Ugarit was an important Canaanite city-state on the ancient Mediterranean coast. It was bordered to the north by Ḫatti and to the southeast by the kingdom of Amurru. Texts discovered at Ugarit document its history from approximately 1350 BCE to its destruction around 1190/85 BCE. Prior to the mid-fourteenth century, Ugarit was in the sphere of Egyptian dominance. Letters from Ugarit during the fourteenth century BCE therefore give information about Egyptian patronage and life in Ugarit during the Amarna period. In the mid-fourteenth century, the military campaigns of the Hittite King Šuppiluliuma I made Ugarit a vassal state of Ḫatti. However, Ugarit’s wealth gave it a degree of leverage in its relations both with Ḫatti and with its neighbor Amurru.
What was life like in Ugarit?
Ugarit was a cosmopolitan center. Five harbors conducted trade with cities along the eastern Mediterranean, from the Hittite regions to the north, Egypt to the south, and Cyprus to the west. Ugarit was also next to a trade route, which led from the coast inland to Syria and Mesopotamia. Ugarit was thus a prime transit point for overland Mesopotamian routes passing over the Euphrates at Karkamiš or Emar. Rich material artifacts survive from Ugarit that attest to its wealth and engagement in international exchange.
Why is Ugarit important?
Texts from Ugarit offer a multifaceted perspective on political relationships within Syria. In addition to the vassal treaties that established Hittite sovereignty, excavations have unearthed imperial legal verdicts as well as agreements between the rulers of Ugarit and Amurru. These texts reveal the workings of political life in Hittite Syria beyond the programmatic visions of the Hittite treaties.
For instance, royal women figure prominently in political and economic texts and letters. These texts reveal that Ugaritic royal women could maintain their position as queen after the reign of their husbands into the reign of their sons. Like royal women in the ancient Near East more broadly, Ugaritic royal women mediated power relationship among men and played pivotal roles in the transfer of power from fathers to sons. The two best-documented royal women, Aḫatumilki, wife of King Niqmepa (1313–1260 BCE), and Šarelli, wife of King Ibiranu (1235–1225/20 BCE), were active in domestic and diplomatic politics during the reigns of their sons. For example, Hittite legal verdicts record that Aḫatumilki defended the rule of her son Ammistamru (1260–1235 BCE) from a threat by his own brothers by exiling them to Cyprus.
In addition to these imperial texts written in Akkadian, hundreds of texts are preserved in the local language, Ugaritic. Like Hebrew, Ugaritic is a Northwest Semitic language, but it is written in its own system of alphabetic cuneiform. The structure of the Ugaritic language thus sheds light on developments in Hebrew and other Northwest Semitic languages.
Ugarit’s archives also contain a wealth of mythic and literary texts in Ugaritic. Three major works are the Baal Cycle, the Legend of Keret, and the Tale of Aqhat. They share in the cultural and religious matrix that gave rise to the literary traditions of ancient Israel and convey a world of deities that are reflected and recast in biblical texts. Among these deities the most prominent is Baal, the storm deity who resides on Mount Saphon and is the protagonist seeking kingship in the Baal Cycle. Imagery in biblical texts such as Ps 29 evoke aspects of Baal in the depiction of the God of Israel, who is asserted as the supreme ruler. The king and patriarch of the Ugaritic pantheon is El who rules with his wife Athirat, the mother of the gods. The motif of El’s divine council in the Baal Cycle is also found in the Hebrew Bible, when the enthroned Yahweh reigns over a divine council (Ps 82, 1 Kgs 22, Isa 6, Zech 3, and Dan 7). The worship of Baal and Athirat (biblical Asherah) is represented and condemned in biblical texts such as 1 Kgs 18. Ugarit’s political history, language, and literary traditions offer a rich avenue of study both in their own right and for the light they shed on the world that gave rise to the Hebrew Bible.
Image Credit: Fragment of the Ugaritic Baal Epic. Discovered at the Ras Shamra acropolis (House of the High Priest). Ca. 1400–1200 BCE. Courtesy Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, AO 16641.