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Ugarit

In Ugarit the invention of the first written Alphabet took place. This alphabet is recognized as dating from the 14th century BC carried by the Phoenicians, the alphabet was to be adopted by the Greeks, the Etruscans and the Romans, and it is this alphabet which is used today by a large number of the people of the world.

The golden age of Ugarit came between the 16th and the 17th century BC The town was in constant relation with Egypt, Cyprus, the islands in the Aegean Sea, Mycenae ... etc. The royal palace consisted of ninety rooms laid out around eight inner courtyards. Thousands of engraved tablets were collected in the archives, in two private libraries and in two religious libraries.

The keeper of the site offers visitors (apart from a very well produced explanatory leaflet) a "souvenir" which some will regard as the most original one can bring back from Syria: a little rod of clay as big as your finger Moulded simply and engraved with cuneiform signs…. The signs are letters and in a row they make up the alphabet: "the oldest alphabet in the world".

The alphabet, an invention of genius

The original of this "document" is exhibited under triple glass in the Damascus Museum. It is recognized as dating from 14th century B.C. There is some controversy as to whether this alphabet of thirty cuneiform letters is earlier or slightly later than a linear alphabet found at Byblos, the letters of which are based directly on Egyptian hieroglyphs. Be that as it may, the order of the letters is identical and proved the kinship between the two. Carried by the Phoenicians, the alphabet was to be adopted by the Greeks, the Etruscans and Romans; and it is this alphabet which is used today by a large number of the peoples of the world.

The invention of the alphabet was at least as important for mankind as the invention of printing was to be, three thousand years later. Before the alphabet, writing was the privilege of a caste: the "scribes", who were the only ones who knew how to use hieroglyphs and ideograms and to mix them in learned combinations to reflect the meandering of the mind. The inspired idea of using only a limited number of signs, no longer representing entities, but sounds, and of grouping these signs together in an unchanging order, made it possible, almost from one day to the next, for anyone whoever he might be, king, merchant or village yokel, freely to put down and convey his thoughts, in short, to write.

Though this little finger of dried loam is the most exciting discovery for the mind made at Ugarit, it is not the only one. The rooms devoted to this site in the Damascus and Aleppo Museums (and at the Louvre in Paris) are evidence of the activity and richness of this ancient port whose original is lost in the mists of prehistory. The golden age of Ugarit came between the 16th and 13th century B.C. The town was in constant relation with Egypt, Cyprus, the island in the Aegean Sea, Mycenae….. Gold ornaments, bronze weapons and ceramic vases were discovered, laid as offerings, in cellars directly under the subsoil of the houses. The royal palace consisted of ninety rooms laid out around eight inner courtyards. Thousands of engraved tablets were collected in the archives, in two private libraries and in two religious libraries.

The documents discovered exhibit great variety: diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts.

Twenty tablets have likewise yielded us a set of mythological poems of great poetic beauty. Older than the Iliad and the Odyssey, they must henceforth be numbered among the most ancient literary monuments known today.

It remains to be seen what the 325 tablets discovered during excavations at the entrance to the ancient town in May 1994 will reveal. For the time being they are illegible. After intensive cleaning, they will be "freed" of the layer of calcite they are coated in at the moment. Epigraphists will then decipher these archives and in a few months will be able to tell us what role was played by Ugarit (queen of the Mediterranean), whose name was noticed in a text discovered in Mari in the eighteenth century B.C.

Even so the site is not very evocative for the unschooled visitor. It needs the eyes of an expert to pick a way through the labyrinth of stones three-quarters buried beneath the brambles and the thistles cropping up through the bumpy surface of the immense mound. Furthermore, at every step one could easily break one’s neck in the ground-level openings to funeral vaults, the entrance stairways of which have very often disappeared.

The town, built on a natural hill, was girdled about with defenses. A fortified postern gave access to it, and this structure, though it faces the present car-park and has been reproduced time again in photographs and postcards, may go unnoticed by many visitors, who, without the slightest ill will, may well mistake it for a gully-hole.. What an astonishing piece of architecture this vaulted passage is, however, built in a zigzag, opening out on to ditches where the frogs croak, with arched section following the line of the 45? slope that served as the glacis of the citadel. The remains of a tower show the defensive purpose of these buildings.

Whether you make way into the town through the old postern or, more simply, by the path leading to the house of the keeper and seller of entrance tickets, you all the same end up on a path overgrown with brush wood, which corresponds to the main street.

Short history

To the right of the main street, and thereof immediately behind the fortified postern, stood the royal palace, whose somewhat confused layout is rather difficult to make out. Ugarit was an independent kingdom from the 18th century B.C. Its military and economic history, as well as the names of its kings, have been revealed in detail by the tablets found in the archives of the palace.

It was thus learned that the excellent relations existing between Ugarit and Egypt endured even after the conquest of Syria by the Pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century. Ugarit as a State, was not however to survive the invasion of the Philistines, the tribes that came down from the north, sometimes called the Sea Peoples, and overwhelmed the country at the end of the 13th century B.C. The stables and outbuildings of the palace were arranged on the left of the palace, while behind it was the residential district, where the layouts of vast, rich dwellings can be seen on the ground. Weapons and works of art were found here, as well as the library of a diplomat named Rapanou. This Rapanou must have had an encyclopedic mind, since he preserved, apart from his official correspondence, sorts of dictionaries containing lists of animals and deities, and of weights and measures then in use, and even an account of the way to treat sick horses… and still more precious for philologists, a comparative lexicon of Sumerian, Hurrian, Babylonian and Ugaritic words.

By climbing through the brush to the highest point on the tell, the visitor can gain a better idea of the general layout of the town: palaces and fortresses face south, the landward side, the side for relations with the peoples from inland; on the slope going down towards the sea, the commercial and harbor districts (the shore has now sanded up and receded a good hundred meters); opposite, quite compact, popular districts traversed by narrow streets; up here, on this sort of acropolis, the part for the gods, the temples.

One temple was dedicated to Dagon (or Dagan), the god of fertility, the god of wheat, particularly honored by the Amorites, a nomadic people from Upper Syria, of whom Hamurabi, at Babylon, was the most famous king.

The priest’s houses and the funerary vaults stood between the two temples, Treasures buried in hiding-places and hundreds of engraved tablets have been discovered. A high priest, who no doubt practiced divination, kept terracotta pebbles in his library, shaped like livers or lungs, after having first engraved on them the answers to questions put to him by his clients.

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