Urartu (natively Biai, Biainili; Assyrian: māt Urarṭu (ma-at U-ra-ar-ṭu), corresponding to Ararat, or Kingdom of Van was an Iron Age kingdom centered around Lake Van in the Armenian Highland.
Strictly speaking, Urartu is the Assyrian term for a geographical region, while the "kingdom of Urartu" or the "Biainili lands" are the Iron Age state that arose in that region. That a distinction should be made between the geographical and the political entity was already pointed out by König (1955). The landscape corresponds to the mountainous plateau between Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus mountains, later known as the Armenian Highlands. The kingdom rose to power in the mid 9th century BC and was conquered by Media in the early 6th century BC.
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The name Urartu comes from Assyrian sources: the Assyrian king Shalmaneser I (1263-1234 BC) recorded a campaign in which he subdued the entire territory of "Uruatri". The Shalmaneser text uses the name Urartu to refer to a geographical region, not a kingdom, and names eight "lands" contained within Urartu (which at the time of the campaign were still disunited). The kingdom's native name was Biainili, also spelt Biaineli, (from which is derived the Armenian toponym Վան "Van"), but by the end of the 9th century they also called their now united kingdom "Nairi". Scholars believe that Urartu is an Akkadian variation of Ararat of the Old Testament. Indeed, Mount Ararat is located in ancient Urartian territory, approximately 120 km north of its former capital. In addition to referring to the famous Biblical mountain, Ararat also appears as the name of a kingdom in Jeremiah 51:27, mentioned together with Minni and Ashchenaz.
Scholars such as Carl Friedrich Lehmann-Haupt (1910) believed that the people of Urartu called themselves Khaldini after their god Khaldi. The Nairi, an Iron Age people of the Van area, are sometimes considered related or identical.
In the early 6th century BC, the Urartian Kingdom was replaced by the Armenian Orontid dynasty. In the trilingual Behistun inscription, carved in 521/0 BC by the order of Darius the Great of Persia, the country referred to as Urartu in Babylonian is called Arminiya in Old Persian and Harminuia in Elamite.
Urartu comprised an area of approximately 200,000 square miles, reaching from the river Kura in the north, to the northern foothills of the Taurus in the south; and from the Euphrates in the west to the Caspian sea in the east.
At its apogee, Urartu stretched from northern Mesopotamia to the southern Caucasus, including present-day Armenia and southern Georgia as far as the river Kura. Archaeological sites within its boundaries include Altintepe, Toprakkale, Patnos and Cavustepe. Urartu fortresses included Erebuni (present day Yerevan city), Van, Armavir, Anzaf, Cavustepe and Başkale, as well as Argishtiqinili, Teishebaini (Karmir Blur, Red Mound) and others.
Inspired by the writings of the medieval Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi (who had described Urartian works in Van and attributed them to the legendary queen Semiramis), the French scholar Jean Saint-Martin suggested that his government send Friedrich Eduard Schulz, a German professor, to the Van area in 1827 on behalf of the French Oriental Society . Schulz discovered and copied numerous cuneiform inscriptions, partly in Assyrian and partly in a hitherto unknown language. Schulze also re-discovered the Kelishin stele, bearing an Assyrian-Urartian bilingual inscription, located on the Kelishin pass on the current Iraqi-Iranian border. A summary account of his initial discoveries was published in 1828. Schulz and four of his servants were murdered by Kurds in 1829 near Baskale. His notes were later recovered and published in Paris in 1840. In 1828, the British Assyriologist Henry Creswicke Rawlinson had attempted to copy the inscription on the Kelishin stele, but failed because of the ice on the stele's front side. The German scholar R. Rosch made a similar attempt a few years later, but he and his party were attacked and killed.
In the late 1840s Sir Austen Henry Layard examined and described the Urartian rock-cut tombs of Van Castle, including the Argishti chamber. From the 1870s, local residents began to plunder the Toprakkale ruins, selling its artefacts to European collections. In the 1880s this site underwent a poorly-executed excavation organised by Hormuzd Rassam on behalf of the British Museum. Almost nothing was properly documented.
The first systematic collection of Urartian inscriptions, and thus the beginning of Urartology as a specialized field dates to the 1870s, with the campaign of Sir Archibald Henry Sayce. The German engineer Karl Sester, discoverer of Mount Nemrut, collected more inscriptions in 1890/1.
Waldemar Belck visited the area in 1891, discovering the Rusa stele. A further expedition planned for 1893 was prevented by Turkish-Armenian hostilities. Belck together with Lehmann-Haupt visited the area again in 1898/9, excavating Toprakkale. On this expedition, Belck reached the Kelishin stele, but he was attacked by Kurds and barely escaped with his life. Belck and Lehmann-Haupt reached the stele again in a second attempt, but were again prevented from copying the inscription by weather conditions. After another assault on Belck provoked the diplomatic intervention of Wilhelm II, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, agreed to pay Belck a sum of 80,000 gold marks in reparation. During World War I, the Lake Van region briefly fell under Russian control. In 1916, the Russian scholars Nikolay Yakovlevich Marr and Iosif Abgarovich Orbeli, excavating at the Van fortress, uncovered a four-faced stele carrying the annals of Sarduri II. In 1939 Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky excavated Karmir-Blur, discovering Teišebai, the city of the god of war, Teišeba. In 1938-40, excavations by the American scholars Kirsopp and Silva Lake were cut short by World War II, and most of their finds and field records were lost when a German submarine torpedoed their ship, the SS Athenia. Their surviving documents were published by Manfred Korfmann in 1977.
A new phase of excavations began after the war. Excavations were at first restricted to Soviet Armenia. The fortress of Karmir Blur, dating from the reign of Rusa II, was excavated by a team headed by Boris Piotrovsky, and for the first time the excavators of an Urartian site published their findings systematically. Beginning in 1956 Charles Burney identified and sketch-surveyed many Urartian sites in the Lake Van area and, from 1959, a Turkish expedition under Tahsin Özgüç excavated Altintepe and Arif Erzen.
In the late-1960s, Urartian sites in northwest Iran were excavated. In 1976, an Italian team led by Mirjo Salvini finally reached the Kelishin stele, accompanied by a heavy military escort. The Gulf War then closed these sites to archaeological research. Oktay Belli resumed excavation of Urartian sites on Turkish territory: in 1989 Ayanis, a 7th c. BC fortress built by Rusas II of Urartu, was discovered 35 km north of Van. In spite of excavations, only a third to a half of the 300 known Urartian sites in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Armenia have been examined by archaeologists (Wartke 1993). Without protection, many sites have been plundered by local residents searching for treasure and other saleable antiquities.
Assyrian inscriptions of Shalmaneser I (ca. 1270 BC) first mention Uruartri as one of the states of Nairi – a loose confederation of small kingdoms and tribal states in Armenian Highland in the 13th - 11th centuries BC. Uruartri itself was in the region around Lake Van. The Nairi states were repeatedly subjected to attacks by the Assyrians, especially under Tukulti-Ninurta I (ca. 1240 BC), Tiglath-Pileser I (ca. 1100 BC), Ashur-bel-kala (ca. 1070 BC), Adad-nirari II (ca. 900), Tukulti-Ninurta II (ca. 890), and Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC).
Urartu re-emerged in Assyrian inscriptions in the 9th c. BC as a powerful northern rival of Assyria. The Nairi states and tribes became a unified kingdom under king Aramu (ca. 860-843 BC), whose capital at Arzashkun was captured by Shalmaneser III. Roughly contemporaries of the Uruartri, living just to the west along the southern shore of the Black Sea, were the Kaskas known from Hittite sources.
Sarduri I (ca. 832-820 BC), son of Lutipri, successfully resisted the Assyrian attacks from the south, led by Shalmaneser III, consolidated the military power of the state and moved the capital to Tushpa (modern Van, on the shore of Lake Van). His son, Ispuini (ca. 820-800 BC) annexed the neighbouring state of Musasir and made his son Sarduri II viceroy; Ispuini was in turn attacked by Shamshi-Adad V. His successor Menua (ca. 800-785 BC) also enlarged the kingdom greatly and left inscriptions over a wide area. Urartu reached highest point of its military might under Menua's son Argishti I (ca. 785-760 BC), becoming one of the most powerful kingdoms of ancient Near East. Argishti I added more territories along the Araxes river and Lake Sevan, and frustrated Shalmaneser IV's campaigns against him. At some point the Urartuan armies reached all the way to Babylon, taking the city. Argishti also founded several new cities, most notably Erebuni in 782 BC, which grew to be the modern Armenian capital of Yerevan.
At its height, the Urartu kingdom may have stretched North beyond the Aras River (Greek Araxes) and Lake Sevan, encompassing present-day Armenia and even the southern part of Georgia (e.g. Qulha) almost to the shores of the Black Sea; west to the sources of the Euphrates; east to present-day Tabriz, Lake Urmia, and beyond; and south to the sources of the Tigris.
Tiglath Pileser III claimed in his inscriptions to have reduced Urartu in the first year of his reign (745/4). There the Assyrians found horsemen and horses, tamed as colts for riding, that were unequalled in the south, where they were harnessed to Assyrian war-chariots.
In 714 BC, the Urartu kingdom suffered heavily from Cimmerian raids and the campaigns of Sargon II. The main temple at Mushashir was sacked, and the Urartian king Rusa I was defeated by Sargon at Lake Urmia.
The setback, however, was temporary, as Rusa's son Argishti II (714 - 685 BC) restored Urartu's power, at the same time maintaining peace with Assyria. This in turn helped Urartu enter a long period of development and prosperity, which continued through the reign of Argishti's son Rusa II (685-645 BC).
After Rusa II, however, the Urartu grew weaker and dependent on Assyria, as evidenced by Rusa II's son Sardur III (645-635 BC) referring to the Assyrian king as his "father."
According to Urartian epigraphy, Sarduri III was followed by three kings—Erimena (635–620 BC), his son Rusa III (620–609 BC), and the latter's son Rusa IV (609–590 or 585 BC). Late during the 600s BC (during or after Sardur III's reign), Urartu was invaded by Scythians and their allies—the Medes. In 612 BC, the Median king Cyaxares conquered Assyria. Many Urartian ruins of the period show evidence of destruction by fire. This would indicate two scenarios—either Media subsequently conquered Urartu, bringing about its subsequent demise, or Urartu–Armenia maintained its independence and power, going through a mere dynastic change, as a local Armenian dynasty (later to be called the Orontids) overthrew the ruling family with the help of the Median army. Ancient sources support the latter version: Xenophon, for example, states that Armenia, ruled by an Orontid king, was not conquered until the reign of Median king Astyages (585– 550 BC) – long after Median invasion of the late 7th century BC. Similarly, Strabo (1st c. BC - 1st c AD) wrote that "[i]n ancient times Greater Armenia ruled the whole of Asia, after it broke up the empire of the Syrians, but later, in the time of Astyages, it was deprived of that great authority ..." 
Furthermore, according to the Old Testament, as late as 593 BC, prophet Jeremiah called on the kingdom of Ararat and its Median allies to conquer Babylon (Jeremiah 51:27), suggesting that at the time Urartu was still considered powerful enough to pose a threat to the Babylonian Empire.
Medieval Armenian chronicles corroborate the Greek and Hebrew sources. In particular, Movses Khorenatsi writes that Armenian prince Paruyr Skayordi helped the Median king Cyaxares conquer Assyria, for which Cyaxares recognized him as the king of Armenia, while Media conquered Armenia only much later—under Astyages. It is possible that the last Urartian king, Rusa IV, had connections to the future incoming Armenian Orontids dynasty.
Urartu was destroyed in either 590 BC or 585 BC. The end of Urartu was violent; many of its fortresses were burned down. According to Herodotus, the Alarodians (Alarodioi)—apparently the Urartian remnants—were part of the 18th Satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire and formed a special contingent in the grand army of Xerxes I. By the late sixth century, the Urartians had certainly been replaced by the Armenians.
The people of Urartu were mostly farmers. They were experts in stone architecture; they may have introduced the blind arch to the Near East, and the halls of their palaces and temples may have been the precursor of the Persian apadana layout. They were also experts in metalworking, and exported metal vessels to Phrygia and Etruria. Excavations have yielded two-storied residential houses with internal wall decorations, windows, and balconies. Their towns generally had well-developed water supply (often taken from far away) and sewage systems.
With the expansion of Urartian territory, many of the gods worshiped by conquered peoples were incorporated into the Urartian pantheon, as a mean to confirm the annexation of territories and promote political stability. However, although the Urartians incorporated many deities into their pantheon, they appeared to be selective in their choices. Although many different Urartian kings made conquests in the North, such as the Sevan region, many of those peoples' gods remain excluded. This was most likely the case because Urartians considered the people in the North to be barbaric, and disliked their deities as much as they did them. Good examples of incorporated deities however are the goddesses Bagvarti (Bagmashtu) and Selardi. On Mheri-Dur, or Meher-Tur (the "Gate of Mehr"), overlooking modern Van, an inscription lists a total of 79 deities, and what type of sacrificial offerings should be made to each; goats, sheep, cattle, and other animals served as the sacrificial offerings. Urartians did not practice human sacrifice.
The pantheon was headed by a triad made up of Khaldi (the supreme god), Theispas (Teisheba) god of thunder and storms, as well as sometimes war, and Shivini a solar god. Their king was also the chief-priest or envoy of Khaldi. Some temples to Khaldi were part of the royal palace complex while others were independent structures.
Some of the main gods and goddesses include:
Urartian, the language used in the cuneiform inscriptions of Urartu, was an ergative-agglutinative language, which belongs to neither the Semitic nor the Indo-European families but to the Hurro-Urartian family. It survives in many inscriptions found in the area of the Urartu kingdom, written in the Assyrian cuneiform script. There are also claims of autochthonous Urartian hieroglyphs, but this remains uncertain.
The Urartians originally used the locally-developed hieroglyphs (not yet deciphered) but later adapted the Assyrian cuneiform script for most purposes. After the 8th century BC, the hieroglyphic script was restricted to religious and accounting purposes. Examples of Urartian written language have survived in many inscriptions found throughout the area of the Urartu kingdom.
Urartian cuneiform inscriptions are divided into two groups. A minority is written in Akkadian (the official language of Assyria). However, the bulk of the cuneiforms are written in an agglutinative language, conventionally called Urartian, Khaldian, or neo-Hurrian, which was related to Hurrian in the Hurro-Urartian family, and was neither Semitic nor Indo-European. It had close linguistic similarities to Northeast Caucasian languages. Igor Diakonov even places it in the Alarodian family, based on linguistic similarities with Northeast Caucasian languages. A more distant connection among Urartian and the modern Georgian language and Circassian have been postulated as well.
Currently, the number of known Urartian cuneiform inscriptions is more than 1000. They contain around 350-400 words, most of which are Urartian, while some are loan words from other languages. The greatest number of foreign loan words in Urartian language is from Armenian—around 70 word-roots. The greatest number of common words with Urartean is in Northeast Caucasian language family. (169 word-roots) 
Unlike the cuneiform inscriptions, Urartuan hieroglyphic texts have not been successfully deciphered. As a result, scholars disagree as to what language is used in the texts. In mid-1990s, Armenian scientist Artak Movsisyan published a partial attempted deciphering of Urartian hieroglyphs, suggesting that they were written in an early form of Armenian.
The Iron Age Urartian state was the successor of the Late Bronze State Hurrian state of Mitanni, and the Urartian language spoken by the ruling class is the successor of the Hurrian language (see Hurro-Urartian). The Urartian state was in turn succeeded in the area in the 6th century BC by the Orontid Armenian kingdom,. The presence of a Proto-Armenian population in the area already during Urartian rule is subject to speculation:
It is generally assumed that Proto-Armenian speakers entered Anatolia from around 1200 BC, ultimately deriving from a Paleo-Balkans context, and over the following centuries spread east to the Armenian Highland. A competing theory suggested by Thomas Gamkrelidze and Vyacheslav V. Ivanov in 1984 places the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the Armenian Highland, see Armenian hypothesis, which would entail the presence of Proto-Armenians in the area during the entire lifetime of the Urartian state.
After the disappearance of Urartu as a political entity, the Armenians dominated the highlands, absorbing portions of the previous Urartian culture in the process. The Armenians became, thus, the direct succesors of the kingdom of Urartu and inherited their domain. Urartu is to Armenians what ancient Britons are to the English, and Gauls are to the French.
While the Urartian language was spoken by the royal elite, the population they ruled may have been multi-ethnic, and in late Urartian times largely (pre-Proto-)Armenian-speaking. Under this theory, the Armenian-speaking population were the descendants of the proto-Armenians who migrated to the Armenian Highland in ca. the 7th century BC, mixing with the local Hurrian-speaking population (i.e. the "Phrygian theory," first suggested by Herodotus).
A minority belief, advocated primarily by the official historiography of Armenia, but also supported by experts in Assyrian and Urartian studies such as Igor Diakonov, Giorgi Melikishvili, Mikhail Nikolsky Ivan Mestchaninov, suggests that Urartian was solely the formal written language of the state, while its inhabitants, including the royal family, spoke Armenian. The theory primarily hinges on the language the Urartian cuneiform inscriptions being very repetitive and scant in vocabulary (having as little as 350-400 roots). Furthermore, over 250 years of usage, it shows no development, which is taken to indicate that the language had ceased to be spoken before the time of the inscriptions or was used only for official purposes. This belief is compatible with the "Armenian hypothesis" suggested by Vyacheslav Ivanov and Tamaz Gamkrelidze, postulating the Armenian language as an in situ development of a 3rd millennium BC Proto-Indo-European language.
According to the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture:
The Armenians according to Diakonoff, are then an amalgam of the Hurrian (and Urartians), Luvians and the Proto-Armenian Mushki who carried their IE language eastwards across Anatolia. After arriving in its historical territory, Proto-Armenian would appear to have undergone massive influence on part the languages it eventually replaced. Armenian phonology, for instance, appears to have been greatly affected by Urartian, which may suggest a long period of bilingualism.
Urartu has come to play a role in 19th to 20th century Armenian nationalism. There is a conviction among Armenian patriots that the Armenians are the "original inhabitants" of much of the territory of historic Armenia, motivated by the desire to prove Armenian priority relative to the Turks, who cannot claim presence in Anatolia prior to the Seljuk conquests of the 11th century. The suggestion that the Armenians had also been newcomers to the region, even if 1500 years earlier than the Turks, might rise, within the logic of ethnic nationalism, the possibility that Turkish and Armenian claims to the territory were "morally equal". Identification with the "distant glories of Urartu" can be used to reassert Armenian "indigeneity" and "compensate for modern miseries", and together with Mount Ararat has come to be a powerful symbol of Armenian ethnicity especially among the second generation diaspora (Redgate 1995).
As a consequence, essentialist interpretations of Armenian ethnicity over the ages abound in Armenian historiography, and flourished particularly during the Soviet era, with examples such as S. A. Sardarian's Pervobytnoye obshchestvo v Amenii of 1967 which besides "numerous plagiarisms and mistakes" goes as far as to postulate a separate Armenian race native to the Armenian plateau (Kohl 1995). Heavily slanted depictions of Urartu are common in this literature. Armenian chauvinists must explain why Urartian epigraphy is in the non-Indo-European Urartian language. While, as discussed above, there are reasonable scholarly scenarios that there was a Proto-Armenian component in Urartu, and that the early Armenians were the bona fide cultural heirs to Urartu, the essentialist view of Armenian nationhood that simply equates Urartu with Armenia cannot be sustained (Kohl 1995).