Ugarit/Ras Shamra (Psalm 29)

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Ugarit was a prominent city-state that flourished during the second millennium B.C. Its capital of the same name (modern Ras Shamra) was discovered in 1929 on the coast of Syria. The site has yielded a wealth of finds, allowing for a reconstruction of its history and an understanding of its influence in the region.

The history of the site’s occupation can be traced to as early as Neolithic times (fifth millennium B.C.), the period of the first appearance of humans in Syria. The Middle Bronze Aga (ca. 2000 B.C.) saw the migration of Amorites and Semitic Canaanites to Ugarit; these peoples settled there, bringing with them a knowledge of metallurgy and an instinct for commerce. The city developed as an important trade centre on the Mediterranean coast, mediating contact between the great Aegean and Mesopotamian  civilizations. At the height of its prosperity, during  the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C., Ugarit was a crossroads where culture and learning converged:

  • Wine, oil, cosmetics and pottery from Crete, Egypt, Asia Minor and Cyprus were traded in the city.
  • Texts in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the period, as well as in Egyptian, Cypriot, Hittite and Hurrian attest to Ugarit’s cosmopolitan character.
  • The excavated areas of the site have yielded temples dedicated to Baal and Dagon (or possibly El), the latter dominating the highest point of the mound.
  • A spacious royal palace covered nearly three acrs. This and the residences of the high priest and government officials also housed official archives.
  • The city was densely populated, with roomy houses arranged around individual courtyards, as well as numerous sanctuaries.
  • Examples of the first indigenous Canaanite metalwork and glyptic art (art of carving or engraving, especially on gems) abound among the artefacts.

Among the most significant finds are some 1,300 inscriptions from the fourteenth century B.C. in a western Semitic language (called Ugaritic) similar to Biblical Hebrew. Ugaritic employed an innovative cuneiform alphabet. Compositions such as the Kirta (or Keret) Epic and the Legend of Aqhat bring to light the religion of the people of this land. Some scholars, in fact, have used Ugaritic poetry to try and decipher some of the more difficult passages in Biblical poetry. The literature of Ugarit will continue to contribute to our understanding of the cultural environment of ancient Israel.

At the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 B.C., a great upheaval of unknown origin evidently convulsed the ancient world, causing the collapse of numerous older civilizations. Ugarit was sacked around this time and the site ultimately abandoned.


 

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