Ugarit—Judges 6:25

Ugarit (modern Arabic name: Ras Shamra = “Fennel Mound”), a city located in northwest Syria on the Mediterranean coast, flourished during the second millennium BC until its destruction about 1200 BC. Accidentally rediscovered in 1928, French archaeologists under the direction of Claude Schaeffer began systematic excavations in 1929 that have continued (with a break from 1940 to 1947) until today as the Syrian-French archaeological mission at Ras Shamra-Ugarit. The special significance of Ugarit for biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies lies in the discovery of the Ugaritic texts that give unrivaled insight into the Levant’s cultural and religious context during the second half of the second millennium BC.

Ugarit’s most prominent period as an international commercial and cultural center occurred during the Late Bronze Age from 1450 to 1200 BC when it covered an area of 22 hectares. Having little military significance, it was first under Egyptian influence, but after 1340 BC, it came more and more under the Hittite rule. The peace treaty between Pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite king Hatussili III after the Battle of Qadesh/Kadesh (1274 BC) in 1258 BC allowed Ugarit to enjoy an unprecedented period of prosperity as it became the hub of eastern Mediterranean trade, especially for goods from the Mesopotamia, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and Asia Minor. It is believed that the city had trading districts where merchants from other areas settled or maintained their trading posts (e.g., a Mycenaean district).

The end of Ugarit coincided with the fall of the Hittite Empire. The Sea Peoples attacked Ugarit between 1194 and 1186 BC, destroying the city in 1186 BC. Cuneiform tablets dating from the time of the city’s destruction describe attacks coming from the Mediterranean Sea. The fact that archeologists found some tablets of correspondence in kilns suggests the end of Ugarit probably occurred quickly.

The remains of several large palaces and private houses indicate the extent of Ugarit’s wealth. The royal palace, located in the west of the city, is its most outstanding building. It covered about 10,000 square meters (12,000 square yards) and consisted of about 100 rooms with eight internal courtyards and 12 staircases. The basement walls were built of stone and today survive in some places up to 4 meters (13 ft) high. The walls of the upper levels probably consisted of clay bricks. The city had two main temples with identical structure: one dedicated to Baal, the other to Dagon, with the “House of the High Priest” between them. Excavators uncovered 23 stelae, the most famous being the Baal stele, or Baal with Thunderbolt.

The most valuable discoveries that provide information about the biblical world were the more than 3,000 tablets in the palace and private archives of Ugarit. The fact that they are written in syllabic Akkadian cuneiform as well as in Sumerian, Hurrian, Cypriote, Aegean, Hittite, and Egyptian hieroglyphic scripts, testifies that Ugarit was a multilingual city. About 1,500 of them show an alphabetic cuneiform script of 30 letters, the Ugaritic language. This Northwest Semitic language is one of the world’s oldest alphabet languages, and scholars consider it to be related to Canaanite and Aramaic. Ugaritic is essential for biblical studies as its vocabulary is also close to specific biblical Hebrew words and phrases whose meaning was previously unknown or at best speculative.

The Ugaritic cuneiform archive consists of economic texts (mostly), legal texts, letters, state correspondence and international treaties, abecedaries (tablets containing the order of the alphabetic signs), and religious texts and epics. The most important religious texts are the myths, but there are also prayers, lists of gods and offerings, divination, incantations, and rituals. The so-called Baal cycle of myths is the longest text, written on six tablets and containing 2,350 lines in 1,500 poetic verses (CTU 1.1–1.6). It focuses on the storm god Baal and his battles with the gods Yam and Mot. Baal’s sister Anath and his father El also play an essential part in this myth about the death and rebirth of Baal that seems to correspond to the dry summer and the rainy autumn season, reflecting the centrality of rain for the Levant’s agricultural economy. Outside of the Old Testament, the finds at Ugarit are the only significant source of what we know about the Canaanite weather god Baal and its religious cult. Other major epics include the story of King Keret (CTU 1.14–1.16) and the story of Aqhat (CTU 1.17–1.19). In the latter appears a certain Danil, a righteous servant of the gods, whom some have mistakenly identified with the “Daniel” in Ezekiel 14:14, 20. Parts of Ugaritic poetry closely parallel in form and content some biblical Hebrew poetry.

The Ugaritic texts provide a literary and religious context, which is a backdrop for the ancient literature and religion. Understanding the Ugaritic religion becomes essential for interpreting the Canaanite religion and helps assess the worldview found in the Bible.


Smith, Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century.

Van Soldt, “Ugarit: A Second-Millennium Kingdom on the Mediterranean Coast,” 1255–1266.

Watson and Wyatt, Handbook of Ugaritic Studies.

Yon, The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra.