So who or what destroyed Ugarit and Emar? For one thing, it was not an earthquake. The weaponry in the streets of Ugarit testifies to a battle in the city before it was burned, and evidence of earthquake damage is lacking. Similarly, at Emar, there is no evidence pointing to an earthquake; only monumental or religious structures were targeted and burned by an unknown assailant.
The Sea Peoples are the alleged perpetrators behind Ugarit's destruction. One reason is Pharaoh Ramesses III's claims that the Sea Peoples were 'agents of destruction' as they made their way toward Egypt on land and by sea. The other is that several texts uncovered in the ruins of Ugarit mention "enemies on boats" which led many scholars to believe that this was evidence of the Sea Peoples raiding before they destroyed the city. But modern scholars have indicted the Sea Peoples for a crime that no one in ancient times ever accused them of committing.
The claim that the Sea Peoples destroyed Ugarit unravels when we look at what Ramesses actually said. While he lists several places as having been "cut off" by the Sea Peoples, he never mentions Ugarit. Ramesses mentions Carchemish, which led some scholars to assume he meant all of Hittite Syria including Ugarit. The problem with this is that in Egyptian texts, Ugarit and Carchemish are listed separately and there is no reason to assume that Ramesses meant Ugarit when he said Carchemish.
There are also problems using the Ugaritic texts that mention "enemies on boats" as evidence that the Sea Peoples destroyed the city. Other texts found at Ugarit show they knew the names of several Sea Peoples groups, but the mysterious "enemies on boats" are never named. So, the victims of the crime knew the accused, but failed to identify them by name. The lead witness Ramesses III never even mentioned them as having been at the scene of the crime, and while we cannot say who actually destroyed Ugarit it seems it was not the Sea Peoples.
So, was the end of the Late Bronze Age really as bad as it has been made out? Yes and no. Some sites were burned but others were not. There was climate change, but it was not apocalyptic; rather, there was 150 years of gradual cooling and drying that did not affect all regions equally. The destruction and abandonment of Ugarit and Emar were tragic for their inhabitants, but for Carchemish this period of instability proved to be a boon. Because the Great King of the Hittite Empire disappeared without an historical trace, Kuzi-Tešub, the king of Carchemish, was able to take up the title of Great King for himself and established a Neo-Hittite kingdom.
What was bad for some, was good for others. There is still much to discover about the end of the Late Bronze Age in Syria, but it does not appear to have gone out with a cataclysmic, Sea Peoples destroying, climate driven, earth-shaking bang.
Jesse Millek is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan and a Research Fellow at the German Research Foundation.
For further reading:
2020 Millek, J. M. "Just how much was Destroyed? The End of the Late Bronze Age in the Southern Levant," Ugarit-Forschungen 49: 239-274.
2019 Millek, J. M. "Crisis, Destruction, and the End of the Late Bronze Age in Jordan: A Preliminary Survey," Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 135(2), 119-142.
2019 Millek, J. M. "Destruction at the End of the Late Bronze Age in Syria: A Reassessment," Studia Eblaitica 5, 157-190.
2018 Millek, J. M. "Destruction and the Fall of Egyptian Hegemony over the Southern Levant," Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 19, 1-21.
2017 Millek, J. M. "Sea Peoples, Philistines, and the Destruction of Cities: A Critical Examination of Destruction Layers 'Caused' by the 'Sea Peoples.'" In: P. M. Fischer and T Burge (eds.), The "Sea Peoples" Up-To-Date. New Research on the Crisis Years in the Eastern Mediterranean, Contributions to the Chronology of the Eastern Mediterranean (CchEM). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences, 113-140.
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