Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.22

Ali Çifçi, The Socio-Economic Organisation of the Urartian Kingdom. Culture and history of the ancient Near East, 89.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xx, 354.  ISBN 9789004347588.  $109.00 (hb).  ISBN 9789004347595.  ebook.  

Reviewed by Selim Ferruh Adalı, Social Sciences University of Ankara (


Urartu, the kingdom based around modern day Turkey’s Lake Van from the 9th century BC and later incorporating parts of what is today Eastern Turkey, Armenia and Northwestern Iran, was a major state between the 9th and 7th centuries BC. Based on his doctoral dissertation written at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, Ali Çifçi’s monograph seeks to provide a systematic study of Urartu’s socio-economic structure with its regional and diachronic variations. To this end, Çifçi aims to analyze economic activities, resources, and physical geography, as well as the state’s resource management and interventions in the economy. The aim is a comprehensive account of the physical geography, the archaeological and textual evidence (Urartian and Assyrian as it may be pertinent) and the ethnographic comparanda.

Chapter 1 (“A Critical Review of the Material”) discusses the previous research on Urartu’s socio-economic structure (pp. 1-27). Aspects of Urartian economy have been understudied and the role of the state has been at the forefront of the discussions. The impact of physical geography and climate on economic activities as inferred from the constantly growing primary archaeological and textual sources, supplemented by ethnographic observations, is seen by Çifçi as the primary understudied aspect of Urartian socio-economics. An overview of the physical geography and the primary textual and archaeological sources conclude the chapter but it is by reading the subsequent chapters that the reader will appreciate the details.

Chapter 2 (“Control of Capital in Urartu: Economic Resources and Movement of Commodities”) elaborates on economic activities. Sections 1 and 2 concentrate respectively on agricultural activities and animal husbandry (pp. 28-119). The Lake Van basin provided the most critical agricultural region for Urartu. Lake Urmia and the Aras Valley were also very important. It is assumed that animal husbandry was the primary activity of local communities until the Urartian state promoted agriculture. Çifçi proposes that the expansion of irrigation beyond its natural capacities by means of the development of water facilities and the development of previously uncultivated land for agriculture, orchards and vineyards owed in part to the pressure of population growth. This also helped diffuse conflict with local populations and resettled deportees in these new areas and contributed to the consolidation of state rule. The regions of north-east Turkey, the Lake Sevan basin, and parts of the Lake Van and Urmia basins were especially vital for animal breeding. The author provides rich details not only from the archaeological evidence but also by drawing from agricultural and animal husbandry practices borne out of the regions’ geography and climate. Çifçi is careful to argue also that possibly not all irrigation facilities were state sponsored. Private, communal or tribal groups could also have been involved. Furthermore, the author discusses specific cases whereby some facilities may have been built before the Urartian Kingdom or some later during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

Section 3 deals with metallurgy (pp. 119-156). Metallurgical activities provided Urartu with the tools to equip a successful army responsible for the power of the state. The distribution of ore deposits for different metals indicates that depending on the metal concerned—iron bronze, silver, gold and tin—the Urartians mined them, levied them from subject lands or imported them by means of trade. Often a combination of activities was coordinated to this end. Çifçi provides a detailed account. Section 4 concerns the organization of trade in Urartu (pp. 156-169). While the Iron Age attests to non-state organizations and merchants active in trade, the Urartians appear to have maintained citadels containing temples, storage rooms, workshops, and related buildings, and thus it may be argued that they exercised at least a degree of control over trade through specialized merchants working closely with the palace administration. Çifçi critically analyses the textual evidence for the interactions between Urartu and the Neo-Hittite states and argues that trade routes for certain commodities may have existed but that this needs to be checked with the archaeological evidence which at present does not confirm that Urartu exported metal artefacts such as cauldrons to the wider Mediterranean. However, there may have been commercial activities between Urartian and Near Eastern merchants from various regions, particularly in relation to acquiring tin and some exotic materials. Section 5 concludes Chapter 2 with case studies of textiles, carpentry and pottery in order to illustrate the role of craftsmen and craftsmanship in Urartian economy (pp. 169-184).

Chapter 3 (“Economic and Administrative Structure of the Urartian Kingdom”) synthesizes some of the earlier-discussed material and focuses on the administrative organization of the Urartian state. Section 1 concentrates on the kingdom’s administrative divisions, primarily its capital and provinces (pp. 187-210). Çifçi discusses the Urartian capital at Van Kalesi (Ṭušpa) and that Toprakkale, found by Rusa of Erimena according to the Keşiş Göl, Gövelek and Savacık inscriptions under the name Rusahinili KURQilbanikai, was a centre of royal activity, perhaps designed as an alternate to the holy site of Muṣaṣir especially after relations between the latter kingdom and Urartu became problematic during and following the conflict between Urartu and Assyria during the time of Sargon II especially around and following 714 BC. Urartian provinces, on the other hand, were administered from citadels by governors (the EN.NAM as rendered in the Urartian script and its logograms), who also had a significant military role.

Section 2 explores the role of the king in building activities under the names URU (city or settlement), É.GAL (fortress), cultic structures (KÁ/Šeištili, susi, and É.BÁRA) and other buildings (pp. 211-240). The Urartian ruler was expected to build centres of economy, administration, military and agricultural storage. Çifçi discusses some correlations as to the increasing and decreasing amount of activity during different reigns. Note here that on p. 235, the illustration shows not one Kef Kalesi stone block but two of them from among the six stone blocks known at present (mentioned on p. 174, n. 646). Section 3 is an account of what is known about the Urartian army—their religio-ideological basis, the active role of the king, the commander-in-chief, the unit divisions of chariotry, cavalry, infantry and its approximate size (pp. 240-255). The material gain from military campaigns and its administration constitutes an important feature of Urartian statecraft (pp. 255-273). At present there is little indication as to how the booty or tribute was distributed among the state officials but a distribution among the members of the royal family and high officials is recorded. Deportation of war captives presents multiple aims and objectives, including their use as manpower in building projects. There is no evidence that all of them were considered slaves.

Section 5 concludes the third chapter with a study of the monarch’s role, titles, administrative duties and his officials’ capacities (pp. 273-298).

One of Çifçi’s aims was to explain the impact of geography and climate on Urartian economy and to revise interpretations in this light. The Conclusion of the present volume restates aspects of the impact of the climate on the Urartian economy. The Assyrian threat is also treated as a major factor in the development of Urartu’s economy and administration. The mountainous geography protected the Urartians from Assyrian control but it also forced them to build defence structures. Here one feels that Urartu’s relations with Mannea and other polities and regions in its periphery also contributed to its policies of protection and/or aggressive economic expansion throughout the ages. Assyria is indeed the main antagonist of Urartu but it is not the only one. In the near future, the Urartian and pertinent Assyrian written evidence needs to be evaluated with this in mind.

Çifçi proposes three key phases of Urartu’s socio-economic and political development. These phases address the question, first set in this volume, as to the changes to Urartian socio-economics over time and with regional variations. The early expansionist period saw Urartu rule over various polities. Çifçi assumes that wealth during this period accumulated through tribute and booty as a result of the military campaigns. Economic production varied depending on location and the type of production (agriculture, animal husbandry, metallurgy). The state was involved in the Lake Van basin and Ararat Plain by working the land and through building activities. Other regions under Urartian control, like the Elazığ and Erzurum plains, lacked such state intervention and probably governors of these regions were appointed from among local polities. This first phase was brought to a close by two military defeats toward the end of the 8th century BC.

The second phase begins with the defeat at the hand of the Cimmerians and then Sargon II in 714 BC. Urartu’s southern border was devastated. The destruction of Urartian sites in the Lake Urmia basin as a result of Sargon II’s campaign could have triggered a decrease in settlement population and a decrease in agricultural revenue and taxes. Internal dynastic struggles as well as problems caused by powerful provincial governors may have defined this crisis period. Çifçi proposes that Rusa son of Erimena may have constructed Toprakkale as an alternative sacred site to Muṣaṣir during this period whereas Van Kalesi remained the capital.

A third phrase concerns a period of reconsolidation and reconstruction associated with the reign of Rusa, son of Argišti. Çifçi argues for a relatively more centralised administration system during this period on the basis of the use of clay tablets, bullae and the construction of large citadels. Whether the successors continued this remains unclear. Çifçi notes that given the present state of the evidence, any observations or conclusions must be considered tentative, provisional and merely offered to try to stimulate further ideas and interpretations of Urartian socio-economics.

Appendix I has a short but important discussion of Urartian royal chronology. Çifçi questions the proposed co-regency of Išpuini and his son Minua. Certain royal titles are not applied to Minua. Çifçi proposes that Minua was designated as heir in advance in order to avoid dynastic succession problems in the future. Çifçi also re-dates Rusa son of Erimena’s reign after the reign of Rusa son of Sarduri. Çifçi has a strong case. His discussion includes secondary literature which marks the trend to revise Urartian royal chronology and especially the place of Rusa of Erimena. One can nonetheless, for reference, add here an additional discussion by Mirjo Salvini in favour of the more conventional chronology.1 Çifçi’s new chronology of Urartian kings is provided in Appendix 2.

One may quibble about the index. It contains only personal and place names and some technical terms. It could have incorporated thematic entries, such as canals, agriculture or animal husbandry, as well as indexes for authors and texts, given the discussion of primary textual evidence as well as key works of secondary literature.

There are several key philological and archaeological works that propel the field of Urartian studies and provide dialogue partners for Urartologists and historians of Anatolia and the ancient Near East. Mirjo Salvini’s Corpus dei Testi Urartei, Giorgi Melikishvili’s Urartskie Klinoobraznye Nadpisi, Paul Zimansky’s Ecology and Empire and the Anatolian Iron Ages Colloquium series come to mind. Ali Çifçi’s The Socio-Economic Organisation of the Urartian Kingdom can be included as a partner in dialogue when researching Urartu and Iron Age Anatolian archaeology thanks to its comprehensive command of archaeological material and the descriptions of archaeological evidence with socio-economic interpretations of the Urartian landscape along with the sort of questions about the socio-economics of Urartu that should arise from its critical reading.


1.   “Argišti, Rusa, Erimena, Rusa und die Löwenschwänze. Eine urartäische Palastgeschichte des VII. Jh. V. Chr,” in: Aramazd 2, 2007, 146-162.

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