Some 3,000 years ago it was the Iron Age and what is now Anatolia was not one political entity but a landmass ruled by several different groups of people; sometimes on good terms with each other, sometimes not.
The best known of those various peoples are probably the Hittites who left quite a mark on the landscape around what is now Çorum and further south around Osmaniye. The Hittites appear to have been forced out of their northern strongholds by invaders from Europe, amongst whom the Phrygians are probably the most familiar on account of the myths that grew up around the famous King Midas of the golden touch and the ass’s ears.
Visitors to western and central Turkey often come across the Hittites and the Phrygians. Far less well known are the Urartians who, from around the middle of the ninth century BC until the start of the sixth century BC, governed a kingdom that centered on Van (then Tushpa) in the far east of Anatolia on the shores of what is now Lake Van. For most people the Urartians feature only as the makers of the magnificent metal cauldrons and engraved metal belts that are prized items in Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (mainly closed for restoration during 2013). But those whose itineraries take in the east of the country will find clear evidence of the Urartians not only in Van itself but also in nearby Çavuştepe, Ayarış and Toprakkale.
Several factors have combined to ensure that less is known about the Urartians than we might hope. In the first place, although Tushpa itself was in what is now Turkey, the Urartian kingdom actually straddled the boundaries of what are now Iraq and Iran and included most of what are now Armenia and Georgia. The complicated politics of this part of the world mean that of a known 300-odd Urartian sites, only half that number have actually been excavated, and of those very few are within Turkey.
Who exactly the Urartians were and where they came from remains uncertain although they seem to have replaced a people known as the Hurrians who had developed a kingdom called Mitanni in the same area. Luckily, the names of the kings of Urartu are known from the many inscriptions that they left behind. It’s also known that their earliest power struggles were mainly with the neighboring Assyrians although ultimately they were overthrown by a combination of invading Cimmerians, Scythians and Medes. The whys and wherefores remain something of a mystery but ultimately much of Urartu was absorbed into the Kingdom of Armenia; most historians seem to agree that the last of the Urartians should be identified as proto-Armenians.
The Urartians had their own language which was written in Assyrian cuneiform and in other hieroglyphic forms that are yet to be translated. They worshipped almost a hundred different gods, with the main deity being the warrior Khaldi who is usually depicted standing on a lion. They also worshipped a thunder god named Theispas who appears to be the same as the Hittite god Teshuba. Great farmers who made much use of irrigation ditches, the Urartians were also wonderful metal workers who used the lost-wax process to make molds for their beautiful cauldrons and axes.
Aside from the main sites listed below, the remains of Urartian castles have also been identified at Başkale, Çaldıran, Dereüstü (Anzaf Kalesi), Muradiye and Elmalık (Zivistan Kalesi). The remains of a harbor can be seen at Deliçay and of an open-air quarry at Gümüşdere. Some of these sites may have been damaged during the Van-Erciş earthquakes of 2011. Slightly further away, the remains of Urartian settlements have also been excavated at Patnos, near Malazgirt, and at Altıntepe, near Erzincan.
Van Kalesi (Van Castle, Rock of Van)
The single most impressive reminder of the Urartians to survive in Turkey is Van Castle, often called the Rock of Van because of its location on top of a 1.5-kilometer-long ridge of rock that lies due west of the town center close to Lake Van. One hundred meters above sea level, King Sardur I (844-828 B.C.) had a fortress built here that continued in use right into modern times. Unfortunately recent restoration cannot be said to have improved the appearance of the ruins, nor has it done a great deal to make accessing them any easier.
Today’s visitors usually skirt the base of the rock on its northern side to reach the ticket booth. In doing so they bypass a small Ottoman mosque and tomb complex behind which the remains of an Urartian temple to Khaldi are cut into the base of the rock close to the tomb of King Sardur II (753-735 B.C.). Even today this part of the rock is believed to retain a certain power, with infertile women coming here to pray for children.
From the ticket booth you ascend the rock and eventually find yourself inside the walls. Some of the structures on the summit were installed much later than the Urartian period (not least the image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) but the one truly unmissable sight is on the southern side of the rock where the tomb of King Argishti I (785-753 B.C.) is cut right into it and must be approached via a flight of weathered steps. There a huge cuneiform inscription extolling his life and works.
Many other tombs were cut into the Rock of Van and can be accessed by visitors although all were long ago robbed of their contents. On the south side of the rock it’s also worth looking out for a trilingual inscription in Persian, Babylonian and Medean that records the deeds of the fifth century B.C. Persian king Xerxes. It was transcribed by the archeologist Friedrich Eduard Schultz who dangled from a rope to carry out the task in 1827.
The archeological site at Çavuştepe is to the right of the road as you head southeast from Van to Hakkari and should only really be visited after checking the security situation locally. Here King Sardur II built himself a palace, this time on a ridge of rock overlooking the Gürpınar plain. The walls were built of giant blocks of andesite that fitted together so well that no mortar was needed to join them although only the lowest levels now survive.
There are several specific things to look out for at Çavuştepe, including giant pithoi (jugs) that were embedded in the ground to serve as storage units as well as the remains of another temple to Khaldi with a fine cuneiform inscription. You can also gaze down onto one of the Urartian irrigation ditches known as the Semiramis Canal; it’s still in use today. Most visitors, however, will probably be most struck by the remains, at the far end of the ridge, of what must be one of the earliest squat toilets in existence.
Caretaker Mehmet Kuşman is one of the world’s few experts in the Urartian language. If you’re lucky enough to find him on site he will translate the temple inscription for you.
Almost impossible to reach by public transport, the remains of the Ayarış Kalesi (castle) nevertheless stand in a stunning location overlooking a strip of sandy beach beside an undeveloped part of Lake Van. The castle was built during the reign of King Rusa II (685-645 B.C.) and once again contains a temple complete with cuneiform inscription. Should you be lucky enough to visit in late summer when archeologists are working at the site you might be able to see some of the interior decorations, which featured carvings of lions and griffins. Few people make it here so you will probably have the site to yourself.
Tushpa was eventually replaced as the capital of the Urartians in the reign of King Rusa II by Rusahinili, identified as Toprakkale, north of Van, where the remains of another Urartian fortress, complete with a temple to Khaldi, have been identified. Some of the finds from the site are now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
An Urartian artifact
An Urartian artifact
Bendimahi Bridge in the Muradiye district of Van
Kesis plateau, a former center of the Urartian civilization