Ugarit , capital of the Ugarit kingdom, is an ancient city lying in a
large artificial mound called Ras Shamra (Ra's Shamrah), 10 km north
of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast
of northern Syria. Its ruins, less than 1 Km from the shore, were first
uncovered by the plow of a peasant at Al-Bayda Bay. The name of this city
was known from Egyptian and Hittite sources, its location and history were a
mystery until the accidental discovery (1928) of an ancient tomb at the
small Arab village of Ras Shamrah. Excavations were begun in 1929 by a
French archaeological mission under the direction of Claude F.A. Schaeffer.
The site was been particularly rich in finds, which have yielded much
valuable historical information and from which a partial account of the city
has been constructed.
The golden age of Ugarit
Ugarit was probably occupied from the first appearance of humans in
Syria, but the most prosperous and the best-documented age in Ugarit's
history, dated from about 1450 to about 1200 BC, produced great royal
palaces and temples and shrines, with a high priests' library and
other libraries on the acropolis. Some of the family vaults built under the
stone houses show strong Mycenaean influence. Mycenaean and Cypriot
pottery in great amounts has also been found.
After the discovery of the temple library, which revealed a
hitherto unknown cuneiform alphabetic script as well as an entirely new
mythological and religious literature, several other palatial as well as
private libraries were found, along with archives dealing with all
aspects of the city's political, social, economic, and cultural life.
The art of Ugarit in its golden age is best illustrated by a golden cup
and patera (bowl) ornamented with incised Ugaritic scenes; by carved stone
stelae and bronze statuettes and ceremonial axes; by carved ivory panels
depicting royal activities; and by other fine-carved ivories. Despite
Egyptian influence, Ugaritic art exhibits a Syrian style of its own.
Soon after 1200 BC Ugarit came to an end. Its fall coincided with the
invasion of the Northern and Sea Peoples and certainly with earthquakes and
famines. In the Iron Age and during the 6th-4th century BC, there were small
settlements on the site (Leukos Limen).
The excavators of the site were fortunate in the number and variety of
finds of ancient records in
cuneiform script. The excavations continue, and each season throws
some new and often unexpected light on the ancient north Canaanite
civilization. The texts are written on clay tablets either in the Babylonian
cuneiform script or in the special alphabetic cuneiform script invented in
Ugarit. Several copies of this alphabet, with its 30 signs, were
found in 1949 and later. A shorter alphabet, with 25, or even 22, signs,
seems to have been used by 13th-century traders.
Scribes used four languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hurrian,
and seven different scripts were used in Ugarit in this period: Egyptian and
Hittite hieroglyphic and Cypro-Minoan, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and
Ugaritic cuneiform. These show clearly the cosmopolitan character of the
The Middle Bronze Age period.
A carnelian bead identified with the pharaoh Sesostris I (reigned
1971-28 BC) and a stela and statuettes, gifts to the kings of Ugarit from
other Middle Kingdom pharaohs (e.g., Sesostris II, 1897-78, and Amenemhet
III, 1842-1797), provided the first exact dating in the history of Ugarit.
Eggshell ware from Crete (Middle Minoan period) and Babylonian cylinder
seals found in the tombs of level II also provided cross datings. During the
18th and 17th centuries BC, Ugarit was apparently under the control of new
tribes related to the Hyksos, probably mainly Hurrians or Mitannians, who
mutilated the Egyptian monuments.
Ras Shamra texts and the Bible
Many texts discovered at Ugarit, including the "Legend of Keret,"
the "Aghat Epic" (or "Legend of Danel"), the "Myth of Baal-Aliyan," and the
"Death of Baal," reveal an Old Canaanite mythology. A tablet names the
Ugaritic pantheon with Babylonian equivalents; El, Asherah of
the Sea, and Baal were the main deities. These texts not only
constitute a literature of high standing and great originality but also have
an important bearing on Old Testament studies. It is now evident that
the patriarchal stories in the Old Testament were not merely transmitted
orally but were based on written documents of Canaanite origin, the
discovery of which at Ugarit has led to a new appraisal of the Old
The Ras Shamra mound
Soundings made through the Ras Shamra mound revealed a reliable
stratigraphic sequence of settlements from the beginning of the Neolithic
period. Above the ground level, five main upper levels (levels V to I) were
identified. The three lowest levels have been subdivided into smaller
layers. The earliest settlement on level V--already a small fortified town
in the 7th millennium BC--shows a prepottery stage with flint industries.
Also on level V, but in a later layer, light, sun-dried pottery appears.
Level IV and part of level III date back to the Chalcolithic, or
Copper-Stone, Age, when new ethnic groups arrived from the northeast and the
east. This stage shows Mediterranean as well as strong Mesopotamian
influence. During the Early Chalcolithic Age, painted pottery of the
Hassunan and Halafian cultures of northern Iraq is very common. The Late
Chalcolithic shows fresh Mesopotamian influence with its monochromatic,
Ubaidian, geometric painted pottery. The flint industry was then in
competition with the first metal tools, made of copper. The Early Bronze Age
(3rd millennium) layers, immediately above, in level III, yielded no more
painted ware but various monochromatic burnished wares and some red polished
ware of Anatolian origin. With Early Bronze Age III, metallurgy quickly
developed. In the Middle Bronze Age, newcomers, so-called Torque-Bearers,
expert in bronze metallurgy, arrived (c. 2000-1900 BC). Levels II and I
correspond to historical periods within the 2nd millennium BC.
Attractions and historical building
- Among the more important discoveries at Ugarit are
tablets from the 14th cent. B.C. Written in a cuneiform script, in a
hitherto unknown language, Ugaritic, they record the poetic works and myths
of the ancient Canaanites. They are written in an alphabet that is one of
the earliest known. Ugaritic has been identified as a Semitic language,
related to classical Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, and these
tablets, the first authentic specimens of pagan Canaanite literature, have
been of great importance to students of language and of the Bible. They
offer evidence that the stories of the Old Testament were based on written
Canaanite documents as well as being passed down orally.
- The main palace dates back to the 14th to 13th century BC. There
are two pillars on both sides of the entrance. Through the entrance between
the pillars is a courtyard sort of reception area which opens up into the
rest of the palace. On the left of this courtyard are a few rooms that where
the important archives were found. Also evident in the courtyard are the
water canals that would send the water around the building. Further on are
the 90 rooms situated in a maze like structure covering an area of
approximately 6500 sq. meters.
On both the north and south sides of the main palace is what are called
subsidiary palaces. There are also a few resident houses with a
shrine, and the Governor's residence, which is older as it was not
rebuilt after the 14th century BC. East of the main palace is the
residential area. There is a large building in this quarter which is called
the House of Rupanu. Further up the tell is the main temple area.
There are two temples on this acropolis, one dedicated to the worship
of the Semitic patron deity Baal, and the other to Dagon.
The temple of Baal is structured as a courtyard with an altar in the
center, the cella like that of the Palmyrean Temple of Bel. The temple of
Dagon who is God of the Underworld, follows the same plan as the Baal
temple. In between the two temples are the priests quarters where an archive
of religious writings and chants were found.
Some private houses were found, which have provided information about the
various handicrafts that the inhabitants may have practiced including ship
building, weaving, and ceramic work, not to mention bronze work.