Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.02

S. Kroll, C. Gruber, U. Hellwag, M. Roaf, P. Zimansky (ed.), Biainili-Urartu: the proceedings of the symposium held in Munich 12-14 October 2007 / Tagungsbericht des Münchner Symposiums 12.-14. Oktober 2007. Acta Iranica, 51.   Leuven:  Peeters, 2012.  Pp. viii, 528.  ISBN 9789042924383.  €125.00.  

Reviewed by Gary Beckman, University of Michigan (

Table of Contents

Of all the civilizations of the ancient Near East, perhaps the most poorly known today is the culture and state established by the people we call Urartians, who challenged the Assyrians for hegemony over northern Mesopotamia and Syria from the ninth through the seventh centuries BCE. Although the sites of some of their settlements were among the first pre- Classical ruins visited by Western travelers in the early days of Assyriology, the study of the Urartians, their archaeology, language, and history has by no means kept pace with research on the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites. This regrettable situation can be attributed to a number of factors, including the distribution of Urartian sites over the territory of several modern nations—Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Armenia—and until recently the limited intelligibility of inscriptions in the Urartian language.

The hefty volume under review contains thirty essays (thirteen in German, the remainder in English) on Urartian history and archaeology, most of them originally delivered at a conference held in Munich in October 2007, plus a thorough introduction by the editors outlining the history and basic parameters of Urartian studies, and an afterward by Stefan Kroll, Michael Roaf, and Paul Zimansky, “The Future of Urartu’s Past.” The majority of experts on all things Urartian are represented here, several by more than one contribution. The book’s combined bibliography is exhaustive and constitutes an invaluable resource for scholars investigating any aspect of Urartian history or language. Included are also numerous useful maps and excellent photographs, including eight color plates, depicting sites, architecture, and artifacts.

“Urartu” and “Urartian” are terms drawn from Assyrian inscriptions; we do not know how these people referred to themselves, although the native word “Biainili” seems to have designated at least part of their territory (Introduction, p. 3). Similarly, as Zimansky (“Urartu as Empire,” p. 103) reminds us, the name of the language of Urartu has been lost. Happily, due in part to the discovery of an Assyrian-Urartian bilingual stele at Kelishin (Introduction, p. 14), over the past decade or so, significant progress has been made in the recovery of this ancient tongue, a cousin of the Hurrian spoken earlier in Syria and Anatolia. In his contribution (“Das Corpus der urartäischen Inschriften”), Mirio Salvini reports on his project to publish a complete edition of all Urartian texts, the first three volumes of which have since appeared. 1

Access to this difficult material was furthered by the circumstance that the Urartians borrowed the Mesopotamian cuneiform writing system from their Assyrian rivals, thus sparing scholars the tedious task of deciphering a new script. Indeed, the earliest texts produced on behalf of the Urartian monarchs were composed in the Akkadian (Assyrian) language, as an intermediate stage between illiteracy and the full adaptation of cuneiform to local needs. All in all, we have recovered several hundred native cuneiform texts, the majority written in stone on stelae or rock walls, as well as a couple dozen clay tablets (Introduction, pp. 7-8). Interestingly, there are significant differences between the language employed on stone and that found on the tablets (Salvini, p. 114). The Urartians also employed a scantily attested hieroglyphic script, which was apparently derived from that developed for Luwian under the earlier Hittite empire (Salvini, p. 126).

We are fortunate that even this much documentation has survived the ravages of time and man. An early explorer, Pastor Faber, dynamited the rock inscription at Taştepe in order to transport the fragments back to Britain (Salvini, p. 125), while the stele newly discovered at Savacık was blown up by treasure hunters just prior to the convening of the Munich conference. In the mind of many Anatolian peasants, unfortunately, there lurks the suspicion: “Altın var,” or “There must be gold in there!”

As Charles Burney (“The Economy of Urartu”) argues from the Urartian texts, the state’s economy was based primarily on stockbreeding (p. 55) and secondarily on agriculture, particularly featuring viticulture in terraced vineyards (p. 58). In support of the latter activity, the Urartians excelled in the exploitation of water resources, constructing impressive dams and canals, including the one built by King Menua, whose remains may still be viewed near the Turkish city of Van.

Politically, Urartu was ruled by a small, linguistically homogeneous, elite resident in a series of fortresses scattered throughout their realm (Raffaele Biscione, “Urartian Fortifications in Iran,” p. 77). The general population was made up of peasants of disparate ethnic background, often uprooted from their native locations and resettled elsewhere within Urartian territory. This practice of mass deportation was seemingly first used by the Hittites of the second millennium in order to allocate labor to the advantage of the state and not incidentally in order to disorient and break the resistance of conquered communities. It would be employed most extensively by the Assyrians.

Aside from a single mention of “Uruarṭri” (of uncertain significance) in an Assyrian record of the thirteenth century BCE, the recorded history of Urartu begins with its appearance in an inscription of Shalmaneser III (858-824; see Stephan Kroll, “Salmaneser III. und das frühe Urartu”)2 and the depiction of its soldiers in the relief bands on his Balawat Gates.3 Its demise is now generally dated to around 640, and its final ruler recognized to be Rusa, son of Argišti (see Stephan Kroll, “Rusa Erimena in archäologischem Kontext”).4 During the two centuries separating these dates, Urartu and Assyria were usually at war (see Andreas Fuchs, “Urartu in der Zeit”), although, as we shall see, this did not prevent the exchange of cultural capital. ṣṢ Indeed, the state god Haldi, a warrior figure,5 seems to have been modeled on the chief deity of the Assyrians, Assur (Biscone, p. 105). He was joined in the pantheon by innumerable lesser divinities, most of whom enjoyed strictly localized cults. Throughout the empire, Urartian temples display nearly identical plans (see Altan Çılıngıroğlu, “Urartian Temples,” p. 298), organized around a square thick-walled tower within a peristyle courtyard.

The location most sacred to Urartian kings was Muṣaṣir (also referred to as Ardini, “The City”), hometown of Haldi (see Karen Radner, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Muṣaṣir, Kumme, Ukku and Šubria—the Buffer States between Assyria and Urartu," p. 245). Remarkably, this religious capital was not located within the frontiers of Urartu itself, but lay just outside them, a quasi-independent polity under its own monarch.6 Nonetheless, its capture and sacking by Sargon II of Assyria (714 BCE) reportedly so disturbed his Urartian contemporary Ursa/Rusa III that he threw down his crown in despair upon learning of the city’s fall (Radner, p. 254).7

Since Assyria was the closest flourishing representative of Mesopotamian-derived high culture, it is not surprising that Urartian civilization underwent heavy Assyrian influence.8 As mentioned earlier, the cuneiform script passed from Assyria to Urartu, as did elements of military technology and styles in protective clothing (see Christian Piller, “Bewaffnung und Tracht urartäischer und nordwestiranischer Krieger des 9. Jahrhunderts v. Chr”), as well as the decorative technique of wall painting (see Astrid Nunn, “Wandmalerei in Urartu”). On the other hand, from the mid- eighth century on, Assyrian horse trappings—known primarily from their depiction in palace reliefs—came to resemble those excavated in Urartu (see John Curtis, “Assyrian and Urartian Metalwork: Independence or Interdependence,” p. 440), and some carved ivory furniture inlay pieces found at the Assyrian capital Nimrud/Calah had probably been imported from Urartu (see Georgina Herrmann, “Some Assyrianizing Ivories found at Nimrud: Could They Be Urartian?”).

Given that much of what was once Urartu now lies within the borders of Armenia, a lively debate has long raged over the possible identity of the two cultures. In this collection, Felix Ter-Martirosov ( “From the State of Urartu to the Formation of the Armenian Kingdom”) argues that the Armenian language unified the deracinated peoples gathered under the Urartian yoke, and that Armenia subsequently arose out of the ashes of Urartu. But absent any real evidence,9 this is nothing but special pleading. The author himself grants the many differences between the archaeological assemblages of Urartu and early Armenia (p. 175), a point underscored by Pavel Avetisyan and Arsen Bobokhyan (“The Pottery Traditions in Armenia from the Eighth to the Seventh Centuries BC”). We simply still do not know how, whence, or when the Indo-European Armenians arrived in their historic homeland (Introduction, p. 21). But of course the most familiar legacy of Urartu to participants in western culture is its reconfigured name (Mount) Ararat, the designation of the peak where tradition has it that Noah’s ark came to rest following the ebbing of the waters of the Great Flood. Peter Marinković (“Urartu in der Bibel”) here elucidates the handful of occurrences of this toponym in the Hebrew Bible.

Additional interesting miscellaneous articles in this compilation include those of Esther Findling and Barbara Muhle on the technology of archery in Urartu and Assyria (“Bogen und Pfeil: Ihr Einsatz im frühen 1.Jt. Chr. in Urartu und seinem Nachbarland Assyrien”), of Amei Lang on the early development of “animal art” on the plains of Central Asia (“Urartu und die Nomaden: Zur Adaption altorientalischer Motive im reiternomadischen Kunsthandwerk des 7.-5. Jh. v. Chr. in Eurasien”), and of Susanne Greiff, Zahra Hezarkhani, Dietrich Ankner, and Michael Müller-Karpe on the first steps in the production of brass in the Near East (“Frühes Messing? Zur Verwendung von Zink in urartäischen Kupferlegierungen”).

This volume has been well edited and displays rather few typographical errors for a production of such complexity. 10 It deserves a place in every research collection on Western Asian archaeology. ​


1.   Corpus dei testi Urartei (Rome, 2008- ).
2.   At just about this time a new Urartian dynasty founded by Sarduri I seems to have shifted the center of gravity of their domain to the north, transferring their capital from Arzaškun somewhere near Lake Urmia to Tušpa (today’s Van Kalesi) on the eastern shore of Lake Van. This move may well have come about in response to Assyrian pressure upon their original homeland, which was located much nearer the Assyrian centers.
3.   See Andreas Schachner, Bilder eines Weltreichs : Kunst- und kulturgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu den Verzierungen eines Tores aus Balawat (Imgur-Enlil) aus der Zeit von Salmanassar III, König von Assyrien (Turnhout, 2007).
4.   Because Urartian monarchs shared a limited number of personal names (see Ursula Seidl, “Rusa Son of Erimena, Rusa Son of Argišti and Rusahinili/Toprakkale,” and Michael Roaf, “Could Rusa Son of Erimena Have Been King of Urartu during Sargon’s Eighth Campaign?”) and no native system of time reckoning is apparent in their records, reconstruction of the chronology of Urartu is dependent upon synchronisms with the incomparably better documented kings of Assyria. For a useful chart of these links, see p. 133 (Salvini).
5.   The primary symbol of Haldi was a spear or spear-point (see Michael Roaf, “Towers with Plants or Spears on Altars: Some Thoughts on an Urartian Motif”), while his temples were decorated with votive shields and filled with weapons dedicated by his worshippers (see contribution by Çılıngıroğlu).
6.   Muṣaṣir has not yet been located, but it was probably situated not too far to the southwest of Lake Urmia, perhaps in the plain of Sidikan in northeasternmost Iraq (Radner, pp. 250-51).
7.   Karen Radner (p. 253) aptly compares the importance of Muṣaṣir for Urartu with that of Rome for the Holy Roman Empire.
8.   There is even some evidence that Assyrian artisans were at work in Urartu.
9.   The phonetic resemblance of the name of Armenia to Erimena, patronym of one of the Rusas (Ter-Martirosov, p. 172 n.6), is a slender reed.
10.   Sadly, one cannot blame “edifice complex” (p. 40) on the compositor, but on the author, Adam Smith (“The Prehistory of an Urartian Landscape”). ​

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