History Of A Nation: Urartu

860BC – 530BC

You might be relieved to know that I’ve moved on to a country that has nothing to do with any form of modern religion and therefore no sources from the Bible, to which I say firstly, aww, those are some of my favourite sources to look through and secondly, hurrah, we get back to the exciting topic of archaeology. Aren’t you excited, I’m excited.

Urartu is an ancient Armenian kingdom and the first Armenian country I’m doing. Or Caucasian to be specific. There was on the general area of Urartu a kingdom we know as Hayasa-Azzi but, that was more of a confederation of tribes than a state. Urartu was the real deal, at least more so.

See, there was a kingdom here at about the same time as Judah/Samaria, it was called Urartu by the Assyrians, but we don’t know its true name. Its language is a fair mystery, related to Hurrian but not the most well-studied, it may have been part of the genesis of the proto-Armenian people, who arrived in this area during the Urartu rule. Its religion was all about co-opting other gods into their pantheon and as a whole, its art, economy and architecture has been fairly well discovered but most seems like a fairly natural mix of agriculture and irrigation with bronze tools and clearly with its Assyrian influences on a slightly wilder frontier.


What we do know is that Urartu was centred around Lake Van and was the same kingdom that was known to the Israelites as Ararat, which is essentially just a corruption of Urartu. It extended to the borders of Assyria in the south, to the north, the southern foothills of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. At its height it was probably a geographically large but sparsely populated kingdom straddling the northern border of Assyria.


Which essentially was what it was, a rival and a check to ensure that Assyria didn’t burgeon out of control, it would have been tough through geography to enter the northern mountains and highlands in Armenia with any sizable force and with the Assyrian’s attentions turned to the rich lands to the south, Urartu grew and focused on conquering its own surrounding region. Periods of Assyrian weakness also helped it.

An early king, Sarduri I extended the life of the kingdom when he saw off the Assyrians in the 800s and moved the capital to modern Van, what they then called Tushpa. Following kings would annex and subjugate nearby smaller kingdoms in an ‘arms race’ with Assyria, until reaching a high under Argishti I, all the while acting as a nuisance to any Assyrian king that looked to the north.

Urartu did fall under the all-conquering auspices of Tiglath-Pileser III and gave the Assyrians some sweet, awesome cavalry, Armenian cavalry has generally been very respected throughout the generations and that’s one thing that Urartu was good at. While they weren’t loosely ruled by the Assyrians and certainly not permanently, it was not a stable kingdom. Barbarians called the Cimmerians were invading from the north and Assyria wouldn’t let up from the south. A king called Rusa II was more successful than most at driving them back but at some point it seems like Urartu, like a dependent abuse victim, let Assyria take control of some of its defence, bringing the two kingdoms closer together. That always works out well for the kingdom that is not Assyria, right?

Urartu was at an invasion point and after three more kings, all the way up to Rusa IV and Sarduri III, which is a reasonable success as far as ordinal numbers go, was invaded by Scythians and Medes. The Medes were important to the Armenians as they helped install the Orontid dynasty which would be the first dynasty properly known as Armenian. I know a lot more about those peoples so I will have far more specialist knowledge to impart upon them.

That’s it for Urartu really, a northern rival of Assyria that had several scrapes with it and at one point looked like becoming the first power of the northern highlands but fell to invaders and the Assyrian’s dislike of giving the Urartu peoples a moment’s peace.


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