In a remote part of north-east Syria an international archaeological team has discovered a great 4,400-year-old walled city, containing an extraordinary archive of administrative documents which shed new light on the ancient links between the Levantine civilisation of the eastern Mediterranean coast and that of the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia.
So far excavations at the site - Tell Beydar - 300 miles north-east of Damascus - have revealed a great temple, a royal palace, massive city walls and the archive.
65 documents have already been recovered and suggest a hybrid culture that was part Mediterranean and part Mesopotamian. Despite its remote location - 260 miles from the sea and 15 miles from any major river - the newly discovered walled city seems to have had a sophisticated administration.
The documents - all of which are clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing - record aspects of the city's economic activity. The texts, basically monthly accounting records, reveal exactly what goods and services were being acquired for, or provided by, the city government and what other cities or communities they were being dispatched to or from.
There are 20 different personal names - including a rare non-biblical ancient reference to the name Ishmail. The Old Testament character of the same name (spelt biblically in the Hebrew way, as Ishmael) was the son of Abraham and his Egyptian concubine Hagar and has traditionally been regarded as the founder of the Arab nation.
The discovery of the 'missing link' city of Tell Beydar is of potentially great importance for biblical scholars interested in the Old Testament story of the Abraham's epic journey from southern Mesopotamia (Ur of the Chaldees) to the eastern Mediterranean lands of the Levant.
Abraham - regarded by both Arabs and Jews as their common ancestor - would have passed right through the Tell Beydar area. The excavations may well shed new light on early contact and travel between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.
Many of the names in the Tell Beydar texts occur many times with the result that the 65 documents include about 200 names in all. Previously unattested personal names include Halti, Lushalem (probably meaning 'let him be healthy'), Lalum (meaning 'sexy'), Gaga, Dadalum and Qamu.
The texts also mention professions; tanners, reed-cutters, potters, millers, and scribes each occur three or four times. Shepherds crop up around 10 times, while slaves or servants are the most common.
Commodities referred to include sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, barley and sheepskins. Around 10 different place names also appear - each one occurring on average around 10 times. Some of the place names - for example the towns of Sulum and Malum - were previously unknown and their locations are likely to remain a mystery.
Detailed study of the newly discovered texts by Belgian epigrapher Karel Van Lerberghe, has revealed that the people of Tell Beydar probably had their own calendar system - which was neither Mediterranean nor southern Mesopotamian in origin.
The city is now being excavated by European, Syrian and other archaeologists, led by the Belgium Mesopotamianist Dr Marc Lebeau. It covered some 30 - 40 hectares, with a population of 7,000 - 12,000 inhabitants. Its double ring of city walls were each a mile long and each mud-brick rampart appears to have been at least 23 feet thick.
Excavations have so far revealed much of a great temple with three huge halls, monumental arched doors and orange-coloured plaster still adhering to the walls. The archive was discovered near the city's royal palace - a complex of administrative buildings, yet to be fully uncovered. The temple is the best-preserved example of its period ever found in this intermediate territory which lies between the civilisations of southern Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean.
The palace is expected to provide archaeologists studying this historically crucial area with the first detailed idea of what a city administrative complex would have looked like 4,400 years ago.
At that time, the world's only large-scale state was Egypt. Other independent political units within the Middle East were all city-states - and Tell Beydar would have been one such mini-kingdom. It was another 50 years before the rise of the Middle East's second great 'super state' - the Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia which almost certainly took over Tell Beydar's territory.
The director of the Tell Beydar excavation, Dr Lebeau, who is also President of the Brussels-based European Centre for Upper Mesopotamia Studies, believes the site can be regarded an a 'missing link' between the Sumerian/Akkadian culture of southern Mesopotamia far to the south east and that of the ancient city of Ebla (where other tablets were found) and the Mediterranean Levant to the west.
'The tablets - signs, order of signs and language - seem to confirm this', says Mr Van Lerberghe, who has been working on the Tell Beydar texts. 'They are without doubt related to the Ebla material to the west on the one hand, while on the other hand they are clearly related to material from southern Mesopotamian'.