It’s easy to see why the early first-millennium B.C. Urartians chose the Rock of Van as their capital.
Here, in eastern Anatolia, the surrounding mountains form an almost impregnable barrier. Although Van was less than 100 miles from the great Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the war-like Assyrians, try as they might, were never able to conquer Urartu.
And then there is the rock itself—a massive, vertiginous outcropping that rises dramatically from the shores of Lake Van.
The earliest reference to Urartians comes in Middle Assyrian (mid-second millennium B.C.) texts, which record battles with a number of peoples in the region of Van. By the ninth century B.C., these small kingdoms had coalesced into the fully fledged Urartian kingdom 061and established Tushpa, modern Van, as their capital. These Urartians borrowed Mesopotamian cuneiform to record their language, which is also called Urartian.a
My first view of the Rock of Van (known 062locally as Vankalesi) came on a beautiful late summer’s day, when the high mountains were lost in the haze shimmering off the lake. The famous 17th-century Turkish traveler, Evliya Celebi, described the massive rock, which is about 350 feet high and a mile long, as resembling a “kneeling camel.” Visitors approach the rock from the western end, where there is a protective battlement called Sarduri’s Castle. Inside the battlement are six cuneiform Urartian inscriptions that describe the achievements of King Sarduri I (832–825 B.C.).
Cut into the south face of the rock is the tomb of King Argishti I (787–766 B.C.), though the entrance is now blocked off by an iron gate and barbed wire. And for good reason—since the drop is severe and dangerous, and the tomb’s walls are covered with inscriptions that have attracted chisel-wielding souvenir hunters. Dizzy from the vertiginous height, I was happy to allow Argishti his rest, but I did marvel at what I could see of the inscriptions and felt sorry for the poor soul who risked life and limb to carve them.
Further up comes the citadel. It is difficult to tell which parts belong to which periods (the most recent building activity on the citadel came during the Ottoman period), but it is safe to assume that the masonry is Urartian.
The summit of the Rock brings spectacular views and again, an equally spectacular drop. From here, for example, one can see to the south the ruins 063of Old Van—once a large Armenian community but now home to a few Kurdish shepherds.
Many visitors stop here, either because of exhaustion from the climb or apprehension from the heights. But there are rewards for the persistent. Down below the ruins of an old mosque (whose minaret can still be climbed) are two more tombs, both attributed to King Sarduri. These tombs are massive, each having a central chamber and adjoining antechambers. It is difficult not to be moved by this remote spot, once the resting place of Urartian kings. Nearby lies a sacred area with channels once used to drain sacrificial blood (today local youngsters slide down them, believing it will enhance their chances for marriage).
On the way back to Sarduri’s, Castle I visited the so-called Sirshini of Menua (805–788), a hollowed-out hall that opens onto a terrace facing north. This hall may have been the stable in which sacrificial animals were kept. An inscription to the right of the hall reads:
“Menua, son of Ishpuini, built this place sirshini … Menua speaks: whosoever will lead away from there the (sacrificial) bulls, whosoever will move (them) somewhere, whosoever will steal cattle (?) from there, whosoever will offend against this inscription, whosoever will compel another to carry out these (acts), let the gods Haldi, Teisheba, Shivini, annihilate him (from) beneath the sun …”
Interestingly, whereas many of the Rock of Van’s inscriptions have been vandalized, this one is still in pristine condition—perhaps because of fear of the Urartian gods. Menau would also be pleased that the stabling tradition in his hall has been kept up: The droppings on the floor make it clear that animals still come here.
Among the mountains of Urartu (rendered as “the mountains of Ararat” in Genesis 8:4, where Noah’s Ark landed), one can imagine a magnificent kingdom of highly skilled bronze workers and fabled horsemen. But the story of Urartu, like all other stories, has an end. In the late eighth century B.C., the Urartians fought costly battles with the Assyrian king Sargon II (721–705 B.C.), who also conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Weakened by Assyria, Urartu was open to attack by the Cimmerians from the east. By the fifth century B.C., Urartu was no more.
It’s easy to see why the early first-millennium B.C. Urartians chose the Rock of Van as their capital. Here, in eastern Anatolia, the surrounding mountains form an almost impregnable barrier. Although Van was less than 100 miles from the great Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the war-like Assyrians, try as they might, were never able to conquer Urartu. And then there is the rock itself—a massive, vertiginous outcropping that rises dramatically from the shores of Lake Van. The earliest reference to Urartians comes in Middle Assyrian (mid-second millennium B.C.) texts, which record battles with a number of peoples in the […]
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Urartian’s only known relative is Hurrian, spoken by peoples who entered northern Mesopotamia around the end of the fourth millennium B.C. The central Hurrian city of Urkesh (Tel Mozan, Syria) was identified about ten years ago by UCLA archaeologist Giorgio Buccellati. In the mid-second millennium B.C., Hurrian peoples formed the powerful kingdom of Mittani in northern Syria.