Trade at Ugarit In The 13th Century BC*
In the thirteenth century BC, the Levant was the scene of an antagonism between the area's two superpowers, The Hittites from Anatolia on the north, and Egypt. The Hittite influence in the Levant was expanding at the expense of a shrinking Egyptian sphere of influence. The inevitable clash came at about 1286 BC between Hittite King Mursilis and Pharaoh Ramses II at Qadesh, on the Orontes river. The outcome of the battle is not known for certain though it is believed that the Hittites won the battle. In 1272, the two sides signed a non-aggression pact, believed to be the oldest document of its kind in recorded history. The peace resulting from the accord was to have far-reaching effects on the fate of Phoenicia, including such cities as Tyre, Byblos, and Ugarit.
The latter, located near what is now the Syrian village of Ras-el-Shamra, is now known best for being the discovery site of the earliest alphabetic system used exclusively for writing, dating back to the fourteenth century. However, Ugarit was also for a period of three centuries the main site of import and export on the Eastern Mediterranean.
Though it had to pay the Hittites an annual tribute in gold, silver, and purple wool, Ugarit took great advantage from the atmosphere of peace that followed the Egyptian-Hittite accord. It became a major terminal for land travel to, and from, Anatolia, inner Syria, and Mesopotamia as well as a trading port, serving merchants and travelers from Greece and Egypt.
Documents discovered at Ugarit mention a wide spectrum of trading goods. Amongst those are such foodstuffs as wheat, olives, barley, dates, honey, wine and cummin; metals such as copper, tin, bronze, lead and iron (then considered rare and valuable) were traded in the form of weapons, vessels or tools. Livestock traders dealt in horses, donkeys, sheep, cattle, geese and other birds. The Levant's forests made timber an important Ugaritic export: the customer could specify the desired measurements and variety of the needed timber and the king of Ugarit would send the timber logs of appropriate size. For example an order from the king of nearby Carshemish goes as follows:
Thus says the king of Carshemish to Ibirani king of Ugarit:
Greetings to you! Now the dimensions-length and breadth-I have sent to you.
Send two junipers according to those dimensions. Let them be as long as the
(specified) length and as wide as the (specified) breadth.
Other objects of commerce included hippo teeth, elephant tusks, baskets, scales, cosmetics and glass. And, as to be expected from a wealthy city, slaves constituted a trade commodity as well.
Carpenters produced beds, chests, and other wooden furniture. Other artisans worked on bows and metal shaping. There was a marine industry which produced ships not only for the Ugaritic traders, but also for such maritime cities as Byblos and Tyre.
The trade objects came from great distances, from as far away east as Afghanistan, and from the west as far away as central Africa.
Ugarit's merchants received promotions in the form of grants of land in return for their undertaking trading activities on the behalf of the king though their trading was far from limited to making deals for the monarchy. We are told, for example, of a group of four merchants jointly investing a total of 1000 shekels for a trading expedition to Egypt. Of course, being a trader abroad was not risk-free. Ugaritic records mention compensations to foreign merchants killed either there or in other cities. The importance of trade to the king of Ugarit was such that townsmen were made responsible for the safety of foreign merchants doing business in their town. If a merchant were robbed and murdered and the guilty party were not caught, the citizens had to pay compensation.
As to be expected, Ugarit was a very cosmopolitan city. Foreign nationals resided there, as well as some diplomatic personnel including Hittites, Hurrians, Assyrians, Cretans and Cypriots. The existence of so many foreigners led to a flourishing real estate industry and to the intervention of the state to regulate the industry.
Around 1200 BC, the area experienced a reduced peasant population and thus a reduction in agricultural resources. The crisis had serious consequences. The city-state's economy was weak, the internal politics was becoming unstable. The city was unable to defend itself. The torch was passed to the maritime cities south of Ugarit such as Tyre, Byblos and Sidon. Ugarit's fate was sealed around 1200 BC with the invasion of "The Sea People" and the destruction that followed. The city disappeared from history thereafter.
The destruction of Ugarit marked the end of a brilliant phase in the history of Middle Eastern civilizations.
-H. W. F. Saggs, "Civilizations Before Greece And Rome", Yale University Press 1989.
-Marguerite Yon, "Ougarit, Ville Royale de L'Age du Bronze", La Recherche, March 1995.
-"The Penguin Encyclopedia of ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS", Edited by Arthur Cotterell, Penguin Books 1980
-Philip Hitti, "History of Syria", The Macmillan Company 1951.
-O.R. Guerny. "The Hittites", Penguin Archeology 1952, reprinted 1990.
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