Ugarit’s location used to be forgotten until 1928 when a peasant accidentally opened an old tomb while plowing a field. He had stumbled upon the Necropolis of Ugarit. The subsequent excavations have revealed an important city that takes its place alongside Ur and Eridu as a cradle of urban culture. Most excavations of Ugarit were done under dangerous political conditions by archaeologist Claude Schaeffer from the Prehistoric and Gallo-Roman Museum of Strasbourg.
The golden era of Ugarit was from 1450 to 1200 BC, but it was inhabited as far as 6,000 BC or even earlier. The first written evidence mentioning the city comes from the nearby city kingdom of Ebla 1800 BC. Ugarit passed into the sphere of influence of Egypt, which deeply influenced its art. The earliest Ugaritic contact with Egypt (and the first exact dating of Ugaritic civilization) comes from a carnelian bead identified with the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Sesostris I, 1971-1926 BC. A stela and a statuette from the Egyptian pharaohs Sesostris II and Amenemhet III have also been found.
Later Ugarit fell under the control of new tribes related to the Hyksos, who mutilated the Egyptian-style monuments. During its high culture, from the 16th to the 13th century BC, Ugarit remained in constant touch with Egypt and Cyprus. The last Bronze Age king of Ugarit ‘Amurapi was a contemporary of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma II. The exact dates of his reign are unknown. A cuneiform tablet found in 1986 shows that Ugarit was destroyed after the death of Merneptah, that is, probably in 1195 BC. Whether Ugarit was destroyed before or after Hattusa, the Hittite capital is debated.
Scribes in Ugarit appear to have originated the Ugaritic alphabet around 1400 BC. Thirty letters corresponding to sounds were adapted from cuneiform characters and inscribed on clay tablets. There is ongoing debate as to whether the Phoenician or Ugaritic alphabet is the oldest. It was the Phoenician alphabet that spread through the Aegean and on Phoenician trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Compared with the difficulty of writing Akkadian in cuneiform -such as the Amarna Letters, from c. 1350 BC-the flexibility of an alphabet opened a horizon of literacy to many more kinds of people.
In addition to royal correspondence with neighboring Bronze Age monarchs, Ugaritic literature from tablets found in the libraries include mythological texts written in a narrative poetry, letters, legal documents such as land transfers, a few international treaties, and a number of administrative lists. Fragments of several poetic works have been identified: the “Legend of Kirtu,” the “Legend of Dan-el” the Ba’al tales that detail Baal-Hadad’s conflicts with Yam and Mot, and other fragments. The most important piece of literature recovered from Ugarit is arguably the Baal cycle, describing the basis for the religion and cult of the Canaanite Baal.
The discovery of the Ugaritic archives has been of great significance to biblical scholarship, as these archives for the first time provided a detailed description of Canaanite religious beliefs during the period directly preceding the Israelite settlement. These texts show significant parallels to Biblical Hebrew literature, particularly in the areas of divine imagery and poetic form. Ugaritic poetry has many elements later found in Hebrew poetry: parallelisms, meters, and rhythms. The discoveries at Ugarit have led to a new appraisal of the Old Testament as literature.
Ugaritic religion centered on the chief god, Ilu or El, the “father of mankind”, “the creator of the creation”. The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the ‘lhm. The most important of the great gods were Hadad, the king of Heaven; Athirat or Asherah (mentioned in the Bible); Yam (Sea, the god of the primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction); and Mot (death). Other gods worshipped at Ugarit included Dagon (Grain), Tirosch, Horon, Resheph (healing), the craftsman Kothar-and-Khasis (skilled and clever), Shahar (dawn), and Shalim (dusk).
What to See
The excavations uncovered a royal palace of 90 rooms laid out around eight enclosed courtyards, many ambitious private dwellings, including two private libraries (one belonging to a diplomat named Rapanu) that contained diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts.
Crowning the city’s hill were two main temples: the Temple of Baal the king, son of El, and the Temple of Dagon, the God of Fertility and Wheat. There are also numerous ancient royal cave-tombs that can be seen at the site.
Documents, statues and jewels from the Ugarit Kingdom are on display at the Lattakia, Aleppo and Tartus Museums. The tablet bearing what is probably the world’s first alphabet can be seen at the National Museum in Damascus.
The world’s first alphabet!
Ugaritic, a Semitic language closely related to Phoenician which was spoken in the city state of Ugarit in northern Syria…