Life and Death in The Ancient City of Ugarit: Homes and Tombs Combine

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remains of the houses of Ugarit

The Houses of Ugarit lined streets that could be as much as 2.5 m (over 8 feet) wide or as narrow as 0.9m (under 3 feet). Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

For strangers, wandering the streets of Ugarit could have been a bewildering experience.

The ancient city’s layout followed no particular plan, consisting of an irregular maze of streets and allies surrounding isolated insulae of land. These insula accommodated the city’s houses, often several at a time.

Sophisticated and well designed, the facilities in Ugarit’s houses would have been the envy of other ancient cities. Their design also made the most of the limited space, with shared partition walls, and upper and lower stories including under ground chambers.

The citizen’s of Ugarit also shared these spaces – but not with the living.

Houses in Ugarit 

The residential areas of Ugarit that archaeologists have identified so far lie to the north and east of the city. The north accommodated the high status residential areas. In the east was the commercial district where artisans such as weavers and potters lived and worked.

The houses in these areas reflected their differing social situations. However, they also shared several features. All featured construction of neat ashlar stone blocks, packed with rubble, with wooden courses in the walls and roofs. Each had some sort of water supply.

Rooms were often arranged around a courtyard. The better houses also had entrance vestibules, and drainage and toilets, and bread ovens in the courtyard.

The remains of staircases also indicate that houses of different status had various floor levels-each of which had a particular function.

Ugarit Homes: The Upper Floors

Remains of Ugarit Houses

It was common for the homes of the ordinary and wealthy to have courtyards, upper stories and a water supply. This photo shows the remains of houses with water cisterns. Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

House in Ugarit would have had flat-topped roofs made of mud-covered reeds. Quite often, residents used this space for various activities including work and leisure.

Below this was the first floor, which – in most average homes – was for the private use of the family. Here were the bedrooms and the rooms where families entertained close friends.

In the houses of the wealthy, the first floor would also have accommodated the library. It was quite common for the well to do to keep records of their business transactions in their homes, as well as general reference materials.

The house of Ortonou, for example, was the home of a wealthy merchant. Recently discovered and excavated, his library included tablets relating to his business ventures and established his close links with the royal family of Ugarit.

Likewise the library in the House of Rap’anou, a prominent man and writer during the reign of Amistamar II in around 1274-1240 BC, was huge and composed of encyclopedias containing the names of animals, Ugarit’s deities and dictionaries of the language.

Ugarit Homes: The Ground Floor

Entry to houses was through a stone tiled corridor. In higher status homes this would open into a hall. Otherwise, it led into the main rooms of the house, which were generally utilitarian in function. Whatever the status of the house, this was the public zone. Here, the occupants would carry out trade, and this also served as the location of the kitchen and bathroom if the house was equipped with one.

Foundations in Ugarit’s houses were dug deep – up to 1.8 m in some cases. This was to protect the dwellings from earthquakes, but residents often utilized them in other ways as well. Instead of for storage or a cellar, however, these underground vaults were often used as the family mausoleum.

Tomb

Houses were homes for both the living and the dead, with mausoleums occupying chambers under the house as seen in this photo of a tomb entrance. Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

Ugarit Mausoleums

To date, over 200 crypts have been found in Ugarit. Archaeologists found each one under a house. Dating from the mid- to late Bronze Age, it seems that during this period at least, it was usual in Ugarit for the living and dead to remain in such close proximity.

Entrance to the crypt was via a descending stairway in the garden area of the house. From here, a sloping corridor lead into the tomb. Each tomb was generally rectangular in shape, built to arch upwards into a dome capped at the summit with a T-shaped stone.

The builders put wall apertures in place for grave goods. Archaeologists found these to include ceramics, glass, vases, gold and silver jewellery, bronze wares and weapons. The selection found are by no means a complete representation of what the residents buried with their dead, as it is clear that robbers stole from many tombs.

Life, Death, and the Importance of Ancestors in Ugarit

Some of Ugarit’s many religious records suggest possible reasons why families kept their dead so close. A cuneiform tablet referring to the funeral of one of Ugarit’s Kings, Niqmad, dating from the between 1225-1220 BC, includes a song which indicates the importance of deceased family members.

Each of the deceased kings named is invited to attend the King’s funeral and described as ‘divine,’ indicating the Ugaritic belief in the survival after death of the deceased – and their continued importance in the lives of the living.

So, to the people of Ugarit, their ancestors were not dead and gone; they had merely evolved to another state. However, they still had a role in the family. So it would therefore be natural to keep them close at hand.

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Comments

  1. Carla Ringey says

    Thank you for the information on Ugarit. I had visited back in late 2010 and have been worried about any damage to Ugarit and other sites I had visited in Syria. Have other areas of the city been unearthed? Their history and cuneiform tablets have fascinated me although I have’t had time to pursue the topic. Again thanks.

    • Natasha Sheldon says

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Carla. There will be more articles on Ugarit and other Syrian sites in the near future. As to recent work, I do not believe there is any ongoing. I think the priority for now is to conserve and protect as much of Syria’s ancient heritage as possible. A sad situation and one that also concerns me deeply.

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