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The Mysteries of Ugarit

Near Eastern Archaeology Volume 63 December 2000

Mesopotamian Influenced Mercantile Oligarchy

Pre-History and Archaeology Glossary

Excerpts and Definitions and Addendums:

Following what has now become a well established tradition NEA has dedicated another issue to a representative site from ancient Mediterranean West Asia ...

The discoveries made at this small regional kingdom of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) on the central Syrian coast since excavations began more than 70 years ago have significantly transformed the historical reconstructions of the eastern Mediterranean of the Late Bronze Age.

From the outset it was apparent that the tablets excavated were inscribed in an unknown language and system of writing (Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform). The diffusion of this alphabetic writing, facilitated by its simplicity as compared with the syllabic system and regarding which the scribes occupied a fundamental position, played an important role in Ugarit's fiscal and commercial development.

The site at Ras Shamra was occupied for an exceptionally long time. The first farmers settled there in the eighth millennium BC and it was not abandoned until the end of the second millenium. But the best known period is the last in its history dating from the end of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the twelth.

The tell of Ras Shamra was the site of the capital of the Kingdom of Ugarit, which occupied approximately 2000 square kilometres along the sea coast. Ugarit owed its prosperity to its agricultural resources, its commercial activity and its industrial products. These activities enabled the city's upper classes to enjoy a luxurious and refined lifestyle.

Texts in Akkadian, which constitute approximately eighty percent of the total, contain interesting diplomatic and commercial correspondences with the imperial powers of Egypt and with the local monarchs or potentates from the Syrian interior (Carchemish), from the Phoenician coast (Sidon, Beirut and Tyre) and from Cyprus. The end of the kingdom and its destruction at the beginning of the twelth century are linked with the Sea Peoples (Philistia and other groups less well known), who were responsible for all manner of destruction. Most notably they contributed to the end of the Hittite Empire within whose domain Ugarit was situated, and Ugarit itself.

For the last known period (circa 1250 - 1185 BC) the texts provide the names of a succession of kings: Ammishtamru II, Ibiranu, Niqmaddu III and the last king Ammurapi. They belonged to a royal dynasty that can be dated to this period based on their correspondence with better known historic personages. The texts describe an entire range of political and matrimonial alliances as well as the relations the kings of Ugarit maintained with their overlord the king of Hatti, to whom they paid tribute and for whom they provided troops.


The total and irrevocable diasappearance of the civilization of Ugarit was not entirely due to enemy attacks [hence not its repopulation afterwards] and to the growing insecurity at sea, which probably caused some decline in commercial exchange. There were also domestic factors. Not only did the people of Ugarit lack a taste for war, but the demands of the palace with its fiscal system and its practice of patronage became increasingly burdensome to the populace. The peasants were compelled to desert the fields to the detriment of the agricultural resources.


Ugarit occupied a major position in the Levant. It was the natural crossroads for the commercial trade coming from Mesopotamia that crossed the Euphrates at Carchemish or at Emar.

The sovereigns of small states were habitually dependent upon more powerful kings. The kings of Egypt and Anatolia were continually attracted to the Syro-Palestinian coast and Ugarit's position and its resulting wealth inevitably provoked their envy. Ugarit was for a long time the northernmost kingdom in the territory controlled by Egypt although it was not formally part of Egypt's Empire. The Hittites also subjugated a large part of Syria and made Ugarit into a vassal state ...

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