General information about Urartu

General information about Urartu


The political and religious center of Urartu lay in eastern Anatolia in the region of Lake Van. Its Urartian name was Ṭušpa which corresponds to modern Van Kalesi. At its height, the Urartian kingdom stretched across the mountainous region of the Armenian Highlands and Transcaucasia. In the west, Urartu reached the Euphrates river and the valley of the Kara Su, where the western headwater stream of the Euphrates is found. It thus bordered the so-called Neo-Hittite states in northern Syria. In the east, Urartu extended to the region of Lake Urmia and the Araxes river, and in the north it reached as far as the region of Lake Sevan. To the south, Urartu reached the eastern Taurus and Zagros mountains to border on Assyria. Today, the area which once comprised the Urartian kingdom belongs to different states: the majority belongs to Turkey; other parts belong to modern Armenia and Iran; and a small section of the former Urartian Kingdom is now part of modern Iraq.


Map of Urartu with the find-spots of Urartian rock and stone inscriptions, in: Stephan Kroll et al.: Biainili-Urartu (Acta Iranica 51) Leuven 2012: 12

Period of Existence

Urartian and Assyrian written sources show that the kingdom of Urartu existed at least from the middle of the 9th to the middle of the 7th century BC. Since it was apparently already a fully developed state in the 9th century, it probably emerged by the end of the 10th or the beginning of the 9th century BC. A region called Urartu is mentioned for the first time in the military accounts of Assyrian kings during the Middle Assyrian period. The first record dates from the reign of Shalmaneser I (1263-1234 BC) who claimed to have conquered the land Uruaṭri (or, Uraṭri) which is clearly a forerunner of the later name Urartu. However, the text makes it clear that during this time the region was divided into a plurality of different kingdoms. Perhaps it was due to the increasing aggression of the Assyrians that these kingdoms united at the end of the 10th or in the first half of the 9th century. The last datable sources attesting Urartu's existence are from the reign of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal in the second half of the 7th century BC. When Urartu ceased to exist is still a matter of debate. While several scholars believe that it collapsed shortly after the middle of the 7th century, others consider it more likely that it did not cease to exist until the beginning or middle of the 6th century BC.

Urartu, the Bia Lands, and Noah's Ark

The name Urartu (or, more precisely, Urarṭu) with the variant Uruaṭri is not the name the Urartian kings themselves used for the region they inhabited and ruled. Rather, they called it "the Bia lands" (KURBiainili). The name "Urartu" is instead the Assyrian designation for the kingdom which, in the first half of the 1st millennium, was the Neo-Assyrian empire's most important adversary, with whom it competed for dominion over strategically and economically important territories in the region of the Euphrates river in the west and the Zagros in the east. Because the written sources from Assyria were deciphered earlier than those from the kingdom of Urartu, the name Urartu has prevailed. While the name "Bia lands" and the names of its rulers were largely forgotten over time, references to the name Urartu survived in the cultural memory of mankind.


Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, oil painting by Simon de Myle (1570), source: Wikimedia Commons, url: Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat by Simon de Myle.jpg. []

The most prominent such reference is found in the famous flood story in Genesis 6-9 of the Hebrew Bible, according to which Noah landed his ark on the Ararat mountains after the end of the flood (Genesis 8: 4). Urartu is thus the place where mankind's life started anew after the flood. The name Ararat is nothing other than a different spelling of the name Urartu. The variation is due to the fact that Urartu was unfamiliar to the Masoretes, the group of Jewish scholars who added vowel notations to the consonantal Hebrew texts of the Bible between the 7th and 10th centuries AD.

The flood story refers to the Ararat mountains, which we can identify with the eastern Anatolian compound volcano formed by the Lesser Ararat and the Greater Ararat (which achieves a height of 5165 m). These mountains have retained their ancient name up to the present day. However, in other biblical texts "Arart" refers to a country (the land of Ararat). In 2 Kings 19: 37 and Isaiah 37: 38, it is the country to which the sons of the Assyrian king Sennacherib fled after killing their father. In the book of Jeremiah, the land of Ararat is mentioned as one of the kingdoms which the Lord summoned against Babylon in order to destroy it (Jeremiah 51: 59-64).


Mount Ararat and the Araratian plain, source: Wikimedia Commons, url: Mount Ararat and the Araratian plain. []

Mount Ararat played a crucial role in later Armenian tradition. The belief that the remains of Noah's ark still existed on its summit led to a prohibition against ascending the mountain. This tradition was eventually broken, and the first ascent was made by Friedrich Parrot in 1829. Since then, numerous attempts to find remains of the ark have been made. And many claimed to have been successful.

The Written Sources from Urartu

In contrast to cuneiform texts from other regions of the ancient Near East, such as Assyria, Babylonia, and the Hittite kingdom, excavations in Urartu brought to light only a small number of archival texts on clay tablets. The most important written sources for the reconstruction of Urartian history and culture are inscriptions engraved on various stone objects and rock faces. Most of them report the building projects or military campaigns of kings. There are also inscriptions related to the state cult, such as prescriptions for the execution of offering rituals. Furthermore, short inscriptions are also found on precious bronze and silver objects, on items carved from agate, stone, and bone, as well as on seals, clay pithoi, and clay bullae.

Due to this limited spectrum of written sources, our knowledge of Urartian history and culture is unfortunately very limited. We do not know, for instance, how the Urartians dealt with legal matters, treated illnesses, or educated their scribes. And, unfortunately, no myths, epics, or hymns have come down to us from the Urartian kingdom.

Excavations of Urartian settlements have nevertheless brought to light numerous important archaeological and textual findings. Although they give us only partial insight into the culture of the Urartians, they are of great importance for our understanding of ancient Near Eastern history and culture. They clearly show that, culturally, economically, and politically, Urartu was a highly developed state. The fact that the corpus of Urartian written sources handed down to us is much more limited in terms of number and content than those of other ancient Near Eastern polities can, therefore, by no means support the conclusion that Urartu was inferior to them. That the opposite is true can also be seen by Sargon's II famous account of his 8th campaign to Urartu, which gives the outside perspective of an Assyrian king and shows how impressed Sargon was by the landscape of Urartu as well as the fortresses, official buildings, and the infrastructure created by the Urartian rulers.

The Urartian Language and the Difficulties of Understanding Urartian Sources

Apart from a few inscriptions on vessels and clay bullae, which are written in a hieroglyphic script (or rather in more than one hieroglyphic scripts), most texts from the Urartian kingdom are written in cuneiform script. Apart from a small number of inscriptions written in the Assyrian language and a few Urartian-Assyrian bilingual texts, most texts from Urartu are written in the Urartian language. Urartian is a language that cannot be assigned to any of the large language families, such as the Indo-European or Semitic language families. The only cognate is Hurrian, which is attested in cuneiform texts from the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. In comparison to other ancient Near Eastern languages, such as Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite, our knowledge of Hurrian and Urartian is quite poor. Numerous words and many aspects of the grammar of both languages are unclear. This means that the translations of the texts remain more or less uncertain. The same is true for the meanings of words and the grammatical analyses.

As a result, many of the Urartian sources are, to date, only partially understandable. In some cases we can only grasp the meaning of individual words or phrases. Another obstacle is that many texts are only fragmentarily preserved. Transliterations and translations in eCUT and other text editions therefore often contain omission marks, round and square brackets, and words marked with question marks.

Further reading

Barnett, Richard D. (1974): The Hieroglyphic Writing of Urartu, in: Kurt Bittel, Philo Houwink ten Cate and Erika Reiner Reiner (eds.): Anatolien Studies Presented to Hans Gustav Güterbock on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, Istanbul: 43-55.
Çifçi, Ali (2017): The Socio-Economic Organisation of the Urartian Kingdom. Leiden and Boston.
Fuchs, Andreas (2012), Urarṭu in der Zeit, in: Stephan Kroll, Claudia Gruber, Ursula Hellwag, Michael Roaf, and Paul Zimansky (eds.), Biainili-Urartu. The Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Munich 12-14. Oktober 2007 (Acta Iranica 51), Leuven, 135–161.
Hazenbos, Joost (2005): Hurritisch und Urartäisch, in: Michael Streck (ed.), Sprachen des Alten Orients, Darmstadt: 135-158.
Kroll, Stephan et al. (2012): Introduction, in: Stephan Kroll, Claudia Gruber, Ursula Hellwag, Michael Roaf, and Paul Zimansky (eds.): Biainili-Urartu. The Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Munich 12-14. Oktober 2007 (Acta Iranica 51), Leuven, 1-38.
Marinković, Peter (2012): Urartu in der Bibel, in: Stephan Kroll, Claudia Gruber, Ursula Hellwag, Michael Roaf, and Paul Zimansky (eds.), Biainili-Urartu. The Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Munich 12-14. Oktober 2007 (Acta Iranica 51), Leuven, 217-225.
Radner, Karen (2012): Between a rock and a hard place: Muṣaṣir, Kumme, Ukku and Šubria – the buffer states between Assyria and Urartu, in: Kroll, Stephan, Claudia Gruber, Ursula Hellwag, Michael Roaf and Paul Zimansky (eds.): Biainili-Urartu. The Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Munich 12.-14. October 2007 (Acta Iranica 51), Leuven 2012, 243-264.
Salvini, Mirjo (1995): Geschichte und Kultur der Urartäer, Darmstadt.
Salvini, Mirjo and Wegner, Ilse (2014): Einführung in die urartäische Sprache, Wiesbaden.
Wartke, Ralf-Bernhard (1993): Urartu. Das Reich am Ararat, Mainz.
Wilhelm, Gernot (1986): Urartu als Region der Keilschrift-Kultur, in: Volkert Haas (ed.), Das Reich Urartu, Xenia 17, Konstanz, 95-116.
Wilhelm, Gernot (2004): Urartian, in: Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages, Cambridge: 119-137.
Zimansky, Paul (1985): Ecology and Empire. The Structure of the Urartian State. Chicago.
Zimansky, Paul (1995): The Kingdom of Urartu in Eastern Anatolia, in: Jack M. Sasson (ed.), Civilisations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 2, New York, 1135–1146.

Birgit Christiansen

Birgit Christiansen, 'General information about Urartu ', Electronic Corpus of Urartian Texts (eCUT) Project, The eCUT Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2021 []

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