Treasures of Urartu: a journey to an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

The legacy of Urartu has been lost, the mysteries remain. The editor of Around the World went to the shores of Lake Van in search of the treasures of a lost civilization and realized that these are actually very simple things

On a fine evening, following the residents of the city of Van, I go to the embankment to admire the view of the lake. People sit on benches and plastic stools, chatting while drinking fragrant tea from the Turkish version of the samovar, which is called similar — semaver. A cylindrical body with a pipe, a compartment for coals at the bottom, a teapot is heated from above.

Strings of interconnected balloons sway on the waves, locals like to have fun shooting them from pneumatics. In the pre-sunset haze, you can still see the Van rock on the horizon, located on the southern outskirts of the city. Three thousand years ago, it was the main residence of the kings of Urartu.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

The first state on these lands, Urartu, or the Kingdom of Van, lasted only three hundred years, and then the time of the Medes, Persians, Armenians, Greeks, Turks came … However, the memory of him now and then comes through the later “cultural strata”. Even the toponym Van, according to the main version, comes from the word “Biayni”. This is how its inhabitants called their country, and the Assyrian neighbors gave the name of Urartu to the kingdom.

The first treasure: bread and butter

In the morning, before the race along the historical monuments, a prudent tourist goes to one of the restaurants in the area of ​​Cumhuriyet Street for the sake of a different kind of attraction – the famous Van breakfast.

Van has a solid approach to the morning meal. The local breakfast can consist of dozens of items that promise a real feast even for one person. Murtuga – fried mixture of eggs, flour and butter, menemen – scrambled eggs with vegetables, sujuklu yumurta – scrambled eggs with spicy sausage, kavurmali yumurta – with meat.

Goat and sheep cheeses, among which the main local specialty is salty, with fragrant herbs otlu peynir; olives and olives; a variety of sauces, in particular thick yogurt-based tzatziki; sausages, stewed and fresh vegetables. For sweet & nbsp; – jam, dried fruits, fragrant honey directly in the honeycombs (another pride of the region), thick creamy mass of kaymak. pogacha buns… In 2014, Van even hosted the world's largest morning feast, listed in the Guinness Book of Records: 51,793 people were treated to traditional food at once.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

In ancient Urartu, food was taken very seriously. Throughout the region, archaeologists find the remains of state food warehouses and stone slabs with inscriptions: king such and such, in the name of god such and such, arranged a granary here.

I see a similar warehouse among the ruins of the Urartian fortress on the Chavushtepe hill, 18 kilometers from the city of Van, built under Sarduri II in the 8th century BC. e. Circles arranged in rows with a diameter of almost a human height are the upper edges of clay vessels dug into the ground for storing grain, wine and sesame oil. In cuneiform texts, the kings did not miss the opportunity to praise themselves for the well-arranged fruitful gardens, and when talking about military victories, they certainly mentioned how many thousands of heads of large and small livestock were stolen from the occupied lands. Taking care of food is quite a royal affair. As, however, about water.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey to an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

Second treasure: water

Lake Van is salty. Gardens and crops on its banks at all times needed channels with fresh water. Urartu had a developed irrigation system; its remains serve the locals today.

The most famous irrigation facility in the region is a 70-kilometer canal built in the 9th-8th centuries BC. e. by order of King Menua. Arrangement of an irrigation facility was considered one of the most prestigious royal deeds. As many as 14 inscriptions on stone slabs have been preserved along the banks of the Menua Canal about this. In one of these texts, the king very menacingly declares “copyright” to his offspring: “Menua says: [if] someone destroys this inscription, breaks it, someone will force someone to do it, [if] someone else says: “I am this the canal was laid, —let the gods destroy [it]…”

It didn’t help: nowadays the Menua canal is better known as the “Creek of Semiramis”, Shamiram-Su. Rumor attributed its creation to the Assyrian queen, the very one for whom, according to legend, they arranged one of the seven wonders of the world, hanging gardens. Semiramis (Shamiram, Shammuramat) was a contemporary of Menua, but had nothing to do with the irrigation system of the neighboring country.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

The three-thousand-year-old canal, whose banks are lined with massive blocks of hewn stone and once guarded by a chain of small fortresses, still functions perfectly. Its waters are used to irrigate about five thousand hectares of fertile land, as well as to generate electricity.

Springs flow into the canal from rocks in the upper reaches of the Khoshab River and head west to Lake Van. In ancient times, among other things, it supplied fresh water to the capital of Urartu, Tushpa, located around the Van rock with the royal citadel.

The third treasure: text

The Van rock is reflected in the long glass facade of the new building of the Urartu Museum. The old one fell into disrepair due to a strong earthquake in 2011. The museum is still closed, but, according to its employee, archaeologist Orkhan Cetin, in the fall of 2019 it will be ready to receive visitors (in 2022, the museum operates as usual. — Note by In the funds there is a huge collection of household items and works of art from Urartu, about a hundred thousand finds.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

There is also something to see outside, and I climb up the rock to the fortress, the outlines of which the traveler Evliya Celebi compared the 17th century with a camel on its knees. Battlements and adobe towers are late, from the time of the Ottoman Empire. The citadel survived the change of eras, earthquakes, cruel wars, and from the ancient Urartu there were only powerful stone blocks weighing several tons at the base of the buildings.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The surviving monuments of the Kingdom of Van are located “one floor below”. I carefully descend the stone steps along the southwestern slope of the cliff.

At the end of the trail there is a cave carved in stone of the 8th century BC. e., the tomb of Argishti I. It was plundered a long time ago, but thieves cannot take away the treasure along which I am walking – an annals of 23 years of the reign of this king carved directly on the stones. The wall is covered with a solid carpet of signs, signs, signs… The chronicle of Argishti is one of the two longest and most meaningful Urartian texts; the second, created during the reign of his son Sarduri II, was found in the same places.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

Treasures of Urartu: a journey to an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten on 25 centuries

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

Urartu residents borrowed cuneiform writing from Assyria. From Urartian and Assyrian cuneiform texts, deciphered for the most part, we know a lot about how life was arranged in the Kingdom of Van, who ruled there, how far the borders stretched, and, in fact, about its very existence for three hundred years.

The Centenary University of Van, the main scientific and educational center of Eastern Turkey, where more than 20 thousand students study, trains specialists who study these texts and everything that embodies the memory of a lost civilization. University archaeologists are excavating Urartian fortresses throughout the region. And recently, researchers from the Centenary University became interested in what the waters of Lake Van hide.


Urartu, which we have lost

People began to settle in the vicinity of Lake Van about five thousand years ago. The Urartian tribes that lived there were first mentioned in the middle of the 13th century BC. e. in the Assyrian text. After another 400 years, they united into the most ancient state in these places. Not least, this was done to protect against a formidable neighbor, Assyria. In the ninth century BC. e. The kings of Urartu built the capital Tushpa with a palace and a sanctuary.

The state expanded; During its heyday, Urartu was located on the territory of modern Eastern Turkey, parts of Iran and Armenia, occupying almost the entire Armenian Highlands. At the beginning of the VI century BC. e. the kingdom was conquered by the Medes who came from the east, but by the middle of the century Media with all the lands captured by it was conquered by the Persians. The territories of the former Urartu also became part of the Persian Empire.

After the IV century BC. e. the Persians were defeated by the army of Alexander the Great, a new state was formed around Lake Van, the Armenian kingdom of the Yervandids. But it was already a completely different era.

The fourth treasure: the lake

“Should I take a picture of you with the monster of Lake Van?” asks a local newspaper reporter we spoke to at a tourism development fair. “With… who?” – I turn around and see two life-size puppets waving at us: a Vanish white odd-eyed cat and a green reptilian unfamiliar to me. “It's like the Loch Ness monster, isn't it?”  – “Sort of. In the century before last, they wrote that the monster even dragged people to the bottom of the lake, but no one can prove the existence of a lizard. But now he is a symbol of Van.

Well, of course, in a territory full of treasures, there should be their chthonic guard. In ancient times, rivers and lakes were considered the border with the lower world of the dead and spirits. A hero or a shaman penetrated “to the other side” in order to obtain valuable knowledge. And he received it from a creeping or floating creature of the lower world, most often a reptile: a snake or a lizard. Over time, ideas have changed and new skills in myths have turned into material values. That's why fairy dragons are treasure keepers.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

The Monster of Van is a character in the urban legends of modern times. However, in these places he has predecessors – vishaps, water dragons of Armenian mythology. Perhaps the ideas about them are even older. There is a version that the story of how the thunder god Vahagn pulled out of Lake Van and destroyed the largest vishaps that threatened the existence of the world goes back to an even more ancient Urartian myth about the thunder god Teishebe, who defeated the stone snake Ullikummi.

However, in the modern world, some enthusiasts are trying to prove that the lizard in Lake Van is not a legend after all. Underwater photographer Tahsin Ceylan began to explore the reservoir in the 1990s to check the rumors about the monster. However, instead, he discovered other divas at the bottom of the lake: first, Seljuk tombstones, and recently, in 2017, an entire sunken ancient fortress, possibly Urartian. Now this underwater treasure is being explored by specialists from the Centenary University.

Walking outside the city along the coast, I understand why the locals call Lake Van the sea. Wide, in the entire horizon, it is cinematically beautiful. I go out to a deserted beach with a single bench and a table by the water. It really smells like the sea.

“Don't litter! There is no other Lake Van,” warns the sad monster on a poster installed near the shore. And the truth is, there is no other like it. The largest soda lake in the world; a natural “air conditioner” that softens the sharply continental climate of the region; “way of communication”, sometimes more reliable and profitable than roads; Finally, the embodied beauty. Indeed, a real treasure.

Treasures of Urartu: a journey into an ancient kingdom forgotten for 25 centuries

Il (province) Van, Turkey

Wan silt area 19,069 km²
Population 1,124,000 people
Population density 59 people/km²

Area of ​​Turkey 783,562 km² (36th in the world)
Population 84,600,000 people (18th place)
Population density 110 people/km²

ATTRACTIONSLake Van, Van Fortress, Medieval Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar, Ottoman citadel Hoshap, remains of the Urartian fortress Chavushtepe, House of the Van cat. ;- a kind of omelette, fried pearl mullet (the only fish found in Van soda lake).
TRADITIONAL DRINKS tea, Turkish coffee, ayran.
SOUVENIRS < /strong>woolen carpets, images of Van cats, painted ceramics.

DISTANCE1950 km from Moscow (from 5 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIME< /strong> matches Moscow
VISARussians do not need
CURRENCY Turkish lira (1 TRY ~ 11 RUB)


The material was published in the magazine ” Around the World” No. 9, September 2019, partially updated in May 2022

Natalia Ovchinnikova


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