The Death of Ba’al; Climate change, war, and the end of civilisation.
From his spectral throne at the summit of Mount Zaphon, in a palace of blue lapis and silver, the Canaanite Storm God Ba’al protected the coastal city of Ugarit from the forces of destruction and chaos. As master of the life giving power rainfall and fertility, Ba’al had turned the Bronze Age backwater of Ugarit — in modern Syria — into the jewel of the Near East, delivering more than 800mm of rainfall a year — enough to support a prosperous agricultural economy and large urban population. Over three thousand years later, his name is fossilised in the language of Levantine Arabs, where the word bá’al is an adjective to describe irrigation methods that use rainwater.
Sat on the borderlands of the two superpowers of the Late Bronze Age, the Egyptians and the Hittites, Ugarit grew to be an international trade hub, comparable to the glories of Medieval Venice thousands of years in the future. Historian Michael Cohn described it as;
“The nexus of free trade routes between Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Mediterranean. It was a metropolis where people from the civilisations of the Late Bronze Age, Indo-European as well as Semetic, came into contact and exchanged ideas and stories.”
Ugarit boasted a number of innovations, such as the first known alphabetic writing (not one but two systems) and the oldest known piece of “recorded” music; Hurrian Hymn no.6, recovered on clay tablets from the ruins of the city in the 1950s.
Like the other major powers of the age; Hittites, Egyptians, Mycenaeans and others, Ugarit’s wealth was based on a Palace Economy; a centralised trade network monopolised by a ruling aristocracy. The nearest modern equivalent would be the planned economies of the USSR or North Korea, only in the late Bronze age there were integrated networks of such states meshed together trading goods like olive oil, wine, timber, textiles, ivory, pottery, precious stones and, of course, arms.
These first stirrings of globalised economy was accompanied the first age of international diplomacy, giving rise to a time of unprecedented peace. But this was a gilded age. Despite following the familiar patriarchal archetype of the Near-Eastern King and in theory having holy duties to protect the downtrodden and impoverished, the gross inequality of the economy meant Ugarit was always on the verge of instability. In Chaos, Cosmos and the World to Come Norman Cohn wrote that;
“The task of supporting the luxurious lifestyle of the royal establishment, in a land as poor as Caanan, imposed a crushing burden on the peasants: in Ugarit some 6000–8000 city-dwellers who were mostly dependents of the palace and economically unproductive, were supported by a mere 25,000 peasants in the surrounding countryside.”
Just as the demon Apophis lurked in the undermind of the Egyptians as a personification of a failed state and the anxieties of the ruling class, so Yamm — primordial god of chaos — stood as the eternal foe of Ba’al as a symbol of the “war of all against all” that would ensue should the elite’s precarious rule come undone. In the battles between the two told in myth, the serpent Yamm occasionally got the upper hand, but would always be driven back to his underwater domain, while Ba’al would restore order.
Ugarit was not destroyed by a worker’s revolt, not alone, anyway. In its final days a new mythology would unfold, and a new nemesis emerge. Mot — God of Death — would rise from his shadowy kingdom of the netherworld to challenge the Storm God to a battle to the death. Unlike his many confronatation with arch enemy Yamm, this was a fight Ba’al could not hope to win. Despite a heroic struggle, the lord of rainfall and fertility would perish, and the age of Mot would begin; the reign of death.
Today, thanks to new evidence in the form of tree ring and fossil pollen analysis, we know that due to natural climate fluctuations between the years 1300–850 BCE — during the final days of Ugarit — there were unprecedented droughts and famines stretching from the Aegean to Mesopotamia. Branden Drake of the University of New Mexico found that oxygen-isotope data taken from northern Israel, carbon-isotope data from Greece, and sediment cores taken from the Mediterranean, all point to a drier environment during the exact time that these cities were collapsing.
Itamar Singer of Tel Aviv University writes that “climatological cataclysms affected the entire eastern Mediterranean region towards the end of the second millennium BCE”. While Near Eastern kings had contingencies for such events, for example grain stockpiles to cope with bad harvest years, they simply did not anticipate that droughts could last so long, and with such intensity. What else could it mean, other than the god of rainfall himself was dead?
In the final days of Ugarit, King Ammurapi wrote a letter to the King of Cyprus (referred to as “father” as a way of showing deference) begging for international aid.
“Now the enemy ships have come. They have been setting fire to my cities and have done harm to the land. Doesn’t my father know that all my infantry and chariotry are stationed in Khatte, that all of my ships are stationed in the land of Lukka? They have not arrived back yet, so my land is thus prostate.”
Thought to date from around 1207 BCE, the “Enemy ships” are now believed to have been what today we’d call climate refugees, entire populations from across the Mediterranean who were fleeing the droughts, famines, wars and crises of their own collapsing countries. David Kaniewski writes that;
“The Late Bronze Age coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event 3200 years ago. This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.”
As for the burning cities, King Ammurapi may have been referring to the town of Ras Ibn Hani — what seems to have been a holiday retreat for Ugaritic royalty — or Gibala, another coastal town within Ugarit’s orbit, as there is archeological evidence both were totally destroyed around the time the letter was sent.
Ugarit itself was destroyed sometime between the years 1190–1185 BCE. In the strata that dates to this period there is evidence of intense fires, warfare, and people leaving in a hurry. While invasion by the “sea people” (as the Egyptians called them) has often been blamed, it is also likely that the downtrodden also took this opportunity to have their vengeance on the pampered elites that had made their lives such misery. And like this, Ugarit practically vanished from human memory.
Today, as scientists and historians learn story of the fall of Ugarit, it is clear it was a microcosm of a much wider catastrophe; a the Bronze Age Collapse. A subject that had previously vexed historians, the mysterious vanishing of the pre-Classical world’s great powers is now known to be a period of social, economic and cultural implosion triggered in part by climate change that brought to dramatic end two thousand years of civilisation, plunging the Mediterranean and near east into a dark age that would last for centuries. The kingdoms of the Hittites, Mycenaeans and Cypriots and others would suffer similar fates to Ugarit, leaving behind little but scorched ruins, displaced populations, and stories. Only Egypt would survive, but as a shadow of its former self.
This was literally the end of civilisation. And while the details and causes of these events are only now being pieced together, memories of them are still deeply embedded in our cultural psyche. For it is now becoming clear that this cataclysm was the backdrop of the West’s two foundational epics, the war of Troy — an oral history of the decline of Mycenae and their war with a Hittite client state — and the Hebrew Exodus — a written history of the Jews’ escape from a weakened, plague stricken Egypt.
So while the Death of Ba’al may be largely forgotten, the trauma of the Bronze Age Collapse continues to haunt us.