Ras Shamra

RAS SHAMRA (ras sham'ra, Arab. Fennel Head). The modern name of the mound that marks the site of the ancient city of Ugarit, located on the Syrian coast opposite the island of Cyprus. The city, with its port Minet el Beida (White Harbor), was an important commercial center through which passed the trade of Syria and Mesopotamia with Egypt, Cyprus, and the Aegean area. Occasionally antiquities had been found here by local people, but in a.d. 1928 a peasant struck the roof of a buried tomb with his plow and made a discovery that attracted the attention of the authorities. In 1929 the French archaeologist C. F. A. Schaeffer began a series of excavations that have revealed much of the history of the site. Test shafts showed that there were five major strata, the earliest dating to the Neolithic period.

Ugarit was swept from the historical scene in about 1200 b.c., when the Sea Peoples overran the area. The city is mentioned in Egyptian historical inscriptions, in the Amarna Tablets (Akkadian), and in Hittite records. Its relations with Egypt were quite close during the Twelfth Dynasty and again in the time of Ramses II. Ugarit was at the peak of its prosperity in the fifteenth-fourteenth centuries b.c. but was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid-fourteenth century. It recovered from this catastrophe but was under Hittite and then Egyptian domination. Although the excavation of the mound has resulted in many significant finds, the most striking was that of a scribal school and library of clay tablets, adjoining the temple of Baal and dating from the Amarna Age. Various Near Eastern languages and scripts appeared at Ugarit, but the majority of the tablets used an unknown cuneiform script, which study showed to have an alphabet of some thirty signs. Credit for the work of deciphering the script must go to H. Bauer, E. Dhorme, and C. Virolleaud. The language, now called Ugaritic, was found to be of the Semitic family and closely related to Hebrew. The texts contain various types of writings: syllabaries and vocabularies; personal and diplomatic correspondence; business, legal, and governmental records; veterinary texts dealing with diagnosis and treatment of ailments of horses; and, most important, religious literature.

The myths and legends of Ugarit have provided valuable primary sources for the knowledge of Canaanite religion. These stories have been given modern titles, e.g., “The Loves and Wars of Baal and Anat,” “The Birth of the Gods,” “The Wedding of Nikkal and the Moon,” “The Legend of Keret,” “The Legend of Aqhat.” At the head of the Ugaritic pantheon was El, who was also known as Father of Man, Creator of Creators, Bull El. His consort was Asherah, a fertility goddess who was a stumbling block to Israel. Ahab (1Kgs.16.33) and Jezebel (1Kgs.18.19) promoted her worship, and Manasseh even put her image in the temple (2Kgs.21.7). Among the many offspring of El and Asherah was Dagon (Judg.16.23; 1Sam.5.1-1Sam.5.12), a grain god, whose son Baal was of great prominence. A god of rain and storm, Baal, whose proper name was Hadad (Thunderer), also figured in the fertility cycle. Baal was also called Aliyan Baal, Dagon’s Son, Servant of El, Rider of Clouds, and Baal-Zebub (cf. 2Kgs.1.1-2Kgs.1.18; Matt.12.24). In Israel the priests of Baal lost an important contest with the prophet of God on Mount Carmel (1Kgs.18.1-1Kgs.18.46). Baal’s sister and wife, the virgin Anat, goddess of love and fertility and goddess of war, is known in the OT as Astarte or Ashtoreth. In addition to these, numerous lesser divinities are named. The deities of Ugarit are often quite ungodly: El ordinarily is easygoing and easily influenced, but sometimes is rash and even immoral, as in his seduction and expulsion of two women. Baal mates with his sister and also with a heifer. Anat slaughters people and wades in blood and gore. This aspect of Canaanite religion occasioned the stern warning of the Lord to Israel concerning such worship.

The texts provide information concerning ritual and sacrifice and the temple plan, and recovered objects also contribute to an understanding of the religion and culture. The tablets and the OT elucidate each other; the Ugaritic texts have been used in OT textual criticism and have been helpful in Hebrew lexicography. Many interesting suggested relationships may be cited. Ugaritic practice illuminates the biblical prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod.23.19; Exod.34.26; Deut.14.21). A veterinary text refers to a poultice that has been cited as a parallel to Isaiah’s prescription for King Hezekiah (2Kgs.20.7; Isa.38.21). The legend of Aqhat tells of a good and just king named Dan'el, whom some have sought to equate with the Daniel of Ezekiel (Isa.14.14, Isa.14.20; Isa.12.3). The system of weights used at Ugarit was like that of Israel. These examples illustrate the type of information provided and discussion aroused by the investigation of the remains of this long-dead city.——CEDV


View of Ras Shamra.

RAS SHAMRA räs shäm’ rə. The name of a Syrian mound, ancient Ugarit, about seven m. N of Laodicea ad Mare on the Syrian coast, where, beginning in 1929, archeological finds were made which have been of enormous value for the study of Phoenician and Canaanite religion, inaugurating a new era in OT research. See Ugarit.