The Urartu: Ancient People of the Armenian Plateau
Urartu's Written AccountsClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Land and People of Ararat
Standing atop a long, rugged, windswept hill, resting gently over the borax-laden Lake Van, sets the crumbling ramparts of the Urartian capital city of Tushpa. From a splendor that swirls the mindseye, to empty streets, silent of its former life, this decaying city reflects the vast void in which the true meaning of this bygone people hold. This black expanse has only recently begun to be illuminated. With the growing ability to comprehend Cuneiform texts, upon which they recorded their societies existence and exploits, the formation of the Urartian state, and the impact that it would have on the world to this day is becoming increasingly more profound.
Living in the Highlands
Finding Unity in a Physically Divided Land
The lands of the Urartu, from which the name 'Ararat' would be derived, are nestled around and amongst the great inland lakes of Urmia to the east, Van to the west, and Sevan in the north-east. Interspersed through and surrounding this region stand numerous immense mountain ranges and plateaus. These key geographical features serve many functions. On one hand, the northern ranges of the Pontic and Caucusus shield the lands to the south from the sub-arctic freeze that envelopes the Asian steppe. Concurrently, these ranges work to restrict and impede contact with the outside world, primarily in this case, the domination of Mesopotamian civilizations. To better exemplify the imposing nature of Urartu's mountains, Hrand Pasdermajian cites that Armenia [Urartu] isa typical example ot the natural fortress on a high plateau, just as Transylvania, central Spain, or the Asturias, inaccessable and impregnable" (6). Though seemingly advantagious, a land encompassed by rugged interspersed mountain ranges works to divide the land, itself, and is disadvantageous to centralization. Communication from one settlement to another is far more difficult that it would be for the Assyrians, for example, on the Mesopotamian plain,"few geographical factors encourage unity in Urartian territory. The fold lines of the Pontic, Taurus,Caucusus, and Zagros mountains intersect here in such a way as to block potential arteries of communication" (Zimansky, p.5).
Despite these disadvantages, the hardy mountain folk of the Near Eastern highlands would, in time, unify under the rule of a single king, and would assist in the destruction of one of the greatest empires of human kind, the Assyrians.
Learning About the Urartu Through Nearby Peoples
Corresponding to the reign of Assyrian king Salmannassar I, (1274-1245 B.C.), texts refer to a land called Urartri, that consisted of eight tribes. Writings from the period of Salmannassar's son, Tikulti Ninurta (1244-1208 B.C.) speak of the Urartri as Nairi, ruled by sixty kings. How and why these mountain dwellers moved from individualized states into a federation under one centralized kingship is uncertain. Equally uncertain is the exact extent of territory taken up by these peoples, or whom the blanket term of Urartri refers, "it is very likely that the tribes living in the area round Lake Van were also included in the alliance; for the Assyrian name of Uruatri had no ethnic significance, but was probably a descriptive term" (perhaps meaning "the mountainous country") (Piotrovsky, 43).
The vast majority of meaningful documentation comes from Assyrian chroniclers, who evidently didn't demonstrate any interest in the subject. Marc Van de Meiroop, however, states that "the separate political entities joined forces most likely as a reaction to Assyrian campaigns. (204) Though not certain, this assumption seems quite likely. In another publication by Paul Zimansky, entitled Urartian Kingdom and Topography, he cites that, "The emergence of state-organized society in Urartu is documented by Assyrian records, and is nearly contemporaneous with a new kind of Assyrian pressure in the area. From the 13th Century B.C., Assyrian kings had occasionally campaigned in eastern Anatolia, encountering light and disorganizedresistence, but in the 9th Century, these military expeditions become much more systematic. (76)
This, along with further documentation stating that Salmannassar III, on one such later expedition (though led by another high official) is said to have encountered a man whose name is assumed to be synonymous with the Urartian king Sarduri, Seduri, focuses the spotlight of Urartian emergence as a unified power through, at least partly, hostile contact with outsiders. Sarduri, or Sardur I (ruled approx. 840-830 B.C.) has also been regarded as the first king of Urartu who left behind evidence of his own existence through monuments and inscriptions. The construction of the fortress at Lake Van is attributed to Sardur,as well as the paternal line of the Urartian kings that would follow in succession.
Interacting with the Outside World
From this point on, the historical record becomes increasingly more clear. Urartian fortresses and cities stretch from beyond Mount Ararat to the Araxes river valley, stretching westward and south, dotting the plentiful mountain tops. Archeological ventures have uncovered weapons, including elaborately decorated shields with engraved depictions of lions, bulls, and various deities,a plethora of swords, and finely formed bronze arrowheads that no doubt speak to the adventuring nature of the newly founded power's leaders and young warriors. Though expanding their boundaries, "the mid-eighth century...Urartu was at the height of its power. It controlled the trade routes from northern Mesopotamia and Iran to the Mediterranean and to the metal sources in Anatolia. Syria itself was within its military reach" (Van de Mieroop, 204). The Urartians seem to have refrained from leaving the sanctuary of their natural highlands.
With a mindset geared towards the importance of survival, the Urartu brought in more of outside culture than what it produced outwardly. Until the inception of their own writing stylistics, the carvings on rock and in bronze that are found are composed in Assyrian. There have been finds of cylinder seals, along withevidence of stamp seals, which are Mesopotamian phenomena. In what artistic forms that have been recovered, depictions of lions and bulls, animals not naturally inclined to living high in the closed-in, cold mountains, also serves as a demonstration of the inroads that earlier societies from the south had on their northern neighbors. The successes of agriculture in the plain lands was felt to a lesser extent in the highlands, the basis of the economy of this culture was a combination of primitive forms of agriculture and stock-rearing, particular stress being laid on stock-rearing, which more readily yielded a surplus product. (Piotrovsky, 42)
From 17th and 16th century burial mounds have been extracted artifacts, including weapons and gold and silver cups, strong evidence has been compiled that demonstrates a clear cultural linkage to the civilizations of Asia Minor [Hurrians] and Syria. Though sharing these contacts, the development of productive forces proceeded less vigorously in the mountain regions and in the Armenian upland plateau than in the south: a fact which explains the slower pace of social and politial development among the highland tribes. (Piotrovsky, 41)
With evidence of some outside influence, the people of the mountains were able to ward off political domination from outside sources. Even though their civilization would be destroyed by a combination of outside sources,an ability to lord over these domains would, with some exceptions, not last.
Rising up quickly from the depths of the dark ages, the Urartians did not shirk from facing political foes militarily. Although Assyrian texts speak of their own destruction of Urartian cities, the duration of their actions against one another, and the fact that Nineveh was felled by a coalition including Urartian forces is a clear demonstration of military survivability and vitality.
Speaking to the people of Babylon, calling on the cities destruction, the Biblical prophet Jerimiah calls out, "Set ye up a standard in the land, blow the trumpet among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of ararat, Minni, and Ashchenaz; appoint a captain against her; cause the horses to come up as the rough caterpillers" (Jeremiah 51:27).
The threat that Urartu imposed on Assyria is made evident through the military expeditions led by Sargon II, who wrought havoc through the lands in 714 B.C., but, again, was unable to eliminate them. Though not annihilated, the Urartu were definitely weakened. Even in this strained condition, however, the dynasty of Sardur endured to witness the fall of their arch-nemesis Assyria. Sources do not all agree on the role of Urartu concerning the destruction of Nineveh, however, Nina Garsoian writes, in relation to the aforementioned quotation from the Book of Jeremiah,
An alliance [between the Scythians, Medes, and Urartians] is confirmed by the contemporary Babylonian Annals, which noted the collaboration of Urartu with the newly come Indo-Iranian tribesmen, Scythians, as well as the Medes in the capture of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 B.C. (p. 37)
Any accalaids would be short-lived. The great rival of the south may have been vanquished, but the new threat of migrating peoples from the east spelled the end of the Urartu. From many sites excavated, evidence of mass destruction culminated by the burning of the great cities of the civilization mark the end of the mountain kingdom. The date of the final death throws of Urartu cannot be found with true certainty, but according to evidence cited by Garsoian, the hammer blow fell during late July or August, "since excavators observed that the granaries had already been filled with the new harvest, but the wine jars were still empty awaiting the vintage, and the charred remains of late summer flowers could be identified in the ruins." (p. 38)
Like a phoenix, civilization would in time arrise from the graveyard of the Urartian world. With the destruction of their society, the Urartians themselves were not eliminated. With the influx of Indo-European speakers, a melding of languages and customs yielded what was to become a prominent player in Near Eastern history to come, the Armenian identity. The Medes would rise and fall, as would numerous Persian dynasties, and their Roman nemesis. However, the Urartian tongue is still found in Armenian cognate words, Urartian fortresses like that standing above the shore of Lake Van would find use at the hands of later empires, such as the Ottomans, and a collective unconscious identity of mountaineering warriors, dedicated to the preservation of their traditional lands and identity would thrive until this very day. Though not reaching the level of remembrance until much more recent times in history, the void that left in Urartu's absence hardly held enough room in which to contain its deep impact.
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