May 26, 2024

The First Recorded Solar Eclipse

The first recorded solar eclipse occurred in the ancient city of Ugarit, captured on a clay tablet 3 000 years ago.

Map showing the location of Canaan
Map showing the location of Canaan

The Canaanites were a Bronze Age people, found across the middle east from about 3 500 BCE. The term is something of a catch-all, used to describe groups of people who shared similar traits and customs, but who were not formally unified.

They lived in city states, each with its own individual ruler. These were most heavily concentrated in present day Syria, Israel and Palestine; the Bible describes them as the occupiers of the Holy Land, promised to the Jews.

The Canaanites were pioneers in a number of ways.

They were fisherman, farmers, and manufacturers, and established profitable trade routes across the Mediterranean and to Mesopotamia. They were culturally sophisticated as well, with skilled artists and scholars and their own written alphabet, among the first known.

The Canaanites would leave behind a huge trove of documents for archaeologists to uncover: inscribed clay tablets recording everything from stories and current events, to lists of kings and business transactions.

Religion was highly important, and their practice was polytheistic, with an array of Gods and complex rituals. Many of these would be influential on their regional neighbours, who also viewed them as rivals; Canaanite cities would fall at times under the governance of both the Egyptian and Hittite empires.

One of the major cities of the period was Ugarit.

Location of Ugarit
Location of Ugarit

Ugarit was a port city on the north coast of present-day Syria, roughly adjacent to Cyprus. The city was ancient, dating from around 6500 BCE, when Amorite tribes migrated from the arid interior to the coast.

In the Canaanite period the port became a major trade centre, linking the region with the Mediterranean. Among the goods traded were textiles, ivory, precious metals, and weapons.

The city was multicultural, bustling, and rich:

‘People arriving by sea passed through a monumental gatehouse into the city and soon saw the city’s royal complex, spread out over more than two acres. A temple to Ugarit’s patron deity, Baal, towered 150 feet over the city, and may have also been used as a lighthouse.’

 

– Roger Attwood, ‘Archaeology’ magazine

Two story houses of wealthy merchants lined the city’s stone streets, which were centred around an expansive acropolis. On the western edge of the city was a large, with numerous courtyards, pillared chambers, and a columned entrance.

When not under the sway of a neighbouring power, Ugarit was ruled by a King. Unlike many Canaanite city states it is thought he also had an advisory council, to guide his decisions.

Ugarit: artist's depiction
Ugarit: artist’s depiction

The Canaanites were destroyed in a cataclysm known as the ‘Late Bronze Age Collapse’.

This chaotic period commenced around 1200 BCE, and lasted for 50 years. During this time both the Canaanites and the Hittites, based in modern Turkey, were completely devastated, while the ancient Greeks and Egyptians went into a period of decline.

The cause of this sudden upheaval is still debated. It seems likely a combination of factors was responsible, and the catalyst may have been environmental: drought that led to famine, which led to social unrest and then armed conflict.

There is also a more mysterious aspect. Chronicles from the period describe a race referred to as ‘The Sea People’; warriors who staged attacks across the region, laying waste to entire cities.

Who these warlike people were remains unknown; they subsequently vanished from history.

Among the targets of the Sea People was Ugarit, which was burned to the ground around 1185 BCE. The ruins of the city, like a number of other adjacent settlements, would subsequently be swallowed by the desert.

A long pause then settles on the story, until the 20th century.

Uncovered ruins of Ugarit, site of the first recorded solar eclipse
Uncovered ruins of Ugarit

One of the outcomes of World War I was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Turkey and the middle east for hundreds of years. After the War, the European powers assumed control of much of the former empire, while its future was determined.

France began administering an area known as the ‘Alawite State’, which covered the northern parts of the former Canaanite territory.

In 1928, a peasant farmer near the small village of Ras Sharma stumbled across the buried entrance of a tomb. He reported his discovery to the French authorities, and the following year an expedition came to investigate, under the direction of archaeologist Claude F.-A. Schaeffer.

It would prove to be one of the most remarkable finds in history.

Clay tablets recovered from Ugarit
Clay tablets recovered from Ugarit

Excavations over the next 25 years would gradually reveal the lost city of Ugarit. The many thousands of preserved clay tablets would also give an insight into the lives of the people who lived there.

Among these would be found the first record of a solar eclipse.

Astronomical observation was important to the Canaanites. They were skilled at both agriculture and sailing, both of which required knowledge of the sky; celestial bodies also formed an important part of their religious practices.

The stars and the seasons were closely observed.

In 1948, a large library of clay tablets was discovered in the former Ugarit royal palace. One of these was a record of a solar eclipse that had occurred 3 300 years beforehand.

The inscription on the tablet read: ‘On the 6th hour of the day of the new moon in the month ḫiyaru, the Sun went down. Its gatekeeper was Ršp.’

Ršp was the word used to describe the planet Mars; the inscription was interpreted to mean that the sun had disappeared in the middle of the day, making Mars visible.

The reverse of the same tablet describes panic in the city as the sun went dark. People prayed in the streets or cowered in fear, while the king sent for his holy men, who examined two livers – a traditional type of divination – to try and ascertain the events meaning.

The first recorded solar eclipse: Peru
Depiction of ancient solar eclipse from Peru, showing impact on ancient peoples.

Computer modelling can be used to determine the time and place of eclipses going back thousands of years. Comparing this data to the Ugarit tablet, scientists initially placed the described event as having occurred in May 1375 BCE.

A more recent analysis adjusted this to March 5, 1223 BCE. The precision of this date makes it easier to imagine the scene unfolding: the great, wealthy city in shadow, its occupants and leaders staring gobsmacked at the darkened sky.

Ancient history is so often described in eras and epochs, rather than one event on a single day.

In earlier times, eclipses were often seen as bad omens, or harbingers of catastrophe. For the people of Ugarit this would prove remarkably prescient.

Twenty years after the first recorded solar eclipse, the city, so lively and thriving, began its decline; within 40 years it had been completely destroyed.

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