The mountains of Kurdistan, lying to the south of the Armenian highlands, are one of the most considerable ranges in western Asia, constituting a formidable barrier to human movement with their forbidding crags and their densely wooded slopes. In the 3rd and 2nd millennia B.C. these mountains separated two regions of western Asia with quite distinct cultures—the mountain area and the lowland area. To the south of the mountains was the advanced agricultural culture of Mesopotamia and the plain areas, known from many archaeological sites and producing a characteristic type of painted pottery decorated with designs reflecting the symbolism of agricultural and stock-rearing cults.
To the north of the mountains of Kurdistan, however, was a very different culture which produced no painted pottery, but used instead a highly polished black ware decorated with moulded or incised ornament. The development of productive forces proceeded less vigorously in the mountain regions and the Armenian upland plateau than in the south: a fact which explains the slower pace of social and political development among the highland tribes.
The most recent archaeological investigations show that in the 3rd millennium B.C. a uniform pattern of culture extended over the southern Caucasus area north of the River Araxes, the area round Lake Van, eastern Anatolia  and the region round Lake Urmia. The basis of the economy of this culture was a combination of primitive forms of agriculture and stock-rearing, particular stress being laid on stock-rearing, which more readily yielded a surplus product at a relatively rudimentary stage of development of productive forces. As a result the culture which had originally developed in the river valleys and at the outfalls of mountain streams began in the second half of the 3rd millennium B.C. to spread to the foothill areas, thus creating a cultural unity over a considerable territory. This had connections with the Hurrian civilisation, the western part of the Armenian highlands, the basin of the River Habur, and northern Syria; and links can also be traced with the southern Caucasus. Thus in the kurgans (burial mounds) of the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. excavation has revealed fine chased gold and silver cups and bronze weapons (Trialeti, Kirovakan), providing evidence of connections with Asia Minor and Syria.
In kurgans of the following period which were excavated at the village of Lchashen, on the western shore of Lake Sevan, and in a cemetery at the village of Artik on the slopes of Mount Aragats were found Mitannian cylinder seals dating from the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 14th century B.C.—i.e., from the final phase of the Mitannian kingdom. These finds are clear evidence of ancient cultural links.
After the destruction of Mitanni by the Hittites at the turn of the 15th and 14th centuries B.C. the Armenian highland areas maintained their links with the Hittites, which had now begun to expand into northern Syria. These relationships with other nations played an important part in the development of the culture of the highland areas; and by the time the Hittite kingdom fell, about the year 1200 B.C., the tribes of the Armenian highlands had achieved a relatively high level of cultural and social development. They were now able to form powerful alliances of tribes and challenge the northward advance of the Assyrians, who after the fall of Mitanni had entered on a period of political expansion.
In texts written in the name of the Assyrian King Tukulti-Ninurta I, son of Shalmaneser I, we find another collective designation for the alliance of the tribes of the Armenian highlands. They are now known as "the lands of Nairi": a term which for almost a century replaced the name of Uruatri (Urartu). Inscriptions found in the palace and temple of Tukulti-Ninurta in Assur tell how 43 kings of the lands of Nairi rose up against Assyria, how they were defeated, and how the kings of Nairi were brought in chains to Assur. Then the lands of Nairi offered valuable gifts to the king of Assyria, tribute was exacted from them, and a new honour was added to the official style of the Assyrian king—"king of all the lands of Nairi".
A detailed account of the Assyrian expedition to the north, into the lands of Nairi, from the sources of the Tigris to the land of Daiani, in the basin of the River Chorokh (£oruh), is preserved in the annals of Tiglath-Pileser I (1116-1090 B.C.). The campaign was directed not against the region to the south-east of Lake Van, as Shalmaneser I's expedition had been, but against  the whole of the western part of the Armenian highland area, from north to south. In the course of the campaign the Assyrians penetrated into enemy territory to a depth of more than 300 miles.
The Assyrian annals describe the campaign in the following words: "The god Ashur, my lord and master, sent me against the lands of the distant kings who dwell on the shore of the Upper Sea (i.e., the Black Sea), owning no master; and thither I went. By toilsome paths and arduous passes, through which no king before me had gone, by hidden tracks and unmade roads I led my armies... Where the going was easy I travelled in my chariot; where it was difficult I advanced with the help of brazen axes (i.e., clearing a path)... Twenty-three kings of the lands of Nairi gathered together chariots and warriors in their countries and rose up against me in war and strife. I advanced against them with all the fury of my dread armament and, like Adad's flood, annihilated their great army... Sixty kings of the lands of Nairi, together with those who came to their aid, did I drive with my spear as far as the Upper Sea. I captured their great cities, I carried off their riches and their spoils, I gave their dwellings to the flames... All the kings of the lands of Nairi did I capture alive. But to all these kings I showed mercy, granting them their lives in the sight of Shamash, my lord and master, and freeing them from the bonds of captivity. Then I caused them to swear on oath to my great gods that they would serve me and obey me in all time to come; and their sons, the heirs to their royal houses, I took as hostages to their word. Then I exacted tribute from them, twelve hundred horses and two thousand head of cattle, and let them return to their own countries...".
The inscriptions thus give us a brief but vivid account of the Assyrian expedition into the western Armenian highlands at the end of the 12th century B.C. The Assyrian king's aim was not merely to defeat and plunder these wealthy countries: by his merciful treatment of the captured kings he sought to strengthen his authority in the Lands of Nairi. It is also to be noted that in the account of the campaign there is no mention of the area round Lake  Van (the "Sea of Nairi"). It may be that the Assyrians deliberately avoided the central part of the area occupied by the powerful league of enemy tribes, where they might have encountered stronger resistance.
In Assyrian inscriptions of the llth century B.C. we again find the term Uruatri, and from the second quarter of the 9th century, in the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), it is of common occurrence, in the form Urartu, being used concurrently with the name of Nairi—and at first without any clear demarcation between the two.
From the beginning of his reign, therefore, the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III (860-825 B.C.) found himself at war with this new enemy—which, however, had not yet developed into a centralised state. We are well informed about Shalmaneser's campaigns against Urartu not only from the annals, which give detailed accounts of the route followed by the Assyrian army and of its victories, but also from the representations of episodes from the expedition on the bronze gates which were found in 1878 in the ruins of the ancient city of Imgur-Enlil on the mound of Balawat, south-east of Nineveh.
 On one of the gates, which are outstanding examples of Assyrian art, are represented episodes from a campaign in the first year of Shalmaneser's reign (860 B.C.) which is very briefly described in his annals in these words: "I drew near to Sugunia, the stronghold of Aramu the Urartian; I invested the town and captured it; I killed many of their warriors and carried off plunder; I made a pile of heads over against their city; fourteen settlements in its territory I gave to the flames. Then I departed from Sugunia and went down to the Sea of Nairi, where I washed my weapons in the sea and offered a sacrifice to my gods."
The gates give a pictorial narrative of a connected series of events which took place at different times and places. The scenes are contained in two bands or registers, telling a consecutive story which begins in the bottom left-hand corner with a picture of the Assyrian army's camp. The army, consisting of chariots and infantry, is shown marching out of the camp against Sugunia, the Urartian fortress mentioned in the annals. There is also a representation of the capture of Sugunia, showing a fortress situated on a hill, in flames, which is being stormed on both sides with the aid of ladders laid up against the walls. Inside the fortress can be seen the defenders—Urartian warriors, both spearmen and archers. Above the whole scene is the explanatory legend: "I vanquished Sugunia, the city of Aramu the Urartian." To the right of this scene is a group of Urartian prisoners. The upper band shows the march of the Assyrian army over three passes to Lake Van, and in the top left-hand corner is a representation of Shalmaneser's sacrifice on the shores of the lake and the setting up of a stele with a figure of the Assyrian king. The sacrifice is offered by the king in person; beside him stand two priests, and in the background are musicians and sacrificial animals. Above this scene is the legend: "This statue, my own image, I set up by the sea of the Land of Nairi; I offered a sacrifice to my gods."
In other scenes are represented episodes from Shalmaneser's later campaigns, in particular the capture of Arzashku, the royal city—though not the  capital—of "Aramu the Urartian", which was achieved during an expedition in the third year of Shalmaneser's reign. This was a lengthy expedition following a very similar route to that of Tiglath-Pileser I. The Assyrians approached Arzashku through the land of Daiani, and their annals tell the story in these words: "Aramu the Urartian, being struck with fear by the terror of my mighty army and my mighty battle, withdrew from his city"— and the gates give us a picture of the burning fortress, abandoned by its defenders—"and went up into the mountains of Adduri. Then I went up after him and fought a mighty battle in the mountains. With my arms I overthrew 3,400 warriors; like Adad, I brought a great rain-cloud down upon them; with the blood of the enemy I dyed the mountain as if it had been wool; and I captured their camp... Then Aramu, to save his life, fled to an inaccessible mountain. In my mighty strength I trampled on his land like a wild bull; and his cities I reduced to ruins and consumed with fire." In a later passage the annals record the ascent of Mount Eritna, where a large stele was erected with a figure of the Assyrian king, and an expedition to the land of Armali and from there to Lake Van, where the Assyrians washed their weapons in the lake, offered sacrifices and again set up a stele with a likeness of the king.
The Balawat gates depict the burning fortress of Arzashku, with a double line of walls. Outside the fortress we see a battle between Assyrians and Urartians, with the latter withdrawing to the mountains. An episode from the same campaign may be represented in a scene on the gates which bears the brief legend "A battle against Urartu". This again shows a fight between Assyrians and Urartians and a large burning fortress, with Assyrians felling trees and laying waste the countryside. A later scene shows a small fortress with the defeated enemy impaled on stakes and a pile of heads under the walls. A four-wheeled vehicle drawn by men is shown leaving the fortress laden with booty contained in a large karas. Vessels of this kind, which have been found in the excavations of Urartian fortresses, were primarily intended for the storage of wine, but were  also used for the safe keeping of valuables and foodstuffs during a siege.
In clothing and equipment the Urartians differed from the Assyrians and showed closer affinities with the Hurrians and Hittites. An example of this is the crested helmet, which came into use in Assyria only in the mid-8th century B.C., having been taken over from the Urartians.
On the evidence of Shalmaneser Ill's annals the Urartian kingdom already occupied a considerable territory, for the Assyrian king is recorded as waging war against the Urartians and destroying the fortresses of Aramu the Urartian in a number of different areas in the Armenian highlands. The events of the campaigns of the first and third years of Shalmaneser's reign are described in detail, but the events of later years, and in particular of the fifteenth year of his reign, are only very briefly recorded. The annals give a laconic account of the Assyrians' arduous march through the mountains, but there is no mention of any expeditions into central Urartu, the region round Lake Van. This can be seen as an indication of the growing power of Urartu: no doubt Shahnaneser was well aware of the danger looming up in the north, but had inadequate resources to avert it.
 At the end of Shalmaneser's reign the Assyrians had once again to send a force against Urartu; but in the 27th year of his reign the aged king was no longer able to take command himself, and the army which he sent "against the land of Urartu" was led by his general Daian-Ashur. When the Assyrians crossed the River Arzani (Aratsani), "Siduri (Sarduri), ruler of Urartu, heard of this and, being confident in the strength of his great army, pressed forward to join battle." Thus twelve years after the last mention of the Urar-tian ruler Aramu in the annals of the year 834 B.C. we encounter a new ruler bearing the name of Siduri (Sarduri), which henceforth is of frequent occurrence in the dynasty of the kings of Urartu.
From the third quarter of the 9th century, too, date the oldest known Urar-tian sites, in the area of Lake Van.
At the foot of the western side of the crag of Van, the citadel of the Urartian capital of Tushpa, are the remains of a massive cyclopean wall built of colossal blocks of stone 2 !/2 feet thick and up to 20 feet long, which may have been a pier or breakwater stretching out into the lake. On the wall are three inscriptions in Assyrian, all with the same purport, in the name of Sarduri, the king mentioned in the Assyrian annals of the year 834 B.C. The text of the inscriptions is as follows: "An inscription of Sarduri, son of Lutipri, the magnificent king, the mighty king, king of the universe, king of the land of Nairi, a king having none equal to him, a shepherd to be wondered at, fearing no battle, a king who humbled those who would not submit to his authority. I, Sarduri, son of Lutipri, king of kings, received tribute from all the kings. Sarduri, son of Lutipri, says: 'I procured this limestone from the city of Alniunu, I erected this wall.'"
Historians have been unable to determine whether the "Sarduri, son of Lutipri" mentioned in the inscription was a descendant of Aramu or whether he belonged to another dynasty. The available evidence does not enable us to answer this question, nor to suggest any other site as the original capital  of Urartu; but in the twelve years between the occurrence of the name of Aramu and the later reference to Sarduri there is clearly room for another intervening king.
The region round Lake Van enjoyed a favourable geographical and strategic situation, and it was quite natural that it should be chosen as the centre of a politically unified state from the earliest times. It is more difficult to suppose that such a centre would be situated in an inaccessible mountain area with limited scope for the development of agriculture and communications with other parts of the Armenian highlands.
We have also an inscription by King Ishpuini, son of Sarduri I—the Kelishin Stele—which is written in both languages, Assyrian and Urartian. The title "king of the land of Nairi" in the Assyrian text is matched by the title "king of the land of Biaini" in the Urartian one. The latter term, "land of Biaini", was the one usually applied by the Urartians to their country in the following period, from the end of the 9th century onwards. The term, a collective plural form, later came to be used in two different senses—as the name of the central part of the kingdom (i.e., the area round Lake Van), and as a general term for the country as a whole, as distinct from the hostile territory which surrounded it. But since the term Urartu was widely used in the ancient  East as a name for the Kingdom of Van, it tended to displace the phonetically accurate term Biaini(li) which the Urartians applied to themselves.
The evidence reviewed in this chapter shows that the Urartians first appear in history in the 13th century B.C. as a league of tribes or countries which did not yet constitute a unitary state. In the Assyrian annals the term Uruatri (Urartu) as a name for this league was superseded during a considerable period of years by the term "land of Nairi"—a designation which also comprehended the region round Lake Van, the lake itself being known as the "Sea of Nairi". In the 9th century B.C. the Assyrians advancing northward already encountered strong resistance from the Urartians, led by their rulers Aramu and Siduri. The "land of Urartu" had now developed into a kingdom which continued—with varying fortunes—to wage a stubborn fight against its enemy. By the end of the 9th century the power of Urartu had increased to such an extent that Assyria was compelled to recognise its dominance in western Asia. From this period began the political and cultural rise of Urartu, which made it for two centuries the largest state in western Asia, occupying the whole of the Armenian highland area.
to Chapter III, History and Archaeology
Table of Contents