This week, my friend and editor, Jenny Q., just returned from a long trip through Italy. I have been reliving prior trips of my own vicariously through her photographs. My keen interest in the ancient world is constantly rekindled whenever I know someone experiencing its marvels. Jenny went to both Pompeii and Herculaneum, and I can't wait to hear her thoughts about those sites.
N.L. Holmes, who has written several novels on ancient Egypt and has previously been featured on my blog has written yet another new book on the ancient world. This time, it takes place in the ancient Near East, and I'm positively fascinated with its subject matter: the early city-state of Ugarit. What was Ugarit? Where was it? Did they speak a translatable language? How did they worship and what became of them? I always start coming up with such questions when I don't know much about a particular culture, so I asked Holmes to kindly give us a blog that will touch upon a few of these ponderings.
Welcome back to Brook's Journal, N. L. Holmes! You're always welcome!
And read on, everyone!
Ugarit: A fascinating Little Place
By: N.L. Holmes
Ugarit is the most fascinating little kingdom you’ve never heard of! Practically nobody had for 3000 years, until 1928, when a team of French Egyptologists rediscovered it near Latakia, Syria, at a place called Ras Shamra. Since then, the reconstruction of its culture and history has shed immense light upon the history of the Bronze Age Mediterranean.
The settlers of Ugarit were a Semitic-speaking people closely related to the Canaanites. Their hill-top city ruled over an area of about 2000 square kilometers—not large, yet by 6000 BCE it was strong enough to be ruled from a heavily walled capital. And no wonder. On the juncture between the caravan routes inland and the sea routes that connected the eastern Mediterranean, Ugarit was a trading center supreme. Precious goods from Mesopotamia and Arabia met luxuries from Egypt and perfume and fabrics from Anatolia and the Aegean. It was so rich it could manipulate even its powerful neighbors, the Hittites and the Egyptians, belonging first to one sphere of influence then the other. In addition to being the primary shipping power of its day, Ugarit manufactured luxury goods itself—notably, the purple dye made from mollusks that was the very definition of prestige.
Head of a Prince: Public Domain, Damascus Museum, Wikimedia Commons
Ugarit was ruled by kings, like every other state of its time, but their power was checked by a powerful aristocracy, the maryannuma, men of formidable wealth from trade, agriculture, and manufacturing. Under the protection of its primary gods Ba’al, the Lord of the Storm, and Dagan, grain, the kingdom flourished until the early twelfth century BCE, when it was taken out by the mysterious Sea People phenomenon that also spelled the end of many other kingdoms, including the mighty Hittite Empire. Unlike some other Canaanite city-states, Ugarit never rose again.
The people of Ugarit were perhaps the first to develop a real alphabet of thirty phonetic characters that probably inspired the later alphabet of the neighboring Phoenicians—the ancestor of our own system. It was important for this kingdom of merchant princes to be more widely literate than the complicated cuneiform of the Mesopotamians or the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians and Hittites permitted. Fortunately for today’s historians, whole libraries of tablets inscribed in their script or in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the day, have been preserved and are gradually being restored and read. Many of these provide insights into the diplomacy of the day. A small kingdom like Ugarit, navigating its way among the giants around it, must have been a sophisticated political environment. We see their relationships with their overlords in Hatti, their flirtation with the rising power of Assyria, their solutions to interior scandals and divisions. Clues dropped by these archives have fueled a lot of plots in the Empire at Twilight series of which The Moon That Fell from Heaven is a part!
But in addition, these rediscovered texts have provided insights into other aspects of society at the end of the Bronze Age. A whole cache of musical texts has come to light, much of it based on the earlier Hurrian tradition. And many works of literature have been discovered, introducing us to the mythology of the region. The similarities between the literature of Ugarit and the literary forms found in the Bible are striking but unsurprising when one considers the cultural matrix that united the entire east coast of the Mediterranean. The Ba’al Cycle, written by a certain Ili-milku, finds its way into The Moon That Fell from Heaven, along with other fragments that allow us to understand the structure of Bronze Age poetry.
Artistically, Ugarit has proved to be equally rich, influenced by Egypt but maintaining its own identity. And all this marvelous tissue of wealth and creativity came crashing down around 1190-1180, victim of social upheavals and the wandering of whole peoples driven from their homelands by hunger and war. It has been my privilege to try to resurrect some of the millions of human stories that lie hidden in its ruins.
Postern gate, Ugarit: © Frank Kidner, Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University, Wikimedia
All About the Book
Ehli-nikkalu, eldest daughter of the Hittite emperor, is married to a mere vassal of her father's. But despite her status, her foreignness and inability to produce an heir drive a wedge between her and the court that surrounds her. When her secretary is mysteriously murdered while carrying the emperor a message that would indict the loyalty of his vassal, Ehli-nikkalu adopts the dead man’s orphaned children out of a guilty sense of responsibility. A young cousin she has never met becomes a pretender to the throne and mobilizes roving armies of the poor and dispossessed, which causes the priority of her loyalties to become even more suspect. However, Ehli-nikkalu discovers a terrible secret that could destabilize the present regime if the pretender ever learns of it. With the help of a kindly scribe, her brave young ward, and an embittered former soldier trapped in debt and self-doubt, Ehli-nikkalu sets out to save the kingdom and prove herself to her father. And along the way, she learns something about love.
All About N.L. Holmes
N.L. Holmes is the pen name of a professional archaeologist who received her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. She has excavated in Greece and in Israel and taught ancient history and humanities at the university level for many years. She has always had a passion for books, and in childhood, she and her cousin used to write stories for fun.
These days she lives in France with her husband, two cats, geese, and chickens, where she gardens, weaves, dances, and plays the violin.
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