it has been a while since I’ve made a post on this blog. The long delay was partially caused by the latest situation in Artsakh, after which, like many of us, I’ve lost some emotional energy for writing, and partially because I was, as much as I possibly could, researching the kingdom of Urartu. I’ve made a lot of progress since and would like to present you with some of my notable findings. Not just the conclusion, but also with (perhaps even contending) theories that I’ve been exploring during my research. Due to the sheer volume of content I ‘ve decide to release it in several parts, of which this will be the first. You can already see the full table of contents bellow.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading all the parts and exploring this fascinating kingdom with me. I’m sure I’ll be writing much more on this subject in the near future.
In the 9th century B.C., a powerful Iron Age kingdom arose in the Armenian Highlands, through necessity to rival the neo-Assyrian Empire, this Kingdom is commonly referred to as the Kingdom of Urartu. Urartu predated any major city state in Greece and power structure in what is today geographically modern day Iran. This kingdom had a militaristic imperial government and left a distinctive archaeological record, known to us largely from the ruins of fortresses and looted burials.
Urartu at its zenith had a profound cultural influence on its neighbours reaching as far as Asia and Europe. It was so influential that it’s recorded on the oldest known Babylonian map of the world and even the Bible contains passages with references to Urartu (Ararat), including one describing it as the resting place of Noah’s ark:
“In the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark rested upon the mountains of Ararat.”– (Genesis 9:4)
After the mighty Hittite kingdom collapsed in the late bronze age, the various indigenous tribes of the Armenian Highland had remained decentralized and fairly independent for several centuries. It was only during the Iron Age that we see a powerful centralized kingdom rise again in the Armenian Highlands. The Urartian annals are filled with campaigns against various highland tribes in an attempt to unite them under one kingdom, similar to the many campaigns of medieval Armenian kings against rebellious nakharars (feudal lords).
But who exactly were the people of Urartu and what is their relation, if any, to modern people?
I’ve been interested in exploring this question for some time now and I must admit that all my research leads me to only one conclusion. As much as any modern nation can trace their roots from an ancient community, there is no doubt in my mind that Urartians were the direct ancestors specifically of the Armenian people. The emergence of Urartu is therefore best understood as an early attempt at unifying the Armenian nation under one centralize polity. Let’s look at the evidence.
Urartu = Armenia
Perhaps the most straightforward and unambiguous evidence for the Urartian-Armenian continuity is found on the 521 B.C. inscription of Darius the Great of the Achaemenid Dynasty where Urartu is literally translated into Armenia. In the trilingual Behistun inscription of Darius the Great, the Babylonian toponym “Urashtu” (Akkadian Urartu) translates in Old Persian into “Armina,” and in Elamite to “Harminuia”.
And no, this wasn’t a simple mistake of the scribe. The Achaemenids perfectly knew their neighbours and were well aware of their identity. Xerxes I in fact left a sizable inscription in Tushpa (Van) (the capitol of Urartu) directly on the cliff of the royal castle. They knew well whose country they had intruded and the people of this country they simply called Arminiya.
Another noteworthy example is the case of Arakha the rebel king who challenged Darius the Great in Babylon. Darius describes Arakha’s rebellion in 539 BC as follows:
A certain man named Arakha, an Armenian, son of Haldita, rebelled in Babylon. At a place called Dubâla, he lied unto the people, saying: ‘I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.’ Then did the Babylonian people revolt from me and they went over to that Arakha. He seized Babylon, he became king in Babylon.
Arakha is clearly an Armenian name but it’s worth noting that he is specifically called “an Armenian” son of Haldi-ta, clearly referring to the Urartian supreme deity Haldi.
While this indeed constitutes undeniably strong evidence for identifying the kingdom and the people of Urartu with none other than the Armenians, these inscriptions have been made somewhere during the later periods of the kingdom’s lifespans. Achaemenid Empire after all was only founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC. The later usage of the exonym however has nothing to do with hypothesized replacement of Urartians with Armenians (as some suggest) but simply with the emergence of the Persian Empire. With its rise to prominence in the region so did the Persian language and the increasing usage of the exonym “Armina”, later to be adopted by the Greeks into Ἀρμενία (Armenía) and Ἀρμένιοι (Arménioi, “Armenians”). Would the Achaemenids have established themselves earlier it’s likely that “Armenia” would have been the dominant exonym of this Iron Age kingdom. This thesis is supported by the fact that the toponym “Urartu” too was applied to the Armenian Kingdom, well after what is considered to have been the collapse of Urartu. Thus, Urartu and Armenia have been used synonymously and interchangeably for centuries until the Akkadian language became absolute in the region.
Shalmaneser III and the cities of Arame
So, if we to ignore the later periods of the kingdom that was so clearly identified with Armenia, how should we classify the very beginnings of the kingdom? The Achamenid Empire, after all, didn’t exist at the very early stages of Urartu, and thus “Armenia” wasn’t a popular exonym of the kingdom.
Well, despite the above mentioned fact, we actually have a lot of Assyrian records of early Urartian place names and personal names of royalty that clearly show great affinity to what could be regarded as Armenian. For example Shalmaneser III of Assyria describes several campaigns against the Urartian king Aram(e) and the sack of his royal cities, at the very early stages of the kingdoms conception. An inscription on the Black Obelisk of King Shalmaneser III (reigned 858-824 BC) describes the Assyrian conquest of the Urartian capitol named Arzashkun and mentions the first known monarch of Urartu named Arame.
In the third year of my reign, Ahuni, son of Adini, was frightened before my mighty weapons and retreated from Til-barzip, his royal city. I crossed the Euphrates. I seized for myself the city of Ana-Assur-utir-asbat, which lies on the other side of the Euphrates, on the Sagur river, which the Hittite people called Pitru.
When I returned, I entered the passes of the land of Alzi; the lands of Alzi, Suhni, Daiaeni, Tumme, Arzashkunu, the royal city of Arame, the Armenian (king), Gilzânu, and Hubushkia (I conquered).The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, Neo-Assyrian bas-relief sculpture from Nimrud, commemorating the deeds of King Shalmaneser III (reigned 858-824 BC).
Arzashkun was the capital of the Armenian kingdom of Van in the 9th century BC, before Sarduri I moved it to Tushpa in 832 BC. According to historians Arzashkun is the Assyrian form of an Armenian name ending in -ka formed from a proper name Arzash, which recalls the name Arsene, Arsissa, applied by the ancients to parts of Lake Van. Arzashkun might represent the Ardzik of the Armenian historians, west of Manzigert.
Both the name of the first known Urartian king Arame and his capitol Arzashk(un) are clearly Armenic names and coincide well with what Medieval Armenian historians recount of the ancient Armenian history.
Another royal city of Arame mentioned in the Assyrian annals was “Arne”:
Moving on from the cities of the Carchemishite I approached the cities of Aramu (and) captured the city Arne, his royal city. I razed, destroyed, (and) burned (it) together with one hundred cities in its environs. (ii 60) I massacred them (and) plundered them. At that time, Hadad-ezer (Adad-idri), the Damascene, (and) Irḫulēnu, the Ḫamatite, together with twelve kings on the shore of the sea, trusting in their united forces, attacked me to wage war and battle. I fought with them (and) (ii 65) defeated them. I took from them their chariotry, cavalry, and military equipment. To save their lives they ran away.Royal Inscription of Shalmaneser III, Neo-Assyrian, Written ca. 858-824, Qalat Sherqat (Assur)
The name of this city too strongly reminds us of an Armenian etymology. Although, somewhat unclear, I’ve been recently made aware of a possibility that Arame of Arne might have been a different Arame (or Aramu) from the Arame of Urartu, namely that of Bit-Agusi (usually considered a Neo-Hittite district) . Regardless, it has to be near Charchemish north of Assyria bordering Urartu. A highly contested region between the two powers. Moreover, as we will see in Part 3, there definitely are records of a city names Arna (or Arne), within Urartu as well.
Yet another of Arame’s cities mentioned by Shalmaneser is “Sugunia”, a fortified city of Arame. Clearly bearing the Urartian root word “agunu” meaning fortified from “gunushe” meaning battle. This word survived into Armenian “Azatagund” meaning freedom-fighter.
Moving on from the city Ḫubuškia I approached the city Sugunia, the fortified city of Aramu the Urarṭian. I besieged the city, captured (it), massacred many of its (people), (and) carried off booty from them. I erected two towers of heads in front of his city. I burned fourteen cities in its environs.
Moving on from the city Sugunia, I went down to the sea of the land Nairi. I washed my weapons in the sea (and) (35) made sacrifices to my gods. At that time, I made an image of myself (and) wrote thereon the praises of Aššur, the great lord, (and) the prowess of my power.Royal Inscription of Shalmaneser III, Neo-Assyrian, Written ca. 858-824, Nimrud (Kalhu)
- The sea referenced in the above quote is Lake Van. Nairi is therefore a district near Van.
We can safely assert that Arame living at the time of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, in all probability united the Armenian highland tribes against the increasing threat of the Assyrian Empire. His efforts were met with much aggression from the Assyrian side and eventually his successors would move the capitol of the kingdom to Tushpa ushering in the golden age of the kingdom.
Thus, the view that Urartu represents some local pre-Armenian kingdom and only later transformed into the kingdom of Armenia after the “decline of Urartu” is in stark contrast with the early records of Arame and his royal cities that so clearly bare Armenian names.
When speaking of the kingdom of Urartu, some Urartologists have suggested that the kingdom was somewhat of an anomaly in the region, rapidly emerged and just as quickly declined and was forever forgotten by the inhabitants of the Armenian Highlands.
Zimansky for example often claims:
“Greek historians were unaware that a great empire had existed in eastern Anatolia less than two centuries before Herodotus, and nothing transmitted by local tradition found its way into the work of Moses Khorenats’i”
It is true that the Urartian “era” has come to an end somewhere around the 5th c. BC after the disappearance of Assyria (on which Urartu culturally relied), the memory of Urartu however has persisted well into the middle ages in the Armenian annals.
For one, it is important to understand that the medieval Armenian scholars regarded the Armenian nation to have formed mainly from a struggle against Assyria. If the Armenians were invaders who replaced Urartu, wouldn’t they have remembered their existential wars against the Urartians? Instead, Assyria not “Biainili” was considered the historic enemy of the Armenian people by the early medieval chroniclers, just as it was for the people of the kingdom of Urartu. This, in my opinion, is an important first clue for self-identification of the Armenian people as the people of the kingdom of Urartu. The accounts of some invading “Armenians” that would colonise and replace the “Biainilians” in the 6th/5th c. BC., as some argue, is completely absent from Armenian histography. In fact the opposite, as I have explained, is true. Completely in line with the Urartian history, the Armenian historic works are filled with existential wars against Assyria.
For example, Khorenatsi tells us that the early Armenian kingdom was called ‘Ararat’ after its founder Ara the Beautiful, or his father Aram. Which is in line with the Assyrian records of Aram(e/u) of Urartu, as we have discussed above.
Another interesting name Khorenatsi revealed to us almost one and a half millennium before it was known to modern academia, was the name of the Urartian king Menuas. Menuas or Menua (Armenian: Մենուա) was the fifth known king of Urartu who lived from c. 810 BC to approximately 786 BC. He was famous for developing a canal and irrigation system that stretched across the kingdom.
Movses in his writings calls him Manavaz. In classical Armenian the letter “u” was often replaced with “v” (i.e. Samuel has become Samvel).
The etymology of the toponym Manzikert (toady Malazgirt in Turkish) derives from Manavaz. The name Manazkert was shortened from Manavazkert (Armenian: Մանավազկերտ), adopted in Greek as Μαντζικέρτ. The suffix -kert is frequently found in Armenian toponyms, meaning “built by”. According to Movses Khorenatsi, Manzikert was founded by king Manavaz.
The lands around Manzikert belonged to the Manavazyans, an Armenian nakharar (feudal lord’s) family which claimed descent from Manavaz, until 333 A.D., when King Khosrov III Arshakuni of Armenia ordered that all members of the family be put to the sword.
Yet another name of note mentioned in this passage is “Baz” the founder of the Baznuni (Bznuni) dynasty. It would, in my opinion, not be a stretch at all to identify Baznuni lands with the Biaina (perhaps from a tribal lord Bias as remembered in some Greek myths). This hypothesis is perfectly in line with the Urartian chronology. As the Urartians only started to refer to their lands as the “lands of Biaina” since the reign of Menua (Manavaz). The previous monarchs would rather refer to their lands as Nairi. It’s interesting to note that Menua had an unidentified brother that appears to have never ruled. Could that be the mentioned Baz? Other princely families of Armenia, such as the Rshtuni, have also been identified with Urartian monarchs like Rusa.
Also of particular interest to me is “Hor” (sometimes translated as Khor), the first son of Aramaneak. Hor or Khor reminds us of the Hurrian exonym in Semitic and Greek (see illustration below). If the identification is correct then it’s interesting to note that Khorenatsi considered Hurrians to be a branch of the Armenians related to Urartian dynasty.
There are so many cognate toponyms (such as Khorenatsi’s Era, Urartian Eria or Khorenatsi’s Shira-k, Urartian Sira-ni) that I will probably have to make an entire separate post on the various toponyms and personal names that have been continued since Urartu.
So, to say that the memory of Urartu was completely lost among the Armenians or to assert that medieval Armenians didn’t consider the kingdom of Urartu as part of their history would be in stark contrast to the works of early Armenian historiographers. The opposite in fact is true. The discovery of the Urartian kingdom in the modern era has been made possible through examination of these ancient Armenian manuscripts.
The works of Khorenatsi became the inspiration and the guide for the rediscovery of this kingdom. Mark Chahin, in his book The Kingdom of Armenia: A History, describes how it came about.
The existence of Urartu was unknown, a ‘lost’ civilization, until 1823, when French scholar, Jean Saint-Martin, chanced upon a passage in the History of Armenia by the fifth century AD Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenats’i), which aroused his curiosity. It tells the well-known Armenian legend of the unrequited love of Queen Shamiram (the Semiramis of Greek legend) for Ara the Beautiful, a legendary king of Armenia. Her pride wounded, Shamiram went to war against Armenia, but in spite of strict orders to het warriors not to harm him, a stray arrow killed Ara. The distraught queen decided to remain in Armenia, the land of het hero.– The Kingdom of Armenia: A History by M. Chahin (2001)
Inspired by these writings Jean Saint-Martin suggested to the French government to investigate these places for ancient settlements. For this purpose the French government commissioned a young German professor, Friedrich Eduard Schults, to visit Van and investigate. Schults went to Van and discovered, as Movses described, remains of an ancient kingdom, countless artefacts, illustrations and cuneiform inscriptions.