Introduction

The sites of Ras Shamra and Minet el-Beida are situated in the Syrian coastal plain, ca. 12 km north of the modern harbour town of Lattakia. Minet el-Beida is the name of a bay near which an urban zone has been excavated, less than a kilometre away from the tell of Ras Shamra, which is located somewhat inland. The sites have been excavated since 1928 by successive French missions, who have continued the research up to the present day.1 The site at Minet el-Beida was explored from 1929 to1935. The earliest habitation at the harbour town dates to the first phase of the Late Bronze Age.2 In contrast, the lowest levels from Ras Shamra are from the preceramic Neolithic and the site appears to have been inhabited continuously until its destruction and abandonment at the end of the Late Bronze Age.3 Epigraphic evidence has shown that Ras Shamra was the capital of ancient Ugarit.4

The Late Bronze Age remains appear to have covered the whole tell of Ras Shamra, which encompasses about 26 ha., of which 1/6 has been excavated (Fig. 5.1).5 The excavated parts of the ancient city are generally referred to as if they constitute city areas. It must be understood, however, that the excavations have largely been conducted independent of the town's urban layout and that the areas represent archaeological trenches, rather than town quarters.6 The western part of the site is occupied

1 Until 1969 Claude F.A. Schaeffer was director of the excavations. Since then, the French archaeological mission has been under the responsibility of H. de Contenson (1972-1973), J. Margueron (1975-1976), M. Yon (1978-1998) and Y. Calvet (1999-). For convenient summaries of the history of excavations see Saade 1979, 39-54; Yon 1997a, 17-18.

2 Courtois 1979a, 1283.

3 Courtois 1979a, 1132-133; Yon 1997a, 25-35.

4 Albright 1931-1932, 165; Schaeffer 1932, 24-27. The ancient name of Minet el-Beida is most likely Ma'hadou, see Astour 1970, 113-127; Saade 1995, 212; Yon 1997b. The name Ugarit is used here to indicate both sites.

5 Callot & Yon 1995, 158. The situation in Minet el

Beida is less clear, but Saade (1995, 212-213) estimates that about 1.4 ha. have been excavated and that the total area of the site was much larger.

6 In 1970, a tomb was discovered; see Saliby 1979-1980; Courtois 1979a, 1279-1280. The exact location of this tomb is not known to me; it is indicated in Fig. 5.1 with an asterisk. In the succeeding pages, the names of the various areas on the tell of Ugarit will be abbreviated:

RS Acr. = Acropole RS SA = Sud Acropole

RS SC = Quartier Sud-Centre RS PR = Palais Royal RS VS = Ville Sud RS SW = Tombe Sud-Ouest

RS QR = Quartier RĂ©sidentielle RS CV = Centre Ville RS PS = Palais Sud RS NO = Quartier Nord-Ouest

Nord-Ouest

RS VB = Ville Basse RS TTE = Trench Terrasse Est

7 Courtois 1979a, 1218-1222; Yon 1997a, 46-55.

Fig. 5.1 Ras Shamra: the excavation trenches

by the vast royal palace, which contained ninety rooms and six courtyards.7 The palace was the only area at Ras Shamra that can be considered a specialised zone, designated for specific social groups and functions.8 The other excavation trenches have exposed tightly-knit urban zones, in which buildings meant for habitation were interspersed with shops, workshops and religious structures. Four buildings with cultic functions can be identified with certainty at Ras Shamra. However, it is clear that religious

8 C allot 1986, 753-754; Yon 1992a, 26-27; Callot & 9 Tarragon 1995, 209-210.

Yon 1995, 161.

rites were practised outside structures with explicit cultic functions as well.9 Even though a site plan from Minet el-Beida has never been published, it is clear from the description by the excavators that tombs, houses, storehouses and workshops were discovered, as well as spaces designated to ritual prac-tices.10 Notable both at Ras Shamra and Minet el-Beida are the vaulted tombs that were situated underneath the buildings.11 These tombs, most of which were pillaged long before excavations began, were used for many generations; in some cases evidence was found for several centuries of utilisation.

The kingdom of Ugarit is mentioned in cuneiform tablets found at a number of places in the eastern Mediterranean; in addition extensive epigraphical archives have also been discovered at the town itself.12 From these texts and from the extensive archives discovered at Ugarit itself, the history of the city during the Late Bronze Age has been reconstructed.13 The picture which has emerged is that of a city-state ruled by a dynasty of kings. Although subject to Egyptian and Hittite domination successively, the kingdom enjoyed relative autonomy and was heavily involved in overseas diplomacy and trade, for which its location at a crossroads of maritime and overland routes provided good opportunities. Within the society of Ugarit there was a distinction between the 'people of the king' and 'free people'.14 The royal court ranked above these two groups with an almost divine status for the king. The 'free people' were mainly farmers, who lived in villages among their estates. In the capital of Ugarit lived the 'people of the king', who were, at least partly, dependent on the palace for their income. More than forty different professions have been distinguished within this social group, varying from artisans such as bakers and carpenters to high-ranking military personnel, merchants and priests.

The material record of Ras Shamra and the standard of living for the urban population appears to have been fairly high.15 Even houses that can be qualified as modest are of good architectural quality and have produced inventories testifying to a considerable level of wealth. Imported objects from many areas of the Mediterranean have been discovered both at Ras Shamra and Minet el-Beida. and, even though they constitute only a small proportion of the total of finds, imports were an integral part of Ugaritic material culture16. The whole population of Ras Shamra may be considered as representing the upper social strata of the kingdom. However this population seems to have been internally stratified. Olivier Callot classifies the houses in the Ville Sud in three groups on the basis of their architecture and the archaeological inventories: rich, middle class and modest.17 In addition, a group of large mansions close to the palace constitutes a special class, testifying to a wealthy social group with strong connections with the court.

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