The small carpark on top of the hill, at the Urartian fortress ruins at Cavustepe, offers an impressive panorama of the surrounding countryside. A lush green plain, between two ridges, is laid out at our feet, sparsely punctuated with the occasional Kurdish village.
A small hut at the entrance to the dusty car park is full of small artefacts, postcards and other curios; black stones, engraved with Urartian cuneiforms and Arabic phrases. This is where Mustafa Kusman works, and it is him that I’m waiting for. Erzen, Mustafa’s son is watching over things while his father is away, but reassures us that we won’t need to wait for long. It’s not a problem. It’s a hot sunny day and the view is spellbinding.
Erzen is right – 10 minutes later, Mustafa returns… at the same time as a bus full of American tourists. We can only stand back and wait as he conducts a tour of the ruins, while Erzen lays out the engraved stones and postcards on a couple of tables in the shade of the coach.
Eventually the tour group turn their back on the ruins, and make a beeline for the tables in the carpark. The buying frenzy takes a further ten minutes before everyone climbs back aboard the tour bus, loaded down with postcards and souvenirs, and Mustafa is finally able to talk to me.
He’s a proud looking man, 65 years of age, with bright eyes and an aloof manner. Mustafa, known locally as “Urartu Mehmet”, explains how he first came to the Urartian ruins in 1963, at the age of 23, to work as a security guard at the new archaeological dig.
For 10 years he turned up for work each day and watched as the archaeologists slowly excavated more and more of the site, until one day, someone unearthed Urartian cuneiforms, engraved into the rocks. Mustafa stepped forward, willing to join in the research necessary to decipher the strange scribings, and subsequently embarked upon a twenty-year mission, learning all he could about the ancient language. By 1993 he was ready to start giving presentations on the subject and even teach it to younger students. Fluent in Kurdish (Kurmanji), Turkish, English, French and German, Mustafa is constantly in demand and never short of work, although he’s currently preparing Erzen to take over from him, as he’s now considering retiring within the next two years.
Mustafa’s presentations have taken him all over the world, often to meet the few others who share his knowledge of the Urartian language. Today there are 38 people, worldwide, able to read and write Urartian; 23 of those people are from Turkey, the rest from Russia and Europe. They meet annually, on the 25th May, at a symposium in Ankara to discuss the ongoing efforts to keep the language alive and preventing it from disappearing altogether.
The Urartian kingdom was originally founded around about 840BC, by Sarduri I. and finally fell around 550AD, most likely over run by the Medes. Following the collapse of the Hittite Empire, the Urartian kingdom grew around the shores of Lake Van in present-day eastern Turkey. The capital was Tushba on the eastern side of Lake Van, where the Turkish town of Van, itself, now stands. The Urartian territory extended from the Caspian Sea and the southern Caucasus, to eastern and southeastern Anatolia, and down as far as northeastern Mesopotamia.
From 764-735 BC the Urartian kingdom was at its strongest. Sarduri II, son of Argisti, reigned and the territory was being extended to the west as far as Aleppo, and to the south as far as Nineveh, present-day Mosul. It was around this time that the hilltop fortress was constructed at Sardurihinili (meaning city of Surduri), present-day Cavustepe…Some 2700 years later, Urartu Mehmet finally turned up for work.