Ancient Urartu: Who were the ancient Urartians?

ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS - Urartu is first mentioned as ‘the land of Uruatri’ in an inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser I (1263-1234 BC). It is there described as having eight ‘lands’. Based upon other Assyrian sources it is most likely that this ‘Uruatri’ was part of the ‘Nairi’ lands, which was a larger group of kingdoms and tribal states in the 13th - 11th centuries BC.
Urartu kingdom
Urartu Wine Cellar

Many of the ‘Nairi’ lands united under the kingdom of Urartu in the centuries after that. Pressure from Assyrian conquerors probably contributed to this. Urartu came to comprise an area of approximately 200,000 square miles (520,000 km2), reaching from the river Mtkvari (Kura) in the north (in present-day Georgia), to the northern foothills of the Taurus Mountains in the south; and from the Euphrates in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. Important archeological sites that have produced findings from Urartu include Altintepe, Toprakkale, Patnos and Cavustepe.

The kingdom of Urartu had an official language that was spoken and written by all of its inhabitants: the Urartian or Vannic language. From the hundreds of cuneiform inscriptions that have been found, it can be concluded that the Urartians worshipped the god Khaldi, and called themselves Biai (or Biainili, or Biaineli). Sometimes they also called themselves Nairi or Khaldini (‘worshippers of Khaldi’). In older literature, their language is often called the Chaldean language.

The Urartian language seems unrelated to any known language in the region, neither Semitic nor Indo-European. Urartian is a so-called ergative-agglutinative language, like Sumerian, Hurrian (a Bronze-Age people in Northern Mesopotamia) and the present-day Caucasian languages. This means that it has different grammatical cases from most languages and that it often forms sentences by ‘gluing’ syllables together in one ‘word’ instead of using a series of words. The relation between Urartian and Hurrian has been studied closely. The conclusion is that these languages are related, but developed independently from the third millennium BC. Some similarities with North-eastern Caucasian languages have recently been demonstrated.

There are some indications that the Urartians originally had their own, hieroglyphic script. Unfortunately, too few inscriptions have been found so far to prove this.

After a period of expansion, the kingdom of Urartu came under attack. In 714 BC, the Urartu there were terrible attacks by the Cimmerians and by the Assyrian king Sargon II. In the century after that, Urartu was invaded by Scythians, Medes and other Indo-Arians.

Urartu was finally destroyed in either 590 BC or 585 BC. After this, the Urartian language was used less and less. By 500 BCE only an elite still used the language, while the people in the region had come to use a (proto-)Armenian, that is an Indo-European language.

Armenians today often claim that they are Urartians. In fact the Indo-European Armenians came to power on the waves of invasions. After the kingdom of Urartu had been destroyed, Armenians came to dominate the Urartian territory. At the same time, they absorbed parts of the remaining Urartian culture. In that sense the Armenians are the successors of the Urartians, but ethnically and linguistically they are the descendants of Indo-European invaders. Who the Urartians were, is still a mystery.