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The Lake Urmia region has a wealth of archaeological sites going back to the Neolithic period. Archaeological excavations of the settlements in the area have found artifacts that date from about 7,000 BCE and later.

Excavations at Teppe Hasanlu archeological site southwest of Lake Urmia also revealed habitations going back to the 6th millennium BC.

A related site is Yanik Tepe, on the east shore of Lake Urmia, that has been excavated in the 1950s and 60s by C. A. Burney.

Another important site in the area, from about the same era, is Hajji Firuz Tepe, where some of the oldest archaeological evidence of grape-based wine was discovered.

Kul Tepe Jolfa is a site in the Jolfa County about 10 km south from the Araxes River. It dates to Chalcolithic period (5000–4500 BC).

Se Girdan kurgans are located on the south shore of Lake Urmia. Some of them were excavated in 1968 and 1970 by O. Muscarella. They have now been redated to the second half of the 4th millennium, although originally they were thought to be much younger.

One of the early mentions of Lake Urmia is from Assyrian records of the 9th century BCE. There, in the records from the reign of Shalmaneser III (858–824 BCE), two names are mentioned in the area of Lake Urmia: Parsuwaš (i.e. the Persians) and Matai (i.e. the Mitanni). It is not completely clear whether these referred to places or tribes, or what their relationship was to the subsequent list of personal names and “kings”. But the Matai were Medes and linguistically the name Parsuwaš matches the Old Persian word pārsa, an Achaemenid ethnolinguistic designation.

The lake was the center of the Mannaean Kingdom. A potential Mannaean settlement, represented by the ruin mound of Hasanlu, was on the south side of the lake. Mannae was overrun by the Matiani or Matieni, an Iranian people variously identified as Scythian, Saka, Sarmatian, or Cimmerian. It is not clear whether the lake took its name from the people or the people from the lake, but the country came to be called Matiene or Matiane, and gave the lake its Latin name.

The Battle of Urmia was fought near the lake in 1604, during the Ottoman–Safavid War of 1603–18

In the last five hundred years the area around Lake Urmia has been home to IraniansAssyrians, and Armenians.