Near modern-day Ras Shamra along the Mediterranean coast, the ruins of Ugarit have provided historians and archaeologists with a fascinating window into ancient life and culture in the broader region. Historical records and archaeological evidence suggest that the city of Ugarit was first built during the Neolithic period – around 6000 BCE. For millennia, the city was under Egyptian control and influenced by the prevailing culture and trends within the expansive Egyptian empire. This period lasted roughly through 1400 BCE. In the following years, the city-state grew in strength, wealth, and independence, reaching a kind of golden age around the twelfth century BCE. Ancient texts from the surrounding regions suggest that the lofty stature of Ugarit was broadly recognized at that time. The city-state developed into a central trade hub. Its location was ideal: a major harbor lay immediately to the west, one of the primary passages through the coastal mountain range that separated Syria from Mesopotamia ran just to the east of Ugarit, and the city was also located along an important north-south trade route that ran along the coast between Anatolia and Egypt. Due to this accessible placement, Ugarit became a home base for many foreign traders and merchants, and much of the region’s trade passed through the city at some point.
The location of Ugarit was unknown to modern scholars until 1928, when a peasant farmer accidentally opened an old tomb while plowing his field. In the following years, a team of French archaeologists uncovered a wealth of ancient remains. Just 150 meters from the sea, they discovered a cemetery housing artwork and burial materials indicating Egyptian and Phoenician influence alongside remnants of other cultures. A bit further inland, archaeologists found an entire city and a royal palace. The city’s ruins, largely comprised of winding streets, wells, and water channels, also contained the remains of many impressive private dwellings and two private libraries, indicating the wealth and prestige of many of the city’s one-time residents. The initial digs also uncovered the remains of two temples atop the city’s acropolis – one to the Canaanite god Baal and one to the fertility god Dagon.
Perhaps the most significant discovery at Ugarit, though, was a collection of tablets written in some previously unknown cuneiform script. Discovered in the ruins of the palace, the personal residence of the high priest, and a number of high-profile private homes, these tablets proved incredibly significant in understanding the history of the ruins around them. The language written on these documents was Ugaritic, one of the oldest alphabets in the world and considered by many to have been one of the most significant linguistic discoveries in history. Using related semitic languages to decode the text found on these tablets, historians were able to identify the site as that of the ancient city of Ugarit. Semitic linguists were also able to use the language to fill in some of the gaps of their understanding of related languages. Finally, the content of the texts written in Ugaritic revealed much about the religious beliefs and theologies of the society inhabiting Ugarit at its height; this information provides context for many biblical references to ancient religious practice and belief.