Frequently asked question
- Why is Old Ebonheart an Imperial city?
Frequently provided answer
In short: Old Ebonheart is an Imperial city because TESIII‘s Ebonheart is an Imperial city on Vvardenfell and not a Dunmer city on the mainland. The assumption when Old Ebonheart was first conceptualized was that this was intentional and should be kept. We created a lore background to explain both of these problems (faction and placement).
In detail: There are several reasons, but first it should be clarified what exactly the status and history of Old Ebonheart in-game actually is.
The historical Dunmer city was called Khalaan (a poetic name which translates to "the Ebon Heart") and it was a rival city to the Mourning Hold, controlling the travel through the Thirr into the Inner Sea. The ruling family had been the Raathim.
The Tiber Wars barely reached Morrowind – after a few border skirmishes, the Tribunal agreed to the Armistice. Enraged and ashamed by this dishonor, Indoril lords engaged in mass-suicide; in Khalaan, it was taken to extremes and the city was burnt down to rubble by a firestorm which was both mundane and magickal.
The Imperials recognized the strategic location and built a new settlement on top of it and kept the (imperialized) name Ebonheart. It was kept as the capital of the Vvardenfell duchy/district, as the island itself was still closed off, with a Hlaalu as the duke.
Roughly 14 years before the date of Morrowind, Varus Vantinius, then an up-and-coming local commander of the Imperial Legion, found a loophole in the Armistice and "extended" Ebonheart across the Inner Sea, circumventing the ban on new settlements such as a "New" Ebonheart would have been.
Castle Ebonheart was built and – after the Imperial boot was already in the door – Vvardenfell was opened for colonisation. Over time, as the settlement was extended and the Argonian and Nord missions moved there, Castle Ebonheart became known as simply "Ebonheart".
Ebonheart on the mainland got stuck with the "Old" monicker in turn which was eventually formalized.
The first question is why is Old Ebonheart an Imperial settlement?
While the decision was made a long time and several forum generations ago, it can be surmised that the Tamriel Rebuilt modders on at that time decided to be consistent with TESIII‘s Imperial Ebonheart.
Additionally, the decision for Old Ebonheart to be Imperial was most likely made before Tribunal came out, so the obvious contender, the "Indoril" tileset, did not exist at all. As such, making it Indoril likely was not considered to be an option at the time.
Finally, during these very early times, there was a lot of back and forth discussions about settlement faction affiliation. In-game tilesets being gameplay conventions means that Old Ebonheart was decided to have an Imperial tileset because it was controlled by the Empire directly, not necessarily because the original settlement was lost and a new one built in the Imperial style.
Other cities had similar tileset discussions – compare, for example, Tamriel Rebuilt‘s Baan Malur and Silgrad Tower‘s Blacklight – but in the case of Old Ebonheart it had the precedence of the Vvardenfell Ebonheart, so it was never changed until it would have been too much work to do so.
The next question is why is there even an Old Ebonheart when Ebonheart already exists?
Prior to the release of TES III: Morrowind, Ebonheart was known to be on the mainland, with mentions in "The Real Barenziah". Judging from the planning map, back when TESIII was supposed to be a Daggerfall-style procedurally generated game, it was supposed to be a Hlaalu settlement. The map has since been made available, for example »here« [The Imperial Library].
Morrowind changed this for inexplicable reasons: suddenly, Ebonheart was located on Vvardenfell and a purely Imperial city (albeit with a Dunmer duke).
The answer is therefor rather straightforward: Ebonheart-on-Vvardenfell is underwhelming compared to the reputation Ebonheart has in lore, and Tamriel Rebuilt wanted to do the settlement justice.
Also, especially back then, Tamriel Rebuilt had a tendency to try to accommodate all existing lore (such as old maps), even when Bethesda themselves had retconned it. So in a way Tamriel Rebuilt was creating its own problem here: we could have just rolled with Bethesda's retcon of Ebonheart being a castle on Vvardenfell and avoided this whole issue.
But that probably wouldn't have been a popular decision, then or now. While, as late as 2015, ideas to simply rename Castle Ebonheart into "Yscad" or keep both settlements as simply "Ebonheart" was discussed, both were ultimately dropped due to the excessive compatibility problems.
The solution was to keep the two Ebonhearts and go the extra mile to justify both of their existences in their current form.
The final question is why was the backstory about the burning of Khalaan invented?
Tamriel Rebuilt originally followed Daggerfall-era lore, which indicates that there was a war before signing the Armistice. That led to the pretty straightforward idea that Ebonheart fell in the war, and an Imperial settlement was built in its place.
The prime in-game source for information about Ebonheart, "The Real Barenziah", does not make a direct reference to the city being destroyed in any way, although it makes vague references to a disaster following the Armistice, which affected Barenziah all the way in Mournhold:
Barenziah was shaken awake by her nurse, dressed hurriedly and carried from the palace. All she remembered of that dreadful time was seeing a huge shadow with burning eyes that filled the sky.
"Biography of Barenziah" actually reiterates on that point:
Trusting to their vaunted magic, the Dark Elves impudently refused until Tiber Septim's army was on the borders. An Armistice was hastily signed by the now-eager Dunmer, but not before there were several battles, one of which laid waste to Mournhold, now called Almalexia.
The series goes on to describe general destruction following the war and its aftermath, and Barenziah fleeing Mournhold. The idea that Ebonheart may have fallen in the war is thereby not incompatible with other information in the Barenziah books, so it seems like a reasonable and convenient extrapolation/expansion of existing lore.
However, as "On Morrowind" notes, there actually was no war at at all:
Contrived border incidents in Black Marsh ended inconclusively, but the swampy terrain did not favor legion and navy coordination. Against the legions massed west of Silgrad Tower and Kragenmoor, and the legions west of Blacklight and Cormaris View, Morrowind had pitifully small militias […] The situation changed radically when Vivec appeared in person in Vivec City to announce his negotiation of a treaty with Emperor Tiber Septim, reorganizing Morrowind as a province of the Empire, but guaranteeing "all rights of faith and self-government." A shocked Temple hierarchy, which apparently had not been consulted, greeted the announcement with awkward silence. Indoril swore they would resist to the death [...]
At first sight, this is not completely counter to the account in "Biography of Barenziah", which in one statement indicates the Dunmer reconsidered their resistence as soon as the legions reached the border of the province. However, the very next sentence contradicts this statement, claiming there were several battles, which included the razing of Morrowind's capital right in the center of Morrowind, which would seem to indicate a full invasion took place.
Tamriel Rebuilt modders initially decided to explain Old Ebonheart turning into an Imperial city by capitalizing on the second statement of "Biography of Barenziah".
However, the war did not happen. A few border skirmishes were fought in Black Marsh, which could not explain how Ebonheart fell. Vivec signed the Armistice specifically to avoid an all-out war (presumably wary of the newly-awakened Dagoth Ur), and in the fallout of the Armistice, Morrowind briefly descended into in-fighting and a big Hlaalu land grab.
The original reasoning was based on a misreading and not corrected in time. When the error was discovered, too much in-game work had been done into both lore and implementation to change it without scrapping the plan for the entire Imperial structure in Morrowind, so a slightly different take on the backstory was suggested.
Within this period of in-fighting, the Indoril "resistance to the death" is a lot more promising when interpreted as resistance against the Tribunal‘s shameful surrender, by committing mass-suicide of lords and retainers.
Dunmer cremate their dead and they might have interpreted their lives as followers of their gods over, as they could not agree with their rulership any longer. Bonfires and holocausts would have encompassed the Indoril holdings before Vivec could utter a rebuke and order them to live.
This same chain of events was probably how Bethesda would have explained Ebonheart being a Hlaalu settlement, (along with "a number of local councils changed hands in bloody coups" as mentioned in On Morrowind), but Tamriel Rebuilt had already decided to make Old Ebonheart Imperial, so the same reason was used to support a quick land grab by the Septim troops (and settlers) instead.