Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Turkey. In which is admired a breathtaking historical monument.
Turkey, summer of 2007
I’m in Turkey these days. Actually for work as I finally got to see that peculiar early Neolithic site we’re going to further excavate here in the southeast. But of course I would not at all miss the chance to travel around and see some of the other sites and sights of the area. And I can tell you that Turkey in general but this part in particular is full of spectacular archaeology and historical landmarks! Truly being one of these focal points in human history where a lot of threads seem to run together.
Just the other day we went on quite a journey heading into the mountains. We are passing through the historic Kingdom of Commagene between the Euphrates’ upper reaches in the east and the Anti-Taurus Mountains in the northwest. Reaching up to the mighty stream’s crossing near Zeugma and today’s Gaziantep in the south, this landscape once was an Assyrian and Babylonian province. It was part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, under the rule Alexander the Great and (once that one dissolved), subsequently, the Seleucid satrap – until they decided to start their own little kingdom: Commagene. You see, my friend, this soil has indeed seen quite some history. And due to its situation right here between the Roman Empire in the west and the Parthians in the east, it became a melting pot for all kinds of traditions and influence, producing quite an astounding amount of fascinating monuments. One of these being the destination of our road trip here.
Already in the museum in Adiyaman (where we of course had to stop) we could marvel at a small yet detailed model of this site, but little did it prepare us for the view which was unfolding in front of us. Later. Only after we wound up steep meandering cobbled paths. Our little minibus was groaning and gasping in the face of this path; the worry of an overheating motor accompanying the last, even steeper part of the road – the vessel finally desperately asking for a short breathing rest. But then, after one last turn – and we’re there. At the plateau. At 2,150 metres above sea level. Now it was me drawing breath, my ears throbbing as we approached the last part of the ascent – a somehwat pulse-raising (still steep) staircase. Rubbing my temples, I turned around … staring right at that huge bright rubble mound. What a spectacular view! Sure, we could’ve seen it all the way up already, a landmark topping the scenery far and wide. Mount Nemrut.
While Nemrut Dağı, the mountain’s modern Turkish name obviously refers to Nimrod (king of Shiner in Bible and Quran), the monument crowning its summit actually is a sanctuary and (probably) burial site of the late Hellenistic king Antiochus I of Commagene (69 – 36 BC) – who, in an act of self-deification, adopted the byname ‘Theos’. Now if that isn’t quite some dedication to one’s own ruler cult. A man becoming king, a king who would be god. The sanctuary raised here was meant to become the centre of a new religion, combining elements from Persian and Greek mythology. The kings of Commagene even had an own denotation for this kind of royal tomb precinct – they called it ‘Hierothesion’. But I wrote that the site includes “probably” a funeral for a reason: ever since its (re-)discovery by German engineer Karl Tester in 1881, a burial chamber was suspected amidst the rubble mound, yet despite the many attempts to advance inside produced … nothing. Still, a cultic inscription, dedicating the site to Antiochus, clearly states that his body should be buried right here. Somewhere.
The mound has a diameter of about 150 m and towers 45 m high upon the mountain summit. It is surrounded by terraces to the north, east, and west – the latter ones presenting monumental sculptures of deities, sitting on their thrones watching over the lands below. And here Antiochus had his own image placed in the illustrious company of Greek-Persian gods, guardian animals, and his ancestors (among those, Darius and Xerxes, and maybe even Alexander himself). Earthquakes (and, as I suspect, more than one or two earlier visitors) are to be held responsible for the statues, once 8 to 10 m high, standing, now standing around somehow headless. Their pates resting at their feet now, staring into the landscape with either melanchcolic eyes or grumpy mien (that Heracles in particular looking like the most ill-humoured garden gnome ever under his tiara; a rather tall garden gnome though, admittedly). Still this did not at all deprive them of a noticeable authoritative grandeur and that particular aura of monumentality and power which seems to surround the whole place. Yes, I think Antiochus really proved some sense of place (and, admittedly, orchestration) here. Who am I to argue with 4th century bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the early Christian ‘Cappadocian Fathers’ who, somehow justified, called this place the “eighth wonder of the world”.
Seriously my friend, it’s not that easily described. You really should come and see it for yourself!