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Urartu (o͞orärˈto͞o), ancient kingdom of Armenia and N Mesopotamia, centered about Lake Van in present-day E Turkey. It was the biblical Ararat. Urartu flourished from the 13th cent. to the 7th cent. B.C., but was most powerful in the 8th cent. B.C., when it ruled over most of N Syria. The Urartians constantly fought with Assyria; Shalmaneser I, Shalmaneser III, and Sargon all attacked Urartu but never completely subdued it. In the 7th cent. B.C. repeated invasions by the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Medes finally brought about the downfall of the Urartian kingdom. Excavations, particularly at such sites as Toprakkale and Karmir Blur, have shown that Urartu had an advanced agricultural and commercial civilization, which was largely influenced by Assyria. Its language, written in cuneiform (also borrowed from the Assyrians), has no relation to any known language, except perhaps to the Horite. Urartian techniques of metalworking and stone masonry (especially in the construction of fortresses) was highly advanced.


See B. Piatrovski, Ancient Civilization of Urartu (1969).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Urartean, Biainili), the biblical kingdom of Ararat, a state in Southwest Asia during the ninth to sixth centuries B.C. At the height of its power, Urartu controlled the entire Armenian Highland—an area that is now divided among the USSR, Turkey, and Iran. The people of Urartu are referred to as Urarteans.

The Urarteans’ lands formed part of the Mitanni state until its fall in the 13th century B.C. The Urarteans subsequently suffered a number of invasions by Assyria. Between the 13th and the 11th centuries, the Assyrian kings warred with a series of major alliances of Urartean tribes, such as the Uruatri and the Nairi. The late second and early first millennia B.C. saw the formation of clans in Urartu. This process led, in the mid-ninth century, to the appearance of the Urartean state, whose capital was at Tushpa (the present-day city of Van in Turkey). Much construction was carried out in Tushpa under King Sardur I.

Urartu reached the height of its power in the late ninth century and the first half of the eighth century. Its territory increased substantially as a result of wars conducted during the reigns of Menuas, Argistis I, and Sardur II. Urartu contributed to the decline of Assyria by conquering parts of northern Mesopotamia and northern Syria and thus cutting off the Assyrians’ access to sources of metals in Asia Minor. The Urarteans subjugated areas south of Lake Van and near Lake Urmia. The kings of Urartu also conquered extensive territory in the north and in southern Transcaucasia, including the regions of Kars and Erzurum, areas around Lakes Chaldyr and Sevan, and the Ararat Valley. Fortresses were, built in the conquered lands; the most important were the city of Menuahinili on the northern slope of Mount Ararat, Erebuni (on the hill of Arin-berd on the outskirts of Yerevan), and Argistikhinili on the left bank of the Araks River.

The Urarteans’ military successes were followed by influxes of prisoners and of livestock and other booty into the central regions of Urartu. The chronicle of Argistis I speaks of the capture or killing of 280,512 people; the number mentioned in the chronicle of Sardur II is 197,521. The captives were used on construction and irrigation projects and for other work. Some captives were settled with their families on the land as state slaves. Others were given to soldiers who used them on their farms. Sometimes the captives were inducted into the Urartean army. Although slave labor was widely used in the economy, most of the producers in Urartu were free or semifree members of communes. The exploitation of the slaves and commune members was so severe that many fled from Urartu to neighboring countries.

The government controlled the establishment of temples, the development of new lands, and the building of reservoirs, canals, and—on the royal farms—such structures as granaries and wine cellars. The temples possessed extensive farm lands, owned livestock, and held other forms of wealth. The aristocracy also owned a substantial percentage of the land. A large role was played by the heads of the districts, who furnished the principal contingents of the Urartean army. During the period of Urartu’s decline (late eighth century) the district heads often fomented rebellions against the central authority. In the mid-eighth century the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (ruled 745–727) dealt a series of crushing blows to the armies of Sardur II and annexed Urartu’s possessions in northern Mesopotamia and northern Syria. A struggle subsequently developed over the Urmia region. In 714, Sargon II concluded a devastating campaign against Urartu, which was then under the rule of Rusa I. Owing to its defeat by Assyria and other states and to the revolts of the district heads, Urartu lost a substantial amount of its territory.

During the seventh century, Urartu retained its position in southern Transcaucasia. Rusa II built new fortresses, such as Teishebaini (on the hill of Karmir-Blur outside Yerevan). The Urartean kings began using detachments of Scythian and Cimmerian mercenaries in their struggle with the rebellious aristocracy. With the help of the mercenaries, the Urarteans were able to crush the Phrygian kingdom in 676. The growing strength of the Median kingdom led to a rapprochement between Urartu and Assyria. Nevertheless, in the early sixth century, first Assyria and then Urartu were crushed by the Medes and incorporated into the Median state.


D’iakonov, I. M. Urartskie pis’ma i dokumenty. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963.
Melikishvili, G. A. Drevnevostochnye materialy po istorii narodov Zakavkaz’ia, vol. 1: Nairi-Urartu. Tbilisi, 1954.
Melikishvili, G. A. Urartskie klinoobraznye nadpisi. Moscow, 1960.
Tsereteli, G. V., comp. Urartskie pamiatniki muzeia Gruzii. Tbilisi, 1939.
Arutiunian, N. V. Novye urartskie nadpisi Karmir-Blura. Yerevan, 1966.
Piotrovskii, B. B. Vanskoe tsarstvo (Urartu). Moscow, 1959.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.