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The Last Days of Ugarit, Claude F. A. Schaeffer, BAR 9:05, Sep-Oct 1983.

UgaritDrought, famine, earthquakes and, ultimately, fire ended civilization at Ugarit

About 1200 B.C., civilization in the then-known world seemed to come to an end. Major urban centers from Cyprus, Anatolia, and Egypt to Palestine and Amurru were destroyed or severely damaged. Entire ethnic groups disappeared. Thus concluded what archaeologists call the Late Bronze Age, the last major segment of the Bronze Age itself. In about 1200 B.C., the Iron Age began. At this time, according to most scholars, Israelite tribes settled in the hill country of Canaan (see James Muhly, “How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World—And Gave the Philistines a Military Edge,” BAR 08-06).

Among the ancient cities destroyed at the end of the Late Bronze Age was Ugarit. For a time, Claude Schaeffer, the excavator of Ugarit, thought the city might have been destroyed by an invasion of the Sea Peoples who were related to the Philistines. Letters in the Ugaritic archives indicate that the Sea Peoples may indeed have invaded Anatolia. As the following excerpt indicates, however, toward the end of his life, Schaeffer abandoned this theory. This excerpt originally appeared in Ugaritica V, published in 1968. The translation from the French is by Michael David Coogan, who teaches Old Testament and Archaeology at Harvard University and is the author of Stories from Ancient Canaan (Even Briefer). This translation is published with permission of the Imprimerie Nationale, Paris, France, and of Mme. Claude Schaeffer.—Ed.

Beginning in our first season of excavations at Ras Shamra in 1929, we noted in our excavation diary the presence of a fine, powdery, homogeneous soil, pale yellow or more frequently whitish in color, which was characteristic of Ugarit’s last level. This layer had no internal stratification and in places was two meters [about six feet] thick. In this dry and powdery soil lay the remains of the buildings devastated by the earthquakes and by the fires of Ugarit’s last days. From the eastern edge of Ras Shamra’s extended hill, near the temple of Baal and Dagon, to the western limits at the seacoast where the palace, public buildings and luxurious private houses were located, everything was covered by this whitish-yellow dust layer. It is irrefutable evidence that Ugarit’s last days were hot and dry.

This dust layer is covered by layers of brown earth and debris and above those layers by surface soil consisting of a medium to dark brown humus which was not dusty but normally constituted. These darker, less dusty layers are clear proof of a damper climate than that which characterized Ugarit’s last days.

The layers close to the present surface of the tell of Ras Shamra, which are later than Ugarit’s demise, contain several late Iron Age sarcophagi (seventh to sixth centuries B.C.) and traces of houses and tombs from the classical and Hellenistic periods. Finally, some installations of the early Roman period were uncovered on the opposite side of the tell. Thus, no fewer than five centuries of complete abandonment and desertion intervened between Ugarit’s destruction at the beginning of the 12th century and the resumption of settlement on the tell in the late Iron Age—on a scale much less extensive and impressive than that of the ancient city.

Under the layer of dusty, yellowish soil of the late 13th to early 12th centuries, were strata containing the remains of buildings and tombs of the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (15th to 14th centuries) and of the end of the Middle Bronze Age (17th century). The color and non-powdery composition of these earlier strata also indicate a rainier climate than that of Ugarit’s last days.

Thus, at Ras Shamra the thick blanket of dusty soil, white or pale yellow in color, in which the latest ruins of Ugarit are embedded indicates an extremely dry climate. This blanket is sandwiched between two levels of non-dusty soil of normal composition—the late Middle Bronze and early Late Bronze below and the Iron Age and later above—which attest a rainier climate.

The stratigraphic evidence at Ras Shamra of a long period of extreme aridity and heat during the city’s last years agrees with the frequent references to famine among Ugarit’s neighbors, and doubtless at Ugarit itself, [as reflected] in the texts [found at Ugarit].

There is another characteristic of the remains of Ugarit at the end of the Late Bronze Age- we can now identify at least two periods of severe earthquakes. The first phase of seismic activity, without doubt accompanied by a tidal wave, occurred in the mid-14th century, during the reign of Amenophis IV, according to the report given to the Pharaoh by Abimilki, king of Tyre [as recorded in the famous Amarna letters found in Egypt]. Traces of this earthquake are still apparent on some excavated buildings at Ras Shamra, although most of them had been repaired.

The second series of earthquakes was apparently more severe, and caused the total destruction of the palace and as much of the city as our excavations have cleared. This catastrophe can be dated exactly to the beginning of the 12th century. The palace walls, which were constructed of heavy dressed stone blocks, collapsed and crushed a kiln in which a hundred tablets were being fired. One of these is a translation into Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform of a letter from the Hittite king, probably Suppiluliumas II. He urgently requests from Hammurapi, the king of Ugarit, provisions to relieve a famine and weapons to resist an enemy who is unidentified, in accordance with normal epistolary style. Quite possibly the enemy should be identified as Northerners and Sea Peoples who were then passing through the coastal provinces of northern Anatolia, hitherto under Hittite control. In the last batch in the kiln, there was another letter which dealt with a request for provisions to relieve a famine in a nearby country ruled by a certain Pgn.

The severity of the earthquake that caused the final destruction of the palace of Ugarit and most of the city’s other buildings, is shown by the condition of the ruins, which were never again rebuilt. The condition of the ruins shows clearly that the palace and the city were struck suddenly by a series of violent tremors which caused even the most solidly built walls to collapse. In the huge palace, swarming with officials and servants, and in the districts where private houses and workshops were located, life was brutally and instantaneously halted.

While the earthquakes were leveling the city, conflagrations of exceptional violence broke out. Ash layers up to half a meter thick lay on the floors of rooms and on the flagstones of the palace courtyard. The fire’s heat was so intense that in several places the dressed limestone blocks of the walls were melted into pure lime, which rainwater or seepage converted into calcium hydroxide after the catastrophe. Here and there streams of lime solidified into large boulders and stalactites that formed a hard, brittle matrix around such objects as tablets. Some masses of this igneous concrete were more than a meter wide and blocked some of the palace doors or accumulated at the bases of walls; we had to dislodge them with heavy picks that had to be resharpened frequently and with mining spikes wielded by Turkish workers from the mountain quarries north of Ugarit.

The facades south of the palace and the interiors of the northern walls were most affected by the conflagration. Here, even the thick horizontal beams between the third and fourth lowest courses, which had been put there to strengthen the walls against earthquakes, caught fire; traces of black smoke can still be seen on the stones. During the conflagration, the wind must have blown from the south and southeast, from the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. This wind is still dreaded in Syria, since it brings with it storms of locusts, the curse of drought years.b

At Ras Shamra, the tops of most of the burned walls collapsed and, despite the solid foundations and dressed stone construction, especially in the palace, entire facades slumped severely. This proves that the earthquakes and fire occurred simultaneously, making any attempts at salvage impossible.

Despite the extent and the violence of the seismic catastrophe and the accompanying conflagration which destroyed the city, it must be noted that during our many years of excavation we did not find a single human victim or skeleton apart from those which had been properly interred during Ugarit’s final phase in the burial chambers in the basements of the palace and the private houses. It seems, therefore, that the population had been warned by the kinds of signs which frequently precede such events, warnings whose significance they must have understood,c or that they had already deserted the city because of the drought and famine which prevailed elsewhere in Syria and in nearby countries at that time, as our texts illustrate.

Furthermore, there was not a single trace of a conquering army or a foreign invasion, nor of the victims their presence would have caused.

Thus, after 29 seasons of excavations which yielded an archaeological and epigraphic trove among the richest ever found at a single site, we have had to abandon the hypothesis that Ugarit was destroyed by an invasion of Northerners and Sea Peoples. This capital city, with its palaces and temples and its many spacious private dwellings, all of which contained diplomatic, economic, and administrative archives and ample and varied scribal libraries in several languages, with its industrial quarters consisting of the workshops of artisans of all crafts and occupations and of large commercial houses some of whose stores were still crammed with merchandise all were victims of a natural disaster. This disaster included a prolonged drought which caused the famines mentioned in the texts from Ugarit’s final phase, and quakes and conflagrations whose severity is clearly indicated by the condition of the ruins. The population must have abandoned this center of commercial and literary activity, never to return, leaving behind many precious objects cached under the floors or in the walls of their houses.

a. Translated by Michael D. Coogan.

b. On two occasions during our excavations before 1939, we had to release our workers, who had been called [back to their villages] to dig ditches [to capture the locusts] in the fields in the vicinity of Ras Shamra. Millions of young locusts crawled on the ground [into the ditches where they were then burned]. The mature insects flew over Minet el-Beida and Ras Shamra in thick clouds which darkened the sky.

c. During my many visits and trips to countries which are still frequently subject to earthquakes, especially Anatolia, I have seen how aware the populace is of the danger of seismic tremors. One night while I was at the French Institute of Archaeology in Istanbul, after 1946, I felt the building shake slightly; the next day I learned that the residents in the neighborhood had left their houses and camped in the streets and yards until the minor quake had stopped. Once in Ankara, after my excavations at Arslan Tepe-Malatya, I gave a lunch for the Turkish archaeological officials, with the French ambassador, M. Maugras, present. During the meal I noticed the proprietor of the restaurant come into the dining room and discreetly watch the chandelier, which was swaying slightly. My Turkish guests did the same, without revealing their concern. Afterwards the proprietor explained to me that if the swaying had intensified we would have had to leave the room.

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