Forgotten City

The other day I came across an interesting article in Archaeology dealing with an ancient city I’d never heard of – Ugarit. The city was founded around 2000 B.C. on the coast of what is now northern Syria, presumably because it had a good harbor. As an independent city-state located on the northern border of the Egyptian empire and on the southern border of the Hittite empire, for roughly 800 years Ugarit maintained semi-independence and prospered as a trading hub. At some time in the period 1350-1315 B.C. Ugarit became a vassal-state of the Hittite Empire, but remained self-governing, and continued trading with both Egypt and the Hittite Empire, as well as with other Mediterranean lands.

Unfortunately, Ugarit was attacked, burned, and leveled by the “Sea Peoples” in roughly 1185 B.C., during a period when the “Sea Peoples” also obliterated states and cities in Cyprus, Canaan, and Turkey . The area around Ugarit was not reoccupied for almost 300 years, and the ruins of the city were covered and never reoccupied. But because all records were kept on clay tablets, more than 5000 have been recovered since the 1930s, and many have been translated, revealing that the city was a wealthy commercial hub, where five separate writing systems and eight languages were in use simultaneously. Ugarit also boasted a large royal palace and a hundred and fifty foot tall temple to Baal that was likely also a lighthouse towering over the harbor.

Culturally, Ugarit was also different in other ways from neighboring lands. Women had far more autonomy compared to contemporaneous cultures, and records show that women owned property in their own right, that unmarried or widowed women could be heads of households, and that queens had separate estates and held prominent diplomatic and religious positions. Poems and what appear to be scripts for plays with stage direction have also been discovered, written in the Ugaritic language, as well as works from other cultures.

In the century before Urgarit’s fall, the scribes there developed and began to use the first alphabetic system that included signs for vowels, but the destruction of the city was so thorough that no one survived or returned, even to claim buried hordes of wealth, and it was more than two centuries later before the Phoenicians re-developed alphabetic writing.

In reading all that, I couldn’t help wondering how much else was lost, and whether history would have been different if a city-state I’d never heard of had survived.

12 thoughts on “Forgotten City”

  1. Do you happen to have a link or DOI for the article? This sort of thing is right up my alley and I would love to learn more 🙂

    1. So far as I know, Archaeology doesn’t have a web edition. The Ugarit story is entitled “The Ugarit Archives” and appears on page 24 of the July/August 2021 edition.

  2. Tim says:

    The discovery of the Ebla tablets by two Italian archaeologists is also worth a read. The book I have is entitled “Ebla – an archaeological enigma”. I bought it from one of the book sites having first read it many years ago.

    More recently Irving Finkel of the British Museum has written a book about one particular cuneiform tablet he was given. The book is titled “the Ark before Noah” and it is well written. His youtube videos are also quite entertaining which his why his videos as a curator for the BM have so many views.

    1. That’s the article. I stand corrected!

  3. MRE says:

    Fascinating, never heard of it either! Reminds me of my first read of Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C.W. Ceram, where he goes through several of major archaeological discoveries that knocked the socks off of academics (mine as well!).

  4. RRCRrea says:

    As someone who studied Ugarit (and Ebla… and the Sea Peoples) as an undergraduate 30 years ago, it’s always a bit of a shock to realize that people have a very superficial awareness of the fine-grained nature of past civilizations… But, then again, I guess that’s also why I have a job teaching this sort of thing.
    Women in general were better off than people think they were in many of the civilizations with which Ugrarit was closely associated (Egypt, Minoan Crete, etc.)
    Some of those tablets detail the Ba’al Cycle of Myths (Ba’al Hadad, actually, since Ba’al is more of title for a god). One of my favorite little known myths. But then there’s also the contemporaneous Hittite myth of Teshub and Illuyanka, the weirdest dragon slaying story ever (involves marrying the dragon’s daughter and going to work for her father…)

    1. John Mai says:

      …(involves marrying the dragon’s daughter and going to work for her father…)
      Pfft. That’s no big deal, I did that in my early twenties.

  5. Grey says:

    One of my ancient history fascinations is the enduring mystery of the identity of the “Sea People”.

    1. Tom says:

      Geologically there was evidence of drought in countries around the Mediterranean, for years on end. Perhaps that is why the “Sea People” are identified as coming from different areas extending into central Asia. Taking from those who have or starving.

      1. Grey says:

        It’s a leading theory on motivation, especially as to the attack on Egypt, from which Ramses III’s empire never recovered. Even though he was victorious, many of the defeated invaders settled there anyway.[1] Ecological instability has been a big motivator in human history, for example the Viking expansion is thought to have been driven in part by overpopulation.

        [1] apologies for Wikipedia but it’s an adequate summary.

      2. RRCRrea says:

        Based on the literature I’ve seen and conferences attended, I’ve never seen anyone assert an extension into Central Asia. I’d need a citation for that. The Late Bronze Age collapse of civilizations was fairly widespread and involved other groups in other places… like, say, folks coming down from the Zagros Mountains into Mesopotamia. But that doesn’t mean the people in the Zagros Mountains were Sea People. I still think that you really don’t need to look much further than a Volkerandurung mostly by sea by a group of folks typified by and consisting of people like the Achaeans/Ahhiyawa.

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