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 city.
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 Testament.
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.