Ugarit

The romance of the Bronze Age.

In the early years of Ramesses III’s reign [around 1200 B.C.], worrying news began to reach Egypt from the pharaoh’s emissaries in the Near East. All along the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, cities were being sacked and torched, harbors burned and looted, entire nations laid low. While coastal communities had been harried by pirates for decades, this new onslaught was of an entirely different order of magnitude. Most frightening of all, it had come from out of the blue, the sighting of enemy ships on the western horizon being the first warning of an impending attack. By the time the inhabitants of the Mediterranean ports could muster their defenses, their enemies were upon them. As Egypt watched from afar, great cities and civilizations were reduced to rubble, and the cultural achievements of centuries went up in smoke.

The first to fall was the great maritime city of Ugarit [in modern Syria, near the city of Latakia today]. Its altruism was its undoing. The king of Ugarit had dispatched a sizeable military force to southern Anatolia in response to pleas for urgent assistance from neighboring lands already under attack. Ugarit’s soldiers were fighting alongside the Hittites, while its navy was patrolling the coast of Lycia. By being an exemplary ally, Ugarit had unwittingly put itself in the line of fire. Overstretched and underdefended, its remaining forces were hopelessly incapable of defending Ugarit at home when the attack came. In an eleventh-hour attempt to save his entire realm from destruction, the king of Ugarit wrote a desperate letter to his counterpart in Alashiya (Cyprus). Its tone of panic is palpable: “the enemy ships are already here, they have set fire to my towns and have done very great damage in the countryside.” It was too late. The clay tablet bearing the king’s letter was never sent. It was found much later [in the 20th century], still in the kiln where it had been fired, amid the ruble of the devastated city, a vivid firsthand account penned on the eve of destruction. Ugarit was laid waste, never to be reoccupied. One of the great natural harbors of the Mediterranean was reduced to smoldering ruins. . . . The dreaded Sea Peoples[, who “remain unidentified in the eyes of most modern scholars,”] had returned.

Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt 325-29 (2010).