Ancient Phoenicia

By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout team

Ugarit (near Ras Shamra in present-day Syria) was the first city outside of the original Phoenician settlements (Byblos, Sidon and Tyre) to take on a distinctly Phoenician flavor. It had been settled in the 4th millennium BC, before the Phoenicians arrived, but it was not until the 2nd millennium the 16th to the 13th centuries BC that Ugarit became the Phoenician-led Mediterranean center for trade with Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia and the rest of Syria. During its golden age, from 1450 to 1200 BC, it had great royal palaces, temples, shrines and libraries.

A farmer discovered the ruins of Ugarit when he struck a large stone with his plow. A mere 9 miles north of the Syrian town of Al-ladhiqiyah, today's Ugarit provides a vague idea of what the layout of the city was like. Sitting serenely on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, the site is beautiful. There is still evidence of where the gutters of the streets carried water not bad for a city that is around 2,500 years.

Ugarit is most famous today for the trove of"literature" found in its ancient libraries. Clay tablets bearing a previously unknown cuneiform (from the Latin word cuneus, for wedge) script were recovered during its excavation. These are examples of the world's first alphabet and are now on display in the National Museum of Damascus. The use of cuneiform dates back to the Bronze Age (19-18 century BC), when the world's earliest civilizations, the Sumerians, gathered their scattered communities at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (the site of modern Baghdad) and built walled cities. Using reeds and pressing wedge-shaped (or cuneiform) styluses into clay tablets characters, the art of writing was born. Often an identifying seal was pressed into the tablets. This served as a signature so that the reader knew who sent the "letter." Today, archaeologists have identified many different forms of cuneiform, but Ugaritic cuneiform is unique in that it is an alphabet of consonants (proven to have been in use between 1400-1200 BC). It shed light on ancient Phoenician political, social, economic, cultural, and religious life in the city, and even obliged a reinterpretation of some scenes from the Bible.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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