The area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is known as the Cradle of Civilisation as some of the earliest civilisations developed in this fertile zone. It’s great for adventure seekers and is home to some epic historic sites.
On my first solo trip back in 2005, I set out to backpack around some of these sites. And I reckon Nemrut Dagi is the cream of the crop.
Nemrut Dağı was the one that I really wanted to visit. Huge stone heads on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere?
You might not have heard of the Nemrut Dağı, but you may recognise the head of Apollo (-Mithras-Helios-Hermes). One of the most recognisable icons of Turkish tourist literature, he is routinely splashed over brochures, posters and flyers.
So, what is Nemrut Daği exactly?
Basically, it’s a grandiose and self-important mausoleum.
Situated in the Anti-Taurus mountains, Nemrut Dağı is famous for its giant stone statues on a remote site atop Mount Nemrut (Nimrod), the highest in the area.
It was built in 62BC by Antiochus I Epiphanes, son of the founder of the Commagene kingdom in the 1st century BC. Never heard of the Commagenes? Nope, me neither.
The Commagene Kingdom was briefly (163BC-72AD) a small buffer state between the Seleucid and the Roman Empires and occupied a small independent territory between the Taurus mountains and Euphrates River.
But anyway, Nemrut Dağı was all the more alluring for its mystery.
Intended to be a religious sanctuary as well as a tomb for its creator, two terraces of stone statues were built to be illuminated by the light of the golden house. One terrace faces east, one west. The statues represent Antiochus himself, as well eagles, lions, and various gods from different religions of the area.
It’s an astonishing site, but remote and of (comparatively) little historical significance. Nemrut Dağı isn’t exactly undiscovered, it gets its fair share of tourists. But miles from anywhere, you have to be relatively determined to get to Nemrut Dağı– or at least prepared to sit on a bus for a long time.
There are multi-day tours available which incorporate Nemrut Dağı into their itineraries. Most tours, though, make the long trek out to Nemrut Dağı only to visit for either sunrise or sunset.
But I’ll be damned if I was going to come all this way and not see both!
My Rough Guide made a brief mention of a cheap dorm near the summit. Putting my trust in this lone sentence, I negotiated a one-way ride with one of the tours.
GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN
It looks so close on the map, but Nemrut Dağı is 600km from Cappadocia and tours from Göreme are typically 2-3 days.
Better get comfortable!
Thankfully, travelling by bus is one of my favourite things about Turkey.
Bus Travel in Turkey
Bus travel is a necessity in such a large country with not much of a rail network. Cheap overnight buses are plentiful, and if you shop around you can hit the jackpot with comfortable reclining chairs and naffly dubbed films to watch (a definite plus for me).
Large bus stations (otogars) can be intimidatingly masculine at first, the air thick with kebab and cigarette smoke. I found them a fascinating counterbalance to the tourist-heavy attractions I was visiting.
But as a woman travelling solo, I was always looked after– seated with other women where possible, or frequently on my own at the front of the bus, behind the driver.
BONUS POINT This seat is where you get the best view of the ever-changing scenery, from mountains to steppes to dams to bizarre rock formations.
The good thing about taking a tour on such a long slog is that a few stops can be made at “minor” sites to entertain and water us tourists.
In Turkey, even the “minor” sites tend to be impressive.
One of these–a castle near Kâhta–turned out to be one of my favourite spots in the country.
You know that scene at the end of The Land Before Time*, where the sun peeks out from behind the clouds to reveal the Great Valley? That’s what the view was like from Eski Kâhta.
When I see sights like this, I get some epic soundtrack music going on in my head. This happened frequently around Turkey.
*all the more poignant given the current refugee crisis in the wider region.
Turkey has such an embarrassment of riches that this spectacular castle was a mere pit stop. It was refreshingly devoid of tourists (except us!) and scant on information and any health and safety considerations. Our group was let loose to climb around and explore.
Our group was let loose to climb around and explore.
I have no idea who built it or why due to the lack of information at the site.
A quick Google suggests that it’s a Mamluk fortress and currently being restored– somewhat unsympathetically. If anyone has more information on the castle please do comment below.
ONWARDS TO NEMRUT DAGI
The minibus took us on to the facilities at the base of the summit where I was relieved to discover that the dorm did indeed exist, alongside a cafe and toilet facilities.
A few busloads of mainly Asian tourists turned up to join us for sunset on the West Terrace.
The terraces on the summit are a short 20-minute walk from base camp, with donkeys available if you don’t fancy the walk.
The rest of the group departed back for Göreme, and I checked out my sleeping quarters, which turned out to be a metal shed with a few beds.
Note to self: it’s cold at the top of mountains, even at the height of summer. Especially in a metal shed.
Luckily there was warm hospitality and ladlefuls of something hot to be found in the cafe. It was a memorable night, if a little short on sleep.
I was up again a 4am, walking to the summit in darkness to catch the sunrise which was spectacular and well worth the extra effort.
As I was heading towards Urfa rather than back to Cappadocia, I took the path down the other side of the summit towards a road where I was able to hail a tour bus going in the opposite direction.
It was well worth the effort to stay overnight at Nemrut Dağı. Although there’s not much to see other than the terraces, the solitude after the bus groups have departed is enjoyable and the sunrise was special.
I suspect the accommodation options may have been upgraded by now.
A Bit of History
You’d expect a mausoleum of this size to be built for someone of great significance, but not really. Antiochus was just your standard ancient megalomaniac.
Ruling over an independent kingdom on good terms with the Romans and the Parthians on either side, he reinforced his claim to the throne with claims to be descended from Apollo, Darius the Great of Persia and Alexander the Great. One inscription reads:
“I, the great King Antiochus, have ordered the construction of these temples. . . on a foundation which will never be demolished… that prove my faith in the gods. At the conclusion of my life I will enter my eternal repose here, and my spirit will ascend to join that of Zeus in heaven”.
Mind you, as ancient megalomaniacs go Antiochus was fairly benign, and something of a peacemaker. The kingdom flourished under his rule thanks to his adroit handling of Roman and Persian politics.
The statues represent a mishmash of local religions – Greek, Armenian, Persian – that he brought together in a syncretic imperial cult. The site was intended to be a place of religious worship and festivities long after his death.
This was not only a bid to knit together this small but ethnically diverse kingdom but also to appease his Roman and Parthian friends.
The site remains the most notable legacy of this short-lived kingdom.
As was the fashion with religious monuments, the closer to the heavens the better.
Not only is it at the top of the highest mountain in the area, but Antiochus raised it by a further 200ft by adding a conical burial mound.
50ft has since been lost to earthquakes and human erosion.
As with all of the best ancient sites, it still has mysteries.
We still don’t really know how it was constructed. Some of the stone blocks weigh up to 9 tonnes. How did they get up there?
The statues were original seated but at some point decapitated and the heads strewn across the site in an act of religious vandalism, most likely by early Christians or Arabs.
And although it’s assumed that Antiochus was buried there, to date his remains have not been found.
The sanctuary at Nemrut Dağı fell into disuse after the Commagene territory was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire, and remained unknown to the wider world until an Ottoman-employed German engineer rediscovered it in 1881.
It was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
I’m reminded of Marcus Aurelius quotation “what we do now echoes in eternity”.
Poor old Antiochus. Such grand dreams, but for hundreds of years it was a lonely echo in the valley.
Nemrut Daği Fortune and Glory Score: 9.5/10
What’s the furthest you’ve travelled for a site that you wanted to visit? Have you been to Nemrut Daği? And does anyone have any insight on Eski Kahta?