The Great Erebuni of the Urartian Kingdom: Fortress of Blood

The Great Erebuni of the Urartian Kingdom: Fortress of Blood

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Erebuni Fortress, known also as Arin Berd (meaning ‘Fortress of Blood’) is a fortified settlement located in the southeastern outskirts of the modern city of Yerevan, Armenia. This fortress was founded during the 8th century BC by the Urartians, the predecessors of the Armenians.

As a fortress, this settlement was an important military center, the first of its kind built by the Urartians in that area. In addition to that, the Erebuni Fortress was one of the Urartian Kingdom’s most important political, economic, and cultural centers.

A Defensive Stronghold of the Urartian Kingdom

The Urartian Kingdom was an ancient kingdom located along the River Aras (also known as Araxes), the Upper Tigris, and the Upper Euphrates. Between 785 and 753 BC, the Urartian Kingdom was ruled by a king named Argište I. This king expanded his kingdom’s borders through a series of conquests that were initiated by his predecessors.

Walls of the Erebuni Fortress. Yerevan, Armenia ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

In 782 BC, Erebuni Fortress was founded on top of a 65 meter (213.3 foot) high hill overlooking the River Aras as a military stronghold to defend the kingdom’s northern border. This is affirmed by the large cuneiform slab with an inscription written by Argište I, which was unearthed by archaeologists in 1950. (It may be added that the fortress had been lost to history until its re-discovery in that year.) When that inscription was translated, it read:

“By the greatness of the God Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, built this mighty stronghold and proclaimed it Erebuni for the glory of Biainili (Urartu) and to instil fear among the king's enemies. Argishti says: The land was a desert, before the great works I accomplished upon it. By the greatness of Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, is a mighty king, king of Biainili, and ruler of Tushpa.”

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Layout of the Fortress

Archaeological excavations have revealed that the fortress had a rather clear-cut layout, similar to other settlements of the Urartian Kingdom. A town was built at the foot of the hill, whilst a citadel was built on top of the hill where it commanded a full view of the town below as well as the Ararat plain, its settlements, and the roads leading to the fortress. Due to the configuration of the hill top, the citadel’s plan was triangular in shape. The fortress was constructed in various stages, and remains of structures such as walls, palaces, and temples are still visible today.

A model of the Erebuni Fortress

Based on surviving sections of the citadel’s walls, it has been suggested that they were once 12 meters (39.4 feet) high. Additionally, these walls were built on the steep slope of the hill and were fortified by rectangular buttresses at regular intervals. Thus, the citadel had a formidable appearance when viewed from the outside.

The exterior walls of the Erebuni Fortress ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The entrance to the citadel was on the southeastern side, where the hill has a gentler slope. Additionally, the entrance was identified by the fact that the walls at the entrance were erected in three rows. There was also a six-column portico that stood to the left of the road leading to the entrance of the citadel. This portico was painted with colorful frescoes and the stairway which led up to it was flanked by bronze figures of winged bulls with human heads.

Southeast entrance to Erebuni Fortress. Restored by mason Andranik Sargsyan.

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The Palace and the Temple of Haldi

One of the most important places in the citadel was the palace. The palace is located to the north of a square which occupied the center of the citadel, and occupies the northwestern part of the hilltop. The inner walls of the palace were adorned with beautiful and opulent mural paintings, containing scenes of farming and hunting, as well as geometrical and vegetative designs.

Mural paintings of a cow and a farmer from the Fortress of Erebuni.

In addition to the palace, another important structure within the Fortress of Erebuni was the temple of Haldi - the main god in the Urartian triad of Haldi, Teisheba, and Shivini. This structure was located in the southwestern part of the citadel’s square, and was a large hall with an open 12-column portico.

Like the palace, the inner walls of this temple were also richly decorated. However, one feature that set the temple apart from the other buildings in the citadel was its floor. Whilst the other buildings had clay-coated adobe floors that were faced with stone slabs, the floor of the temple was made of small wooden planks.

Left: Figurine of the weather god Teisheba, found in 1941 during the excavations at Karmir Blur, in the ruins of the Urartian fortress of Teishebaini. Right: Figure of the goddess Arubani, wife of Ḫaldi.

The archaeological excavations of Erebuni Fortress have been ongoing since they began in 1950. In 2013, the sixth phase of the Armenian-French archaeological expedition, which began in 2008, was concluded.

Nevertheless, it has been reported that the Armenians and French would continue to collaborate on this project through 2015. It is hoped that further investigations of this site will allow more details about the Erebuni Fortress to come to light.

Featured image: Urartian Susi Temple in the Erebuni Fortress. Photo source: .

By Ḏḥwty


Erebuni: ancient name of modern Yerevan. There are several archaeological sites: Shengavit, Erebuni (from which the name "Yerevan" is derived), and Karmir Blur.

Although the Ararat Plain, the central region of modern Armenia, has a rather extreme climate with cold winters and hot summers, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world. One of the main settlements is Yerevan on the eastern bank of the Hrazdan River. Flowing from Lake Sevan in the north to the Araxes in the southwest, it connects Yerevan to the Caspian Sea and has allowed the inhabitants of the Ararat Plain to trade, to catch fish, and to irrigate the land.

Archaeologists have identified several sites: in the Chalcolithic Age and Bronze Age, people lived at a place called Shengavit in the Early Iron Age, Erebuni (modern Arin Berd) was an important settlement after c.650 BCE, it was replaced by Theisebani (modern Karmir Blur), which was abandoned for Erebuni when the Achaemenid Persians conquered the area.


The site known as Shengavit is situated on a platform that rises about thirty meters above the Hrazdan River. Archaeologists recognize four main occupation levels, which belong to the "Kura-Araxes Culture", the main Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age culture of Transcaucasia.

  • IV: c.2300 BCE - c.2000 BCE
  • III: c.2600 BCE - c.2300 BCE
  • II: c.3000 BCE - c.2700 BCE
  • I: c.3500 BCE - c.3000 BCE

The people lived in round houses with square adjoining rooms. Among the finds are axes, arrowheads, pottery, objects made of bone (spindles, needles. ), and objects made of stone (obsidian, basalt, flint). The bones of cattle and fish inform us about the diet of the inhabitants, while the spindles and needles are evidence for textile making.

In the second half of the third millennium BCE, the site was (for unknown reasons) gradually abandoned, but there were still people living in the neighborhood, because Shengavit remained in use as cemetery for some time. Something similar happened at Garni. Evidence for the Middle and Late Bronze age, though, is rare.

Shengavit, Round structure

Arin Berd (Erebuni)

In about 782 BCE, king Argište I of Urartu founded Erebuni (modern Arin Berd), an impressive fortress on a steep hill near a small river that emptied itself in the Hrazdan River, four kilometers to the west. (Urartu was an Iron Age kingdom with Tušpa near Lake Van as capital.) The text of the foundation inscription has survived:

By the grace of Khaldi, Argište son of Menua, built this powerful fortress and called it Erebuni. He did so for the glory of Urartu and to instill fear among the enemies. Argište says: before the great monuments I built, this was a waste land. By the grace of Khaldi, Argište son of Menua, is the mighty king, king of Urartu and ruler of Tušpa.

The fortress, the name of which perhaps means "victory", consisted of a palace, store rooms (a/o six wine cellars), and religious buildings. Among the sanctuaries, temples of Khaldi and Ivarša have been identified. There are indications for a ziggurat (temple tower). The complex was surrounded by walls that even today are quite impressive.

During the reign of king Rusa II (mid-seventh century), Erebuni was destroyed by an earthquake. The residence was transferred to Karmir Blur.

Erebuni, Wheel of an Urartian Potter

Erebuni, Susi temple of Ivarsha

Karmir Blur (Teishebaini)

Karmir Blur was founded by king Rusa II (mid-seventh century BCE), on the east bank of the Rhazdan River, about seven kilometers west of Erebuni. It was named after Teisheba, the Urartian god of war. The city consisted of a Lower Town and a citadel, surrounded by two walls: the builders were aware of the threat from Assyria, Urartu's increasingly powerful southern neighbor.

A visitor would enter the citadel through its southern gate, which was directed towards Mount Ararat. A northern gate may have led to the river. East of a large central square were rooms on two levels: at the lower level were store rooms, while the upper level was used as a palace. Among the finds were many cuneiform tablets with sacrificial texts. To the southwest of the citadel, several buildings of the Lower Town have been excavated. Even further was a cemetery, which dates back to the Bronze Age.

Towards the end of the seventh century BCE, the city was sacked by people attacking from across the river, using Scythian arrows. This fits a more general pattern: several other Urartian sites (e.g., Çavustepe) were destroyed in the late seventh century.

The identity of the enemy cannot be established: Scythians, Cimmerians, and Medes are likely candidates but it is also possible that Urartu survived the crisis at the end of the seventh century. The sixth century BCE is, at the moment, not very well-understood and it may well be that Urartu is the unknown kingdom destroyed by the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great in 547 BCE. note [R. Rollinger, "The Median 'Empire', the End of Urartu, and Cyrus' Campaign in 547" in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).] In any case, the cemetery remained in use in post-Urartian times.

The modern name, Karmir Blur, means "red hill" and refers to the reddish bricks of the ancient walls, which still stand five to seven meters high.

Karmir Blur, Scythian arrowheads

Karmir Blur, Water conduit

Achaemenid Period

Whatever the precise course of events in the sixth century BCE, we are sure that Urartu, now called Armenia, was a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire by c.520 BCE. Although Tušpa, the capital of old Urartu, may have been the residence of the satrap, it seems that a reoccupied Erebuni gradually became more important. At the same time, the old Urartian language was replaced by Armenian, which was related to Old Persian.

In Erebuni, some adjustments were made to the residence. Archaeologists have identified an apadana (Persian throne hall), while many finds prove Persian presence in the ancient fortress. Wall paintings and silver rhytons document a fabulous wealth. Among those who resided over here must have been Artašata, who was to become king of Persia under the name of Darius III Codomannus (r.336-330). During Darius' ill-fated reign, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire and Armenia regained its autonomy. The rulers of Erebuni became independent dynasts.

In 188 BCE, Erebuni was replaced as residence by Artaxata, note [Strabo, Geography 11.14.6.] twenty kilometers to the south, close to the Araxes River. After this, Erebuni disappears from the historical record, although there is some archaeological evidence for continued occupation.

The high season in Armenia lasts for a long time due to the pleasant climate conditions. Warm days in Armenia start in March and last until late autumn winter is usually snowless and not long. The high precipitation season is variable. The tourist season for Erebuni Fortress depends on the weather conditions.

There are different opinions in the professional literature about the origin of the name Erebuni. According to one of the versions, Erebuni means “victory”, “capture”, according to another – the city of “independants”.

During the first year of the excavation on the territory of the Arin fortress, a stone with Urartian cuneiform was discovered. The inscription on the stone reported about the construction of the Erebuni fortress city during the reign of the Urartian King Argishti I. The value of the monument was doubled due to the interpretation of the Urartian inscriptions by the researcher Israyelyan, according to which cuneiform writing is also the first evidence of Yerevan city in a scientific plan.

It is worth mentioning the palace part of the fortress. Erebuni Palace was located on the southwestern side of the fortress (with a view of Mount Ararat) and was probably used regularly by the kings of Urartu. There were a temple "Susi", storage rooms, which included wine storerooms filled with large jars on the territory of the palace part.

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Depending on what type of direct object the word Erebuni is followed by, it might imply different things. If followed by a changing direct object, an inscription found at Karmir Blur (Red Fortress) indicates it means “seize, pillage, kidnap.” While in case of the unchanging object, it might mean “take” or “capture.” Based on these implications it is concluded that at the time of its establishment it simply meant “victory” or “conquest.”

An alternative explanation goes like this – in the word Erebuni “eri” refers to Ers, who are supposed to be people living in that territory, while “bun” is interpreted as “shelter.” In this regard, Erebuni can simply mean the capital city of “Er” people. Another opinion is that Erebuni means the “city of independent people.”

Erebuni Fortress History

Erebuni was founded in 782 BC by Argishti I (786-765/764 BC), one of the most powerful kings of the Kingdom of Urartu. According to Khorkhor inscription, King Argishti resettled there 6600 soldiers, who were brought to Erebuni from the western part of the Armenian Highlands, more precisely from the countries of Khate and Tsupany.

Erebuni was built as a military stronghold and the main purpose it was to serve was to protect the kingdom’s northern borders. Argishti is believed to have started Erebuni construction after he had conquered the territories to the north of Yerevan and west of Lake Sevan. The territories conquered make up an area, which is today known as Abovyan town. Those captives, despite their being men or women, “contributed” to the construction of the town.

Erebuni was built on top of a hill and was firmly ensconced by 10-12 meter high defensive walls. Behind them, there were central and inner walls as well. These walls used to separate the buildings. The walls were made of basalt, tufa, wood and adobe. A palace was constructed. Other notable buildings were revealed as well. Among those buildings are the Temple dedicated to Khaldi, a royal assembly hall, storerooms, dormitories and so on. A citadel where the garrison used to stay was found as well.

Later on, the kings that came after Argishti turned Erebuni into their residence during their military campaigns against Northern invaders. Numerous attempts were made to invade both the Kingdom of Urartu and Erebuni. In the end, the kingdom appeared under the rule of Achaemenian Empire, but Erebuni preserved its strategic position. The city was actually never abandoned, despite the countless invasions. Being always inhabited it eventually became the city of Yerevan.

Erebuni Fortress Architecture

The Fortress was located on the 65 meter high hill of Arin Berd and could be reached via the southern slope of the hill. It was protected by high towers. The main entrance was located at the southeastern site of the hill. The entrance took to the central yard of the citadel. The ceremonies of Argishiti I’s personal guards as well as the garrison guards took place there. The citadel included clay coated adobe floors faced with stone slabs.

There were stairs leading to the square, which divided the fortress territory into 3 parts: religious, palatial and economical. The religious part was situated on the south-western part of the square. It’s where the temple to the God Khaldi was situated. It had a ziggurat type (having the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels) tower, which could be reached through a staircase. The temple also had a side room on the lower floor.

The hall was surrounded by double rowed 12-wooden columns. It also featured benches along the walls. At the left wall an altar for sacrifices could be found. The walls were decorated with frescoes. These colorful wall paintings depicted human figures, geometric and floral designs. One of the frescoes represented God Khaldi wearing a horned crown and riding a lion with a warder in his left hand. The floor was made of wood.

The palace buildings could be found on the northern part from the square. The central part included a pillared yard, which consisted of five by five columns on longitudinal part, and by fours on latitudinal part. The roof of the hall was flat and had a wooden cover. The walls were decorated with multi-colored wall paintings and carpets hanging from huge nails. Some holes can be clearly noted even today. The columned hall could be accessed via a narrow and long hall from the pillared yard. The walls and clay benches were whitened.


Several inscriptions were found at Arin Berd. One inscription discovered in the fall of 1950 reads, “By the greatness of the God Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, built this mighty stronghold and proclaimed it Erebuni for the glory of Biainili (Urartu) and to instill fear among the king’s enemies. Argishti says: The land was a desert, before the great works I accomplished upon it. By the greatness of Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, is a mighty king, king of Biainili, and ruler of Tushpa.”

Khaldi (Haldi) was one of the three deities of Urartu. Tushpa was the capital city of Urartu in the 9th century BC. Similar inscriptions were found in Tushpa (present –day Van) as well.

Ultimately, being built in the 8th century BC Erebuni fortress represents a great historical value. The archaeological remains that were found there reveal that the area has been populated for over three thousand years. Due to its utmost historical significance the fortress is presently one of the most visited tourist destinations in Yerevan.

Erebuni Fortress is located in the south-eastern part of Yerevan, between Nor-Aresh and Vardashen districts where Arin Berd stands. Arin Berd is translated as Blood fortress or the Fortress of Blood.


The site of Erebuni Fortress was located atop the 65 m tall hill of Arin Berd as a strategic position overlooking the Ararat plain and the main roads leading to the citadel. It also overlooked cramped Urartian town made up of residences below at the foot of the hill.

The main entrance to the fortress was located at the more gently sloped southeastern site of the hill. It led to the central yard of the citadel. Ceremonies held by the personal guards of Argishti I and guards of the fortress garrison were held here.

In the southwest portion of the yard was a temple of the god Khaldi. The temple had a large oblong plan with a staircase that led to the roof of a ziggurat type tower and a side room on the lower floor. Surrounding the hall was a double-rowed twelve-column open portico with benches along the walls. An altar for sacrifices was located at the left wall. The walls were decorated with colorful frescoes depicting representations of human figures, gods, geometric and floral designs. One of the frescoes uncovered depicts the god Khaldi standing on a lion with a warder in his left hand and a horned crown upon his head. It is typical of other representations of Khaldi found at other sites. The floor of the temple contrasted greatly from the rest of the complex in that it had wood floors composed of small planks, compared to the clay-coated adobe floors that were faced with stone slabs found in the rest of the citadel's rooms.

Few episodes of history are as dark and mysterious as the Ancient kingdom of Urartu. The so called Kingdom of Van rose in the ninth century BCE and thrived in the area between the lakes of Van, Urmiah and Sevan, in the region that roughly corresponded with ancient Armenia, and which nowadays incorporates parts of Eastern Turkey, Iran and the modern Armenian Republic. After the kingdom's destruction its disappearance was so complete that there was no clear record of the Urartian Empire ever having existed at all in classical works like the Histories of Herodotus' and only sketchy references in the Bible.

The huge ruins of Van, with their mysterious inscriptions, on the shore of the great lake, were explained by Moses Khorenatsi, the 5th Century Armenian chronicler as the work of the legendary Assyrian Queen Semiramis, a tale probably gleaned from local folklore. The first recorded attempt to study these ruins was made by the German scholar Friedrich Eduard Schulz in 1827, who was sent by the French Asiatic Society. Schulz made copies of a number of inscriptions and had these sent back to Paris. Unfortunately Schulz and his party were attacked by bandits in 1829 and he was killed. These copies were not published until 1840 in Paris, where there were shown to be various inscriptions in Ancient Persian and Assyrian cuneiform, itself not fully translated, while the rest of the inscriptions were in an unknown language.

In the mid nineteenth century ancient Mesopotamia was all the rage in Europe, and the activities of Austen Henry Layard and Paul-Emile Botta captured the public imagination with the rediscovery of Assyria and Babylon. The great drive to translate Assyrian inscriptions turned up the name of "Urartri", though as yet this was not associated with the Kingdom of Van.

The Castle of Van suffered the depredations of treasure hunters, and artefacts, particularly bronzes, began to show up in the antiquities market. These finds were purchased avidly by the likes of the British Museum and the Hermitage in Moscow, but were misattributed to the Assyrians or even the Sassanian Persian era. Layard sent his protégé Hormuzd Rassam to dig at Van, and nearby Toprakkale, in the late 1870's and early 1880's. At Van the treasure hunters had done their work thoroughly, though at Toprakkale Rassam and others were able to bring some finds back. Unfortunately many artefacts were placed in storage, or displayed in the museums' Assyrian sections. Boris Petrovsky, Russia's great Urartian scholar, wryly observed that much of the archaeology of the Kingdom of Van had to be done in the basement of the British Museum. The contribution of Soviet archaeologists in later years must not be forgotten, and for all their ideological baggage, their exhaustive and methodical approach was a welcome antidote to the activities of treasure hunters and enthusiastic amateurs. These excavations produced spectacular results at sites like Kamir Blur and Erebuni, which greatly advanced the understanding of Urartu.

The decipherment of the Urartian language was a process as slow and faltering as the discovery of Urartian monuments. There was no Rosetta stone or Michael Ventris of Urartian decipherment. Edward Hincks made the first steps in the study and identified the names of several Urartian kings and words like "city". Layard's copies of inscriptions at Van, made in 1850, helped AH Sayce to make more progress in his study of 1882, identifying the name of "the land of Biaini" and thus firmly linking it to the Urartu mentioned in Assyrian Chronicles. However, Sayce firmly rejected a connection with any Hurrian language, which was contradicted by later scholarship. The decipherment of Urartian was also hampered the small amount of inscriptions, compared to Assyrian. Further contributions to this great effort were made by scholars from many nations, so finally at the close of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century the history of the Kingdom of Van began to emerge into the light, after more than two and a half millennia of darkness.

The Origins and Foundation of the Kingdom of Van

The scene upon which the Urartian kingdom emerged is obscure and sparsely documented. Most generalisations that can be made are from the inexact sciences of the material culture and linguistic evidence. By the ninth Century BCE the mighty Hittite Empire, which had spanned Anatolia from the Aegean to Syria, was but a memory, but Hittite culture survived in its many successor states, that were the Urartians' neighbours, producing provincial versions of Hittite sculpture and using the Hittite hieroglyphics. These kingdoms were warlike and ambitious in their area. To the south east lay the mighty Assyrian Empire, the paramount military power of the Middle-East.

Of the mountainous heartland of Urartu around Lake Van all we can say is that there seemed to be a long term settled population whose material culture in metal work especially gold, showed some level of sophistication. This population spoke a dialect of Hurrian, who were a group of peoples who had inhabited the region for several centuries.

The earliest documentary mention of the land of Urartu can be found in Assyrian sources. The Assyrian King Shalmaneser I (1280 – 1261) launched a campaign to subdue the land they called Uratri, meaning a mountainous place in Assyrian. At this time it was clear the population was divided into several kingdoms. The Assyrian King Takulti-Ninurta I's inscriptions recorded that a revolt of 43 kings of the lands of Nairi was quelled. Significantly the earliest mention of the Urartians can be found in Assyrian sources. At this stage the inhabitants of this mountainous land experienced Assyria as an aggressive overbearing invader, but Assyrian culture was to profoundly affect Urartu. The Urartians adopted the same cuneiform script to inscribe their monuments, which sidelined the old hieroglyphic script (although it did not disappear altogether). Crucially the Urartians adopted Assyrian military practices and equipment, so that later Urartian armies used the conical Assyrian type helmets, which largely replaced the Hurrian style of cylindrical crested helmet. Thus Assyrian aggression was in time likely to have provided the impetus for these mountain dwellers to unite, as well as providing the inspiration for their culture.

It is only in the reign of Shalmaneser III (858 – 825) that the Assyrian records give an inkling of the political change occurring in Urartu. This is recorded on the illustrated bronze plaques, which once formed part of the monumental Balawat Gates. The key sections are housed in the British Museum today. The bronze reliefs provide the first visual depiction of Urartian warriors, shown wearing the crested Hurrian style helmets. This account also names Shalmaneser's main antagonist as "Aramu the Urartian", whose royal city of Arashku was sacked and burnt by Assyrian forces. Again the Balawat Gates tell the story of Assyrian armies conquering all, but within this it is evident that Urartu was now under the jurisdiction of a single king, though how firm his grip was upon this kingdom or confederation, cannot be established.

Even allowing for exaggeration it is clear that the Assyrians had dealt another crippling blow to this young kingdom. Evidence that this situation had begun to change came in 834 BCE. The elderly Shalmaneser III, beset by internal difficulties, was unable to lead the expedition himself, so he dispatched his general Daian Ashur to attack Urartu. The source relates that that a new king Sarduri I of Urartu, came out to confront the Assyrian armies. The outcome of the battle was not stated, but Sarduri I's reign heralded a new era for Urartu, and for the first time the Urartian king's reign was attested by inscriptions within Urartian territory. Sarduri put his stamp on Urartu's new age by the foundation of a new fortified capital at Van (Tushpa), the remains of which still stand today, perched on a rock that dominates the ruined city of Old Van. On this rock there is an inscription in which Sarduri recorded his deed, describing himself as "Sarduri, son of Lutipri, the magnificent king". From this we can see that Urartu was now a united kingdom with imperialist ambitions in the manner of Assyria. Notably, the inscription was not only in imitation of Assyrian royal inscriptions, it was also written in the Assyrian language. There is currently no way of knowing whether Sarduri was related to Aramu, or whether he was the founder of a new dynasty.

Meuna, the Great Conqueror and Builder

Despite his achievements, Sarduri probably ruled quite a modest kingdom, and it had been established at a time of Assyrian weakness. There was nothing to guarantee that it would not be snuffed out when the political wind changed. It was for Sarduri I's successors to add to this nucleus and develop the Kingdom of Van as a power to be reckoned with. Sarduri was succeeded by his son Ishpuini, but it was in the reign of Sarduri's grandson Menua, that Urartu underwent its period of greatest expansion. Menua's name can be found on the greatest number inscriptions which record this forward policy. Evidence of Menua's conquests and building can be found as far east as Qalatgar, below Lake Urmia in modern Iran in the east. To the west Menua left his name inscribed on a mountain fortress at Palu, near the town of Elaziğ, near modern Malatya, some 400 kilometres west of Van. Under Menua Urartian power was also pushed northwards as far as Bushbulak, though not yet as far as Lake Sevan. Alongside this Menua put his name to more buildings than any other Urartian king.

The so-called "Horhor Chronicle" inscribed in stone at Van castle, recorded that Menua's son Argishti I extended the kingdom north to Lake Sevan, where Urartian rule was consolidated by the building of the fortress cities of Erebuni and later Argishtihinili. Interestingly the records of booty not only list mineral riches, and animals but also thousands of people. No doubt they supplemented the kingdom's sparse population for the immense building projects.

Urartu's period of local dominance rested on unstable foundations. The mountainous nature of the Urartian heartland suggested a relatively low population, compared to the broad expanses of Assyrian territory in what is now northern Iraq, which were much greater and agriculturally richer. Urartu was also welded together from smaller constituent parts that had united to resist the constant Assyrian attacks. The sources are too sparse to tell us whether this unification process was cooperative or coerced. However, it is clear that Assyrian aggression had inadvertently planted a seed, and it was developments within Assyria which enabled this seed to germinate.

Towards the end of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III's reign, his sons began to squabble and fight over the old king's legacy. The subsequent struggle gave rise to a period of weakened kings, ambitious governors and a powerful dowager Queen Sammurammat (Queen Semiramis of classical lore). Eventually Tiglath Pileser III (745 – 727) usurped the throne after a revolt at Kalhu, and became a strong ruler of the old school. From this point onwards the days of Urartu's heyday were numbered, although the kingdom had another century and half before its final demise.

In some ways the inhabitants of the lands of the Uratri and Bianili had unification forced upon them by four centuries of raiding, and they were not alone Aram-Damascus was the focus of a short lived Levantine alliance against Assyria.

However, in Urartu's case this led to the rule of one dynasty and the development of a kingdom with a distinct identity. This is reflected in the development of an artistic style that is instantly recognisable as Urartian. This was obviously palace art of the ruling dynasty, and owed as much to Assyrian models as Urartian statecraft. However, some striking artefacts survive such as a group of bronze statuettes of deities, lions but mostly splendid mythical creatures that combine the bodies of bulls, lions and eagles with the human form. These pieces were once part of a single throne, thought to have been discovered at Toprakkale by treasure hunters, and are now scattered between collections in Paris, London, St. Petersburg and New York. As for Urartian monumental art, almost nothing survives, with the exception of the statue of the God Teisheba, now in Van museum, but we know that it existed from Assyrian accounts. The centralised rule of the kings of Van also had an impact on the landscape of Urartu. The heirs of Sarduri were great hydro engineers and were responsible for building a significant number of canals to irrigate the land. There was evident pride in these undertakings as they were recorded by the Urartian kings in their inscriptions. The Şaram-Su canal, which dates from Menua's reign, runs from the Hoşap Valley to Lake Van, a distance of 45 miles, and is still in operation today, more than two and a half millennia later.

The Assyrian Revival

With the advent of the reign of Tiglath Pileser III in 745 BCE, came a revival in Assyria's fortunes at the expense of Urartu. Early in his reign Tiglath Pileser records that he defeated Urartu and her allies at the battle of Arpad in 743, and in 735 led an expedition against the capital at Tushpa, in which the Assyrians devastated the city outside, but failed to take the fortress on the rock. Sarduri II had presided over the zenith, and then decline of the kingdom, but how his reign came to an end is unknown. His son Rusa I was to preside over an even darker days. After a few quiet years the Assyrian menace returned in the form of Sargon II. Assyrian records show extensive espionage activity as Sargon gathered information about his enemies, especially Urartu. In 714 BCE the plans were complete and a massive Assyrian army marched out of Kalhu, with the objective of re-establishing Assyrian prestige beyond its northern frontier. We are blessed with a detailed account of this expedition, now housed at the Louvre, in which Sargon not only records the battles and hardships of his army, but also gives one of the most detailed descriptions of Urartu itself, to add to their laconic inscriptions. Sargon's armies defeated Rusa's forces at mount Uaush (today Mount Sahand). The invaders then cut through the lands of Urartu, and circled Lake Van, destroying villages, vineyards, orchards, and canal systems in a trail of destruction. There is no record that Van itself was attacked, but Sargon's final gesture was perhaps more cruel as he devasted Urartu's close ally Musasir, and destroyed the temple of Haldi, Urartu's chief deity. Sargon's account alleges that when Rusa heard about this desecration and the "removal of the God Haldi" to Assyria, he took his own life, although we cannot verify this. Strangely what the Assyrian account does reveal is the incredible richness of Urartu and its allies.

The Kingdom of Van had been humbled but it was still a significant power. The new king, Argishti II, made strenuous efforts to restore the kingdom's prestige over wavering governors and recalcitrant tributaries. Also, Argishti II's reign showed that the Urartians were still building fortresses and monuments. Some scholars of Urartu have questioned whether the Assyrian version of events tells the full story, and that even in the face of these attacks Urartu was more resilient. The mountainous nature of the kingdom meant that the Urartians could retreat inside mountain fortresses and take their flocks to hidden valleys. The visitor to this region is struck that from a high point one can literally see for dozens of miles, and an army can hardly approach unobserved. Assyrian records often say they shut the Urartians up in fortresses, which may indicate that once the Urartians were holed up in a fortress there was little that they could do, as the Assyrian siege techniques that worked so well in Palestine were unworkable in the mountains of Urartu.

The End of Urartu.

The Assyrian attack had undoubtedly been destructive, but Kings at Tushpa had managed to maintain their authority over the lands of Urartu. At the opposite end of the kingdom a far more deadly foe was taking shape that of transhumance. From the end of the eighth century BCE the peoples of the steppe, north of the Black Sea were moving. Stories of these migrations were still told in classical times, as Herodotus recounts that Scythians were forced southwards by the Massagetae, and fell upon a people called the Cimmerians, chasing them down into Asia Minor. Herodotus is famously unreliable, but part of the tale is supported by the facts. The Cimmerians hit Urartu first. Rusa I was compelled to devote attention to the defences of the northern frontier, and Assyrian records tell of an Urartian defeat at the hands of the Cimmerians in Rusa's reign. By the 7th century BCE the Cimmerians appear to have been accommodated, and were settled by Lake Van, and there is archaeological evidence that the Urartians employed Scythian mercenaries.

Assyria was also subject to attacks by these mounted nomads, and similarly fought the Scythians and hired them as mercenaries. At this time of instability relations with Assyria warmed, and Rusa II sent emissaries to congratulate King Ashurbanipal for his victory over the Medes in 654 BCE. The Kingdom of Van was still complete, although the last phase of Urartian history is somewhat shadowy. Rusa II and his son Sarduri III built an impressive second capital near to the rock of Van, on the hill of Toprakkale, named Rusahinili. It was also in the 7th century that the great defensive city of Teishebaini was built west of Lake Urmiah, on Urartu's north eastern edge. After this point we have the names of five consecutive rulers, but know nothing of their achievements, if any. What is clear is that an era of turbulence was reaching its peak, which would shatter the existing political map. Assyria was the first to fall. This empire, hated by its enemies, was crushed by an alliance of Babylonians and Medes. Herodotus contributes that the arrival of a Scythian army was the deciding factor in the fall of Ninevah, the last Assyrian capital, in 612 BCE.

The fall of the Kingdom of Van is shrouded in darkness. Urartu is thought to have succumbed in around 585 – 590 BCE, there is no written account and this timescale is not undisputed. Although the end of the Urartu is mysterious, we do have a witness to the fall. Boris Piotrovsky headed the excavation of the city of Teishebaini, now Karmir Blur in modern Armenia. Here we have the remains of a city that was besieged, and the archaeologists believe, was consumed in a great conflagration during a final night attack. Along with many treasures and everyday artefacts we have the remains of many Urartians, young and old, who had taken to the citadel when the city was attacked. Embedded in the walls are many arrowheads of the Scythian style, which indicate the identity of the attackers. Although Teishebaini was on the edge of the kingdom, the evidence is that the capital Rusahinili fell to a siege at around the same time, although the site was far less well preserved. At this point Urartu disappears from history, and frustratingly we cannot be sure who struck the final blows. Some Urartian treasures have turned up in Scythian burial mounds in the Caucasus, no doubt the result of plunder, and there is evidence that the power vacuum was filled by the emergent Median Empire. For the time being it is reasonable to assume that these two peoples were involved in Urartu's destruction.

At this point a new people appeared in the sources, the Armenians. Herodotus alleges they came from Phrygia in the west, but whatever the case they became dominant, giving their name to the region. As for the Urartians, although their achievements and identity were forgotten rapidly, the people themselves apparently remained where they were, and their monuments stood idle so that even locals could not say who built them.

Historical overview:

The area of Van Lake is the most fertile territory of the region, and as such it has attracted numerous settlers over the millennia. The oldest traces of human activity near Van were found at Tilkitepe mound, one of the first excavated mounds in Turkey. The site, located along the shores of Lake Van and a few kilometres to the south of the citadel of Van, is the only known source of information about the oldest cultures of Van predating the founding of Tushpa, the 9th-century BCE capital of Urartu. The site was excavated in three campaigns, in 1899, 1937, and 1939. The excavation finds of Tilkitepe played a leading role in the archaeology of the Eastern Anatolia for years. Level I starts at the end of the fourth millennium BCE and continues in the third millennium BCE while level O is the transition period from the third to the second millennium BCE. Other Bronze Age rural settlements discovered nearby are called Dilkaya and Karagündüz.

The beginnings of the Iron Age in Anatolia coincided with the rapid development of the Kingdom of Bianili in the eastern part of the region. This political entity emerged in the second half of the 9th century BCE in the area around Lake Van. This location had been known as Urartu, and the kingdom was also called Urartu by other peoples of the era, including the Assyrians.

The kings of Urartu ruled from Tushpa, the capital situated on the eastern shore of Lake Van. The earliest mention of Tushpa is in the context of the war between the Urartians and the Assyrians. The defeat of the Urartian king Sarduri I by Shalmaneser III of Assyria was commemorated by the inscriptions on the Balawat Gates from Kalhu, the Assyrian capital city. The remains of two sets of gates can now be seen in the British Museum's collection and the Mosul Museum. Small sections of the Shalmaneser bronze door bands are also at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

Despite the initial setbacks caused by the conflict with Assyria, quick territorial acquisitions allowed the Urartians to control vast lands of what is now eastern Turkey, northwest Iran, and Armenia. King Sarduri I is mentioned as the builder of a wall in an inscription on a small fortification west of the citadel of Tushpa. Therefore, it is also frequently accepted that he was, in fact, the founder of the city which is now known as Van. The inscription, written in Assyrian cuneiform, is called the Annals of Sarduri. It states that "This is the inscription of king Sarduri, son of the great king Lutipri, the powerful king who does not fear to fight, the amazing shepherd, the king who ruled the rebels. I am Sarduri, son of Lutipri, the king of kings and the king who received the tribute of all the kings. Sarduri, son of Lutipri, says: I brought these stone blocks from the city of Alniunu. I built this wall." It is also the oldest known Urartian inscription discovered so far.

King Menua, the grandson of Sarduri, greatly expanded the kingdom and organised the centralised administrative structure. He is also known as the builder of a canal and irrigation system that stretched across the country. Interestingly, several of these canals are still used nowadays. The most spectacular example of King Menua's irrigation system is Semiramis/Şamran canal that brought fresh water to the capital city of Tushpa, its gardens and fields, from the valley of the Hoşap River south-east of Van. Large stretches of this canal are still visible, along with the inscription stating that: "By the will of Khaldi, Menua, son of Ishpuini, has built this canal. This canal is named Menua Canal. Menua the powerful, the great king, King of Biaina, Prince of the city of Tushpa Menua speaks in the name of the dread Khaldi: Whosoever damages this inscription, whosoever overturns it, whosoever does such things according to his own desire or in the name of another, Menua warns that the dread god Khaldi, the god Teisheba and the Sun god Sivini will efface him from the sign of the sun."

Further written evidence of Urartian history was provided by other inscriptions found in the area of Van Fortress. One of these inscriptions is known as the Annals of Argisti I. This king, who ruled Urartu from 785 to 763 BCE, fortified the empire's frontier and is most remembered as the founder of Erebuni (modern-day Yerevan). His annals can be found on the face of the cliff of the Van citadel, above the stairs leading to his tomb.

The rule of his son, Sarduri II, from 763 to 735 BCE, marks the zenith of Urartian power. He also left the inscription in the area of Van citadel. The Annals of Sarduri II present him as a very successful king, despite the defeat he suffered from the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser II. The inscription is on a stele, within a large rock niche, on the north side of the Van citadel rock. This location is known as Hazine Kapisi. There are two niches there, and the inscription is located in the bigger of them.

Soon afterwards, the Urartu Kingdom went into the period of decline. During the reign of Rusa I, from 735 to 714 BCE Assyrians and Cimmerians attack the kingdom. King Rusa I was crushingly defeated by Sargon II at Lake Urmia and subsequently committed suicide in shame. In the 7th century, Urartu Kingdom grew weaker and weaker, suffering the continuous attacks of Cimmerians and Scythians. In this period it became dependent on Assyria. Rusa II, son of Argishti II, who ruled from 680 to 639 BCE, was the last Urartian king who carried out significant construction projects. During his reign the massive fortress complex of Karmir-Blur, near the modern city of Yerevan in Armenia, was constructed. The circumstances and main actors of the final decades of Bianili/Urartu are unclear, but archaeological evidence suggests that the kingdom met a violent end. All the citadels erected by Rusa II were destroyed. The effective end of Urartu's sovereignty came in 585 BCE when the Medes took over the Urartian capital of Van.

The region of Urartu became the Satrapy of Armenia under the Achaemenids. In this period, the Van citadel was abandoned, but the name Tushpa was remembered as it was transformed into Thospitis and used to describe the lake, later known as Van. The Achaemenid rule over Van is now remembered because of the inscription left on the southern face of the citadel by King Xerxes. The history behind this inscription is peculiar. The place for it had been prepared by King Darius, the father of Xerxes, but he never got round to inscribing it. Thus, Xerxes intended to fill in the void by informing the readers that his father did not make an inscription: "King Xerxes says: King Darius, my father, by the grace of Ahuramazda built much that was good, and he gave orders to dig this niche out, but because he did not make an inscription, I ordered this inscription to be made."

Actually, the inscription is much longer, and it consists of three columns of 27 lines written in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. It has been preserved in almost perfect condition, and it is the only Achaemenid royal inscription that can be seen outside Iran. The trilingual inscription of Xerxes significantly contributed to the decipherment of Old Persian cuneiform by Eugène Burnouf in the mid-nineteenth century. The inscription is situated on the southern face of Van citadel, some 20 meters above the ground.

In time, the town developed to the south of the citadel, and it continued its existence until the First World War. Successive states that ruled the area were the Achaemenids, Armenians, Parthians, Romans, Sassanid Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Seljuks, Safavids, Afsharids, Ottomans, and Russians. Therefore, the ancient ruins of the Urartian fortress now support the walls constructed during the medieval era and the Ottoman rule.

Erebuni Fortress – the Founding of Yerevan

Just outside of Yerevan lies an arid hill overlooking the Ararat plain, that is known as Arin Berd. The name in Armenian means “Fortress of the Blood.” It is home to the ruins of an 8 th century BC city of the Urartian Kingdom called Erebuni, which is the origin of the modern name Yerevan.

I made a note to visit this place during my travel in Armenia, not only due to its antiquity, but also due to the connection I would feel with the great civilizations of the Near East. Urartiu, the earliest identifiable predecessor of Armenians, thrived at a time when its chief rivals were the Assyrians, the Medes, and the mysterious Cimmerians.

A cuneiform inscription found inside the fortress states that Erebuni was built by Argishti, the son of Menua, the king of Urartiu in 782 B.C. This means that Erebuni predates the founding of Rome by nearly 30 years. In the inscription, Argishti proudly proclaimed that “The land was a desert, before the great works I accomplished upon it. By the greatness of Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, is a mighty king, king of Biainilli (an early form of Van, seems to be local name of the kingdom), and ruler of Tushpa.” It is known that the city was built through the labor of captured prisoners of war. This could be the origin of the hill’s name.

The wind blew dust into my eyes as I climbed Arin Berd under the early summer sun. Armenia is not a desert country, being situated in the southern Caucasus mountains, but south of Yerevan – the terrain becomes increasingly dry and arid. The climb is relatively simple, aided by stairs, and a fountain at the foot of the hill. At the summit, the fortress is surrounded by the ruins of thick walls that once stood nearly 40 feet tall. The fortress is triangular, with the entrance being found at the southeastern section of the outer wall, beckoning the traveler to enter the world of the ancient Near East.

Just beyond the entrance is a central yard, which was once used for ceremonies and parades. The ruins of palaces, residences, and fire worship temples can be seen, yet my eyes were taken by the ruins of the temple of Khaldi. Despite being covered in Russian and Armenian graffiti, it was still possible to see beautiful geometric and floral murals on the wall, with vivid frescos, including one of the god himself – standing upon a lion. While the other buildings inside the city appear to have had stone or adobe floors, the temple appears as if the floor might have been made of wood. To the east of the temple can be found economic structures including grain, oil, and wine storehouses. Another cuneiform inscription can be found there, stating that the storehouses were constructed by Sarduri, the successor of Argishti.

Argishti’s successors, Sarduri II and Rusa I, continued work on the fortress, enlarged it, and used it as a staging ground for wars of conquests to the north. However, once the nearby town of Teishebaini was constructed, Erebuni began to lose its importance. It survived the establishment of Persian dominance due to becoming a center of the satrapy of Armenia. Over the centuries, modern Yerevan would sprawl on the plains below the hill.

The Erebuni Fortress Archaeological Museum

The first excavation of Erebuni Fortress took place in the late 19th century, when a cuneiform inscription was found commemorating the construction of an ancient granary. A more intense phase of excavation began in 1950, soon after which the city’s founding cuneiform inscription was discovered. And in 1968, an archaeological museum opened up at the base of the fortress.

Few foreign visitors are likely to have heard of the ancient kingdom of Urartu. The museum, then, serves as a great primer on the kingdom and its culture. Furthermore, you can see artifacts found at the fortress above along with elsewhere in Yerevan.

Urartu, which formed in the 9th century BC, is considered to be the first unified kingdom formed in historical Armenia. Erebuni, however, was just a distant outpost.

The kingdom’s capital was at Van, a city situated next to Lake Van in modern-day Turkey. That’s why Urartu is also commonly referred to as the Kingdom of Van (Update: I’ve since visited Van – stay tuned for the article).

In 782 BC, the Urartian king Argishti I headed northeast to conquer the land in the Ararat Valley. He took prisoners from the towns around the valley, forcing them to build the new city of Erebuni. And they also built a fortress atop a hill which would come in handy for protecting Argishti’s recent acquisitions.

A relief of the god Teisheba

A relief of the god Khaldi

One of the first things visitors encounter upon entry to the museum are two huge steles adorned with high relief carvings. While the pieces are clearly modern recreations, the gods depicted in them are anything but.

The Urartian pantheon consisted of dozens of different deities. In total, the names of 79 different gods have been found inscribed among the ancient ruins of Van.

Among the most important ones were Taisheba, the god of war and thunder and Shivini, the sun god. But none so important as Khaldi, the sky god, who was worshipped as the supreme deity of Urartu.

Over to the side, visitors can find original cuneiform inscriptions that were found at Erebuni Fortress. They typically praise Khaldi in addition to King Argishti. Judging by the English translations provided on the plaques below, many of them more or less repeat the same message.

Amazingly, Erebuni Fortress’s founders created an underground piping system to feed water to the citadel. The pipes were made of stone parts, each about 1 meter long, which were carved to lock together. And the water was likely sourced all the way from the Garni area.

It’s remarkable what an advanced piping system this little-known kingdom was able to create so long ago. In fact, it would set to standard for successive kingdoms who controlled the area for centuries to come.

Urartians cultivated things like millet, wheat, hemp, sesame and various lentils. Grains were ground up and stored in large stone granaries. And the Urartians raised large numbers of cattle, horses, sheep and goats.

The Ararat Valley (modern-day Armenia) contained fertile land that was especially important for feeding the rest of Urartu. The region was also home to many vineyards, and Urartu had a well-developed winemaking culture.

The Urartians largely worked with iron, but they also used metals like bronze, copper and gold. And they often casted large statues of their kings and gods in bronze, though none of them seem to have survived.

Also on display you’ll find various weapons, earthenware pottery, small figurines of gods, fragments of murals found at the palace above, and an old helmet once worn by Argishti. But my personal favorite piece was an intricately designed drinking horn featuring an Urartian god smiling serenely atop a horse.

A separate open-air room of the museum contains even more relics, such as more cuneiform inscriptions (praising Khaldi and the king) and large vessels.

There’s also a beautiful recreation of traditional Urartian art that was painted in the late 1960s. But without seeing the signature at the bottom, one would think it was uncovered straight from the ruins!

Interestingly, one of the stone slabs was used at a monastery called Tanahat. The other side was carved with a cross, though the inscription on the back remains well preserved. It’s highly unlikely that the builders of the church would’ve had any idea what the inscription said.

But what would become of the ancient kingdom of Urartu? Supposedly, Urartu’s prominence would fade following an invasion by the Assyrian King Sargon II in 714. A later Urartian king named Rusa II (684-645) tried to revive the kingdom, reconstructing many of its fortresses and towns. Nevertheless, Urartu’s power continued to decline.

The kingdom was repeatedly attacked by nomadic tribes such as the Scythians, and it eventually collapsed sometime in the 6th century BC. Eventually, the land around Erebuni Fortress was taken over by the Persian Achaemenid Empire (famous for historical kings like Cyrus the Great and Darius). The Persians maintained Erebuni Fortress and it remained an important administrative center for the region.

A model of Erebuni Fortress


In modern Armenia, there are two excavated sites which provide much of our information about the Urartu. Both lie on the outskirts of Yerevan: the better known, but probably originally the less important is Erebuni, for Erebuni is the one that has been turned into a grand visitor display.

It lies at the end of a splendid avenue – Soviet planning at its most grandiloquent, which leads up to a large museum with finds from both sites, with a long stairway to the fort above. Though for buses and privileged visitors there is a road round the back which leads up to the top (see header) , where the whole palace has been restored, with the walls rebuilt three feet high.

In the subsequent Persian era, the Palace was substantially rebuilt, and it is a little difficult to know how much of the restoration belongs to the subsequent Persian palace. Indeed, it continued to be occupied to some extent throughout the Middle Ages, and the people of Yerevan would like to believe that the name Yerevan is actually derived from Erebuni.

When one approaches the site, the defences are impressive. There is only one entrance, to the south, where a V-shaped enclosure leads to the only gate.

Once inside the gate was a large open space filled with column bases, which is an apadana, a Persian columned hall. This would have been the main ceremonial entrance hall to a Persian palace. Was this part of the original Urartian palace, or is this a later addition, made when this became a Persian palace?

On the south side of the Apadana is a low mound, which is said to be the base of a mini ziggurat. Is this, again, a later Persian addition?

The plan of the palace. The entrance is to the bottom right, by the red arrow.This leads in to the ceremonial area, in blue, with the palace in red beyond, and the servants quarters in yellow to the right.

In the ceremonial area( blue), the most important building is the Apadana (4a), while 4b is the mini ziggurat.

The Palace area (red) is a rabbit warren of small buildings, but (9) and (9a) are the two Fire Temples.

In the servants quarters (yellow), structure 6 when excavated was a storage area of the Persian period, but it may have been the major ceremonial hall of the Uratian era.

The Entrance to Palace, as restored. The actual palace was, as so often rather unimpressive, a rabbit warren of small rooms.

Watch the video: Walking tour, Shengavit district, Yerevan, Armenia, 2021. 4K 60fps (May 2022).