Ugarit Research Paper

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Ugarit is the name of an ancient urban center located on the Syrian coast. The contemporary Arabic name for the site is Ras Shamra (Fennel Cape). It was a cosmopolitan center of trade during the Middle Bronze II and Late Bronze periods (2000–1550 BCE and 1550–1200 BCE, respectively), with an ethnically diverse population. Since 1929 many texts written in Hurrian, Akkadian, Sumerian, and Ugaritic (the native language of the city’s inhabitants), have been discovered within its environs. Significant archeological discoveries have also been made at Minet el-Beida (west of the city on the coast), believed to be its port, and at Ras Ibn Hani, located some 4.5 kilometers to the south. The archeological record indicates that Ugarit was first occupied in the seventh millennium BCE and enjoyed its cultural zenith from the fourteenth through the thirteenth centuries BCE, from the time of the reign of Niqmaddu II (reigned c. 1350–1315 BCE) through the reign of Ammurapi (reigned c. 1215–1190/1185 BCE). During this time, the city was the center of a kingdom whose territorial expanse—at its height—was roughly 5,425 square kilometers. Extant evidence suggests that the city was destroyed around 1190 BCE by an invading force from the eastern Mediterranean region. Ugaritic documents identify the invaders as the “Shikila people,” part of the larger group of “sea peoples” known to have attacked the Egyptian and Hittite kingdoms during the same period. After its destruction, the site was occupied only sparingly during the fifth to fourth centuries BCE and the first century BCE. One of history’s unresolved mysteries surrounds the virtual abandonment of this strategically vital site after the twelfth century BCE.

At its cultural high point, the population of Ugarit and its surrounding kingdom reached thirty-one thousand to thirty-three thousand persons; about six thousand to eight thousand of them lived in the city proper, with another twenty-five thousand occupying a vast array of rural villages surrounding it. It was one of several independent coastal Levantine (referring to the eastern Mediterranean) city-states that flourished during the Middle Bronze II and Late Bronze Periods. The city’s location on a land bridge of strategic importance to these kingdoms, several of which had colonies and imperial holdings throughout the Near East, had a profound impact on its history. During this time the city enjoyed a high degree of prosperity due in large part to favorable climactic conditions and its leaders’ ability to negotiate political arrangements with the city’s powerful neighbors. Such important arrangements included the establishment of detente with Egypt, the formation of a protective alliance with the Amurru kingdom located to its immediate south, and eventual accession to vassalage under the Hittite Empire located to its north.

The city’s native language, Ugaritic, has affinities with Hebrew and other Canaanite dialects and is part of the Afroasiatic phylum. It is written in an alphabetic cuneiform script consisting of thirty signs. Ugaritic writing is almost strictly consonantal. Vowels are indicated very sparingly. Future study of this language and its script is likely to shed additional light on the development of writing systems in Phoenicia and Greece. It also promises to help us better understand the history of literacy in early and late antiquity. The corpus of Ugaritic literature consists of a rich and varied assortment of genres. The major edited collection of these texts (KTU) has identified literary and religious texts, letters, legal texts, economic texts, scribal exercises, and inscriptions on objects, as well as some texts that are unclassified and others that are illegible or fragmentary.

Ugarit was historically a prosperous and politically stable city governed by a single dynasty. Although less than half of the site has been fully excavated, evidence of intricate urban planning, with particular attention to public works, including city walls, streets, water works, and sewage facilities, has been found. Intensive agriculture and international trade via land and sea fueled the city’s economy. Cereals, grapes, and olives were grown. Stone was quarried, timber was harvested, and both cattle and sheep were raised. Given its proximity to the coast, fishing may well have been one of its mainstays. Industrial activities within the city and at its port included the manufacture of purple dye, textiles, pottery, household utensils, luxury items (metal and precious stones), and weapons. Slavery was also permissible.

Ugarit’s monarch shared power with a prefect, queen, and nobles. Members of the royal family also exercised some influence in the determination of affairs of state. Its society was stratified, though not in a rigid manner. Vertical and horizontal movement was possible. Although it was a patriarchal society, women were afforded a number of rights and privileges. They could inherit family property, if so designated by the appropriate male head of household (i.e., a father or husband), designate heirs, initiate proceedings for divorce and adoption, purchase and dispense of property, and retain control of the possessions brought into a marital arrangement in the event of dissolution.

The populace was separated into two large classes. The first consisted of “men of the king.” These were craft specialists, warriors, and members of other elite groups retained by the monarch for service to the crown. The second was made up of the members of the general populace, whose affairs were governed by familial norms and local customs enforced at the community level by councils of elders. The Ugaritic social hierarchy was extraordinarily complex and contained an array of military, scribal, and administrative classes.

Extended family units consisting of parents, children, and other relatives appear to have been the norm. Furthermore, one’s family consisted of members both living and deceased. Thus, proper exercise of familial obligations included veneration of one’s ancestors. Along with the worship of familial deities, ancestor veneration appears to have been an essential feature of Ugaritic religious life. Ugaritic theology was polytheistic. In excess of a hundred gods are mentioned in various pantheon lists and other sources. Chief among these are El and Asherah (the divine regent and his spouse), Baal (the storm god and coregent), Anat (warrior, member of the divine royal household, and sister of Baal), Yamm (the deified ocean and major rival of Baal for cosmic coregency), and Mot (the god that embodies the forces of death and dissolution in all of their cosmic and earthly manifestations). Two large temples and a rich assortment of ritual texts have been excavated that provide evidence of a complex religious hierarchy with several levels of functionaries including administrators, priests, and other officials.

Ugaritic expressive culture was also highly developed. The achievements of the city’s artists in the areas of music, architecture, sculpture, and folklore are noteworthy.

In sum, data from Ugarit tell us a great deal about life in ancient Syria. Its material artifacts, texts, and history are also of particular interest to philologists, anthropologists, and other scholars of antiquity because of the light that its language, lore, and culture shed on developments in the larger Mediterranean world as well as in Anatolia, Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.


  1. Dietrich, M., Loretz, O., & Sanmartin, J. (Eds.). (1995). The cuneiform alphabetic texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and other places (KTU) (2nd ed., Abhadnlungen zur Literatur Alt-Syrien-Palastinas und Mesopotamiens, Band 8). Munster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag.
  2. Mazar, A. (1992). Archaeology of the land of the Bible: 10,000–586 BCE. New York: Doubleday.
  3. Pardee, D., & Bordreuil, P. (1992). Ugarit: Texts and literature. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), Anchor Bible dictionary (Vol. 6, pp. 706–721). New York: Doubleday.
  4. Van Soldt, W. H. (2000). Ugarit: A second-millennium kingdom on the Mediterranean coast. In J. Sasson (Ed.), Civilizations of the ancient Near East (Vol. 2, pp. 1255–1266). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  5. Watson, W. G. E., & Wayatt, N. (Eds.). (1999). Handbook of Ugaritic studies. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
  6. Wyatt, N. (Ed.) (1998). Religious texts from Ugarit: The Words of Ilimilku and his colleagues. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press.
  7. Yon, M. (1992). Ugarit: History and archaeology. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), Anchor Bible dictionary (Vol. 6, pp. 695–706). New York: Doubleday.

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