Explore The Euphrates and Tigris basin
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.