January 13, 2019

Mount Nemrut. The resting place of a God

I have travelled to many historic sites, but until recently I had never even heard of the colossal statues of Mount Nemrut in Southern Turkey. It was on a trip to Cappadocia that I picked up an old copy of the Lonely Planet in a cave hotel which had one of the weathered heads on its cover. Since then I have been planning to visit.

There are many places I often put on a list to visit, and while Mount Nemrut was certainly high. there were always so many other places that always seemed to be either easier to get to, or were a higher priority. After all, I already had been to Turkey many times.

Mount Nemrut jumped to the top soon after I met a Turkish traveller in Moldova of all places.  He lived nearby and told me there was an increasing likelihood that the heads would be moved to a new museum in Adiyaman and replaced with replicas. There had been talk of this for some time, but with the international success of the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep it seemed to be becoming more likely, particularly as the two cities are great rivals, and Adiyaman lacks a world-class museum.

I could understand the need to protect the statues, as the winters are brutal at that altitude closing the site due to snow for most of the year, with only May to October the site being actually accessible, but I really wanted to see the originals in-situ. Copies would never be quite the same, so I started to make plans to visit Mount Nemrut.

Getting to Adiyaman is fairly easy. There is an airport, and the whole area, including Mount Nemrut, is just outside the British and Australian 'Do Not Visit' part of southern Turkey, due to the close proximity to Syria (check your countries Travel Advice before visiting), unlike Gaziantep. Even so, the only non-Turkish tourists I encountered during my stay were a couple of German backpackers. For such an impressive sight, it was incredibly empty.

Mount Nemrut taken from halfway up the climb to the top

A little bit of history. Antiochus I ruled the kingdom of Commagene a little over two thousand years ago. This country became incredibly important as it sat between two great powers who were involved in a battle for dominance over the region, the Roman and Persian Empires. Antiochus was  a skilled negotiator, arranging treaties with both sides.

Although his kingdom was small, Antiochus was treated with great respect by the competing empires, due to its strategic position (not that it did it Commagene any long-term good, it was soon after invaded by the Romans). This, along with a probable predilection for megalomania, led to him being convinced he was a God and to start a new religion, with him at its head.

Antiochus chose the highest mountain in Commagene, Mount Nemrut (2150 metres, 7,000 feet) to build a religious monument, as close to the Gods as possible, where his people could come to worship. The mound behind the statues is thought to be the burial place for the king.

Ancient texts have been found that acknowledge the mountain top as the kings tomb, although the limited excavations so far (including a somewhat ill-advised use of dynamite in an earlier unscientific attempt in 1882) have yet to discover his remains.

An artists impression of  the newly built Mount Nemrut from the Gaziantep Museum of Archaeology

Having hired a car in Gaziantep to explore much of Southern Turkey I drove to Adiyaman. It took about three hours and the roads are easy to drive on. There is the odd slow moving truck that requires overtaking, but there are a lot of dual carriageways and I found the drivers extremely courteous. Ten times better than driving in Sydney.

I had booked a hotel close to Mount Nemrut, the Karadut Pension which was cheap and cheerful. Recommended for the impressive dinner for about US$5, as well as the cold beer served after the climb up the mountain. Not luxury, but I slept well, which is what counts. They also offer transfers to the Mount Nemrut Car park for sunrise and sunset, but I strongly recommend you have your own car to fully explore the area and have the flexibility to travel when you want.

Which leads into perhaps the biggest issue about tourism to Mount Nemrut. All organised tours seem to only offer sunset visits. Now the sunset from high up in the Taurus mountain ranges can be impressive, as you can see from the photo below. However, I had not come all the way to this remote part of Turkey just to view a sunset, I want to see the colossal statues. And for photography buffs, and even those who just want to view the archaeological site, sunset is not the best time as the heads are dark and their features hidden.

There are two main terraces, situated on the East and West sides of the mountain. The East Terrace, which is the most complete, is best viewed from 3PM onwards when the sun lights up the heads and allows excellent photography. You can then stay for the sunset, which depending on the time of the year, is three to four hours later.

The West Terrace is best viewed from 10 AM to midday, again when the sun is directly on the heads. With the luxury of my cheap rental, I was able to visit twice to fully capture the impressive statues on either side of Mount Nemrut.

The West Terrace at Mount Nemrut
Perhaps, more importantly, to fully enjoy the atmosphere of this stunning place at these times of day I was the only person on top of Mount Nemrut, apart from the bored security guard. Come sunset the tour buses arrived and a few hundred tourists chatted, laughed and were continually shouted at by the aforementioned security guard for climbing over the ropes and trying to touch the statues.

Surprisingly, for such a wonder of the world, there is no admission fee. There used to be one, but since the hordes of (foreign) tourists declined as the Syrian civil war grew, the ticket booths are empty and the boom gate is left in the raised position. There is a car park about 500 metres below the statues (free parking) at a small museum, cafe, and gift shop (for those who want a fridge magnet of Antiochus I's head).

A small minibus charges 5 Lira (less than a US$1 depending on the current state of the local currency) to take you to a spot where you walk up the 400 or so steps to the top. It is a fairly easy walk, with benches helpfully provided for those whose legs tire easily.

The East Terrace at Mount Nemrut

And then you encounter the statues, which will take your breath away. Earthquakes have led to all the statues head being toppled, but they are equally impressive in their new positions at ground level. The man-made pyramid of stone chips, which may well be Antiochus's burial ground, rises up behind the statues, adding an extra 50 metres to the height of the mountain.

You really begin to appreciate the effort required to build this, as well as the statues, and then haul them up to the mountaintop after you have walked up only a part of the way from the bus drop off point. The heads include animal guardians, lions and eagles, the kings' ancestors, and the gods themselves. Zeus, Apollo, Heracles and Antiochus himself.

Mount Nemrut is a wonder of the ancient world. For me, it is even more impressive than the Egyptian pyramids. Its remoteness and its geographical position may put off many visitors. Yet the rewards from making the journey to this far-flung part of Turkey, to climb up the mountain and stand beside the statues which still demonstrate the vain beliefs of a ruler from two thousand years ago, make it totally worth the effort.

The colossal head of Zeus
Far Flung Tips

1. For the best photos, and to have this world class monument to yourself, visit an hour or two after sunrise, and the same for sunset. The statues features are more clearly defined then, although you will have to visit twice as one terrace will always be in shade. There is also something incredibly special to be here on your own, with only a friendly security guard for company.

2. Hire a car to visit and give yourself the flexibility to really see Nemrut and the areas around. 

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