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The ancient fortress of Van is located east of Lake Van in the Van Province of Turkey
The ancient fortress of Van  is located east of Lake Van in the Van Province of Turkey

The huge ruins of Van, with their mysterious inscriptions, on the shore of the great lake, were explained by Moses Khorenatsi, the 5th Century Armenian chronicler as the work of the legendary Assyrian Queen Semiramis, a tale probably gleaned from local folklore. The first recorded attempt to study these ruins was made by the German scholar Friedrich Eduard Schulz in 1827, who was sent by the French Asiatic Society. Schulz made copies of a number of inscriptions and had these sent back to Paris. Unfortunately Schulz and his party were attacked by bandits in 1829 and he was killed. These copies were not published until 1840 in Paris, where there were shown to be various inscriptions in Ancient Persian and Assyrian cuneiform, itself not fully translated, while the rest of the inscriptions were in an unknown language.

In the mid nineteenth century ancient Mesopotamia was all the rage in Europe, and the activities of Austen Henry Layard and Paul-Emile Botta captured the public imagination with the rediscovery of Assyria and Babylon. The great drive to translate Assyrian inscriptions turned up the name of "Urartri", though as yet this was not associated with the Kingdom of Van.

Winged sphinx without a face, bronze parts of one throne, Hermitage Museum, Russia
 Winged sphinx without a face, bronze parts of one throne, Hermitage Museum, Russia

The Castle of Van suffered the depredations of treasure hunters, and artefacts, particularly bronzes, began to show up in the antiquities market. These finds were purchased avidly by the likes of the British Museum and the Hermitage in Moscow, but were misattributed to the Assyrians or even the Sassanian Persian era. Layard sent his protégé Hormuzd Rassam to dig at Van, and nearby Toprakkale, in the late 1870's and early 1880's. At Van the treasure hunters had done their work thoroughly, though at Toprakkale Rassam and others were able to bring some finds back. Unfortunately many artefacts were placed in storage, or displayed in the museums' Assyrian sections. Boris Petrovsky, Russia's great Urartian scholar, wryly observed that much of the archaeology of the Kingdom of Van had to be done in the basement of the British Museum. The contribution of Soviet archaeologists in later years must not be forgotten, and for all their ideological baggage, their exhaustive and methodical approach was a welcome antidote to the activities of treasure hunters and enthusiastic amateurs. These excavations produced spectacular results at sites like Kamir Blur and Erebuni, which greatly advanced the understanding of Urartu.

The decipherment of the Urartian language was a process as slow and faltering as the discovery of Urartian monuments. There was no Rosetta stone or Michael Ventris of Urartian decipherment. Edward Hincks made the first steps in the study and identified the names of several Urartian kings and words like "city". Layard's copies of inscriptions at Van, made in 1850, helped AH Sayce to make more progress in his study of 1882, identifying the name of "the land of Biaini" and thus firmly linking it to the Urartu mentioned in Assyrian Chronicles. However, Sayce firmly rejected a connection with any Hurrian language, which was contradicted by later scholarship. The decipherment of Urartian was also hampered the small amount of inscriptions, compared to Assyrian. Further contributions to this great effort were made by scholars from many nations, so finally at the close of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century the history of the Kingdom of Van began to emerge into the light, after more than two and a half millennia of darkness.

The Origins and Foundation of the Kingdom of Van

The Kingdom of Urartu, 9th - 6th Centuries B.C.
The Kingdom of Urartu, 9th - 6th Centuries B.C.

The scene upon which the Urartian kingdom emerged is obscure and sparsely documented. Most generalisations that can be made are from the inexact sciences of the material culture and linguistic evidence. By the ninth Century BCE the mighty Hittite Empire, which had spanned Anatolia from the Aegean to Syria, was but a memory, but Hittite culture survived in its many successor states, that were the Urartians' neighbours, producing provincial versions of Hittite sculpture and using the Hittite hieroglyphics. These kingdoms were warlike and ambitious in their area. To the south east lay the mighty Assyrian Empire, the paramount military power of the Middle-East.

Of the mountainous heartland of Urartu around Lake Van all we can say is that there seemed to be a long term settled population whose material culture; in metal work especially gold, showed some level of sophistication. This population spoke a dialect of Hurrian, who were a group of peoples who had inhabited the region for several centuries.

The earliest documentary mention of the land of Urartu can be found in Assyrian sources. The Assyrian King Shalmaneser I (1280 – 1261) launched a campaign to subdue the land they called Uratri, meaning a mountainous place in Assyrian. At this time it was clear the population was divided into several kingdoms. The Assyrian King Takulti-Ninurta I's inscriptions recorded that a revolt of 43 kings of the lands of Nairi was quelled. Significantly the earliest mention of the Urartians can be found in Assyrian sources. At this stage the inhabitants of this mountainous land experienced Assyria as an aggressive overbearing invader, but Assyrian culture was to profoundly affect Urartu. The Urartians adopted the same cuneiform script to inscribe their monuments, which sidelined the old hieroglyphic script (although it did not disappear altogether). Crucially the Urartians adopted Assyrian military practices and equipment, so that later Urartian armies used the conical Assyrian type helmets, which largely replaced the Hurrian style of cylindrical crested helmet. Thus Assyrian aggression was in time likely to have provided the impetus for these mountain dwellers to unite, as well as providing the inspiration for their culture.

It is only in the reign of Shalmaneser III (858 – 825) that the Assyrian records give an inkling of the political change occurring in Urartu. This is recorded on the illustrated bronze plaques, which once formed part of the monumental Balawat Gates. The key sections are housed in the British Museum today. The bronze reliefs provide the first visual depiction of Urartian warriors, shown wearing the crested Hurrian style helmets. This account also names Shalmaneser's main antagonist as "Aramu the Urartian", whose royal city of Arashku was sacked and burnt by Assyrian forces. Again the Balawat Gates tell the story of Assyrian armies conquering all, but within this it is evident that Urartu was now under the jurisdiction of a single king, though how firm his grip was upon this kingdom or confederation, cannot be established.

Even allowing for exaggeration it is clear that the Assyrians had dealt another crippling blow to this young kingdom. Evidence that this situation had begun to change came in 834 BCE. The elderly Shalmaneser III, beset by internal difficulties, was unable to lead the expedition himself, so he dispatched his general Daian Ashur to attack Urartu. The source relates that that a new king; Sarduri I of Urartu, came out to confront the Assyrian armies. The outcome of the battle was not stated, but Sarduri I's reign heralded a new era for Urartu, and for the first time the Urartian king's reign was attested by inscriptions within Urartian territory. Sarduri put his stamp on Urartu's new age by the foundation of a new fortified capital at Van (Tushpa), the remains of which still stand today, perched on a rock that dominates the ruined city of Old Van. On this rock there is an inscription in which Sarduri recorded his deed, describing himself as "Sarduri, son of Lutipri, the magnificent king". From this we can see that Urartu was now a united kingdom with imperialist ambitions in the manner of Assyria. Notably, the inscription was not only in imitation of Assyrian royal inscriptions, it was also written in the Assyrian language. There is currently no way of knowing whether Sarduri was related to Aramu, or whether he was the founder of a new dynasty.

Meuna, the Great Conqueror and Builder

Argishti I was the sixth known king of Urartu, reigning from 786 BC to 764 BC.A son and the successor of Menua, he continued the series of conquests initiated by his predecessors.
Argishti I was the sixth known king of Urartu, reigning from 786 BC to 764 BC.A son and the successor of Menua, he continued the series of conquests initiated by his predecessors.

Despite his achievements, Sarduri probably ruled quite a modest kingdom, and it had been established at a time of Assyrian weakness. There was nothing to guarantee that it would not be snuffed out when the political wind changed. It was for Sarduri I's successors to add to this nucleus and develop the Kingdom of Van as a power to be reckoned with. Sarduri was succeeded by his son Ishpuini, but it was in the reign of Sarduri's grandson Menua, that Urartu underwent its period of greatest expansion. Menua's name can be found on the greatest number inscriptions which record this forward policy. Evidence of Menua's conquests and building can be found as far east as Qalatgar, below Lake Urmia in modern Iran in the east. To the west Menua left his name inscribed on a mountain fortress at Palu, near the town of Elaziğ, near modern Malatya, some 400 kilometres west of Van. Under Menua Urartian power was also pushed northwards as far as Bushbulak, though not yet as far as Lake Sevan. Alongside this Menua put his name to more buildings than any other Urartian king.

The so-called "Horhor Chronicle" inscribed in stone at Van castle, recorded that Menua's son Argishti I extended the kingdom north to Lake Sevan, where Urartian rule was consolidated by the building of the fortress cities of Erebuni and later Argishtihinili. Interestingly the records of booty not only list mineral riches, and animals but also thousands of people. No doubt they supplemented the kingdom's sparse population for the immense building projects.

Urartu's period of local dominance rested on unstable foundations. The mountainous nature of the Urartian heartland suggested a relatively low population, compared to the broad expanses of Assyrian territory in what is now northern Iraq, which were much greater and agriculturally richer. Urartu was also welded together from smaller constituent parts that had united to resist the constant Assyrian attacks. The sources are too sparse to tell us whether this unification process was cooperative or coerced. However, it is clear that Assyrian aggression had inadvertently planted a seed, and it was developments within Assyria which enabled this seed to germinate.

Towards the end of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III's reign, his sons began to squabble and fight over the old king's legacy. The subsequent struggle gave rise to a period of weakened kings, ambitious governors and a powerful dowager; Queen Sammurammat (Queen Semiramis of classical lore). Eventually Tiglath Pileser III (745 – 727) usurped the throne after a revolt at Kalhu, and became a strong ruler of the old school. From this point onwards the days of Urartu's heyday were numbered, although the kingdom had another century and half before its final demise.

In some ways the inhabitants of the lands of the Uratri and Bianili had unification forced upon them by four centuries of raiding, and they were not alone; Aram-Damascus was the focus of a short lived Levantine alliance against Assyria.

Urartian Art: Part of a throne with deity on a bull, late 8th–7th century B.C.
Urartian Art: Part of a throne with deity on a bull, late 8th–7th century B.C.

However, in Urartu's case this led to the rule of one dynasty and the development of a kingdom with a distinct identity. This is reflected in the development of an artistic style that is instantly recognisable as Urartian. This was obviously palace art of the ruling dynasty, and owed as much to Assyrian models as Urartian statecraft. However, some striking artefacts survive such as a group of bronze statuettes of deities, lions but mostly splendid mythical creatures that combine the bodies of bulls, lions and eagles with the human form. These pieces were once part of a single throne, thought to have been discovered at Toprakkale by treasure hunters, and are now scattered between collections in Paris, London, St. Petersburg and New York. As for Urartian monumental art, almost nothing survives, with the exception of the statue of the God Teisheba, now in Van museum, but we know that it existed from Assyrian accounts. The centralised rule of the kings of Van also had an impact on the landscape of Urartu. The heirs of Sarduri were great hydro engineers and were responsible for building a significant number of canals to irrigate the land. There was evident pride in these undertakings as they were recorded by the Urartian kings in their inscriptions. The Şaram-Su canal, which dates from Menua's reign, runs from the Hoşap Valley to Lake Van, a distance of 45 miles, and is still in operation today, more than two and a half millennia later.

The Assyrian Revival

Colored frescoes in rather good condition were found in the ruins of the Urartian fortress of Erebuni. Unlike many other Urartian cities, Erebuni was not burnt but left without a fight and then abandoned
Colored frescoes in rather good condition were found in the ruins of the Urartian fortress of Erebuni. Unlike many other Urartian cities, Erebuni was not burnt but left without a fight and then abandoned

With the advent of the reign of Tiglath Pileser III in 745 BCE, came a revival in Assyria's fortunes at the expense of Urartu. Early in his reign Tiglath Pileser records that he defeated Urartu and her allies at the battle of Arpad in 743, and in 735 led an expedition against the capital at Tushpa, in which the Assyrians devastated the city outside, but failed to take the fortress on the rock. Sarduri II had presided over the zenith, and then decline of the kingdom, but how his reign came to an end is unknown. His son Rusa I was to preside over an even darker days. After a few quiet years the Assyrian menace returned in the form of Sargon II. Assyrian records show extensive espionage activity as Sargon gathered information about his enemies, especially Urartu. In 714 BCE the plans were complete and a massive Assyrian army marched out of Kalhu, with the objective of re-establishing Assyrian prestige beyond its northern frontier. We are blessed with a detailed account of this expedition, now housed at the Louvre, in which Sargon not only records the battles and hardships of his army, but also gives one of the most detailed descriptions of Urartu itself, to add to their laconic inscriptions. Sargon's armies defeated Rusa's forces at mount Uaush (today Mount Sahand). The invaders then cut through the lands of Urartu, and circled Lake Van, destroying villages, vineyards, orchards, and canal systems in a trail of destruction. There is no record that Van itself was attacked, but Sargon's final gesture was perhaps more cruel; as he devasted Urartu's close ally Musasir, and destroyed the temple of Haldi, Urartu's chief deity. Sargon's account alleges that when Rusa heard about this desecration and the "removal of the God Haldi" to Assyria, he took his own life, although we cannot verify this. Strangely what the Assyrian account does reveal is the incredible richness of Urartu and its allies.

The Kingdom of Van had been humbled but it was still a significant power. The new king, Argishti II, made strenuous efforts to restore the kingdom's prestige over wavering governors and recalcitrant tributaries. Also, Argishti II's reign showed that the Urartians were still building fortresses and monuments. Some scholars of Urartu have questioned whether the Assyrian version of events tells the full story, and that even in the face of these attacks Urartu was more resilient. The mountainous nature of the kingdom meant that the Urartians could retreat inside mountain fortresses and take their flocks to hidden valleys. The visitor to this region is struck that from a high point one can literally see for dozens of miles, and an army can hardly approach unobserved. Assyrian records often say they shut the Urartians up in fortresses, which may indicate that once the Urartians were holed up in a fortress there was little that they could do, as the Assyrian siege techniques that worked so well in Palestine were unworkable in the mountains of Urartu.

The End of Urartu.

Urartian Chariot
Urartian Chariot

The Assyrian attack had undoubtedly been destructive, but Kings at Tushpa had managed to maintain their authority over the lands of Urartu. At the opposite end of the kingdom a far more deadly foe was taking shape; that of transhumance. From the end of the eighth century BCE the peoples of the steppe, north of the Black Sea were moving. Stories of these migrations were still told in classical times, as Herodotus recounts that Scythians were forced southwards by the Massagetae, and fell upon a people called the Cimmerians, chasing them down into Asia Minor. Herodotus is famously unreliable, but part of the tale is supported by the facts. The Cimmerians hit Urartu first. Rusa I was compelled to devote attention to the defences of the northern frontier, and Assyrian records tell of an Urartian defeat at the hands of the Cimmerians in Rusa's reign. By the 7th century BCE the Cimmerians appear to have been accommodated, and were settled by Lake Van, and there is archaeological evidence that the Urartians employed Scythian mercenaries.

Assyria was also subject to attacks by these mounted nomads, and similarly fought the Scythians and hired them as mercenaries. At this time of instability relations with Assyria warmed, and Rusa II sent emissaries to congratulate King Ashurbanipal for his victory over the Medes in 654 BCE. The Kingdom of Van was still complete, although the last phase of Urartian history is somewhat shadowy. Rusa II and his son Sarduri III built an impressive second capital near to the rock of Van, on the hill of Toprakkale, named Rusahinili. It was also in the 7th century that the great defensive city of Teishebaini was built west of Lake Urmiah, on Urartu's north eastern edge. After this point we have the names of five consecutive rulers, but know nothing of their achievements, if any. What is clear is that an era of turbulence was reaching its peak, which would shatter the existing political map. Assyria was the first to fall. This empire, hated by its enemies, was crushed by an alliance of Babylonians and Medes. Herodotus contributes that the arrival of a Scythian army was the deciding factor in the fall of Ninevah, the last Assyrian capital, in 612 BCE.

Silver rhyton of Achaemenid era found in 1968 at the foot of the hill Arin Berd.Their combining elements of eastern, Greek and Urartu art confirms the influence of Urartu art on the nearby countries.
Silver rhyton of Achaemenid era found in 1968 at the foot of the hill Arin Berd.Their combining elements of eastern, Greek and Urartu art confirms the influence of Urartu art on the nearby countries.

The fall of the Kingdom of Van is shrouded in darkness. Urartu is thought to have succumbed in around 585 – 590 BCE, there is no written account and this timescale is not undisputed. Although the end of the Urartu is mysterious, we do have a witness to the fall. Boris Piotrovsky headed the excavation of the city of Teishebaini, now Karmir Blur in modern Armenia. Here we have the remains of a city that was besieged, and the archaeologists believe, was consumed in a great conflagration during a final night attack. Along with many treasures and everyday artefacts we have the remains of many Urartians, young and old, who had taken to the citadel when the city was attacked. Embedded in the walls are many arrowheads of the Scythian style, which indicate the identity of the attackers. Although Teishebaini was on the edge of the kingdom, the evidence is that the capital Rusahinili fell to a siege at around the same time, although the site was far less well preserved. At this point Urartu disappears from history, and frustratingly we cannot be sure who struck the final blows. Some Urartian treasures have turned up in Scythian burial mounds in the Caucasus, no doubt the result of plunder, and there is evidence that the power vacuum was filled by the emergent Median Empire. For the time being it is reasonable to assume that these two peoples were involved in Urartu's destruction.

At this point a new people appeared in the sources, the Armenians. Herodotus alleges they came from Phrygia in the west, but whatever the case they became dominant, giving their name to the region. As for the Urartians, although their achievements and identity were forgotten rapidly, the people themselves apparently remained where they were, and their monuments stood idle so that even locals could not say who built them.



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