Ugarit (modern site Ras Shamra) was an ancient cosmopolitan port city, sited on the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria a few kilometers north of the modern city of Latakia. Ugarit was at its height about 1450 BC to 1200 BCE. Repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament, its location was forgotten but rediscovered in 1928 by a female peasant of the Alaouite tribe plowing a field, accidentally opening an old tomb. The discovered area was the Necropolis of Ugarit. Excavations have since revealed an important city that takes its place alongside Ur and Eridu as a cradle of urban culture, with a prehistory reaching back to ca 6000 BCE.

Ugarit sent tribute to Egypt and maintained trade and diplomatic connections with Cyprus, documented in the archives recovered from the site and corroborated by Mycenaean and Cypriot pottery found there.

Scribes in Ugarit appear to have originated the alphabet about 1400 BCE; 30 letters, corresponding to sounds, were adapted from cuneiform characters and inscribed on clay tablets (but cf. Byblos). Eventually the Phoenician heirs of Ugaritic culture spread the alphabet through the Aegean. Compared to the difficulty of writing Akkadian in cuneiform, the flexibility of an alphabet opened a literate horizon to many more kinds of people.The very limited literacy of Minoan culture at contemporary Knossos may be compared to Ugarit.

Though the site was inhabited earlier, Neolithic Ugarit was already important enough to be fortified with a wall in 6000 BCE. The first written evidence naming the city comes from the nearby city of Ebla, ca 1800 BCE. 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 BCE. 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 (probably Hurrians or Mitannians) who mutiliated the Egyptian-style monuments. During its high culture, from the 16th to the 13th century BCE, Ugarit remained in constant touch with Egypt and Cyprus.

Then, about 1200 BCE Ugarit collapsed and withered away. Many other Mediterranean cultures were deeply disordered just at the same time, apparently by invasions of the mysterious 'Peoples of the Sea.'

The site of Ugarit at Ras Shamra includes 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 hill on which the city was built were two main temples: one to Baal the 'king' son of El, and one to Dagon, the underworld chthonic god of fertility and wheat.

On excavation on the site, several deposits of cuneiform clay tablets were found, constituting a palace library, a temple library and, apparently unique in the world at the time, two private libraries, all dating from the last phase of Ugarit, about 1200 BCE. The tablets found at the site are written in four languages in this cosmopolitan center: Sumerian, Akkadian (the language of diplomacy in the ancient Near East), Hurrian and Ugaritic of which no prior knowledge existed when the discoveries were made. No less than seven different scripts were in use at Ugarit: Egyptian and Hittite hieroglyphic, and Cypro-Minoan, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic cuneiform.

During excavations in 1958 another library was uncovered. These were however sold on the black market and not recovered until the 1970s, the so-called 'Claremont Ras Shamra Tablets.'

Most excavations of Ugarit were undertaken under extreme political conditions by archeologist Claude Schaeffer from the Prehistoric and Gallo-Roman Museum of Strasbourg.

Ugaritic literature from tablets found in the libraries is all poetry, with the exception of some working lists. Fragments of several poetic works have been identified: the "Legend of Keret," the "Legend of Dan-el" the "Myth of Baal-Aliyan" the "Death of Baal" and other fragments. Ugaritic poetry has many elements later found in Hebrew poetry: parallelisms, meters, rhythms. The discoveries at Ugarit have led to a new appraisal of the Old Testament as a literature. Some references to historical events, and even mythological concepts that appear in the Bible, also appear on the clay tablets from Ugarit.

Ugaritic religion centered on the chief god, El, the 'father of mankind, 'the creator of the creation,' titles that were to have counterparts in the Elohim of Israel. In 2 Kings 22:19-22, we read of Yahweh meeting with his heavenly council, the very description of heaven which one finds in the Ugaritic texts. The most important of the lesser gods were Baal (familiar to all readers of the Bible), Asherah (also familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (the god of the sea) and Mot (the god of death). What is of great interest here is that 'Yam' is the Hebrew word for sea and 'Mot' is the Hebrew word for death.

Ugarit also had profound influence on the religious cult of the Canaanites and Philistines that succeeded it, and not indirectly on religious practices developing in the succeeding kingdom of Israel.

Last kings of Ugarit from the tablets:

1349 ‘Ammittamru I
1325 Niqmaddu II
1315 Arhalba
1291 Niqmepa 2
1236 ‘Ammitt1193- Niqmaddu III
1185 ‘Ammurapi

See also: Ugaritic language, Ugaritic alphabet

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