Sunset with the Talking Heads
26 September 2023
The windy road to the royal sanctuary atop Mt Nemrut can be a scary experience. The van steers through stunning views of mountains, valleys, rocky gorges and forests. It, our route is narrow and rough. Up the rocky mountain, the road curves and twists. We climb to Mt Nemrut.
Departing Gaziantep, we cross miles of flat, arid countryside. Apricot and fig orchards are interrupted by concrete buildings. This region of Asia Minor is a dry, continental climate. Major crops include sugar beet and cereals, including wheat, barley, and oats. Large, mechanized farms provide grains for animal feed, breads and brewing. We drive past many large fields of silage, corn, fava beans and hay, all to be stored for winter. Turkey is the biggest exporter of raisins in the world. Their grapes and subsequent wines are okay.
We topped off our morning with a flat tire coming down the steep grade into the town of Adıyaman. The earthquake destruction in Adıyaman was very visible with many piles of rubble, sagging buildings, and cracked masonry. This town was very close to the February earthquake’s epicenter. In Kâhta we stopped for lunch overlooking a tributary of the Euphrates. No goise or fish on menu though there were scores in water beneath restaurant.
The Karakuş Tumulus is a funerary monument for Queen Isias and Princesses Antiochus and Aka I of Commagene. It was built by Mithridates II around 30 BCE. Karakuş means “black bird”. The monument received this name because there is a column topped by an eagle. The funerary mound, or tumulus, is surrounded by columns which were once topped with steles and statues of a bull, lion and eagle. An inscription states that this is a royal tomb of three women. While the column collapse as a result of the February 2023 Turkey earthquake, it has been restored.
Our destination is 7,100’ Mt Nemrut, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. The road twists and turns through spectacular landscapes.
We pause to admire a Roman bridge spanning a tributary of the Euphrates. It contains little water. In 72 CE, when the Romans conquered Commagene, its great royal sanctuary was abandoned. Subsequently, Roman armies built the bridge then looted the mountain site.
Romans were great engineers and “hired” the builders. Their projects have lasted through the centuries.
Surrounding forests were cut and cleared, its trees used for wood, timber and charcoal. Even today, mountainsides remain pretty desolate. Four ancient pillars, some stone reliefs, and the remains of a fortress perch above us. However, it is the peak we seek. At the end of a rough road are ancient rocks, legends, “talking heads” and a promised sunset.
The Seleucid Empire
Originally, Mt Nemrut belonged to the Kingdom of Commagene, a small and independent Armenian kingdom founded north of Syria and the Euphrates River around 162 BCE. The Seleucids were established by Seleucus I, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. When Alex died in 323 BCE, he left no successor which led to conflict among his generals. Seleucus filled that void. Eventually, however, the mighty Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE) began losing control of the region.
The demise of his empire came because Seleucus got greedy for territory. His reign ended when Ptolemy assassinated him. This opened the door for King Antiochus I who ruled Commagene from 70 BCE to about 38 BCE. Antiochus claimed to be a direct descendant of Alexander the Great on his maternal side and King Darius I on his paternal side. Not having had any DNA verification, these were excellent claims but probably reflected arrogance more than factuality.
The “God King” used his special kinship with the gods to establish a “royal cult” to encourage his veneration after death. In keeping with Commagene Greek and Iranian cultural traditions, Antiochus’ cult was a synthesis of Greco-Iranian religion.
In 62 BCE, Antiochus ordered the construction of a sanctuary atop Mt Nemrut to which people could travel and pray to him. His high holy place was to be close to the gods in order to be in rank with them, and high enough that the whole kingdom could see it and remember him. The belief is that King Antiochus Ist was buried here.
Excavated in 1883 by German archaeologist, today Mt Nemrut is most famous for its ancient stone statues and monuments said to be arranged around Antiochus’ royal tomb. However, it remains unknown if Antiochus is interred here; no tomb has been discovered.
Giant Talking Heads
The main attraction for pilgrims and tourists, probably for over 2000 years, is two sets of giant stone heads atop the mountain. One set faces the sunrise while the second faces the sunset. Mysterious and impressive, the heads represent the gods of Zeus, Apollo, Hercules, and Tyche the goddess Commagene (goddess of luck, fortune and prosperity). Flanking these heads are sandstone sculptures of a lion and an eagle. And there in the middle of them all is good but prideful King Antiochus, having placed himself in their elite company.
Heads are scattered across the mountain terraces; they were once connected to towering seated bodies. Over time, the heads and bodies became separated. Several stelae and what is thought to be a throne remain. Antiochus loved to support the idea that he was a “God King”. One large stone relief depicts Antiochus shaking hands with Hercules, his predecessor by about 1000 years. In another relief, he is depicted alongside Mithras-Helios. Originals are in the Gaziantep museum.
Distinct Persian influences are evident, represented by stelae depicting Antiochus’ Greek and Persian ancestors and an eagle head. The western terrace contains a large stone depiction of a lion. The arrangement of stars and planets Jupiter, Mercury and Mars is believed to be a drawing of the sky on 7 July 62 BCE. The entire site, large and rocky, is a wonderful place to wander and wonder.
Sunset on Mt Nemrut
And, as many pilgrims before, a sunset closes our evening. One can never expect the gods to create a sunset just for mere mortals’ pleasure. However, we have paid the proper respect to Nalena the Goddess of Twilight and sisters Hesperides, the Greek goddess-nymphs of the golden light of sunsets. As the sun descends, the changing colors of the sky cast a warm and golden glow over the rugged terrain and the ancient monuments. The large statues and heads bask in the last rays of light. After, the heads and their gods have the mountain to themselves.
We make our way to the Nemrut Ephrat Hotel, thankfully just down the mountain a bit. The hotel is located within the borders of Mt Nemrut National Park and has beautiful views of the mountain and Antiochus’ historic Kingdom of Commagene. The accommodations are basic.
My evening ends with a cold Efes and the knowledge that Antiochus knew how to build a sanctuary. Furthermore, I am so over navigating that winding road.