The remote, grandiose mountain-top sanctuary at Nemrut Dağı is unforgettable, and the mighty stone heads adorning the temple and tomb of King Antiochus have become one of the best-known images of Eastern Turkey.
The majority of people visit at dawn, to watch the sunrise, and most of the minibus tours are geared up to this timescale. The downside of a dawn visit is a very early start (between 2 and 4am depending on season) and a crowded and oft chilly summit (it’s 2150 metres above sea level). There’s often snow on the ground from late October until April. Minibus tours also target sunset, when it is less cold and the setting sun illuminates the western terrace in a warm glow. A daytime visit, however, means there are fewer visitors and you can explore the sanctuary at leisure and in the warmth.
The result of one man’s delusions of grandeur, the great tomb and temple complex of Nemrut Dağı was built by Antiochus I Epiphanes (64–38 BC), son of Mithridates I Callinicus, the founder of the Commagene kingdom. The Commagene dynasty was a breakaway from the Seleucid Empire, covering only a small territory from modern Adıyaman to Gaziantep, and it wouldn’t rate much more than a passing mention in histories of the region were it not for the fact that Antiochus chose to build this temple as a colossal monument to himself. Having decided he was divine in nature, or at the very least an equal of the gods, he declared: “I, the great King Antiochus have ordered the construction of these temples…on a foundation which will never be demolished…to prove my faith in the gods. At the conclusion of my life I will enter my eternal repose here, and my spirit will ascend to join that of Zeus in heaven.”
Antiochus’s vanity knew no bounds – he claimed descent from Darius the Great of Persia and Alexander the Great – but eventually he went too far, siding with the Parthians against Rome, and was deposed. This was effectively the end of the Commagene kingdom, which afterwards passed into Roman hands
The sanctuary lay undiscovered until the late nineteenth century, when Karl Puchstein, a German engineer, located it while making a survey in 1881. In 1883 he returned with Karl Humann (the man who removed the Pergamon altar to Berlin) to carry out a more thorough investigation, but it wasn’t until 1953 that a comprehensive archeological survey of the site began, under the direction of an American team.Read More
Behind the car-park buildings is the entrance to the site, beyond which is a fifty-metre-high tumulus of small rocks (rated by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest man-made mound, some 60m high and covering an area of 7.5 acres), thought to cover the tomb of Antiochus. It’s forbidden to climb the mound but the views from its base are spectacular enough.
A paved path leads along the south side of the tumulus, coming to a terrace area after fifteen to twenty minutes’ walk, on which stands the eastern temple with six decapitated seated statues, each several metres in height. Lined up in front of these truncated figures are the much-photographed detached heads, each measuring a couple of metres in height. From left to right they represent: Antiochus I, Fortuna (symbol of the Commagene kingdom), Zeus, Apollo and Hercules. Scattered around them are the remains of massive stone eagles and lions – one of each creature originally stood, as symbolic guardian, at either end of the royal line-up.
They were meant to incorporate several similar deities drawn from different cultures, according to the principle of syncretism, which Alexander the Great had promoted to try and foster a sense of unity among the disparate peoples of his empire. On the date of Antiochus’s birthday and the anniversary of his coronation, the Commagene people would file up to the mountain-top to witness the dawn sacrifice and make offerings, carried out in strict accordance with the Greek inscriptions carved onto the back of the royal statues. The stepped, sandstone sacrificial altar still stands in front of the statues.
A path leads around the northern base of the tumulus to the western terrace, lined by slabs once decorated with reliefs. None of the western statues is even partially intact, although the dispersed heads here are much less weathered than those on the east, and there are more statues – a complete set of five, plus two eagle-heads to flank them. The alignment of statues was originally the same as the east side, but the heads here have not been lined up in front of their “bodies”.
The best of the relief-stelae that once adorned the sanctuary, including the so-called Zodiac Lion, thought to be an astrological chart referring to the date of Antiochus’s conception, are currently being stored in a metal shed just below the funerary complex.