The site of Ugarit lies some six miles north of the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. Its ruins, in the form of a mound or tell, lie half a mile from the shore. Although the name of the city was known from Egyptian and Hittite sources, its location and history were a mystery until the accidental discovery in 1928 of an ancient tomb at the small Arab village of Ras Shamra. A French archaeological mission under the direction of Claude F.-A. Schaeffer (1898–1982) began excavations in 1929. This was followed by a series of digs through 1939. Limited work was undertaken in 1948, but full-scale work did not resume until 1950.
The city’s location ensured its importance through trade. To the west lay a good harbor (the bay of Minet el-Beida), while to the east a pass led to the heart of Syria and northern Mesopotamia through the mountain range that lies parallel with the coast. The city also sat astride an important north-south coastal trade route linking Anatolia and Egypt.
It is clear from excavations that Ugarit was first settled in the Neolithic period (about 6500 B.C.) and had grown into a substantial town by the early third millennium B.C. Ugarit is mentioned in cuneiform documents discovered at Mari on the Euphrates dating to the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.). However, it was in the fourteenth century B.C. that the city entered its golden age. At that time, the prince of Byblos, the wealthy trading coastal city (in modern Lebanon), wrote to the Egyptian king Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten, r. ca. 1353–1336 B.C.) to warn him about the power of the neighboring city Tyre and compared its magnificence with that of Ugarit:
See, there is no mayor’s residence that can compare with that of Tyre. It is like the residence at Ugarit. Extraordinary large are the riches there.
Ugarit was a flourishing city, its streets lined with two-story houses dominated on the northeastern side of the tell by an acropolis with two temples dedicated to the gods Baal and Dagan. A large palace, built from finely dressed stones and consisting of numerous courtyards, pillared halls, and a columned entrance gate, occupied the western edge of the city. In a special wing of the palace were a number of rooms apparently devoted to administration, since hundreds of cuneiform tablets were discovered there covering almost all aspects of the life of Ugarit from the fourteenth to the twelfth century B.C. It is clear that the city dominated the surrounding land (though the full extent of the kingdom is uncertain).
From around 1500 B.C., the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni had dominated much of Syria, but by 1400 B.C., when the earliest tablets at Ugarit were written, Mitanni was in decline. This was mainly a result of repeated attacks by the Hittites of Central Anatolia. Eventually, around 1350 B.C., Ugarit, along with much of Syria as far south as Damascus, fell under Hittite domination. According to the texts, other states had tried to draw Ugarit into an anti-Hittite alliance, but the city refused and called on the Hittites for help. After the Hittites conquered the region, a treaty was drawn up that made Ugarit a Hittite subject-state. The Akkadian version of the treaty, covering several tablets, was recovered at Ugarit. The Ugarit state grew as a result, gaining territories from the defeated alliance. The Hittite king also recognized the ruling dynasty’s right to the throne. Texts, however, suggest that an enormous tribute was paid to the Hittites.
Merchants figure prominently in Ugarit’s archives. The citizens engaged in trade, and many foreign merchants were based in the state, for example from Cyprus exchanging copper ingots in the shape of ox hides. The presence of Minoan and Mycenaean pottery suggests Aegean contacts with the city. It was also the central storage place for grain supplies moving from the wheat plains of northern Syria to the Hittite court.
The population was mixed with Canaanites (inhabitants of the Levant) and Hurrians from Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Foreign languages written in cuneiform at Ugarit include Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian, and Cypro-Minoan. But most important is the local alphabetic script that records the native Semitic language “Ugaritic.” From evidence at other sites, it is certain that most areas of the Levant used a variety of alphabetic scripts at this time. The Ugaritic examples survive because the writing was on clay using cuneiform signs, rather than drawn on hide, wood, or papyrus. While most of the texts are administrative, legal, and economic, there are also a large number of literary texts with close parallels to some of the poetry found in the Hebrew Bible.
Around 1200 B.C., the Hittite empire suddenly collapsed. Many letters of this late period are preserved at Ugarit and reveal a city suffering from raids by pirates. One of the groups, the Shikala, can be connected with “sea peoples” who appear in contemporary Egyptian inscriptions as a vast hoard of looting vandals. Whether the fall of the Hittites and Ugarit should be attributed to these people is not certain, and they may have been more a result than a cause. However, the magnificent palace, harbor, and much of the city were destroyed and Ugarit was never resettled.