Capital and Periphery in the Kingdom of Urartu

Yehuda Dagan, Israel Antiquities Authority

Evidence of the establishment and consolidation of a new political entity northeast of Assyria first appears in the historical sources toward the end of the second millennium BCE. This entity, known today as the “Kingdom of Urartu”, extended mainly in the eastern part of Turkey and in the countries bordering it to the east and south. The events that preceded the appearance of this kingdom on the stage of history are not clear; nor is there much archaeological information available about the region where it developed. The most important information regarding the events in the kingdom is found in the Assyrian annals describing the campaigns “against Urartu”. The first mention of a military campaign to this land appears in an inscription of Shalmaneser I (c. 1273 BCE) who fought eight kings in the Land of Urartu. After a hiatus of c. 300 years about which nothing is known, the Assyrian sources mention a thriving kingdom whose monarchy constitutes a formidable opponent for the armies of the Assyrian empire (c. from 950-600 BCE).
The intermittent wars between the kings of Assyria and the kings of Urartu caused the new kingdom to become stronger and build up its military might. At its height of its power the Kingdom of Urartu was spread across an extensive region characterized by high mountains (the mountains of Armenia and Kurdistan) with an untamed landscape. These mountains were formed from granite and ancient lava flows are c. 2500-4000 m high. This massif is composed of several secondary geographic units that form isolated pockets which are reached by way of difficult mountainous roads. Within these regions are closed valleys or fertile plateaus that constituted a very valuable resource for the Urartian economy. The Kingdom of Urartu is delimited by three lakes: Van, Urmia and Sevan. Even in antiquity many of the abundant minerals in this region were already being exploited. The gold, silver, copper, tin, manganese, lignite and iron greatly contributed to the wealth and independence of the Kingdom of Urartu. A whole host of bronze, silver and gold objects that were found in archaeological excavations (many of them are currently held in private collections) attest to an impressive technological capability in working metal and a high level of artistic talent.
The study of the Urartian culture is indirectly connected with the progress in the research of the cities in Assyria and Mesopotamia. The many cuneiform inscriptions engraved on the walls of Van Castle and on the stone plaques around it have attracted European scholars as long ago as the 19th century. In 1826 F.E. Schulz began copying the cuneiform inscriptions on the rocks and recorded all of the monuments scattered about the area. In 1850 A. H. Leard surveyed the area around Van Castle and copied the inscriptions engraved on the rocks. He succeeded in deciphering a few of the inscriptions whereas in others he only managed to identify the royal title of the inscription’s owner. In the second half of the 19th century the area of the city of Van became a fertile field for traders in antiquities; numerous objects were sent off to museums in Europe, especially from Toprakkale Hill (4 kilometers northeast of Van). Toward the end of the century Russian scholars began taking an interest in the region, because, among other reasons, many of the objects purchased by the Hermitage Museum were not documented. It was only some time later that the first excavations were begun and during the coming years, excavations were carried out at many Urartian sites, especially in the fortified government centers in Armenia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
These excavations revealed to scholars the kingdom’s wealth, the material culture of its citizens and their developed architectural capability. The capital of the kingdom was situated in the city of Tushpa (classical Van), in the city of Van. Here numerous inscriptions of the kings of Urartu were found, as well as the remains of buildings and impressive burial caves. Later construction dating to the Middle Ages however severely damaged the ancient remains. As noted, most of our knowledge regarding the history and chronology of the Urartu kingdom has been derived from Assyrian texts. These were written from the viewpoint of the authors of Assyrian history and therefore they are more important for their synchronization with the Urartian kings and less so regarding the events associated with them. Extremely important milestones in the chronology of the royal Urartian dynasty are mentioned in the Assyrian annals, such as the death of the Urartian king Rusa I in the 8th year of Sargon II (714 BCE) or Esarhaddon’s war against Rusa II (673 BCE). The large building projects of the fortified government centers should be ascribed mainly to the 8th-7th centuries BCE. The extensive expansion and construction are attributed to Argisti I (786-764 BCE). This king engraved on the walls of his tomb in the city of Tuspa the story of his life and his work for the sake of the kingdom; this is the largest Urartian inscription that has been found to date. According to the inscription, Argisti I went west beyond the great sea (it may mean the Mediterranean Sea) and took command of the trade routes that were controlled by the Assyrians.
So far c. 64 royal inscriptions have been exposed in the kingdom of Urartu. These have provided us with important evidence for reconstructing the building projects of the Urartian kings which included fortified government centers situated on the principal roads, as well as temples with a standardized plan for worshipping the god Haldi, aqueducts, dams, highways and the development of mining. In the field of economics they improved the herds of sheep and goats, cattle and horses, and organized the agricultural produce for storage and distribution.
There are destruction layers and damage that date toward the end of the 8th century BCE in most of the Urartian fortresses. This is probably evidence of an invasion by the Scythian or Cimmerian tribes into the Urartian settlements. The power of the Urartian kingdom began to wane during the 7th century BCE. The struggles against the Assyrians weakened the kingdom and reduced the area under its control. The ascent of the kingdoms of Media and Persia threatened the continuation of the Urartians’ control of the territories east of the Zagros Mountains. The disappearance of the Urartian kingdom was not the result of a one-time event rather it was a group of geopolitical occurrences that caused this magnificent 300 year old kingdom to pass into the recesses of history.