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An Urartian Ozymandias

By Paul Zimansky

No "half sunk, shattered visage" reminiscent of Shelley's Ozymandias has yet been found in the highland region around Lakes Van and Urmia,1 but a forgotten potentate who could have commanded the mighty to look on his works and despair, is emerging from mists of Anatolian history. A series of independent archaeological discoveries, some old and some quite recent, reveals that the most energetic instigator of building projects in the Iron Age Near East was a ruler who inspired no legends and about whom the written record tells us very little-Rusa II, the last great king of Urartu. The reputations of better known figures such as Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, and the kings of Assyria rest on the enrichment of pre-existing sites or at best the foundation of a single capital. Rusa, however, built new fortress cities all over his realm, each instance involving manpower, technical skill, and matÚriel on a scale that the better known figures would be hard pressed to match.

The kingdom that Rusa controlled in the second quarter of the seventh century bce stretched across the mountainous terrain of eastern Anatolia approximately eight hundred miles from east to west and five hundred from north to south (Kleiss and Hauptmann 1976). Much of this territory was sparsely populated and best suited for pasturage. Urartian settlement was concentrated in pockets beside the lake shores and in isolated locations where river valleys broadened sufficiently to permit intensive cultivation of the alluvium through irrigation. A highly integrated network of fortresses and roads bound these focal points together (Zimansky 1985).

By the time Rusa came to the throne, Urartu had weathered the repeated attacks of the powerful Assyrian Empire for a century and a half. Its artisans had generated their own distinctive style which can be seen on thousands of surviving bronze and stone artifacts. Its rulers had set up hundreds of monuments bearing cuneiform inscriptions in the Urartian language. Urartian kings waged annual military campaigns, rounding up booty and captives by the thousands from neighboring populations. They ordained sacrifices of countless animals to a populous pantheon, presided over by a god, Haldi, who seems closely identified with the state. (Piotrovsky 1969; Wartke 1993). Much construction had also been undertaken: in addition to fortresses, roads, irrigation projects, their dedicatory inscriptions speak of temples, cult sites, storehouses, and specialized structures whose function is not understood.

While the creative accomplishments of Urartian civilization have been recognized since the nineteenth century, we would have no conception of the personal importance of Rusa II without the testimony of recent archaeological excavations. In fact, other sources of evidence consigned him to obscurity. The dynamics of Urartian history have generally been interpreted through the written record, much of which comes from biased Assyrian reports. The Assyrians are most informative about Urartu in the late ninth and eighth centuries, but singularly laconic in the seventh. The texts of the Urartians themselves, particularly building inscriptions, have nearly the same temporal distribution. Taken together, these historical sources point to 714 bce as a time of crisis and shift in Urartu's fortunes.

In that year, Sargon II of Assyria invaded Urartu, sending his armies through five Urartian provinces on a mission of destruction. This is the best documented campaign in Assyrian history, thanks to a poetic and lengthy "letter" to the god Assur, now the pride of the tablet collection of the Louvre (Thureau-Dangin 1912). Here Sargon reported on his actions, apparently quite soon after his return. Although he makes no mention of it in the letter, Sargon's attack appears to have been undertaken when Urartu was reeling from another defeat that was probably even more devastating: the warlike Cimmerians made their first appearance in history by routing Urartian forces and killing a large number of governors in the process. We learn of this not from any public claim, but from letters transmitting intelligence gathered by spies along the Assyrian/Urartian border to Sargon's court.

The sense that the Urartu suffered serious damage at this time is reinforced by Urartian records themselves-not so much in what they say, but by a sharp drop in the number of inscriptions. Most of the documents that survive from Urartu are not clay tablets, but display inscriptions carved in stone, virtually all of which were royally commissioned. They are generally stylized and repetitive. The majority are building inscriptions on blocks that were set into the architecture of structures such as temples, storehouses, and fortresses. Others were written on living rock to record victories in a specific campaign. The latter are particularly useful in gauging the extent of the empire and understanding something of its historical geography. In essence, Urartian texts appear to act as something of a barometer of royal fortunes. Around 714 bce, the barometer fell.

Thus, to earlier generations of scholars, it appeared that Urartu's era of greatness was the eighth century, after which the kingdom was more or less in eclipse. To be sure, there are enough seventh-century Urartian inscriptions to make it clear that Urartu survived. Argisti II, the immediate predecessor of Rusa II, actually left monuments farther to the east than any other king. Roughly a dozen inscriptions of Rusa II were found. Post-dating these, several isolated royal display inscriptions were carved in the name of third, rather obscure Rusa, who calls himself the son of Erimena. This is a modest corpus compared to the scores of inscriptions associated with each eighth century ruler, and there are no elaborate annals, such as those of Argisti I or Sarduri II, recording military campaigns.

Archaeological evidence, however, rescues the reputation of Rusa II and dramatically counters the notion that Urartu slipped into an irreversible decline after Sargon's attack. The discoveries came so gradually that their overall import has hardly attracted comment along the way, but it is now clear that Rusa II brought Urartu to a level of architectural magnificence that none of his predecessors attained. Some of the clues to his importance have been known for decades; others are still coming from the ground. The key fact is that there are now five sites founded by Rusa II, each one of major significance. Rusa seems to have done as much building as all of the other Urartian kings put together.


The first of Rusa's enclaves to become known archaeologically was Toprakkale, a fortress on the outskirts of modern Van and the first Urartian site ever excavated. In this case, the issue was not the importance of the site, but the identity of its founder. Urartian inscriptions are generally clear on who built what, giving both the name of the king and his patronymic. Here, however, the evidence is circumstantial. The citadel rock at Van, which lies some five kilometers to the west of Toprakkale, was the original center of the empire, and beside it stood the capital city of Tuspa. Toprakkale is a more defensible site, and it was long believed that the reverses of the late eighth century caused the Urartians to build there to give their empire a more secure center of government.

The ancient name of Toprakkale, Rusahinili, indicates that it had been built by a king Rusa, and the logic of this argument was that this should refer to Rusa I, Sargon's opponent and the grandfather of Rusa II. A broken inscription found at site of KesŸisŸ Gûl, which mentioned an irrigation project to provide water to Tuspa and Rusahinili, was for a long time attributed to Rusa I, but only because it was erroneously assumed to join another block, which bore the name of that king. This identification has now been rejected. New inscriptions have emerged which demonstrate that Rusa II both set up his throne in Rusahinili and moved the god Haldi there, so it seems almost certain that he was also the founder of this Rusahinili. None of the many artifacts found at Toprakkale can be dated to the eighth century (Zimansky 1985:77-78), but several bear inscriptions of Rusa II and other seventh century kings.

Karmir Blur/City of Teisheba

The "City of Teisheba" was a second major site created by Rusa II, securely identified by a building inscription found in situ. Located at modern Karmir Blur, on the outskirts of Erevan, in the Armenian Republic, this is the kind of site archaeologists dream about: violently destroyed and rich in well-preserved remains. Although most of its inhabitants seem to have been spared when the fortress was put to the torch, the collapsing walls created a level of debris meters thick. These nearly anaerobic conditions enabled biological materials as well as luxury goods to survive. The complete ground plan of the citadel has been unearthed and the functions of the 150 rooms can be determined by their inventories. There were eight wine magazines, each with scores of pithoi large enough for a person to crawl into. The excavator estimates the total storage capacity at 9000 gallons of wine and 750 tons of grain (Piotrovsky 1969:133). There is also an associated town containing houses of both the lower strata of society and the elite (Piotrovski 1969:177-78). Like Toprakkale, Karmir Blur offered cuneiform tablets which show that it was directly administered by the Urartian king (Zimansky 1985:80-84). No excavation in Urartu has provided a richer yield of small finds or better architectural preservation. Bastam/Rusai-URU.TUR

Around the turn of the century, an inscription in which Rusa II claimed to have built a place called "Rusa's Small City" (Rusai-URU.TUR) was found in a secondary context, built into a bridge in the village of Kasyan, in northwest Iran. In 1968, Wolfram Kleiss of the German Archaeological Institute in Teheran discovered the site to which this referred beside the nearby village of Bastam. Despite its name, Rusai-URU.TUR is one of the largest Urartian enclaves known (Kleiss 1983:283-84).

"Rusa's Small City" was constructed on a steep spur of rock that controls access to a plain watered by the Aq Chay. The entire eminence was fortified from plain level to summit, the difference in elevation being such that each day it took the German excavation teams half an hour to climb to their trenches from their base camp near the Urartian settlement below. The lower settlement was an extensive city which stretched out for nearly a kilometer along a wadi. Everywhere, the remains speak of architectural magnificence. Again, there are enormous areas of the site given over to storerooms, only a few of which were cleared by the time the Iranian revolution brought the excavations to a close. The stone foundations of the walls, which are still visible from miles away, are grounded on special footings carved into the bedrock, which must have required thousands of human-years of labor to prepare. The small finds at Bastam are not particularly rich, probably because those who conquered the site had the good sense to wait until after they had pillaged it before setting it ablaze. Nevertheless, excavators unearthed more administrative tablets, as well as countless bullae bearing the royal seal of Rusa II (Kleiss 1979, 1988).

Kef Kalesi

A fourth site of unusual prominence was discovered near the north shore of Lake Van in the 1950s and excavated by a Turkish team led by Emin BilgiÙ and Baki ·gÄn (1964). Once again, an inscription in its secondary context provided the key to recognizing the site's prominence. Surveyors found the stone near the village of Adilcevaz in a retaining wall that had slipped into Lake Van (Burney and Lawson 1958). The Adilcevaz inscription mentioned that Rusa had imported captives from the west and settled them here. On the high ground well back from the lake, Charles Burney identified a major citadel at Kef Kalesi, and the Turkish excavators later uncovered a palace and fortress complex. Sculpted pylons, some of which bear inscriptions of Rusa II, make it clear that this was the site from which the Adilcevaz inscription originated, along with some of the fine pieces of Urartian relief sculpture which were found with it.


Although recent turmoil has curtailed archaeological work in Urartu, evidence for Rusa's importance continues to emerge. Altan ­ilingiroglu of Ege University in Izmir has begun excavations at Ayanis, on the shore of Lake Van thirty km to the northwest of Van itself. Once again, this citadel was founded by a king and suffered a violent destruction. The biggest surprise is the name of the site-an inscription of Rusa II establishes that like the fortress at Toprakkale, it, too, was called Rusahinili. The inscription makes a distinction between the two Rusahinilis with an epithet.

In sum, Rusa II gave his name to three fortress complexes-Bastam, Toprakkale, and Ayanis-and founded at least two others of significant size-Kef Kalesi near Adilcevaz and Karmir Blur. These are among the largest and richest Urartian sites. No other Urartian king is known to have created more than one enclave on this scale, and none named more than one site after himself. Something extraordinary was going on during Rusa's reign.

If Rusa was the commanding figure his architectural works suggest, why did he make so little impression on posterity? We know nothing about his personality: there is no portrait, no anecdotal material, no reference to him in Greek historiography or the Bible. Two factors may help to explain this paradox. In the first place, none of the great works of Rusa survived very long after his reign. Secondly, the Urartian empire itself was structured in such a way that its culture was ephemeral and its legacy unlikely to be transmitted to posterity. Both of these hypotheses require some elaboration, and both are dependent upon recently won archaeological evidence.

Let us first consider the question of how long the kingdom lasted after Rusa. Until quite recently, the standard answer was that a biblical reference (Jer 51:27) and Neo-Babylonian chronicles proved Urartu was still a power until around 590 bce. Greek historians record that the Medes were in control of eastern Anatolia by 585 bce, so there is no possibility of an Urartian kingdom after that.

Stephan Kroll (1984) has recently challenged this sixth century date on the basis of several strands of evidence, the most compelling of which come from excavations at Bastam. There, in several rooms, excavators found the bones of thousands of animals in association with bullae impressed with the seal of Rusa II. A few other sealings with names that sound royal-names that others have argued belonged to late Urartian kings-also came from the same context, but they constitute only a small percentage of the evidence. These sealings were peculiar in that they all had the same iconography, which differed from a royal seal. The owners were given a title, lþA.NIN-li, which may mean "prince," but certainly does not mean "king." Kroll has interpreted the bone assemblages as meat storage of some form, and since there is little likelihood that meat would be kept for decades, the citadel had to have been destroyed in the reign of Rusa II (Kroll 1984:157). Since there is no evidence that the other persons named on the bullae ever ruled, most of these putative later kings now appear simply to have been members of Rusa II's royal family.

Kroll dismissed the other evidence for a prolonged existence of Urartu: the references in Neo-Babylonian chronicles of 609 and 608 bce were to a geographical region, not a kingdom, and Jeremiah contains many other anachronisms, quite incompatible with its ostensible date of 594 bce (Kroll 1984:165-168). Allowing for the existence of two obscure Urartian kings after Rusa-Rusa son of Erimena and a Sarduri, who is mentioned by Assurbanipal-Toprakkale and Karmir may have outlasted Bastam by a decade or so, but the kingdom of Urartu was essentially gone by around 640 bce (Kroll 1984:170).

Having taken part in the excavation of the bones at Bastam myself, I cannot agree with Kroll's interpretation of these as meat storage rooms. The bones were simply too fragmentary, too closely packed, too burned, and too disarticulated to have had flesh upon them when the citadel was destroyed. I believe that the bones themselves were being kept, perhaps because leftovers from the king's meals were tabooed in some way (Zimansky 1988).

In any case, neither the evidence nor my interpretation of it invalidates Kroll's basic point about chronology. Whatever the reason the bones were in these rooms, they were put there in the time of Rusa II and no other king either added to them or removed them. The royal activity that created these assemblages was clearly practiced on a grand scale in Rusa's time. Similar rooms full of bones were found at both Toprakkale and Karmir Blur. If, as seems likely, they were associated with an essential Urartian institution or ideology, one would expect later kings to be represented as well. Although this does not constrict the time frame as tightly as the meat storage hypothesis, Rusa II was in all probability the last ruler of any consequence at Bastam.

The Urartian kingdom was thoroughly destroyed, not simply taken over. None of the great foundations of Rusa II were reoccupied and their toppled mud brick walls soon decayed into amorphous mounds of soil. In the absence of historical records, the agents of Urartu's demise cannot be identified with certainty. The traditional date would implicate the Medes, whereas the earlier one would give a larger role to the Scythians-a non-sedentary people whose reputation in Asia Minor is rather like that of the Cimmerians. If the Medes inherited the territory after a hiatus of some decades, there was little possibility of any direct transmission of institutions and historical memories. We know almost nothing about the Median empire, except what Greek historians like Herodotus tell us. Their presumption that it had the same sort of structure as the later Achaemenid Empire-which might well have co-opted Urartian administrative mechanisms-is highly suspect (Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1988). When Xenophon passed through Urartian territory in 401 bce, ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Armenians were prominent, and there was little to remind him of Urartu or its greatest builder.

Another reason that Rusa was so quickly forgotten has to do with the nature of the Urartian cultural tradition. What we really see in the Urartian assemblage is a set of styles, artifacts, and features that pertain to a military elite, rather than to a broad spectrum of the population. The best known Urartian sites are fortresses, and the most characteristic artifacts are bronzes, particularly pieces of royally dedicated equipment. The Urartian religion appears to be a state religion (Salvini 1989), and the god Haldi, who stood at the head of the pantheon, vanishes with the Urartian state. Urartian writing, as noted above, is almost entirely royal.

There obviously was a popular culture, or perhaps a variety of popular cultures within the state. Somebody spoke Urartian, obviously, but there was plenty of room in the interstices of this society for other groups like the Manneans, Kurds, and Armenians to have their own traditions. When the elite government was swept away, presumably by the Scythian invaders in the late seventh century, no unity persisted underneath.

So "nothing beside remains." The memory of Rusa perished, lost not in "lone and level sands," but in the folded terrain around Mt. Ararat. Posterity, at least in the West, has been more impressed by the works of Oriental potentates whose construction projects are more imagined than real, such as those of Semiramis, Ramses, and Solomon. Sargon will be remembered as founder of Khorsabad, even though he never finished it and his efforts at that single site were no greater than Rusa's at Bastam alone. When it comes to creating legends by architectural accomplishment in a land of mud brick and stone, the written word is clearly mightier than the trowel. The imprint of Rusa's majesty and the grandeur of the kingdom he commanded in its latter days survive nevertheless in the soil. It is to archaeologists that he must entrust the restoration of his reputation.

1 Shelley's poem ends: "And on the pedestal these words appear:/'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,'/ Nothing beside remains./Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away."


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