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The Monuments of Mount Nemrut

Until it’s collapse in the 1 century BC the Seleucid Empire included the land around Mount Nemrut in the south east of Turkey. With independence the nation of Commagene was established by Mithridstes who was succeeded by a series of kings called Antiochos of whom his son, Antiochos the Great, was the first. This Antiochos, who claimed descent form both Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia, ruled for 3D years and built the monuments which still survive on the peak of Mount Nemrut in memory of his gods, the nation of Commagene and himself.

Very little survives from this era and Antiochos was wise to choose the highest peak in the area (2150 m.) on which to construct an artificial mound 50 m. high and terraces facing east and west on which to display the monuments. It is believed that Antiochos is buried beneath the mound.

At the time they were built each terrace supported five seated figures 8 to 10 m. high flanked by pairs of eagles and lions to protect them. Following the death of Alexander the Great more extensive unity was sought in Greece and the Near East and an important step towards this was the attempt to synchronise the various gods of the region. Antiochos’ own mixed heritage, along with this synchronisation, would have encouraged him to order the creation of monuments which celebrated more than one god each.

The statues therefore represent Apollo (Hermes, Helius and Mithra); the Commagene fertility goddess (including Tyche and Fortuna); Zeus (Ahuramazda); Antiochos himself; Hercules (Artagnes and Ares) – and together they provide s unique insight into the Greco-Persian art of this period. On the back of the heads are inscriptions (in Greek) describing the religious rites to be carried out on the mountain – including dawn sacrifices on the eastern terrace – and the lines of descent of the kings of Commagene.

For centuries, disturbed only by earthquakes which scattered the heads of the statues dawn the sides of the mountain, the monuments remained at peace in their lofty solitude. In 1839 however, an intrepid explorer Hermann von Moltke rediscovered them and in 1883 the first archaeologists visited the site. Soon afterwards Osman Hamdi Bey, the leader of Turkey’s archaeological department, arranged for the scattered heads to be moved back up the mountains and placed on the terraces. Visitors may feel that it adds to the ambience of the site that these heads have not been repositioned on the statues but remain within reach and can be touched and photographed easily.

For 80 or so years after Osman Hamdi Bey restored the site it remained impossibly difficult to reach for all but the most determined visitors but nowadays a road runs almost to the top of the mountain leaving only a 20 minute walk (or scramble!) to the top. Most visitors arrive in time to watch either dawn or sunset from the terraces, the statues are seen to their best effect at those times along with the stunning views of the Taurus mountains and the Ataturk dam.

The tumulus of Karakuş, built by Mithridates II is a tomb for his mother, Isias, his sister and his daughter. The three Doric tall columns on its southern side are each surmounted by a statue of a animal: one by a lion, another by a bull and the third by an eagle. The name of the tumulus of Karakuş, black bird in Turkish is derived form the 2.5 meter-high statue of an eagle on o column at the south end of the site. Two doric columns are very well preserved.

Cendere Bridge, handsome bridge spanning the Cendere Çay, a branch of the Kahta Çay, (The Nymphaios) was erected, according to a Latin inscription on columns, by four Kommagenian cities in honour of Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna and his sons Caracalla and Gets. The four columns originally stood in two pairs on either side of the bridge, but the one set up in honour of Geta is missing. Probably it was removed after Geta was murdered by his brother Caracalla.

Hierothesion at Arsameia on the Nymphaios. The well-preserved relief, half in Parthian and half in Greek iconography, shows King Mithridates Kallinikos shaking hands with Herakles, who in Kommagene also represented Ares and the Persian god Artagnes. The relief must have been carved in the reign of Antiochos I, about 50 B.C.

A visit to Mount Nemrut is a highly recommended and never to be forgotten experience.

Nemrut Dağı
By Chris Hellier
Skylife 12/91