Like every year we follow the news when the newly inscribed UNESCO sites are announced. We remember those new sites we have visited and talk about our favourites. One of our all-time highlights that we have never written a blog post about is our visit to Mount Nemrut in Turkey in 2006. Back then, the Turkey Lonely Planet edition sported a picture of the site on its front cover. That was when we first saw one of the giant heads standing at the top of Mount Nemrut. We got curious and decided to visit Mount Nemrut on our long overland journey from Japan to Europe.
What is Mount Nemrut (Nemrut Dagi)?
Nemrut (or Nemrud) is the name of a 2134 m high mountain in south-eastern Turkey. The Turkish name Nemrut Dağı means just that: Mountain by the name of Nemrut. Near the top of the mountain several tall heads of stone statues are scattered in a moon-like, treeless landscape. As Mount Nemrut is one of the highest mountains in the area, the clouds quite often make for dramatic backdrop skies. This stunning monument was built in the 1st century BC by the ruler of the Commagene kingdom, Antiochus I Epiphanes. He planned it as his final resting place, combined with a huge religious sanctuary. In fact, the whole mountain top is an artificial burial mount.
The former capital Arsameia
As we were spending a few days in the pretty town of Sanliurfa we asked around and found two other travellers to share a car with a driver for the trip to Mount Nemrut. It’s a 350 km roundtrip and on the way we make a brief stop at the giant Atatürk dam, one of the biggest and oldest dams in Turkey. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” beams our driver Mohamed. “Well, it is …. big!,” answers Isa diplomatically.
After a long ride on increasingly mountainous roads we reach Arsameia, the former capital of the Commagene kingdom on the eastern slope of the mountain. It is the first time we have heard about Commagene at all. The small kingdom was, for some 200 years, a buffer state between the Roman Empire and the Persian Seleucids.
Almost nothing is left of the former capital city. The Romans later plundered and reused most of the building materials. We walk around the rubble with our guide book, making out a paved processional way used for religious events.
In the area archaeologists also found a huge royal burial area, and two of the well-preserved burial stelae can still be seen. Both show rulers of Commagene shaking hands with gods. The reliefs are thus indicating the god-like status of the Commagene kings.
But our driver Mohamed seems shocked rather than impressed by the Greek god Herakles – who is stark naked. Thumping through his small dictionary he finally finds the word that sums it all up for him: “Immoral!”
The tomb of Antiochus I – great king of Commagene
From the site of Arsameia, we drive around the mountain to the burial complex of King Antiochus I. Antiochus I was the most famous king of the short-lived Commagene Empire. His father Mithridates claimed Persian royal ancestors and his mother was a Greek princess. With this bicultural background, it is no surprise that Antiochus’ kingdom, sandwiched between two huge empires, became a cultural melting-pot. Antiochus worshipped both Greek and Persian gods, and he founded a new syncretistic religion in which he morphed the corresponding gods into one. For example, Zeus-Oromasdes or Heracles-Artagnes-Ares.
The layout of his tomb includes a western and an eastern terrace, each dotted with 8 to 9 m high sitting statues of Persian-Greek gods. At the base of each statue was a plaque with the name of the god in the Greek alphabet. The headgear as well as the giant size of the images indicate Persian influences while the physical features of the gods remind of Greek statues. The heads of the statues were at some point removed, presumably by force. Today they are standing upright in front of the headless torsos, creating a strange sight.
The western Terrace on Mount Nemrut
The most famous piece of the Western Terrace, a large slab showing a lion with a chart of stars and planets, is just undergoing renovation in a museum when we visit Mount Nemrut. But from the composition of the stars historians and archaeologists could conclude a specific date! They think that perhaps construction work of the tomb started on 7th July 62 BC.
The Eastern Terrace on Mount Nemrut
A procession lane leads from the Eastern to the Western terrace. Antiochus I, while he was still alive, provided funds for extensive rituals after his death. His coronation would be celebrated on the 10th of each month, and on the 16th, his birthday. On these occasions the military and the citizens of Commagene were invited to a sumptuous feast and everybody was ordered (!) to be happy.
Around 20 years after the death of Antiochus I the Romans annexed Commagene and in the following years it lost importance. The Romans used most of the stones for bridges and roads and also cleared the thick forests. This is what caused the barren look of the area today. It was only in 1881 that German engineers assessing possible transportation routes for the Ottoman Empire discovered some remains of the Commagene Kingdom. And only in the mid-20th century archaeologists finally started excavations.
The modern Turkish state in the 20th century built roads that make the former mountain kingdom more accessible for tourists. But still, there are difficulties. On our two-hour drive back to Sanliurfa, we notice our driver Mohamed becoming agitated. He is holding out a chocolate bar to Natascha, frustrated with the plastic wrapping. It is Ramadan, and the sun is just setting behind a mountain. Mohamed has fasted the whole day, not even drinking any water. But with the quickly unwrapped chocolate and a few gulps of water, everything is fine.
What remains of a visit to Mount Nemrut?
It has been 15 years since we visited Mount Nemrut. We took photos and some notes, but what remains most is our memories of the surreal atmosphere. The huge stone heads, the wind, the lonely mountain top – and a long-lost, dreamlike kingdom we had never heard of before.
Altogether we spent 7 weeks in Turkey and visited some amazing UNESCO sites. Also read about our visit to Hattusha in Anatolia.
Note: All expenses on our trip to Mount Nemrut were paid by ourselves. We did not receive any sponsoring.