Nemrut Dagi
Megalomaniacs and Prophets, Part One

stone head of Zeus
Giant stone head of Zeus
atop the mysterious Nemrut Dagi
Early morning -- Saturday, September 4.

"Andy! Susanne! It's 2:45am... We are leaving in 15 minutes."

At first I didn't process Özcan's words as he knocked on our door. Rarely have I ever had to wake up so early, but Susanne and I managed to shake away our sleepiness long enough for us to get dressed and join Maggie and Mike for our pre-dawn climb to the top of Nemrut Dagi.

To all of our credit, the entire group met in the lobby precisely at 3am. Özcan, Arkin and the elderly owner of the hotel placed a stack of thick blankets in the van while the rest of us checked our daypacks to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything. We climbed into the bus and began the 90-minute ride to Nemrut's base camp.

Susanne, Özcan and Maggie fell asleep quickly while Mike and I gazed out the windows into the darkness. The first half hour went by quickly as Arkin drove us down a paved road towards Nemrut. We then began the slow 2000m ascent, winding up a crumbling, one-lane gravel road. As we passed a wooden sign marked "Nemrut Mountain Park" in English, Arkin turned on the radio and quietly played a cassette of some of the most hauntingly beautiful music I've ever heard. A blend of vocals, saz and other traditional instruments, the music added another layer to my excitement, which had built up to the point that there was no chance of me sleeping in the van.

Susanne had first introduced me to the idea of visiting Nemrut Dagi nine months earlier when she brought home an enormous coffee table book from the National Geographic library entitled Peoples and Places of the Past. Long out of print, Peoples and Places was a crowning achievement in chronicling the history of human civilization, from the Inca of South America to the Khmer kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia. Of all the wonderful locations and stunning photographs National Geographic could have chosen to put on the cover of this book, they selected an image of gargantuan marble heads propped up on a desolate landscape at sunrise. Based on the design of the heads I had assumed they were of Persian origin, perhaps ruins from Persepolis or Pasargadae. Talking with Susanne later that spring, she insisted the heads were actually from somewhere in Turkey. Eventually we were able to purchase our own personal copies of the book, at which time she proved that the photo had indeed been taken on an obscure, remote mountainside in Turkey. The ancient stone faces of Nemrut Dagi were Anatolia's answer to the giant heads of Easter Island. Susanne and I both agreed that if we ever went to Turkey, we would go out of our way to find this amazing place.

In less than two hours I would finally see these shadowy figures. This was no time to sleep.

Archaeologists have done a fair job piecing together Nemrut Dagi's unlikely history. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, he left behind the largest empire the world had ever been seen, spanning from the Balkans to the Indus Valley. After more than a decade of squabbling, two of Alexander's aging generals began to reclaim much of the Macedonian's empire for themselves. Ptolemy the First consolidated a hellenic kingdom in Egypt while his ally Seleucus I Nicator annexed Anatolia, Syria and ancient Persia, laying the foundation for his new Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids dominated the region for over 100 years, though its power waned as the Romans ascended in the Aegean while the nomadic Parthians reclaimed Persia in 163 BCE. It was in this atmosphere that the strategic, yet obscure Syrian province of Commagene declared its independence from the rest of the Seleucid kingdom in 162 BCE. A mountainous kingdom straddling the frontiers of Parthian Persia and the dwindling Seleucid empire, hellenic Commagene grew wealthy and became an attractive prize to political upstarts and veterans alike.

In 80 BCE a Roman ally named Mithridates I Callinicus successfully positioned himself as the new king of independent Commagene. Like many kings of his time, Mithridates boasted of a glorious ancestral lineage and used it to reinforce his claim to the throne. In his case, Mithridates asserted to be a direct descendant of both Seleucus and the Persian king Darius the Great. By identifying himself with both the legendary Macedonian general and the ancient Persian Achaemenid dynasty, Mithridates advanced his political agenda as the predestined ruler of Commagene.

Mithridates' son, King Antiochus I Epiphanes, displayed an even greater obsession regarding his mythic lineage. Convinced that only a god could be so fortunate to rule a wealthy kingdom and keep cordial relations with both Romans and Persians at the same time, Antiochus saw himself as a god on par with the immortal denizens of Olympus.

Anatolian Trivia

When first constructed, the tumulus burial mound atop Nemrut Dagi extended over 200 feet above the mountain summit. But 2000 years have taken their toll on the mound -- an unrelenting series of earthquakes have shaken the mountain, causing over 50 feet worth of gravel to slide from the top. Today, the tumulus mound is still over 150 feet high.
Being a god, of course, required proper adoration. Just as Ramses the Great had done in Egypt, Antiochus dedicated himself to erecting monuments in honor of his self-styled deity status. Antiochus achieved his own warped form of immortality by commissioning a mausoleum to himself on the summit of Mount Nemrut, (Nemrut Dagi in Turkish), not far from his capital at Arsameia. The tomb itself was a tumulus burial -- an enormous mound of crushed stones that was so high it quite literally raised the summit of the mountain by over 200 feet. Along the perimeter of this tumulus mound, Antiochus installed giant marble statues of himself and his immortal colleagues, including Zeus and Hercules.

The Commagene kingdom lasted another five decades after Antiochus' death in 34 BCE, as it was absorbed into the Roman province of Syria in 17 AD. Over the centuries, long after the Commagene kingdom was forgotten by the rest of the world, a series of earthquakes rocked the giant statues until their heads plummeted to the base of the mausoleum plaza. There they rested in utter obscurity until an Ottoman archeologist stumbled upon them in 1881. In the 1950s, the site became a permanent archeological preservation project. Since then, a steady stream of dedicated travelers has come to pay their respects to the fallen memorial and the eccentric king who built it.

I was somewhat glad that the early morning darkness prevented me from seeing much of the outside scenery, for I could tell that our minibus was swerving along a rocky precipice, with each hairpin turn momentarily revealing what I imagined to be an infinite drop to the valley below. As we neared the top, Özcan woke up and increased the volume of Arkin's haunting music.

"What are we listening to?" I asked.

"It is Kurdish music," Özcan replied. "Arkin likes to drive to it."

"Is he Kurdish?" I inquired.

"Of course."

Technically, we had entered the region known as Kurdistan when we passed through the city of Kahramanmaras the previous afternoon. Stretching from eastern Turkey into Iran and down through northern Iraq and Syria, Kurdistan was the realm of the Kurds, a tribal people who speak a family of Indo-European languages distantly related to Persian. Kurds have been in the region since ancient times; in the second century BCE, chroniclers described a group known as the Cyrtii who served as mercenary stone slingers in both the Seleucid and Parthian armies. Two thousand years later, as Ottoman and Persian empires waged war on each other during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kurdish tribes were caught between the two powers. The Kurds leveraged their skills as warriors with both sides, collaborating with either imperial army whenever it was in their best interest. By the end of World War I, the victorious allies promised the Kurds a nation of their own. the Treaty of Sevres sliced up Anatolia into numerous principalities, with the Kurds receiving the eastern remnants of the Ottoman Empire. But the Turks valiantly resisted the terms of the humiliating treaty and a subsequent Greek invasion, reclaiming the whole of Anatolia under the military leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, hero of the Battle of Gallipoli. Atatürk successfully galvanized the Turkish people and went on to found the republic of Turkey. In the process of forging this modern state, the dream of an independent Kurdistan was shattered, leaving over 20 million Kurds as the largest ethnic group on the planet without their own nation.

It was just after 4am, though, and it was no time to talk politics. I wondered if we would have a chance to chat with Arkin about Kurdish culture, but I imagined we would not come to a time when it would seem appropriate. Our Kurdish education would probably have to wait until we arrived at Lake Van, in the heart of Turkish Kurdistan.

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!
Around 4:30am our minibus reached a gravel-cloaked plateau several hundred feet below the summit. Susanne and Maggie awoke from the bone chilling air that rushed into the bus as Özcan and the driver opened their doors. We gathered our blankets, wrapping them over our shoulders as we walked towards what appeared to be a concrete bomb shelter. Just outside the entrance we passed two slumbering backpackers cocooned in high-tech sleeping bags; I couldn't imagine spending the night in such a desolate, frigid place.

The interior of the concrete structure was far more pleasant. Part teahouse and part opium den, the room was decorated top to bottom in Turkish carpets and giant throw pillows. Several groups of old men sat inside, whispering conversations to each other as they warmed themselves with hot çay. I felt like we were retreating from a fierce winter storm into the cozy confines of a Turkestani yurt. Michael, Maggie, Susanne and I huddled along a wood bench as Özcan ordered us a round of tea and instant Nescafe. Arkin walked over to our table and handed us several guide books about Nemrut Dagi, though most of them were in German or French. Susanne and I thumbed through the books, enjoying the pictures and occasionally attempting to translate the French. On the back of one book I saw a list of other titles available from the same publisher, including one called "101 Humorous Anecdotes by Nasreddin Hodja."

After warming ourselves up, we again wrapped ourselves in blankets and prepared to make the ascent to the summit. Susanne stopped briefly in the bathroom while I played with my camera, attempting to get a long exposure shot of the summit by steadying the camera on a boulder. At 5:15am Özcan gathered us to begin our walk uphill. We stepped over shattered rocks and slippery mounds of gravel, following a steep path that lead to the summit. My blanket was wrapped over my shoulders and around my head -- I imagined I must have looked like Moses ascending Sinai. We walked slowly, stepping 10 or 20 feet before pausing to catch our breath. The cold air stung my lungs as they tried to keep up with my body's need for extra oxygen at this high altitude.

The sky was turning a dark blue by the time we reached a large stone platform near the summit. The platform faced due east, high above the lakes of Atatürk Dam and the surrounding peaks of the Anti-Taurus Mountains. To the west of the platform we found King Antiochus' tumulus burial mound -- a pile of gravel reaching 150 feet into the air. Along the base of the burial mound were the remains of Nemrut's eastern temple, with its famous stone heads propped just below a plaza of decapitated statues.

stone eagle head
Nemrut Dagi. The stone faces of the gods emerge from the darkness at sunrise.

While most people gathered on the platform, waiting for the sun to rise, Susanne and I anxiously inspected the stone heads, hoping to strategize the best photo spots. I was immediately struck by the modest size of each head; though most of them were six to eight feet tall, I had expected them to be much larger. Nonetheless, they were a wondrous site, with the visages of Olympian gods standing guard over the valley below. Zeus, Apollo, Hercules and Tyche were all represented, with a statue King Antiochus joining them as a way to articulate his equally divine status. Beyond these statues, lions and eagles decorated the plaza's periphery, not far from marble walls that terminated along the mountain's edge.

Realizing that the crowd on the platform would eventually migrate to the statues after sunrise, Susanne and I wanted to be sure we could get in some photos before too many people got in the way. Minute by minute, the sky turned lighter shades of blue. I sat in front of the statues eating a banana, regularly glancing through my camera's viewfinder to see if there was enough light to snap a picture. Initially the camera's light meter said it would require no less than a three second exposure, so I experimented with long shots taken from the ground. Just as the sun was about to peek above the horizon, I again looked into my camera's viewfinder. Exposure levels dropped steadily: one second, half a second, quarter second, eighth of a second. At 6:20am, Susanne and I turned eastward and saw a sliver over orange rays pierce the horizon. The crowd gathered on the platform clapped as the sun climbed skyward, projecting shimmers of light along the surface of the lakes below.

But the real view was in the opposite direction. Golden hues embraced the marble faces, contrasting with the long shadows that emanated from the rear of each statue. Susanne and I each began to snap photos in a rapid-fire sequence, for time was of the essence. Within 30 seconds of the sunrise the small crowd had dispersed from the platform, sending groups of people to climb the statues and pose for pictures. There was little we could do about it, of course, for we were in no position to monopolize the entire summit.

row of statues with no heads
The eastern platform of Antiochus' mausoleum, Nemrut Dagi.
The giant heads that litter the site once sat atop the statues, but subsequent earthquakes decapitated them.

stone eagle head
Nemrut Dagi. A stone eagle head dominates the foreground as the decapitated statues of the gods sit in the background

"Don't worry," Özcan said to us. "In a few minutes we will visit the western side of the mountain. When the crowds leave we can come back here. You'll be able to take all the pictures you want."

"I hope so," Susanne said. "This is really one of the main reasons we came here -- we wanted to photograph Nemrut Dagi."

stone head of Zeus
Heracles and Zeus atop
Nemrut Dagi's western slope
Trying to stay ahead of the other groups, we followed Özcan along a gravel path around the summit's perimeter. On the opposite side of the summit we found the western temple plaza. Decorated much like the eastern temple, the western temple was still hidden in shadows, only to be illuminated later at sunset. Upon our inspection of the western temple we realized that many of the famous pictures of Nemrut Dagi had actually been taken along the western temple at dusk. The giant marble heads were arranged differently than on the other side, making it easier to group several of them into one photo. As the sun rose higher in the sky we were able to take several pictures on the western side before the crowds returned. We spent 15 minutes wandering the plaza, examining the features of the marble heads. Behind the statues was a row of gray bas-reliefs, including several lions and an image of a naked man shaking hands with a uniformed soldier.

"That's Heracles shaking hands with Antiochus," Özcan said. "The handshake was a way of Heracles saying, 'I accept you as an equal.' Later this morning we will go to the Commagene capital of Arsameia, where you will see a similar picture of Heracles shaking hands with Antiochus' father, Mithridates."

Within half an hour of our arrival on the western slope, the crowds had all but disappeared. "Now we can return to the other side," Özcan said, adjusting his colorful blanket over his shoulder. "We should have it all to ourselves."

The four of us followed Özcan as we backtracked around the side of the mountain. Now that daylight had appeared, we could see an incredible view of the Kahta Valley, with smaller mountain peaks scattered across the distance.

tufa landscape
Susanne standing along the edge of Nemrut Dagi, with the Kahta Valley below her

Ozcan under a blanket
Özcan stays warm under a blanket
"I feel like we're back in Peru," Susanne said, walking along the gravel path.

"I know exactly what you mean," I replied, "especially with Özcan wrapped up in that multicoloured blanket. If I didn't know any better I'd say he looks like a Quechua Indian from Cusco."

As Özcan had promised, the eastern slope of Nemrut Dagi was practically deserted, save a middle-aged American couple that also was taking pictures.

"Is this your first trip to Turkey?" the husband asked me.

"Yes," I replied, "we've been here for about 10 days. We're going to Urfa later today, then we'll spend a few days around Lake Van."

"I wish we could take the same trip," he replied, "but we're not allowed to go any further east than Nemrut."

"Are you with the embassy?" I asked.

"No, I'm in the Air Force," he said. "Kurdistan is off-limits until the security situation improves. I'm sure you'll have all of eastern Anatolia to yourself. I hear it's really beautiful. Hope you're able to take advantage of it."

Andy and Susanne and a giant stone head
Andy and Susanne mug for the camera
at Nemrut Dagi
After the two Americans left the summit, Özcan, Maggie and Mike patiently waited for Susanne and me to take all the pictures we wanted. The two of us each spent at least a full role getting shots from every conceivable angle, hoping that at least a couple of pictures would come out well. Mike also took a picture of the two of us in front of one of the marble heads. All too often in our travels we forget to take any pictures of us together, so it was nice to have someone around to help us.

The five of us returned to the base around 7:30am, making a brief stop at the restrooms before joining Arkin for the ride down the mountain. Susanne had warned me from her previous experience in the bathroom that it might be a little unpleasant, but this did little to prepare me for the appalling conditions of the men's room. I was still fighting a head cold so I managed to avoid smelling the place, but visually it appeared that the bathroom had probably never been cleaned in the 40 years that Nemrut Dagi had been open to the public. I immediately thought of "The Worst Toilet in Scotland" scene in the movie Trainspotting -- whether you've seen the film or not, the title pretty much sums up the experience. Meanwhile, as I exited the bathroom, an attendant appeared out of nowhere and demanded 100,000 lira. "Yok," I said to him indignantly, refusing to pay for his so-called service.

We drove down the mountain along a different route, taking us in the general direction of Arsameia. The mountainside was dominated by rocky crags and red clay formations, though every now and then we would pass a pasture large enough for herds of sheep to gorge themselves on copious grassland. Halfway down the slope we picked up a young farmer and offered him a ride. He sat in the middle row, quietly humming along to Arkin's Kurdish music. As the song played, Özcan's eyes lit up in surprise.

"I just understood something in Kurdish!" he exclaimed. "I don't know very much Kurdish but they were just singing something about the mountains."

Özcan then translated his comments to Arkin, who laughed and replied in Turkish.

"Arkin says every Kurdish song is about the mountains!" Özcan chuckled.

Just beyond the base of the mountain we arrived at Arsameia, the ancient capital of the Commagene kingdom. Today there is little left of the city except a ruined citadel and its famous bas-relief of Mithridates and Hercules, so we expected this to be a brief visit. At a small house just across from the ruins, two boys were playing a song on their drum and flute as an old man danced on a stone platform. Özcan approached the old man and shook his hand, kissing his cheeks. Arkin, meanwhile, gave the man a bear hug and started to dance with him.

"I thought they were getting ready for a wedding," Özcan said, "but their three boys are about to have their circumcision. We can come back and listen to the music after we visit the ruins."

two boys playing a drum and a flute Arkin and a friend dancing
Two boys play their flute and drum as Arkin and their grandfather begin to dance

Özcan began to walk up a stone path as the four of us looked on. We realized that we would have to climb up several hundred feet in order to reach the ruins, and none of us was thrilled with the prospects after having just climbed Nemrut Dagi before dawn. Özcan seemed filled with limitless energy, though, and we struggled to keep up with him. About two-thirds of the way up we reached the bas-relief of Hercules shaking the hand of King Mithridates. The sculpture was in impeccable condition, hardly appearing to be 2000 years old. The dark gray stone was etched precisely and showed few signs of deterioration. A royal scepter resting on his left shoulder, Mithridates was sporting his imperial Sunday best while the nude Hercules casually held a menacing studded club.

"Has the piece been restored?" Michael asked.

"No, this is just how they found it," Özcan replied.

"I'm surprised it's not in a museum somewhere," I added.

bas relief along the hillside

We followed Özcan to the top of the ruins, where there was little to see except the crumbling foundations of several buildings and the remains of a small Mamluk fortress on the other side of the valley. Özcan threw a rock off the summit in an attempt to show us the severity of the drop to the valley below, but this only hastened my desire to leave the ruins. I was beginning to feel sore from the early morning climb, not to mention frustratingly hungry from our lack of a proper breakfast. We had been running around for six hours and I had only eaten a banana; my stomach was beginning to gnaw at my patience.

At the bottom of the ruins, the Kurdish family was still celebrating their boys' pending circumcision. Arkin was having a fine time with the grandfather, dancing to the rhythm of the leatherskin drum and trilling woodwind. Their jig reminded me of a Balkan square dance that I had once seen performed at a folk festival. The timing was unfortunate, though -- under any other circumstance I would have probably jumped into the mix and joined the festivities, but I was simply too tired to enjoy it. I paced quietly in front of the house as Susanne chatted with one of the daughters and Özcan began to dance with Arkin.

We soon returned to the van and descended into the valley. The Kahta River, which usually surged below the ruins, was barely a trickle in the dry season. A small herd of cows had wandered into the riverbed and cooled their hooves in the damp mud. We briefly stopped at the Cendere Bridge, a Roman structure built by emperor Septimus Severus around 200 AD. The bridge collapsed several years ago when a tanker truck drove over it, but it was quickly renovated. Arkin let us out just before the bridge and allowed us to walk across. Two marble columns once graced each side of the bridge, in honor of the emperor's wife and three sons. Today there are only three columns; some people believe that the emperor's son Caracalla destroyed the fourth column erected in honor of his brother Geta in 212 AD after murdering him in order to capture the throne.

Before returning to the hotel, we made one last stop at Karakus, a mountaintop tumulus burial built for King Antiochus' mother and sister. Much more modest in scale than Nemrut Dagi, Karakus is a deserted pile of rubble guarded by several massive marble columns topped with eagle statues (Karakus means "blackbird" in Turkish"). Growing ever more impatient, I preferred to pause for a picture and leave, but Susanne, Maggie and Michael all wanted to walk around the burial mound. I begrudgingly followed them. In retrospect I'm glad we visited it, for the views from the mountain were impressive; at the time, though, my bad mood clouded the experience. Circumnavigating the mound took no more than ten minutes, so we soon climbed back in the van and proceeded back to the hotel.

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