What’s in a name?
If we want to better understand the Urartian identity we have to consider other exonyms as well as the native names (endonyms) of the country. We have to look at how others viewed the Urartians but also how both the Urartians and the Armenians self-identified. Did they consider themselves as separate nations or is there instead evidence for a continuity?
First things first, let us look at the various exonyms and endonyms used for the Urartian kingdom and its people. Much like a citizen of Germany would call himself a ‘Deutche’, but be called ‘Allemandes’ by the French, ‘German’ by the English and ‘Nemets’ by the Polish and the Russians, so did the kingdom and the people of Urartu enjoy many names depending on the language used and the period.
Land of the Rivers
One of the earliest names for the kingdom was “Nairi“. The Assyrians called the country Nairi and the people dwelling inside of it they called “Uruatri“. Interestingly enough, the earliest kings of Urartu up until the reign of Menua too called themselves the “Kings of Nairi lands”. The precise meaning and territory of this toponym is unknown and highly speculative, but it’s safe to assume its use is quite antique. Some have suggested the meaning: “Land of Rivers” referring to the lands at the headwaters of Tigris and Euphrates. The simultaneous use of the toponym Nairi and Urartu (by the Assyrians) however suggests that Nairi was probably the name of a district of the Armenian Highlands rather than the name of a kingdom.
Land of Fire
Another notable toponym is “Urartu“, the name by which this kingdom has come to be identified in the modern era. Urartu, however, was mainly used by the Assyrians and only two times by the Urartians themselves (Zimansky, 2011). It clearly reminds us of the earlier Assyrian name “Uruatri” describing the inhabitants of Nairi more so than a kingdom. The Babylonian name of the kingdom was “Urashtu” mirroring closely the Assyrian Urartu and the Biblical Ararat shows an obvious relation.
There is no widely accepted etymology for these terms but one interesting etymology suggested by Dr. Martiros Kavukjian’s is: “Land of Fire“. It seems to me highly unlikely that the Babylonian ‘Urashtu’ is a mere misspelling of the Akkadian ‘Urartu’. Instead “Ur” and “Uru” in Akkadian (borrowed from Sumerian) means land/town/place of dwelling. If we to assume that ‘Ur-‘ in Urartu and Urashtu means something like ‘place’ then the Akkadian toponym can be easily etymologized as “Land of Artu” and the Babylonian as “Land of Ashtu”. Interestingly enough the concept of Asha-Arta is also the core concept of the Zoroastrian religion, signifying “truth / order / light / fire / existence” not unlike the Hellenistic concept of “logos”. It neatly fits with the old Armenian word for God “Astuaz” (աստուած) and the pagan deity “Astlik” as well as many Urartian words related to divinity like ašh- and ašhašt “offer/sacrifice”, ašt- “burn/ set on fire” and aštiuzi “holiness/divinity/god”. It can also be inferred from the Urartian suffixes for God. Whenever the Urartians mentioned “Gods of the land Bia” we can see them applying the suffixes ašt- and ašte-. For example; Bia=i=na=ašt=te “Gods of the land Bia”.
Moreover Artu/Arti/Ardi (a name that we’ll encounter often) of the Urartian kingdom is very reminiscent of their holy city of Ardi-ni that contained their main temple of the supreme deity Haldi and his (clearly Indo-European named) consort Bagvarti also known as Bagmashtu.
I think it’s noteworthy to mention, before we move on, that browsing through the Assyrian lexicon one can rarely find the exonym spelled out as “Urartu” instead the most frequently used forms are “Urarti” (KUR.ur-ar-ṭi) and “Urarta” (KUR.ur-ar-ta). I do not know yet why this discrepancy exists between the source materials and what we know from the modern usage “Urartu”, but Ur-Arti again supports the above hypothesis and correlates with the holy city of Ardi-ni from which Zimansky (2011) speculates the Urartian royal house might have originated in the first place.
This holy site was so important to the Urartians that according to Assyrian records the sack of Ardini and carrying away off of its “aštiuzi” (Astvadz) caused the Urartian king Rusa (Ursa in Assyrian) to commit suicide.
“Ursa king of Urartu heard of the destruction of Musasir, the carrying oﬀ of Haldi, his god, and with his own hands ended his life with his iron girdle dagger.”Sargon’s texts describe
I caused lamentation to be wailed throughout the land Urarṭu, to its full extent, and established perpetual wailing in the land Nairi.In another of Sargon’s passages.
The Urartians eventually succeeded at recovering their holy city from the Assyrians and repelled many attacks from other tribes as well.
Argišti says: I heard that the land Etiuni wanted to loot aštiuzi of the city Ardini. In the same year once again I mobilized the troops. I prayed to the god Ḫaldi, my Lord, the Weather-God, the Sun-God, (and all) the gods of the land Biainili. Through the greatness of (my) lord what I asked for the gods listened to me.Account of Etiuni trying to steal the God of Ardini.
So what about “Uruatri“? You might ask. Well again, if we to assume that Uru- of Uruatri refers to a place, then Uru-Atri becomes “the place of Atri” or “the house of Atri” (not unlike how Jerusalem in the Sumero-Akkadian URU-salim became Urušalim [URU.ú-ru-sa-lim] in the Amarna letters, and in Hebrew Yerushalaim meaning “house of Salim”). Again perfectly fits with the Zoroastrian Atr-/Atar concept of holy fire. We have to understand here that Zoroastrianism itself traces root to a much older Indo-European proto-religion. We can clearly observe a similar Hurrian and Indo-Aryan religious coexistence within the Bronze Age kingdom of Mitanni.
If this wasn’t convincing enough I’d like to bring to your attention another interesting find. Reading through the entire Urartian lexicon I’ve stumbled upon a ritual established by king Išpuini son of Sarduri in the month of the Sun God. There Išpuini details the exact amount of animals that have to be sacrificed for every deity. Išpuini recounts over 80 deities, most of which can’t be found on wikipedia or any other encyclopedia for that matter. If we to create a list of deities and arrange them by the amount of animal sacrifices that they would receive from the Urartians we’ve end up with Haldi, of course, receiving the vast majority, 57 to be precise. However, the next deity to receive the most sacrifices isn’t the Sun God nor the Weather God, but an often-omitted from academic sources, deity called: Arṭuʾarasau, who would receive a total of 36 animal sacrifices. Just to give you a perspective, in the third place comes Teisheba (the weather God) with 18 animals, and 4th place goes to Sivini (the solar God) with 12 animal sacrifices. There is little to no information available on Arṭuʾarasau but his name is surprisingly similar to the above hypothesized “Place of Artu/Arti”. The amount of sacrifices this deity receives could also be considered indicative of his importance in the Urartian pantheon. Similarly the Urartians venerated a deity called Ardi (see Stephan Kroll et. al., 2012) and the moon goddess Selardi (derived from “Siela,” meaning “woman” or “sister,” and “Ardi” which means “sun god” in Armenian. Thus implying moon is the sister of the sun.).
It becomes hard to ignore the above-mentioned facts when all these terms so neatly coincide. Could Urartu/Urashtu/Uruatri simply refer to the volcanic Armenian Highlands as the land of fire/truth/light? I think so! It’s also worth noting that the adjective corresponding to the noun aṣ̌a/arta, “truth”, in Avestan is in fact “Haithya-“ (Haiθiia-). Perhaps that exactly is the etymology for the Armenian endonym Hay(k).
Who are the Biai people?
Now you might be left wondering, how did the Urartians actually refer to themselves? Well the short answer is we actually don’t know. In the entirety of the Urartian records, they haven’t once mentioned their own ethnic identity.
King Išpuini (end of the ninth century BCE) achieved the final unification into one state of all the peoples settled over a wide territory of the Armenian highland, and also the annexation of the territory east of the Zagros mountains, the modern territory of Iranian Azerbeijan. Unfortunately we have no idea of the ethnic composition of the new state or of the nature of the peoples settled there. The only information is given by the cuneiform documents which, from Išpuini on, are mostly redacted in the Urartian language.Salvini, Mirjo (2014). The Spread of the Cuneiform Culture to the Urartian North (IX–VII Century BCE). In: Melammu: The Ancient World in an Age of Globalization. Berlin: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften.
The kings of Biainili do not provide an ethnic or linguistic designation for their subjects, beyond the literal meaning of Biainili itself, “those of the land of Bia:’The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia, Sharon R. Steadman, Gregory McMahon, Oxford University Press, 1 Apr 2011
They did however mention several ethnic groups like the Hatti and the Supa people that became part of their kingdom (often through conquest and subjugation), but they referred to themselves as a specific group of people. It’s not hard to imagine that royal dynasties of those times (much like their colleagues of the neighbouring kingdoms) were more concerned with their own power and that of their kingdom than any ethnic affinity. However, they did call themselves “the kings of Bia(i)(na)(ili)” lands. Now I deliberately write Bia(i)(na)(ili) because frankly it’s quite difficult to figure out what the stem is of this word. Urartian (much like the Armenian) often uses elaborate suffixes that enlarge words to an extreme. They were also not as concerned with consistent spelling as much as they were concerned with neatly filling the entire tablet with cuneiform signs. In order to achieve this visually pleasing effect, they would simply repeat carving cuneiform signs until it looked completely fitted within the whole area designated for the inscription. The perfectly preserved temple inscription of Ayanis demonstrates well this aesthetic function of cuneiform writing.
By doing so, many of their words have been written in multiple variations. You can easily find the name of the kingdom written as Bia=i=na, Bia=i=na=a, Bia=i=i=na, Bi=ai=na etc… etc…
In order for us to give it a proper etymology we have to first figure out what the stem word is excluding the suffixes and perhaps even prefixes. Is it Bia lands, Biai lands, Biaina lands, or (unlikely) Biainili lands or perhaps something completely different. I say ‘unlikely’ because in all of the Urartian corpus the variant Biainili was only mentioned 2 times. And in both cases -ili or nili is used as a suffix denoting “making the land”. By far the most commonly used variant is Bia=i=na=ue, with the “-ue” or “-na-ue” suffix meaning “of the land”. For example “Through the greatness of the god Ḫaldi (I am) Argišti, son of Minua, strong king, king of the Biai lands, lord of Ṭušpa-City.” Unfortunately, for some odd reason the name “Biainili” has persisted the most among modern scholars.
Perhaps ‘Bi’ itself is a prefix of some sorts denoting land or mountainous terrain. After all the Urartian word for land/country is “ebani” and mountain is “babani”. Or perhaps “Bi” stands for the Assyrian “Bit” meaning house, often used for place names in the Assyrian records. In that case the root could’ve easily been simply “Ai” (Hay) where “Bi” stands for “house of…”. Note, there is no sign for the letter “H” in the Urartian cuneiform script, so they often left out the sound, or substituted it with the “Kh” or the “A” signs.
Unfortunately, there is no consensus on the etymology for this word but many scholars do suggest that it is related to the Armenian “Van”. In my personal opinion “Van” comes from the Urartian “ebani” cognate to Armenian “avan” meaning “dwelling or town”. Interestingly enough Wiktionary gives a somewhat differing etymological origin for the Armenian “avan” ascribing it to the Middle Persian “āwahan” meaning “fortified place, stronghold”. But it’s not hard to imagine that the Persian “āwahan” itself is a borrowing from the Urartian “eban”. Hence why the Armenian geography is filled with the toponyms containing “Van”; Van, Yerevan, Vanadzor, Ijevan, Charentsavan, Sevan, Stepanavan, Byureghavan, Vanevan, Tatvan, Yervandavan, Arshakavan, Zarehavan, Nakhchavan, Bagavan, etc… The initial translation of “Biaina” by the way was first translated by Dr. Hincks in the 19th century as “Abana”.
Another possible relation would be with “buyn” (բույն) the Armenian word for nest, lair, hut and the derivative Old Armenian “buna(k)” (բունակ) meaning source. This hypothesis is in line with some Roman era maps (by Ptolemaios and Plinius) mentioning “Bouana” near Lake Van along with the toponym “Thospia” and “Thospitis Lacus” (See: Map 89, by S.E. Kroll et. al., 1996) (also mentioned by Strabo), a rendering of Urartian Tušpa that survived in medieval Armenian as “Tosp” (the old Armenian name of the city of Van). Interestingly enough, the Akkadian (and Urartian) cuneiforms do not contain a distinct sign for the “O” vowel either, thus it was often substituted with “U”. Therefore, it’s not at all improbable that “Tushpa” in fact, should be correctly read simply as “Tospa” or even “Tosp”. The Romans must have heard the Armenians still use this toponym at the time.
It is from this place, that, from the end of the ninth century onwards, military expeditions of the Urartian kings set off to conquer an immense territory, stretching as far as the Euphrates in the west, Mount Sabalan in the east (in modern Iran), the basin of Lake Sevan in Armenia, and—beyond the mountain ranges of Taurus and Zagros (modern-day Iraq).
“Armenia” as we know today is an exonym. It’s a name of a country applied by the Achaemenid Persia (and Greeks) to describe Urartu and their people. This much is undeniable as I have explained earlier in this series. From the trilingual Behistun Inscription, where the names Armina (in Old Persian), Harminuya (in Elamite), and Urashtu (in Babylonian) and their equivalent demonyms are used in reference to Armenia and people from Armenia. In Greek, Αρμένιοι (meaning Armenians) is attested from about the same time, perhaps the earliest reference being a fragment attributed to Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 476 BC).
Regardless of ones view of Urartu, “Armenia” was clearly used to describe Urartu and its people, as it’s apparent from numerous ancient sources. The origin of this toponym, however, like most things about Armenia, are shrouded in mystery. Several theories have been proposed. Some say that Persian Armina is a continuations of an older Assyrian toponym Armânum or Armanî. Others say it comes from “Har-minni” meaning mountains of Minni (a region bordering Urartu). Yet others suggest a relation to king Erimena father of the Urartian king Rusa III or even Arame the first king of Urartu.
I am not going to discuss all of the hypothesis as there is a decent Wikipedia article that discusses most. However, one theory that I would definitely not discount is strangely omitted from that article, and that would be the connection with king Menua/Minua. The kingdom of Minni was known in the antiquity and usually distinguished from Urartu (Ararat), it’s therefore unlikely that the Persian Armina and Elamite Harminuya would refer to the kingdom of Minni. Instead, it’s not hard to imagine how it could refer to “the mountains of Minua” (Har-Minuya).
According to medieval Armenian tradition however, Armenia derives its name from the patriarch Aram a lineal descendant of Hayk (Հայկ), son of Harma and father of Ara the Beautiful. There is definitely no lack of candidates in the Armenian annals: Ara, Aram, Aramais, Aramane(ak), or Harma. This could explain well why the Assyrians referred to royal lands of Arame, while the Urartian records show no mention of such a king. Arame or Aramu might have been a legendary patriarch whose lands were referred to as the “Aramuan” lands rather than a contemporary king that founded the Urartian dynasty. Similarly in Flavius Josephus, the Armenians are said to descend from Aramos’ son Oulos (Antiquitates Judaicae I.6.4), who corresponds to the Biblical Hul, son of Aram.
Interestingly, Torgom, the grandson of Japheth, is actually called Togarmah in the old testament and is described as being known for excellent horses. A trait often attributed to Armenians in the antiquity. The Bible, furthermore, tells us that Togarmah (Tog-Arma?) had a brother by the name of Ashkenaz.
In another Biblical text According to Jeremiah 51:27, a kingdom of Ashkenaz was to be called together with Ararat and Minni against Babylon, which reads:
Set ye up a standard in the land, blow the trumpet among the nations, prepare the nations against her [ie. Babylon], 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 caterpillars.
In this case Ashkenaz, Minni and Togarmah/Ararat are considered somewhat related kingdoms, and would support the identification of Togarmah with Ararat. Thus, again reiterating the synonymous usage of Urartu and Armenia in the antiquity.
Hay and Hayer
The origins of the Armenian endonym for their country Hayq (from which Haya-stan derives) and the people Hay, too remains somewhat of a mystery. Most historians would agree that the endonym is related to the legendary Armenian patriarch Hayk as Khorenatsi recounts in his 5th c. A.D. work History of the Armenians. It’s hard however, to find any records of such a patriarch from antiquity and various scholars have therefore given various theories regarding the origin of the term.
Some have related the origins to the late bronze age kingdom of Hayasa, others claim Hay may derive from the Proto Indo-European word *h₂éyos (or possibly *áyos), meaning “metal.” Yet others suggest Hay to derive from Hatti, an indigenous people of central Anatolia and parts of Armenian Highlands. According to Diakonoff, the ethnonym may derive from the unattested Proto-Armenian name *hatiyos or *hatyos → *hayo → hay. In the Armenian language, the Proto-Indo-European intervocalic *-t- drops and yields /y/, thus Hatyo becomes Hayo.
The fact that the Indo-European Hittites, who replaced the Hattians, retained the terms Hatti, both for their kingdom, their people (Hattili) and their capital city Hattush strongly suggests that the term Hatti itself wasn’t necessarily an ethnonym as much as an umbrella term for people of central Anatolia and western parts of the Armenian Highlands, or perhaps even a social class.
There might be some truth to the above etymology, but I think another plausible etymology deserves equal consideration. Hay itself might simply derive from the Armenian “hayr” meaning “father”. Hence, the Armenians call their land “hayrenik” (meaning fatherland). The commonly held etymology for the Armenian “hayr” is that it derives from the Proto-Indo-European “phter” where the “p-” becomes “h-” and “-t” becomes “-y” in the Armenian. In addition the Urartian word for “father” is actually “ate” or “hate” related to Hurrian att-ardi “forefather” and Hittite attaaš. If the “-t” in this case indeed shifted into “-y” in the Armenian language (as it often did), then the Urartian “(h)ate” could very well have become “haye”. In this case the Armenian Hay might simply mean the land of the forefathers, or the land of the founding father, rather than the ethnonym of the Hatti people. Or perhaps both of these theories aren’t mutually exclusive and there might be some connection between the word “Hatti” and “ate”.
Yet another often cited etymology is that of the Proto-Indo-European *poti- meaning “powerful lord, master of the house, husband”. According to this theory, the name, with plural suffix, developed from potiio→hetiyo→*hatiyo→hay. The p→h and t→y consonant shifts, as mentioned above, are common in Armenian, hence “phter” become “hayr”. There is some circumstantial evidence for this theory as well. For example according to A. Petrosyan (2007) in several Armenian dialects elderly women would call their husbands “mer haye” meaning “our hay”.
Furthermore Hayk’s legendary adversary Bel is also etymologised as “lord, master”. Thus the Armenian lord (Hayk), was battling the Babylonian lord (Bel). But perhaps the Proto-Indo-European “poti” and “phter” are also in a way related. In that case the theories could again be complementary rather than contentious.
Another consideration when it comes to the etymology of “Hay” I wouldn’t neglect is the frequent mentions of “Ai” or “Hai” deities in Urartian records (as the Urartian cuneiform does not contain a sign for “H” and was often left out or substituted with “Kh”). For example, the inscription of king Išpuini’s religious rituals talk about the need for sacrifices to deities such as; Airaini, Airini, Aia, and a collection of Ai goddesses.
According to Khorenatsi, Hayk himself descends from the Biblical Japheth. In one interesting early passage, he recalls the ancient Chaldean records translated into Greek, mentioning Hayk as “Hayk Iapetostei”. He claims that Hayk was called Iapetosth or Iapetos in Greek, which in Hebrew was pronounced as Japheth. Now he doesn’t speculate any further, but I think it doesn’t require much imagination to extrapolate from this that perhaps Japheth and Iapet, derives from Hayapet, meaning “father of Hay” or “chief of the Hay tribe” hence the Armenian title of Hayk is “Nahapet” (meaning “first father”).