Ugarit (ōgərētˈ) [key], ancient city, capital of the Ugarit kingdom, W Syria, on the Mediterranean coast N of modern Latakia. Although the name of this city was known from Egyptian and Hittite sources, its location and history were a mystery until the accidental discovery (1928) of an ancient tomb at the small Arab village of Ras Shamra. Excavations begun in 1929 established the identity of the mound as the site of ancient Ugarit. The site was been particularly rich in finds, which have yielded much valuable historical information and from which a partial account of the city has been constructed.
Ugarit was probably occupied from the first appearance of humans in Syria. The lowest level of the mound dates from the Neolithic period, the 5th millennium B.C. It developed as a great center of commerce, having important connections with Mesopotamia. By the 4th millennium Ugarit had reached a high stage of development and was part of the general civilization of ancient Syria. Between 3000 and 2000 B.C., important ethnic changes took place at Ugarit, brought about by the northward migrations of Amorites and Semitic Canaanites. Early in the 2d millennium, because of invasions from the north and east, Ugarit turned to an alliance with Egypt, and from this period Egyptian influence was strong in the city. The city was also the most important center of Minoan trade in Syria. The 15th and 14th cent. B.C. were the period of highest prosperity for Ugarit. Trade developed tremendously, and the city expanded in size. The rich and abundant art of this period shows that an important Mycenaean colony existed in the city. Foreign invasions and economic change in the 12th cent. B.C. caused Ugarit to decline. By the end of the century, although it was not completely abandoned, it had ceased to exist as an important town.
Among the more important discoveries at Ugarit are tablets from the 14th cent. B.C. Written in a cuneiform script, in a hitherto unknown language, Ugaritic, they record the poetic works and myths of the ancient Canaanites. They are written in an alphabet that is one of the earliest known. Ugaritic has been identified as a Semitic language, related to classical Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, and these tablets, the first authentic specimens of pagan Canaanite literature, have been of great importance to students of language and of the Bible. They offer evidence that the stories of the Old Testament were based on written Canaanite documents as well as being passed down orally.
See C. F. A. Schaeffer, The Cuneiform Texts of Ras Shamra-Ugarit (1939); J. Obermann, Ugaritic Mythology (1948); D. A. Rolles, Canaanite Myths and Legends (1956); C. H. Gordon, Ugarit and Minoan Crete (1966); R. Whitaker, Concordance of the Ugaritic Literature (1972); S. Stanislav, A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language (1985).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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