Nemrut Dağ

Road trip to Nemrut Dağ!
Road trip to Nemrut Dağ!

A bucket list adventure: Nemrut Dağ in Turkey.

During our trip to Urfa (ok, most of our reason for going to Urfa in the first place) mum and I reserved an entire day to travel up and down to Nemrut Dağ. For those who do not know: this is a 2km high mountain in South-East Turkey, with huge statues dating to the small and long-lost Kingdom of Commagene. Think Easter Island, but Classical edition.

We made a deal with a local taxi company (I think Derya Taksi, but not completely sure!) to take us to Nemrut one day, and then Harran the next day. We paid 700 lira in total for two days – which was worth 0.25 to the EUR at the time. It is a 2-3 hour drive, and although the road is mainly highway there is some beautiful scenery along the way.

View from the mountain
View from the mountain

The ancient Kingdom of Commagene made up a small section of what is now Southern Turkey, bordering modern Syria, and in the direction of Armenia. It came about in the 2nd century BCE – when one Ptolemaeus established himself as ruler independent from the Seleucid Empire  – and ended in the 1st century CE – when Rome rolled into the region (Vespasian, specifically). (I had a  teacher at Durham University who was very knowledgeable on Commagene, so I am really worried I am making mistakes here by the way!) (He was obsessed with bridges.) (I’ll come back to that later.) Commagene is primarily an interesting subject of study (in my opinion) due to debates on its cultural identity; there are elements of Persian/Achaemenid/Armenian, as well as Hellenistic/Greek, mixed in with local Anatolian. It’s been called ‘Armenian’ and ‘Hellenised Iranian’ but also ‘Syro-Hittite’. Public inscriptions in Commagene were mostly made in Greek, but there is a good possibility that, like Palmyra, the day-to-day language was a dialect of Aramaic. The capital, Samosata, would have been on my bucket list as well, but it was sadly flooded by construction of the Atatürk Dam in 1989 – before I was even born.

The Atatürk Dam - now also somewhat of a local landmark
The Atatürk Dam – now also somewhat of a local landmark

So, the monument on Mt Nemrut is one of the most prominent surviving structures from mysterious Commagene. It is a tomb/sanctuary, built by King Antiochus I Theos in 62 BCE. As part of his official title, he used ‘friend of Romans and friend of Greeks’ – a nod toward his diplomatic skills. He managed to keep the Kingdom independent from Rome, and even became their ally. He also did the thing where he created an Emperor cult of sorts. By building the monument on Mt Nemrut, he encouraged worship of… himself (hence his name, Theos). He claimed to be descended from Alexander the Great as well as Darius the Great, and he was a big fan of astrology (his cult has consequently been linked to Zoroastrianism). His sanctuary had to be in a high place, close to the Gods – and he ordered construction of it a good thirty years before he actually died.

Two processional routes lead up to the sanctuary, one from the East and one from the West. After a ridiculous climb up the mountain in the June sun, mum and I circled both routes. (There was a little shuttle, but that was not part of our idea of an archaeological pilgrimage ok.) Antiochus gathered colossal statues of all the gods, on each terrace. They are meant to be ‘All-Nourishing Commagene’, ‘Zeus’ or ‘Oromasdes’, ‘Apollo’ or ‘Mithras’ (or ‘Helios’ or ‘Hermes’), and ‘Artagnes’ or ‘Herakles’ or ‘Ares’ (Eastern and Western editions of the Gods got merged). The statues are guarded by a lion and an eagle on either side. There’s also two rows of stelae, with depictions of Antiochus’ paternal Persian ancestors and his his maternal Macedonian ancestors.

Scattered heads at Nemrut Dağ
Scattered heads at Nemrut Dağ
Scattered heads at Nemrut Dağ
Can you tell who is who?

While the statues are huge, the site is otherwise somewhat… underwhelming? There is no city to explore, no temples left standing; only broken heads and broken bodies, atop an otherwise empty mountain. While Pompeii needs two days, Nemrut takes under two hours to see – and that is taking it slow. However, it is such a unique place. If I believed in Gods, ‘close to the Gods’ would be an accurate description. There were no other people there (apart from a couple of Turkish tourists who were there for a bayram outing), and in the silence, with only the rushing of the wind, on top of the country… Nemrut Dağ really is a place to contemplate the distant past, how much time has passed, and how far mankind has come.

Just chilling on the mountain
Just chilling on the mountain
Always study everything from all sides, there may just be a giant inscription hiding!
Always study everything from all sides, there may just be a giant inscription hiding!

We descended back to the massive, modern, and deserted visitor centre to meet our driver and head onward to a few more Commagenian landmarks. A beautiful, scenic, drive took us to Arsameia (also known as Nymphaios, not to be confused with the other Arsameia, on the Euphrates). This was one of the three most important cities of Commagene, and one of the palaces would have been there (summer palace, I think).

There is another processional way up the mountain (bit less steep, bit less high, this one). This is where Antiochus built a so-called hierothesion (holy burial site for someone belonging to the royal family) for his father, King Mithridates (the first). There are three important sites along the processional route. First along the route is the Mithras relief; this would have originally been two figures, but only Mithras remains. Of the second person only a bit of an arm is left, shaking the hand of Mithras. By its clothes, it looks like this would have been royal – Antiochus himself perhaps. I remember this turning up in my lectures – because a handshake between a God and a King is not seen that often!

Next along the route is a cave. It is not possible to go all the way inside, because (I guess for safety reasons) the chamber has been closed off, but I shone my torch through the fence and did not see anything particularly noteworthy. It may have been a temple (Mithras?) or a tomb (Mithridates?), but not much remains (looting?). Outside the cave, there are some more fragments of reliefs, and, perhaps most interesting, on the back of one of them is a huge inscription (I searched for a bit but I cannot seem to find a translation, sorry!).

Did I say handshakes between Gods and Kings are uncommon? Well, the third site along the way has a complete depiction of Mithridates shaking hands with Heracles. The King wears a typically Armenian crown, and Heracles can be recognised by his club. There is another cave (well, tunnel) there, with a big inscription above it, telling the history of the founding of Arsameia and the construction of the hierothesion. We did not venture down the tunnel, because apparently not much is down there, and we did not climb up to the Acropolis either due to heat & time constraints. There are actually two excellent articles with further details about visiting Arsameia here and here if you would like to learn more!

Mithras at Arsameia
Mithras at Arsameia
If I was a sculpture, that's where I would stand too
If I was a sculpture, that’s where I would stand too

We descended back to the massive, modern, and deserted visitor centre to meet our driver and head onward to a few more Commagenian landmarks. A beautiful, scenic, drive took us to Arsameia (also known as Nymphaios, not to be confused with the other Arsameia, on the Euphrates). This was one of the three most important cities of Commagene, and one of the palaces would have been there (summer palace, I think).

Next, we passed by the famous Severan Bridge (I said I would get back to the topic of bridges, right?). The bridge, which has an inscription dedicated to Emperor Septimius Severus on it, crosses the Cendere river – where we encountered lots of locals presumably celebrating bayram. This bridge is actually late Roman, built after the Romans had annexed Commagene; but of course some Commagenian influence remains (further inscriptions mention how they specifically contributed to its construction). The bridge was strategic: it was meant to help the Roman army march toward Parthia, or back from it (depending on how you like to date it). It is one of the largest, preserved, bridges from the Roman period – although it’s seen extensive renovations (1951 and 1997 respectively)… which I think is quite obvious from looking at it. The bridge was actually used for a long time into the modern period, but cars have recently been relegated to a new bridge next to it.

It is possible to visit a few more sites in this area, and it is certainly possible to spend a lot more time at each of them, but for us it was time to head back to Urfa. Until next time, Nemrut!

The Severan Bridge
The Severan Bridge

Author: Zen

Archaeologist & adventurer. Interested in vegetarian street-food, avoiding tourists and road-trips into the unknown. Originally from Holland - then Durham, Cambridge, Würzburg, Istanbul, Erbil - now London. Always learning a new language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.