Ugarit; Trading Emporium of the Near East

Posted: June 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

During the Late Bronze Age one of the most important cities of the Near East was the Syrian coastal city of Ugarit.

Located on the Syrian coast, the ruins of Ugarit, known today as Ras Shamra, provide a wealth of information about the ancient kingdom. The city was built about a kilometer inland of its port which is known as White Harbor due to the large white rocks near its entrance. For several hundred years this relatively small city controlled the trade route that linked central Syria to the Mediterranean Sea.

Mediterranean Trade Hub

The city, with perhaps no more than 10,000 inhabitants, ruled enough of the hinterland to secure control over trade routes and agricultural resources. The abundance of these lands would eventually allow the city state to export food products as well as luxury goods such as linens dyed with the purple dye of the murex shellfish.

In addition to trading its own goods around the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, Ugarit also served as an emporium for goods from across the Near East. Artifacts from Egypt, the Aegean, Cyprus and Central Syria have all been found amidst the city’s ruins. In the port area there is evidence of enclaves of rich foreigners who had taken up residence near the busy trade hub.

Discovery of Ugarit

Also found in the port area was the city’s necropolis. It was in fact the accidental discovery of one of the buried vaults that led to the exploration of the nearby hill of Ras Shamra. Before this chance find in 1928 the city was known only from references in Near Eastern texts including two from Egypt’s diplomatic archive known as the Amarna Letters. After the exploration of this site, and the subsequent discovery of thousands of texts written in a new Semitic language and a variety of artifacts, a fairly clear picture of this city during the Late Bronze Age has emerged.

The city of Ugarit sits on a low hill which was occupied as far back as Neolithic times (6500-6000 BCE) and continued to be occupied until the Roman period. The largest level of occupation was destroyed in a fire around 1200 BCE. This disaster has often been linked to the invasion of the “Sea Peoples” who swept across the region in the 12th and 13th centuries BCE.

While the exact cause of the cities ruination is unclear many artifacts were left in place to be found by modern archeologists. Altogether the textual evidence found on numerous clay tablets, the architecture of its buildings and its large array of artifacts reveals a wealthy city perched at the crossroads of empire.

The City

The layout of the city centers on an acropolis that surmounted the low hilltop. Archeologists have uncovered several important buildings here including temples and a scribal school for priests. The main temple was to the Storm god Baal. Just to the east of Baal’s temple was the temple of the fertility god, and Baal’s father, Dagan. Theses temples are thought to have been built with multiple stories and it is possible that they served as landmarks to ships at sea. This theory is reinforced by stone anchors found as offerings near the temples.

To the west of the acropolis was the Royal Palace. The original palace was added onto over a number of generations and eventually the building became a vast and sprawling structure with at least four courtyards including one known as “the garden.”

Coupled with the palace compound to the north is another building known as the Hurrian Temple.

Between the palace and the acropolis was one of the town’s wealthier districts where several large houses have been identified. These houses contained personal libraries as well as collections of luxury items.

To the south of the acropolis was the central part of the town where a main street connected a gate in the cities south wall to a central square. The buildings in this part of the town as well as to the north of the acropolis are varied, with warehouses alongside large houses, apartments and workshops.

Also in the southern district is another temple known as the “Rhyton Temple,” so named after the finding of a number of uniquely shaped drinking vessels known as rhytons at the site. It is thought that this temple was dedicated to El, the chief god of the Canaanite Pantheon.

The Kingdom

The city was ruled by a king who had total control of the surrounding lands resources. The king was protected by a chariot warrior elite common in Syria at this time known as the Maryannu. These warriors controlled estates in the countryside which guaranteed a supply base for the costly chariots upon which these warriors relied.

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries BCE Ugarit was a nominal vassal to Egypt. Although no formal treaty of vassalage seems to have been in place this would change as Ugarit was forced to shift its allegiance to the Hittite Empire around 1350 BCE. With the rise of the Hittite King Suppililiuma, who conquered much of Syria, the small city state was forced to sign a treaty. Although the Hittite King never entered Ugarit’s territory the king of Ugarit, Nigmadu II, agreed to pay a large ransom each year to keep the land free of Hittite troops.

Over the following century and a half Ugarit thrived as a vassal of the Hittites with its annual payment representing a large portion of the Hittite king’s yearly income. During the final decades of the 13th century BCE the northern parts of the Hittite Empire were overrun by invasions usually connected with the Sea Peoples. Eventually this chaos seems to have spread to Ugarit where the charred remains of the city were found to be littered with arrowheads.


Watson, Wilfred, G.E. (Handbuch der Orientalistik, Brill, Leiden, 1999.)

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