Friday, 28 July 2017

Mount Nemrut, Turkey: Guarding the Gardens of Eden

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff   

Deep into Turkey’s Anatolia, the giants on top of Mount Nemrut are reminiscent of the Moais of Rapa Nui on Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Like the Egyptian Sphinx, they guard the secret tomb of their not as ancient but equally as mysterious lords.

The effigy of the lord of these lands rises amongst the giant statues – another proof of the symbiotic relationship between glory and stone. This makes them resemble the stern faces of the American presidents carved into the side of Mount Rushmore in the United States. But the immediate association upon seeing them for the first time is less ambiguous: Easter Island, the Ranu Raraku Quarry, the Rongo-Rongo tablets inscribed in a still-undeciphered language.

The stone heads rise high over the surreal rocky scenery of Mount Nemrut in eastern Turkey, and what is most characteristic is that they resemble things that are thousands of kilometres away from Europe. Yet they are closer to Sofia than Salzburg, only in the opposite direction.

A nineteenth-century German traveller on the Silk Road described the area of Nemrut like this: “Oak and pine trees cover the hills. The valleys are filled with figs, olives, walnuts, and pomegranate. Vineyards alternate with fragrant oleanders, which make you drunk with their sweetness. Nowhere else do the maize fields yield such rich crops.” Do not be surprised if this description reminds you of paradise – according to one of the numerous versions, the lost Garden of Eden was located right here, in what is now south-eastern Turkey.

The mountain’s peak, however, couldn’t be more contrasting to this otherwise accurate description. There is not a trace of figs, olive trees, or anything else humans used to pleasantly pass the time in the past few millennia. The scenery is rocky, yellowy and windswept: a Patagonia rising 2,150 metres above sea level. The stone heads stand under the peak itself, whose artificial cone, made of pebbles, looks as if it is poking into heaven.

At 4:30am we are still in the dark – both figuratively and literally. The darkness is impenetrable and a piercing wind blows as I start to climb at the foot of Mount Nemrut, flashlight in hand. The feeling that I am alone in a world over which the sun will never rise begins to seriously trouble me, when I suddenly feel something wet and cold on my neck. A moment later I am standing face to face with a shaggy donkey. It gives me a vexed look – as if telling me I am the epitome of vanity, and, without hurrying, goes around me.

I, however, have to hurry up because the sun will rise in 40 minutes’ time and this is the moment I’d like to witness from the East Terrace of Mount Nemrut, or Nemrut Dagi. A long line of flashlights stretches out behind me.

In an identical way, but 2,045 years ago, a group of a few hundred Commagenes, rather than tourists, climbed the hill by the light of their torches.

The Commagenes united in the first century BC in the face of the “treacherous” Romans. The eccentric Mithridates I, also known as Callinicus (meaning ‘Gloriously Victorious’), became head of their state, which was established to the north of the Euphrates River, in the central part of present-day Turkey. He fought some very successful battles but the epithet added to his name stemmed not from his military successes, but rather from his worthy achievements at a local Olympiad.

As a statesman, Mithridates stood with one foot on the ground and the other in heaven. He realised that the various ethnic groups under his rule were not a homogeneous whole and decided to unite them by entering, in his and their name, into a pact with the gods

It was this “accession treaty” that the Commagenes came to celebrate on top of Mount Nemrut 2,000 years ago. They climbed the mountain in silence and quietly lined up on the Western and Eastern terraces under the perfect, man-made cone of the mountain top.

They stood here, quietly shifting their weight from one foot to the other, under the silent gaze of six ten-metre tall gods, whose gigantic figures, enthroned and guarded by a lion and an eagle, cast quivering shadows in the light of the fire. The master of ceremonies was the sovereign himself. He did not speak, and the complete silence built up a sense of suspense. Suddenly, the sound of horns was heard. According to the more imaginative historians, the clear, piercing sound which cut through the silence had the effect of a knife scraping glass on the mortals.

This unforgettable performance, which lasted until sunrise and aimed to convince the Commagenes of the gods’ protection, was organized by Mithridates’s son, Antiochus I. He inherited his father’s penchant for extravagant political strategies, or probably simply suffered from a severe identity crisis, claiming he was simultaneously Apollo’s relative, Alexander the Great’s descendant and a cousin of Persian Emperor Darius I.

After building the family vault – the tumulus at the top, he ordered the construction of two similar compositions of stone deities on the Eastern and Western terraces, which illustrated the amalgamation between Hellenistic and Persian religious beliefs. Thus Apollo became Mithras, Heracles – Artagnes, Zeus – Oromasdes, Hera – Teleia, and Hermes – Helios. The idea to depict these five deities and not any others belonged to Antiochus’s father. To bolster his subjects’ belief that the gods protected them personally, the king ordered the crafting of tablets depicting him shaking hands with the deities and thus sealing the “pact.”

The effigy of the sixth deity was Antiochus’s own: he did not need a different name because he was both Persian and Greek anyway.

Even though the piercing sound of the horns has now been substituted by a piercing wind, I await the sunrise at 5:30 in the morning, trying to imagine Antiochus’s show.

But, with the appearance of the first light, I am convinced that the theatrical talents of a mortal cannot compete with nature’s talent – I witness the most impressive curtain rise of my short life.

The stone heads are flooded with light – initially pale, then coppery, and their cracks slowly start seeming deeper.

Strangely, the shrine on Mount Nemrut was not mentioned in any historical book until the middle of the nineteenth century. It was first rediscovered in 1881 by the German road engineer Karl Sester, who was hired by the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan to develop a railway project in Eastern Anatolia.

The transfer of German efficiency to Oriental soil made for some unusual modifications. The Sultan paid the German engineer “by the metre”, not by the amount of work done, which to some extent explains the inefficiency of the present-day Turkish trains: they follow strange routes, which are rarely the shortest. As for Nemrut’s case, however, this was actually advantageous – Sester came across the remains by chance, in his attempts to make the railway a bit longer.

The lucky archeologists who arrived at the scene immediately found not only the amazing tomb with the figures on top, but also the former capital of the Kingdom of Commagene, Arsameia, and a series of ruins scattered around the region.

But after the dramatic sunrise and the monumental view of the stone sentinels on the backdrop of the valley, cut through by silvery water, the other important remains somehow undeservedly pale in comparison. As I descend back down, central Anatolia’s bright sun starts blistering. I think of the donkey and its silent accusation of vanity. I wonder what look it would have given to Antiochus, had it come upon him.


How to get there

Mount Nemrut can only be visited between March and September because it is covered in snow and the roads are impassable during the rest of the year.

Nemrut is about 1,400 km away from Sofia by car. There are airports in the relatively nearby cities of Malatia and Diarbekir.

By car, preferably a four-wheel drive, you can drive up to about 500 metres below Mount Nemrut. Here there is a café and a restaurant and you can also stay the night. The man who sells trinkets and postcards in the open booth speaks a little Bulgarian and, if you chat him up, he may treat you to some tea.

To reach the stone heads you will have to walk, ride a donkey, or if you have the means, hire a helicopter and land at a small heliport which at traffic-free times is used by the tourists as a bench on which to wait for the sunrise.

Where to stay

At the foot of the mountain top there is much choice of hotels, the price for a double bedroom ranging from $10 to $50. Another good option is the village of Karadut, where there is an unpretentious but decent hostel.


The food is delicious, as everywhere else in Turkey, but the restaurants in this area are few, usually at the hotels. The further east you go in Turkey, the more difficult it gets to buy beer.




Turkey Wins Expats' Hearts With Excellent Food and Nice Weather

4 March 2014 | Excellent local food and good weather won Turkey the 11th place in the world in expats' hearts - in a ranking, published by HSBC. No other country in South East Europe had made it to this charter. Full Story

Curiosity Chest

Bright Colours and Four-Day Weddings in Çomakdağ, Turkey

With its stone houses boasting colourful wooden trims, clove-flavoured coffee, festive weddings and the famous Çomakdağ women and their authentic costumes covered in flowers, Çomakdağ is easily the Aegean’s most beautiful spot.
Full Story

Useful Reads

A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire (2008) | By M. Şűkrű Hanioğlu

Far too often, the narrative of the collapse of an empire becomes a moral drama. Wealth is drained away by decadence, and power undercut by corruption. There are attempts at recovery, reform, re-consolidation; perhaps a war, or a grand alliance, or another gamble which seems mad in hindsight. Private fiefdoms emerge, tribes break away, and hostile external powers chip away at the borders.
Full Story


Summer Festivals Bring the Sound of Music to Turkey

As a supplement to its traditional attractions – ancient ruins, Medieval mosques, crowded bazaars and turquoise waters bathed in sunlight, Turkey also offers its summer visitors an array of exciting music events. Catering to different tastes – from classical to rock and from mainstream to alternative, more than 100 music festivals will be taking place all over the country – from Istanbul to Anatolia, providing another reason, if you ever needed one, to head to Turkey this summer. Sometimes, they even make it possible to enjoy ancient ruins and a music concert simultaneously. Full Story