north in the Land of the Canaanites. His most laborious task was to maintain ties to and control of his subjugated areas.

Plus, Egyptian royal influence over ancient Israel was minimal because of wavering signals from the Pharaoh. Akhenaten had his hands full quelling domestic skirmishes.

“Are you ready, sir?” Girgous the scribe asked Rib-Hadda. The scribe possessed a skill few others in the ancient world possessed. He could record a person’s thoughts and words with characters placed on a piece of moist clay. At the time it was considered a mighty, near-magical feat.

The mayor nodded.

Girgous, being highly learned and exceptionally skilled knew how to impart a sense of urgency, suggesting, ever so carefully Pharaoh must come quickly to the aid of Gubla. Girgous would ensure Rib-Hadda did so in a manner which did not overstep his subservient boundaries.

Listening to the Mayor, he deftly carved cuneiform symbols into wet clay with his stylus. Rib-Hadda observed closely, although he couldn't read the symbols. The scribe knew what he was doing. Having studied at the tablet-house at Mari for nine years, he learned well the intricacies of etching symbols onto clay, symbols powerful enough to bring any thought, any conversation back to life, verbatim. Courts no longer had to rely on unreliable memory.

When he finished his thoughts, the mayor stood and straightened his back, pulling his linen thawb close. Life was too good for Rib-Hadda; he was overweight, and not in good physical condition anymore. His back hurt, and he had a headache. “Are you finished? Can you read it to me, Girgous?”

Running his hand through his light brown hair, the scribe nodded, grabbed the stylus and began.

“May Ištar, the Mistress of Gubla, grant power to my lord. At the feet of my lord, my sun, I fall seven times and seven times. Let the king, my lord, know that Gubla, your servant is well.

However, the war against me is severe. Our sons and daughters are gone, as well as the furnishings of the houses because they have been sold to keep us alive. My field is "a wife without a husband," lacking in cultivation. I have repeatedly written to the palace regarding the distress afflicting me, but no one has paid attention. Let the king heed the words of his servant. They are taking all the lands of the king, my lord. Nothing is done to Abdi’aširta, although you know he is stealing from us and threatens to attack us.

Let the king, my lord, know Šuppiluliuma, the king of Hatti has overcome all the areas that belonged to Tušratta, the king of Mitanni, the land of the great kings.

Abdi’aširta, the slave, the dog, has gone with him. Send archers. The hostility toward me is great. And send a Medjay to the city of Gubla. I will heed his words.”

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Gubla, Ancient Byblos, Chapter 5

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