Located along the northernmost stretch of Syrian coastline, Ras al-Basit has been known to tourists for its distinct black sand beaches, turquoise waters, mountainous vegetation, and extensive history. Archaeological evidence suggests that the town was settled as early as the Late Bronze Age as an outpost of Ugarit, a major port city located just south of Ras al-Basit. The small village seems to have had strong shipping connections with Phoenicia and Cyprus that lasted centuries.
Records suggest that a Greek presence had arrived to Ras al-Basit as early as the seventh century BCE, and local lore relates that Alexander the Great passed through the village in 333 BCE. During this period of Hellenistic influence, the village thrived, expanding significantly and fortifying its acropolis. Expansion continued through the Roman and Byzantine periods, and a small church was built at the foot of the acropolis in the sixth century CE. This church can still be seen today, and excavations have uncovered remnants of a Crusader chapel built within. Further examination into the Crusader history of Ras al-Basit reveals that the village still served as a significant port for the region at the time, receiving many ships from Venice throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Perhaps more significant in ancient lore than Ras al-Basit itself, Mt. Aqra serves as the village’s backdrop and towers above its beaches and historical sites. For millennia, the mountain’s lofty peak has been associated with divine encounters and mystical occurrences. Throughout the Bronze Age during the first years of Ras al-Basit’s establishment, the ancient Hurrian civilization revered Mt. Aqra’s peak as the abode of their storm god Teshub. While little textual information about this religious association remains, a number of Ugaritic texts reveal that later Canaanite civilization in the area transferred this divine dwelling place to their own storm god, Baal. According to Canaanite legend, Baal dwelt atop Mt. Aqra with the goddess Anat, sending lightning out over the sea from its peak and doing battle with the sea god Yam and with Mot, the god of death. To this day, a large mound of ashes and debris on the mountaintop constitute the remnants of a cult site for Baal and Anat.
In many ancient texts, Baal is also called Baal-Zaphon; this second name is taken from Mt. Zaphon, a sacred location thought by most historians to be an alternative name for Mt. Aqra. A number of biblical passages use this alternate nomenclature for the mountain; both the Psalms and the book of Isaiah refer to Mt. Zaphon as a lofty and revered mountain, even comparing it to Mt. Zion. These references further indicate the extent to which the mountain’s holy reputation was widespread at the time of their writing.
During the period of Hellenistic prevalence in the region, residential rights to Mt. Aqra were transferred to Zeus. Mt. Aqra was considered the home of the Greek god and, according to some texts, the site of his epic battle with the monster Typhon (often associated with the nearby Orontes River). For many emperors of the time, climbing the sacred mountain to seek Zeus’s council was a meaningful undertaking. In 130 CE, Trajan and Hadrian scaled the mountain shortly before dawn as a storm was brewing in order to watch the first rays of light illuminating the land around them and to sacrifice to Zeus. According to their accounts of the event, a bright flash of lightning came down from the skies and consumed both the sacrificial victim they had brought and their personal attendant. Similarly, the Emperor Julian climbed Mt. Aqra in 363 CE and claimed to have received a vision from Zeus upon reaching its summit.
In Mt. Aqra’s forested foothills lies Kessab, an Armenian village dating back to the ancient kingdom of Cilicia. Winding amid the area’s dense coniferous tree coverage, Kessab’s streets are marked by signs written in English, Arabic, and Armenian.