Urartu was one of several first-millennium B.C. states that came into existence and prominence in Anatolia (modern Turkey) after the destruction of the Hittite state around 1200 B.C. (others include Phrygia, Tabal, and Lydia). These states were kingdoms, each with its own language, ethnicity, religion, and characteristic material culture. In their inscriptions, the Assyrians of Mesopotamia refer to the Urartians as their northern enemies from the eleventh to the seventh centuries B.C. However, the earliest known Urartian written document, a rock inscription at Van (ancient Tushpa), records the earliest reference to the state. There it says that Urartu was ruled by a king named Sarduri (r. ca. 840–830 B.C.), and mentions a male deity, Haldi, the supreme god throughout Urartian history. Urartu was centered in eastern Anatolia, around Lake Van; the capital, Tushpa, was located on the eastern shore of the lake, situated on a high and elongated rock outcrop. In the late ninth century B.C., the state expanded north into the Caucasus, where an Urartian presence was established at sites like Karmir Blur and Armavir. The Urartians also moved east across the formidable Zagros Mountains into northwestern Iran, where many rock-cut texts and various sites—such as Hasanlu, Agrab Tepe, and Bastam—inform us of their local conquests and achievements.
Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present, many Urartian sites have been excavated and studied. It is clear that these sites functioned as administrative centers to collect taxes and control and protect the local area. They housed an appointed governor and his military and civil staff, as well as the Urartian king when he traveled. The sites share a number of features. Most were newly built on heights, not on top of old destroyed city mounds. Some were prominently, even dramatically situated, like Tushpa and Ayanis in eastern Anatolia and Bastam in Iran. Most sites boasted a well-built temple situated at the highest point, as well as a number of large storage rooms containing rows of large vessels for storing oil and grains, and massive well-built fortification walls. An outer town, where soldiers, farmers, craftsmen, and others lived, is known from the excavations at the site of Ayanis, overlooking northern Lake Van. Some Urartian cemeteries have been found, but the only excavated elite tomb is a late eighth-century B.C. example at Altıntepe, in Anatolia, where a large cauldron with four bullhead handles was recovered.
The Urartians adapted the Assyrian cuneiform writing system, and the inscription of Sarduri I, referred to above, is written in the Assyrian language; his son Ishpuini (r. ca. 830–810 B.C.) and later rulers all wrote in the Urartian language (distantly related to the isolated non-Indo-European, non-Semitic Hurrian language). Very few examples of writing exist on clay tablets, but about 500 rock-cut inscriptions found throughout the extensive Urartian territories, as well as inscriptions on hundreds of objects, are known. The former record military campaigns, religious rituals to be performed, names of the many deities in the Urartian pantheon, and agricultural, building, and waterworks activities.
In the second half of the seventh century B.C., every Urartian site known from excavations in Anatolia, Iran, and the Caucasus was destroyed, and, judging from artifact evidence, closely in time to one another. The precise date of this massive organized action and the identity of the perpetrators are still being investigated. Some scholars have suggested that the enemy was the nomadic Scythians and/or the Medes.
From early in the kingdom’s history, very characteristic artifacts were manufactured, including hundreds of bronze belts along with shields, quivers, helmets, bells, horse equipment, jewelry, and ceramic and metal vessels of many forms. Many of these artifacts bear royal inscriptions and are decorated with characteristic motifs and scenes, which consist of various deities and composite otherworldly creatures, royal rituals, hunts, battles, and genre scenes. They continued to be made until Urartu was destroyed. Unfortunately, many Urartian sites have not been excavated, and many cemeteries with their hundreds of burial goods have been robbed. The sites that have been excavated (such as the cemetery at Altıntepe) have not always been properly documented. This means that archaeologists have been deprived of a complete and contextual knowledge of the culture.
Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Urartu.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/urar/hd_urar.htm (October 2004)
Merhav, Rivka. Urartu: A Metalworking Center in the First Millennium B.C.E. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1991.
Piotrovskii, Boris B. Urartu. Geneva: Nagel, 1969.