A strange but stylish report on the remarkable ongoing excavations at Tell Mardikh in northwestern Syria, site of the lost civilization of Ebla. Bermant is a journalist, Weitzman an expert on Near Eastern languages, and in some ways they make a very good team. Their book is richly informative, sophisticated, witty, and, when it comes to cloudy issues (such as the connection between the Eblaites and the Israelites), highly judicious. But its structure is a mess. After opening with an abrupt plunge into the controversies surrounding the Italian archaeologists in charge of the dig, the story wanders off on a leisurely digression that takes up half the text. First we get an incoherent, impressionistic chapter surveying five millenia of ancient history, then a chatty discussion of contradictions in the Bible and problems in biblical chronology. Finally, in ""Cuneiform Without Tears,"" Bermant and Weitzman tell the fascinating tale of how 19th-century scholars went about deciphering Sumerian, Akkadian, and Elamite. They rattle on merrily, and then--oops, back to Ebla, and facts they should have given us a hundred pages sooner. Such as, that Ebla seems to have been a notable empire, a prosperous city-state with a population (c. 2500 B.C.) of around 260,000 people, making it one of the largest conurbations in the world at that time. That the Eblaites worshipped a bewildering pantheon of at least five hundred gods and goddesses. That Ebla was destroyed by a king of Akkad. And so on. Of course, the picture is far from complete. Only a small fraction of the 140-acre site has been uncovered, and a still smaller fraction of the over 15,000 clay tablets translated. When all the evidence is in, the ancient Near East will never be the same again. In time, fuller and better-organized treatments of Ebla will surely come along. Till then this agreeable hodgepodge may perform a useful service.