Traces of the earliest settlement in this area are to be seen in the form of prehistoric cave drawings that have been found in places like Yesilalic, Yedisalkim, Capanuk, and Bihiri. The earliest inhabitants of Van of whom we have any definite information are the Hurrians, who dwelled here in the 2nd millennium B.C.
It was not until the middle of the 9th century B.C. that the Urartu and Nairi feudal principalities succeeded in forming a unified state. The true founder of the Urartu kingdom was Lutipri’s son Sardur I (840-830 B.C.), who built the original stronghold on the great outcropping of rock overlooking Lake Van and made it his capital.
An inscription on the walls of the “Sardur tower” (referred to locally as the “Madir burcu ” (tower) on the northwest slope Van castle relates the founding of Urartu kingdom. The Urartus originally wrote their inscriptions in the Assyrian language using the Assyrian cuneiform alphabet. Somewhat later around 820 B.C. they began writing their inscriptions in their own language. Sardur was succeeded by his son Ispuini (830-810 B.C.). He, and his son Menua, took advantage of the weakened condition of the Assyrians at the time and sought to increase their own power. The Urartus extended their control north and eastward as far as Azerbaijan and southward as far as the valley of the upper Tigris. One inscription relates how they conquered the city of Mushasir and built in it a temple to their supreme god, Khaldi.
At Meherkapi on Mt. Akkopru north of Van is an inscription by King Ispuini and his son. King Menua undertook public works, to enrich and strengthen the state. One of his projects involved a canal 51 km long to bring drinking water to the capital. Menua was succeeded by his son, Argishti I (780-760 B.C.). He continued the struggle with the Assyrians and inscriptions relate his victories over them. The inscription in his funeral monument on the Van citadel enumerates the places he conquered and states that he founded cities like Arin-Bert and Argisthinili.
During the reign of King Sardur II (760-730 B.C.) the Urartus took maximum advantage of the weakened condition of the Assyrians and their kingdom rose to the pinnacle of its power. Their dominions now extended from the Euphrates to Azerbaijan in the Iranian highlands and to the north as far as Lake Cildir. A new Assyrian king by the name of Tiglatpileser however managed to restore his army to something like its former strength and, in 742 B.C., defeated the Urartus, forcing them to withdraw to the nucleus of their territories around Lake Van.
The reign of Sardur II was a time not only of political supremacy for the Urartu kingdom but of cultural and artistic activity as well. The Urartu city at Cavustepe was founded during the reign of this king. From an inscription on the facade of the temple of Irmushini (a local god) adjacent to the Urartu Khaldi temple here, we learn that the king had this fortress founded in a place where nothing had previously existed and that he had given it the name Sardurihinili, meaning “City of Sardur”.
The Urartu kingdom was ruled by King Rusa I between 730 and 731 B.C. This king signed a treaty with King Midas of Phrygia, among others. He founded a city called Rusahinili (at Toprakkale, 3 km from Van) and built there a temple to Khaldi, palaces, and other big buildings. Rusa I however found himself having to deal with Cimmerian invaders from the west at the same time he went to war against King Sargon II of Assyria in 714. The result was an Urartu defeat and their cities were pillaged and burned by the Assyrians. On his return south, Sargon II looted the city of Mushasir carting off the rich gold and silver treasures of the Khaldi temple that was in the royal palace. Upon his death, Rusa was succeeded by his son Argisthi II. Like his father, the new king engaged in a struggle with the Cimmerians but his reign was a period marked by a rise of Urartu power.
Argisthi II was succeeded by his son, Rusa II (685-645 B.C.). Under this king great public works and projects were undertaken in the kingdom. Faced with a country depopulated by warfare, the king settled new groups of people within his dominions. In Azerbaijan he founded a city called Bastam and in the Caucasus, the cities of Karmir and Blur. This king also moved the center of state administration to nearby Toprakkale. At present- day Adilcevaz, he had the great castle called Kef built. A skillful strategist and diplomat, the king managed to divert the Scythians invading from the north and he established an alliance with the Assyrians against the growing power of the Medes in Iran.
Rusa II was succeeded by his son Sardur III (645-625 B.C.). During the reigns of his successors (Erimena, r. 625-605 B.C. and Rusa III, (605-590 B.C.) Urartu power appears to be on the wane. The last recorded Urartu king was Sardur IV (590-580 B.C.) It was his misfortune to succumb to the invading Scythians who overthrew the Urartu kingdom and brought it to an end. As the star of Persian power rose in the east, first the Assyrians and then the Urartus withdrew from the stage of history.
The written evidence of the Urartus achievements is supported by the remains of their art and architecture. The chief of the Urartu pantheon was, as we have said, Khaldi. Their sky-god was called Tesheba and their sun-god Shivini. They built magnificent temples to Khaldi in particular, remains of which have been discovered at Altintepe (Erzurum) and Kayakdere (Mus) as well as in the vicinity of Van (Patnos, Cavustepe, Adilcevaz, and Toprakkale). In addition to temples, the Urartus also developed a unique style of multi-columned palace. Excavations of Urartu sites have turned up examples of their metalworking-shields, cauldrons, and other objects in bronze and ivory. Urartu bronze cauldrons have ring handles and are decorated with the heads of bulls, lions, and other animals. Examples of their art are on display at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.
In addition to Van’s castle, visitors to this area are advised to see Cavustepe, the Akdamar church on the island in Lake Van, and the turbeh of Halime Hatun at Gevas, which one may stop at on the way to Akdamar. This magnificent tomb is dated to 1358.