The highland state of Urartu stretched from the eastern bank of the upper Euphrates River to the western shores of Lake Urmia, and from the mountain passes of northern Iraq to the Caucasus Mountains. The kingdom dominated eastern Anatolia in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. It is noteworthy historically for its rivalry with Assyria and archaeologically for its massive fortress architecture and sophisticated metalwork. For a time, Urartu was the strongest state in the Near East. Its distinctive and relatively uniform culture, much of it imposed from above, to judge from the royal focus of the surviving documentary and archaeological evidence, permeated this realm. Urartu's glories, however, were relatively short lived and were forgotten soon after the kingdom fell victim to a violent destruction in the late seventh or early sixth century BCE. Even the name of Urartu faded from view: it was transformed into Ararat by later vocalizations imposed on the Hebrew Bible.
The word Urartu is taken from Assyrian records, not from those of the Urartian people themselves, who called their kingdom Bianili. When it first appears in texts in the thirteenth-century BCE in the variant form Uruatri, the term has geographic rather than political connotations. It designates a land divided among petty kingdoms in the vicinity of Lake Van. Neither archaeology nor textual records shed much light on the situation there until about the middle of the ninth century BCE, when evidence of increasing political consolidation appears concurrently with more regular Assyrian intrusions. By the late ninth century, Urartu was a single polity on the north and east shores of Lake Van, governed from a capital at Tus̆pa (modern Van) by a native dynasty that left cuneiform inscriptions of building and military activities in its own language.
The population over which this emerging monarchy extended its authority appears, on linguistic grounds, to have been autochthonous. The Urartian language is neither Semitic nor Indo-European; it is related to Hurrian, which itself is thought to have migrated from the very areas in which the Urartians later came to power into the northern fringes of Mesopotamia in the third millennium. The genetic relationship of Hurrian and Urartian is close, and most scholars now favor the theory that they are sister branches with a common parent. In recent years, a relationship with living northeastern Caucasian languages has been posited, although this remains controversial.
The debt that the creators of the kingdom of Van owed their Assyrian antagonists is exemplified by the inscriptions of the first of the royal line, Sarduri I (c. 830–c. 820 BCE): they are not only written in Akkadian but are virtually plagiarized from display inscriptions of Ashurnasirpal II. This cultural dependency diminished as Urartu entered a phase of rapid conquest under Sarduri's successors, Išpuini (c. 820–c. 790 BCE) and Menua (c. 790–775 BCE), who appear to have established the template for the empire. The frontiers were quickly moved outward to the banks of the Araxes River, to the western bend of the Euphrates near Malatya, and to the southern and western shores of Lake Urmia. Menua in particular was a prodigious builder. His surviving inscriptions dedicating temples, storehouses, and fortresses outnumber those of all other Urartian rulers put together. From bronze plaques, belts, helmets, vessels, and horse trappings (most found in illicit excavations but attributable to specific kings thanks to the cuneiform notations they bear), it is clear that the basic canons of Urartian art were already formed by this time.
The trajectory of Urartian expansion continued for most of the eighth century BCE under three rulers: Argišti I (c. 770–c. 750), Sarduri II (c. 750–c. 720), and Rusa I (c. 720–c. 713). The first two have left lengthy inscriptions in the form of annals, demonstrating that they, like Assyrian kings of the same era, campaigned annually, and sometimes even more often, harvesting booty that was presumably an important source of revenue in the royal economy. The territory the two added appears for the most part to have been in the north, in what is now the Republic of Armenia. In the second half of the eighth century BCE, Assyria, which had been in eclipse for decades, revived in time to thwart Urartian ambitions south of the Taurus Mountains. The most celebrated confrontation between the two powers, however, took place in 714 BCE, when Sargon II of Assyria launched a campaign into the northern Zagros Mountains and, after defeating Rusa in battle, invaded a portion of Urartu itself.
Sargon's depredations were not fatal to the kingdom, but the reign of Rusa I does appear to be a turning point in several respects. Intelligence reports to the Assyrian king reveal that Urartu was in turmoil: at least one revolt against Rusa had broken out, and Cimmerians, mounted warriors who were to wreak havoc among the more sedentary peoples of Anatolia for a generation, made their first appearance in history by inflicting a major defeat on Urartian forces. It may merely be a coincidence, but from this time onward, Urartian royal inscriptions become much less abundant.
Nevertheless, Rusa's successor, Argišti II, recorded conquests father east than any of his predecessors; Rusa II, a contemporary of Esarhaddon of Assyria (680–669 BCE), created massive fortress-cities at Karmir Blur, Bastam, and Toprakkale—sites that are today the primary sources of information on Urartian material culture. During the seventh century BCE, Urartu and Assyria appear to have coexisted more harmoniously than previously.
The end of the kingdom is obscure. Virtually every site that has been excavated had been put to the torch, but neither agents nor the dates of the destructions have been unambiguously identified. The thread of Urartian chronology breaks after Rusa II because there are insufficient native documents to establish either the order or the number of kings. In the sixth century BCE, political control of the area passed first to the Medes and then to the Persians; the Armenians, linguistically unrelated to the Urartians, became the dominant ethnic group.
Aspects of the Civilization.
The Urartian state exploited and reinforced the defensive potential of its mountainous territory by creating fortresses on the edges of alluvial plains. Although some settlements associated with these fortresses have been investigated, the archaeology of Urartu has largely been focused on defensive and administrative networks, not settlement systems. It may well be that considerable cultural diversity existed below this state-created level, which was, after all, quite rapidly imposed.
Urartian fortresses, however, were a major part of the economy. They contained massive storage facilities, attested by large pithos magazines and dedicatory inscriptions of storehouses whose capacities are given in impressive quantities of either dry or liquid measure. Some sort of redistributive system is implied by their prevalence.
The spread of the Urartian state also appears to have coincided with the introduction of irrigation agriculture in eastern Anatolia. The amount of land available for this was severely restricted by the terrain, and the kingdom was ultimately composed of approximately twenty isolated pockets in which population and agricultural production were concentrated. Some of the territory between these was exploited by pastoralists, but evidence for Urartian culture itself is concentrated in the alluvial pockets.
Urartian kings appear to have been almost perpetually engaged in construction activities, and the scale of their enterprise is astonishing, given the presumably limited resources of manpower at their disposal in this mountainous environment. The normal practice was to construct citadels on elevated ground, carving footings walls directly into bedrock. The basic construction material was mud brick, supported by stone socles. Both the thickness of the walls and representations of fortresses in art indicate that the structures were several stories high, capped by crenellated battlements.
Ashlar masonry was employed in special structures, most conspicuously in a distinctive type of tower temple that had a square, single-room ground plan with reinforced corners. Every one of the eight archaeologically known examples of these towers is located on high ground within a fortress, and was thus the product of royal architectural planning. The testimony of texts confirms that building temples and performing sacrifices at them was a royal prerogative and obligation, and with an emphasis that suggests a form of state religion. Although the Urartian pantheon consisted of hundreds of deities, including such venerables as the storm god Teišeba and the sun god Šiwini (important gods of the Hurrians), royal inscriptions and building projects focus over-whelming on a supreme god named Haldi, who is prominent only in Urartian culture.
The Urartian's stoneworking abilities are also manifest in rock-cut chambers. Cult niches, false gates as places of worship, and subterranean chambers and staircases were hewn out of living rock in all parts of the kingdom. The largest of these projects were royal tombs at Van, consisting of multiple rooms and numerous niches.
Among the majority of the population, the dead were laid to rest in more modest surroundings. There is some evidence of cremation, with remains placed in urn fields, as well as of simple interment. Illicit excavations of cemeteries have flooded the antiquities market with unprovenienced bronze objects, including horse trappings, weapons, plaques, and decorated bronze belts. On these, and on the modest number of objects of art that have been found in association with citadels, a fondness can be seen for animal motifs, floral decoration, and the anthropomorphic representation of deities astride lions and bulls. Urartian art lacks the narrative character of Assyrian palace art. While some reliefs of quite high quality are known, this does not seem to have been as favored a form of artistic expression and architectural decoration as it was south of the Taurus Mountains.
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Paul E. Zimansky