Gracing the windswept summit of Mount Nemrut lies one of Turkey’s most extraordinary archaeological sites: the Hierotheseion, the monumental tumulus of King Antiochus I of Commagene. Epic in scale, the grave now tells the riveting story of a man who thought himself larger than life, his pretentious belief manifested in stone for the world to witness.
Antiochus had a vision.
A vision that saw him as an equal. An equal amongst gods. That, upon his demise, he would ascend to where he belonged. Where he truly belonged. And he would be seated exalted on a lithic throne where earth and heaven collide, and so would the immortals of all men. Above a sweeping world, a grand pantheon of East and West.
And thus, his men went to work, and he chose the barren slopes of Nemrut, the most magnificent peak of his kingdom, to build his grave. So that when his day had finally come and the sun would set on his reign, he could rid himself of all the woes of mortal men and rest.
Rest among the gods. For ever.
Claiming an illustrious lineage from both Seleucus I Nicator, greatest of the Diadochi (some even say from Alexander the Great himself), and Achaemenid king Darius the Great, the Kingdom of Commagene had already been founded on the premise of cultural dualism (Commagene literally translates to “community of genes” in Greek), however, Antiochus dreamed bigger.
Building on the royal cult established by his father by incorporating both Iranian and Hellenistic elements, the young king envisioned himself amidst a syncretic pantheon of Persian and Greek deities, and thus in 62 BCE, he commanded a monumental tomb to be constructed on the desolate peak of Mount Nemrut, a sacred site that would not only serve as his final resting place but as a place of worship, as well.
Festivities in his honour, accompanied by huge public feasts, were scheduled to be held on the 10th (his ascension to the throne) and 16th (his birthday) of each month, and a dense net of further tombs (Hierothesia of his father, grandfather, wife, as well as other family members) and smaller shrines (temene) spread across the realm ensured that the kingdom’s populace enjoyed regular access to these lavish ceremonies.
Although the cult declined rapidly following Antiochus’ death, today, his megalomanic vision stands as one of Turkey‘s most impressive archaeological sites stemming from the Hellenistic period.
Covering the entire summit, the enormous tumulus of Antiochus is an incredible feat of engineering. Measuring 145 metres in diameter and 50 metres in height, the cone-shaped gravel mound is surrounded by three terraces, simply named after their respective directions. While the northern terrace appears to be unfinished and merely functions as a connection route, the eastern and western terraces form the centre of cult.
Adorning both platforms, nine giant stone statues sit exalted on large thrones their backs turned towards the manmade scree slopes behind them. Although decapitated at an uncertain point in time, their heads now scattered across the site, the statues have not lost their grandeur. Forming Antiochus’ new pantheon, they depict the king himself, Zeus-Oromasdes, Commagene, goddess of fertility and patroness of the kingdom, Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes, and the legendary hero Artagnes-Heracles-Ares. Flanked by guardian animals (two lions and two eagles), the gods are called by their combined Persian and Greek names, symbolising the liaison between the two opposing religions.
Aside the monumental figures, you will also encounter large stone slabs featuring greeting scenes between the king’s multi-ethnic ancestors.
Constructed in east-west direction, the terraces are perfectly positioned for sunrise and sunset respectively, however, do not expect to sojourn alone! It gets insanely crowded, especially for sunset. Also, make sure to bring warm clothes. As soon as the sun vanishes, temperatures drop quickly, even in summer.
From the parking lot it takes about 10 minutes to ascend to the tumulus.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE
The Chabinas or Severen Bridge is a Roman bridge erected during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus at the end of the 2nd century CE to secure supply routes in anticipation of planned military operation against the Parthian Empire. The bridge was built using scavenged materials of the nearby city of Arsameia.
Four giant columns once graced the bridge, however, only three remain, bearing weathered inscriptions of Emperor Septimus Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and his son and successor Caracalla.
If you are travelling independently, the bridge might also be a great starting point to explore the nearby canyon or find some relief from the blistering Anatolian heat in the cooling waters of the Chabinas river.
Only opened to the public in summer 2022, following a 17-year wait due to renovations, Kahta Castle sits enthroned on top a rugged ridge towering above the rushing Kahta stream.
Probably built on the foundation of a former palace of the Commagene Kingdom, the castle was restored and expanded upon by the Egyptian Mamluks at the end of the 13th century, and subsequently became an important border fortress and part of the pigeon mail system used in the Mamluk state.
Although, the citadel suffers from typical “castle-syndrome” (impressive from the outside, relatively disappointing from the inside), and parts, such as the main keep, are still closed to visitors, the castle offers magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and verdant valley, warranting the short ascent.
ARSAMEIA ON THE NYMPHAIOS
Most likely founded in the 3rd century BCE by Arsames, a local Armenian ruler seeking to carve out his own realm amidst the chaos of the Syrian Wars (a series of wars fought between the Seleucid Empire and Kingdom of Egypt during the Diadochi era), Arsameia later became the splendid summer capital of the Commagene Kingdom (163 BCE – 72 CE). However, when Rome annexed the territory, the city seemed to have already been abandoned.
Today, there is not a whole lot to see at the site, the most striking remnants being two huge stone reliefs depicting the god Mithras, and a handshake between king Mithridates I and the hero Heracles, respectively.
There are also two tunnels found on the site, leading into the bedrock. While one is barred, the other one is open to visitors and can be explored in its entirety, however, I read that you won’t find much after the strenuous 160 metre descent.
JOIN A TOUR TO MOUNT NEMRUT FROM KAHTA
Located 40 kilometres north of the town of Kahta, Mount Nemrut is quite remote, and, as of November 2022, there are no public buses between Kahta and the UNESCO World Heritage site.
This will leave you with three options:
- rent a car for the day
- join an organized tour
Your only alternative would be to take a minibus from Kahta to the village of Karadut and hike/hitchhike the remaining 12 kilometres (accompanied by a strenuous 1140m elevation gain) to the tumulus.
Although I normally shy away from day tours (I hate being rushed from A to B to C), this time around I decided to join one. Luckily for me, as we predictably moved fast, the three sites mentioned above were all fairly small and didn’t need much time to explore anyways. The tour was organized by the Kommagene Hotel (which seems to be the standard accommodation option for independent travellers in Kahta), and they offer long tours (Mt. Nemrut + the three archaeological sites mentioned above) or short tours (only Mt. Nemrut).
So far so good, however, this is where it got a bit shady in my opinion.
Initially, the owner tried to sell me the long tour for 55€ (the short one would have been 35€) but was quick to propose a “special deal”: the long tour + a night at the hotel for 50€ (35€ for the tour + 15€ for the room). Since he basically offered me the long tour for the price of the short one, and I was able to do it right away (essentially “saving” me a day in Kahta), I accepted, though I am still unsure whether I ended up paying a fair price or if he scammed me after all.
Definitely, do not pay 55€! The normal price, albeit still expensive, seems to hover around 30-35€ for the day.
In this instance, joining a tour is probably the best way (besides having your own vehicle) to visit Mount Nemrut and the other sights in the area, and will also give you the benefit of not having to stress about finding a ride back.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to make the journey to Kahta, tours are organized daily from any major town in the region (e.g., Adıyaman, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep, Malatya, etc.).
HOW TO GET TO KAHTA
From Diyarbakir | Head to the Village Bus Station (right next to the main bus terminal) and take a dolmuş/minibus to Siverek. Tell the bus driver you want to go to Kahta. He will drop you off at the right spot since the buses to Kahta do not leave from the central bus station in Siverek.
Both rides will cost 50 TL (November 2022), respectively. The whole ride takes roughly 2 ½ hours.
Alternatively, there is also a direct bus at 14:30 from the main bus station in Diyarbakir.
From Adıyaman | If you are coming from the west head to Adıyaman to find frequent minibuses going to Kahta from there.