Ugarit (Ras al-Shamra):
About 10 – 13 km north of Lattakia; Ugarit has given the world its first alphabet and stood as a very important, brave city of the Phoenicians. It actively participated in trade around the eastern Mediterranean and from here much of the later Phoenician commercial and cultural expansion took its inspiration, not least through the development of the alphabet.
Ugarit is one of the few Bronze Age sites in the Middle East which offers identifiable remains to the casual visitor and not simply to the specialist scholar or those who have the time to familiarize themselves with the wealth of published information extracted from the site. Unlike other centers of the period, the palace and religious buildings were built in stone. Whereas the mud and brick of cities such as Mari and Ebla has quickly eroded with rain and wind on exposure to the archaeologist’s spade, Ugarit survived with at least its foundation courses and a good deal of its walls clearly delineated in stone.
Excavated almost continuously over the course of 50 years, Ugarit has served as one of the anchor-points of modern archaeological research and biblical studies illustrating in particular the Canaanite milieu in which the Biblical world later emerged. The chance discovery of the site in 1928 quickly confirmed the identity of the remains with Ugarit, mentioned in the archives of Mari and of Tell a-Amarna in Egypt. Exploration began in 1929 under French auspices and continued until 1970 under the direction of Claude Schaeffer. Marguerite Yon started directing the excavations in the site after 1974.
The earliest settlements at Ras Shamra go back much earlier than Bronze Age. Neolithic remains were found at the base of the Tell, dating from the 7th millennium BC. The city, lying close to Cyprus, a rich source of copper, shared in the general rise in sophistication of technology and political organization in the area in the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC) and through trade was drawn into the orbit of the Mesopotamian world. For the Mesopotamians, it offered access for their goods, a source of permanent building materials (wood and stone) and a point of contact with the wider Mediterranean world.
A dark age descended around 2200 BC. The city seems to have been burnt and its population probably diminished. A new wave of immigrations in the region, however, brought fresh infusions of population with the coming of the Amorites around 2000 BC. The Canaanites, a Semitic-language group from the south, formed the pre-dominant population during the new millennium.
Ugarit’s commercial potential as the key point on the Mediterranean/Mesopotamian route was fully exposed during the second millennium. Economically, the city was developing when the Egyptians turned to Ugarit as a source of timber and other imports. This golden age saw the establishment of a local Ugaritic dynasty, whose authority was underpinned by the balance struck between Egyptian power under the XI and XII Dynasties (c2000 – 1800 BC) and Hammurabi’s dominance in Mesopotamia.
Even at the peak, the Kingdom of Ugarit did not control extensive territory. The King’s writ probably ran no further than the mountain range directly behind the city and the land between the present Turkish border to the north and Jeble. The city’s prosperity was based on agricultural riches of its hinterland and its trading role rather than extensive political control.
Ugarit flourished again in the Later Bronze Age (around 1600) after Hyksos invasion of Egypt. Again, there were immigrations from Mitanni and Hurrian elites, but the population remained basically Canaanite. Ugarit recovered and was rebuilt after an earthquake and a tidal wave hit the city in the mid 14th century BC.
The subsequent golden age (14th – 13th centuries BC) accounts for much of the building achievements now visible when the city benefited from the Egyptian/Mitannian peace. The warehouses were overflowing and one of the earliest alphabets greatly simplified record-taking and accounting; thirty cuneiform symbols – that based on the principle of “one sound, one sign” – were a much simpler method of recording language than the unwieldy pictogram-based cuneiform. The archives include: political dealings, tax and commercial accounts, religious texts, diplomatic correspondence in Babylonian syllabic cuneiform, some scholarly texts in Hurrian and a few in Cypriot-Minoan script.
With remote power of the Hittites in Turkey by 14th century BC, Ugarit King urges the Pharaoh to appease the Hittites with gifts. The 13th century brought other changes, in particular links with the Aegean. The city’s rule was brought to an end after by the Sea Peoples invasion in about 1200 BC that probably caused the destruction of the city’s palace-based economy. Consequently, the local economy probably reverted to a more traditional village-based system.
There are only a few remains of the fortress, walls and postern gate which once protected the palace complex. This defensive work had begun in the 15th century BC. The city walls were formed by smoothing off – at 45° – the slope of the mound created by preceding occupation layers and covering this with a stone glacis. The latter was supplemented by a bastion or tower protecting the official entry.
The Main Palace:
Dates from the second half of the Late Bronze Age phase of the city’s occupation (14th – 13th centuries BC). One can see the portico with two pillar bases which mark the main entrance to the palace from the bastion. The passageway from the entrance leads to a small courtyard/reception area for guests from which the palace proper opens to the south. The palace had over 90 rooms, 6 courtyards and archive store. There were subsidiary palaces to the north and south of the main palace complex.
It is 200 m high to the north east. There are two main temples on the acropolis:
– Temple of Baal:
Baal was the patron deity of the city. He represented strength, fertility and control of the weather. The temple lies on the north western side of the acropolis. Its plan consists of an open courtyard with a central altar. Beyond this, the sanctuary is preceded by a vestibule. The walls of the latter were extraordinary thick in order to conceal internal staircases on three sides leading upwards to form a tower rising above the cella (the sanctrum or the room which houses the altar).
– Temple of Dagon:
Dagon was the god of fertility in Ugaritic pantheon. The temple’s outline can only be seen in the foundation remains but it follows much the same basic plan as the Baal Temple though the walls are even thicker.
Ras Shamra/Ugarit (رآس شمرا/آوغاريت) is one of the most important bronze age archaeological sites in Syria, and was the capital of a large kingdom that controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean coast. The Ugaritic language was one of the first to develop an alphabet, at around 1400 BC. There is debate as to whether the Ugaritic or Phoenician alphabet came first, and there is likely some relation between the two. While the site itself is not in the most well-preserved state, it is nonetheless an interesting place to visit and only a short trip outside of Lattakia (اللاذقية).
Getting There: Frequent microbuses travel to Ras Shamra/Ugarit (رآس شمرا/آوغاريت) from a small microbus stop near the city center of Lattakia (اللاذقية). The trip takes about 15 minutes.