The remote, grandiose mountain-top sanctuary at Nemrut Dağı is unforgettable, while the mighty stone heads that adorn the temple and tomb of King Antiochus have become one of the famous images of Eastern Turkey.
Most visitors want to get here before dawn, in order to watch the sunrise. The majority of the available minibus tours are therefore geared up to suit those timings, despite the drawback of making such an early start – between 2am and 4am, depending on season – and the crowded and chilly conditions at the summit, which is 2150m above sea level. Between late October and April, there’s often snow on the ground. Minibus tours also target sunset, when it’s not so cold, and the setting sun bathes the western terrace in a warm glow. A daytime visit means fewer visitors and the chance to 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. A breakaway from the Seleucid Empire, covering only a small territory from modern Adıyaman to Gaziantep, the Commagene dynasty wouldn’t rate much more than a passing mention in histories of the region had Antiochus not chosen to build this 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 1881, when Karl Puchstein, a German engineer, located it while making a survey. Although he returned in 1883 with Karl Humann – the man who removed the Pergamon altar to Berlin – to carry out a more thorough investigation, only in 1953 did a comprehensive American-led archeological survey of the site begin.