Across the Desert to the Mausoleum of a Commagene King

Published: November 25th 2008
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Looking to the WestLooking to the WestLooking to the West

On the west terrace.
So there it was in the distance. I was the first to spot it, so my friend Errol called it, “Keith’s Discovery”, though it had not really been lost for over a century. The two of us were standing on a deserted two lane road that, for all intents and purposes, was in the middle of nowhere. The tiny symmetrical talus summit I had spotted still seemed like it was miles away across some lovely, but somewhat foreboding desert landscape. The brown, boulder-strewn hills that separated us from our destination rose steadily towards the summit, but there were a few deep ravines that sliced across their barren undulations, which would have to be dealt with. Luckily, the sun was getting low in the sky and the scorching heat that had accompanied us for most of the journey was starting to get lost in the shadows.

It had been a long haul to get to that deserted spot of road. The journey had started early that morning in Urfa when our reluctant decision to leave was decided by a game of chance - My ‘rock’ to Errol’s ‘paper’ meant that we were moving on. Our journey to Kahta was as

This was our first view of Mt. Nemrut during our long walk up the mountain.
uneventful as a journey in Eastern Turkey could be. On the way we crossed over the impressively huge Ataturk Reservoir, which was a massive hydrologic project meant to supply water to the arid region - The verdant fields that dotted the surrounding landscape told me the project was working well. We had a long delay in Kahta while we waited for our next bus, but we spent our time sitting in a sidewalk café of sorts watching a group of children play soccer in the street, which was fairly enjoyable. Our journey from Kahta to Karadut followed a winding, mountain road that had some spectacularly rugged scenery and some huge, rocky canyons. The road climbed up into the mountains for what seemed like an hour, though I wasn’t really paying much attention. The bus driver dropped us off at the Karadut Pension, which had been recommended to us, and we found a tiny room there.

We had both wanted to walk the twelve kilometers to the summit, but it was already late in the day. We asked our friendly host how long it would take us to get to the summit from the pension on foot and, with a
A Lion and an EagleA Lion and an EagleA Lion and an Eagle

On the east terrace.
shocked look on his face, he told us it was not possible. He then told us that the only way to get to the top in time for sunset was to get a ride with him. We were actually considering abandoning our walk until he told us his price, which was more than triple what it had cost us to cover the considerably longer distance from Urfa to there - It was at that point that we decided that Karadut must have meant ‘Tourist Trap’ in Turkish. We thanked the man and told him that we were going to walk, even if it meant we missed sunset. He reiterated his opinion that it was impossible to walk to the top, but we smiled and said, “We’ll see!” We grabbed our water and set off in the direction of the mountain’s distant summit. The cobblestone road gradually climbed up out of the picturesque, tree-filled valley that Karadut was located in. The buildings of the town became fewer and farther between as we walked. It was very hot, but, surprisingly, not that uncomfortable. We had twelve kilometers of uphill walking separating us from our destination. We calculated that we had to keep
The Heads of Gods and KingsThe Heads of Gods and KingsThe Heads of Gods and Kings

These were the statues on the east terrace.
up a pace of about five kilometers per hour if we wanted to get to the top before dark, so we were moving quickly. We managed to keep up our pace for the first half of the walk. We were still passing the occasional building, most of which were high-end tourist lodges clogged with tour buses, but, at about kilometer six, we came to the entrance gate of the National Park and the end of the buildings. We followed a series of steep switchbacks from the gate up to the top of the ridge and then, we descended a bit to the shady patch of pavement where I made my discovery.

As we stood there looking across the barren landscape to our destination on the distant mountain top we knew that we still had a long way to go. I followed the winding path of the narrow asphalt road with my eyes until it disappeared around a distant curve. It was clear to me that I was the slower of the two of us, so I told Errol to go on ahead of me - There was no point in both of us missing the sunset. We made plans
Carved LionsCarved LionsCarved Lions

These statues were some of the many lovely carvings up on the summit of Mt. Nemrut.
on meeting back up on top and we both set off. Before long I was alone on the road, though I was still making good time. Sunset was still more than an hour away, but occasional minibuses still passed me on the road as they headed towards the summit with their load of tourists. Many of the buses stopped to see if I wanted a ride and most were surprised when I politely turned them down telling them that I actually wanted to keep walking. I had just come down a hill into one of the verdant ravines when a van stopped beside me. There were two girls inside that we had passed back in Karadut. They had thought us crazy for wanting to walk and were even more surprised when I turned down their offered ride, but I was thoroughly enjoying my walk - It was the first opportunity I had had in quite a while to get some good exercise and I was determined to make it all the way up. Just as they drove off and disappeared around a bend in the road my legs cramped up in a debilitating way and I was forced to drop
Watching the Setting SunWatching the Setting SunWatching the Setting Sun

One of the toppled heads from the west terrace.
down to my knees. There I was in the middle of a lovely desert wilderness lying on my back on the side of the road stretching and trying to get my muscles back into usable condition - All I could do was laugh!

As luck would have it I didn’t see another van for a very long time. I was moving again, but there was a steep uphill grade approaching and my legs were in bad shape. I still had my sights set on the summit, so I took my mind off of my legs and got lost in my thoughts instead. I drifted back across the ages to a time when the Kingdom of Commagene was thriving in the area. It was the first century BC and King Antiochus I, who was famous for keeping Commagene independent from the Roman Empire, began building his mausoleum. He selected a building site on a remote mountain top, now known as Mt. Nemrut, several days walk from just about everywhere. He had the summit flattened and he built two massive groups of seated statues, one looking east and one looking west. The statues, which stood around eight meters high, were of
Toppled HeadsToppled HeadsToppled Heads

On the west terrace.
King Antiochus seated amongst two lions, two eagles and some famous gods of Greek, Persian and Armenian origins, such as Hercules, Zeus and Apollo. Between the two groups of statues a massive pile of tumulus, 150 meters in diameter and 49 meters high rose to a manmade summit. The tumulus pile, which is very unstable, has never been excavated, but archaeologists believe that it conceals King Antiochus’s tomb. Perhaps the tumulus pile, which is just a big pile of loose rock (similar to a pile of gravel or sand), was too difficult to get through for would be grave robbers and there is an intact royal burial chamber concealed within - Only time will tell…

My thoughts were interrupted by a blinding flash as the road in front of me disappeared into an explosion of orange. I had been so deeply lost in my thoughts that I had nearly reached the top of the steep grade without knowing it and I had emerged out of the shadows into the full furry of the setting sun. It was difficult going for a while. The sunlight was so bright that I couldn’t look ahead, even with my sunglasses on. I was
Watching the SunsetWatching the SunsetWatching the Sunset

On the west terrace.
forced to slowly walk forward into the orange haze holding one hand in front of my face to block the bulk of the sunlight. It was then that I started feeling my aching legs again, but they weren’t nearly as bad as they had been down in the valley. I reached a hairpin turn in the road and put my back to the sun and continued climbing. My energy had been renewed after I saw that I still had a while before the sun disappeared below the distant mountain. The road was steep, but I could see all the way up to the tumulus pile and it was not that far away. I could also see two people walking in front of me on the switch-backing road near the top. Errol was the farthest away and still moving quickly, but he was not nearly as far ahead as I thought he would be. My legs were inexplicably doing much better, with only the occasional twinge of pain, so I started pushing myself a bit harder. It was at about that point that the next vehicle passed me. The driver was the man from my pension, the same one that had
A Stone Relief A Stone Relief A Stone Relief

There used to be several of these stone panels. Archaeologists think that they were put together in a big frieze.
told us we would not make it by sunset. He had one passenger with him, but he did stop and ask if I needed a ride. I was nearly there, so I decided to finish the climb on my own and I thanked him and continued walking. After another fifteen to twenty minutes I was standing in the parking area, which was quickly filling up with cars. The sun was getting dangerously close to the horizon, so I found the path to the summit and I pushed on as quickly as I could go. I reached the terrace where the westward facing statues were locked in an eternal gaze with the setting sun and I turned around just in time to watch the sun’s final rays disappear below the distant mountains - I had made it!

I had missed seeing the statues bathed in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun, but it didn’t really matter. The purple skies of early twilight shrouded the massive statues in mystery. It felt like I was in one of the most remote places on the planet. Mountains rolled off to the horizon in every direction and, at an altitude of 7,001
Another HeadAnother HeadAnother Head

On the east terrace.
feet, it seemed like I was above them all. The imposing statues were sitting in their thrones, but the ages had not left them entirely intact. The giant heads of gods, kings and beasts were strewn about on the ground in front of me. An odd network of surface cracks revealed the ages on their faces, but the heads were mostly intact and standing erect, still staring towards the setting sun. In addition to the imposing statues, there were several smaller carvings strewn about, which looked like they had once been part of a huge frieze of some sort. I admired the statues as I quickly took pictures. I was losing my lighting quickly, so I quickly set off to the east terrace to see the statues there. I followed a narrow trail that skirted the southern edge of the tumulus mound and eventually came out on the other side next to a large stone platform guarded by a small stone lion. The statues, while similar to the ones on the west terrace, seemed to be in more complete condition. The heads were still on the ground, but it seemed more orderly that the other side. I took my final
On GuardOn GuardOn Guard

This stone lion was guarding a square stone platform that stood in front of the statues.
pictures as the nearly full moon got brighter in the sky and then I put my camera gear away and stood there enjoying the scene. The sky slowly turned from purple to dark blue and then night swept across the peak and the guards came through asking us to leave.

I found my friend Errol on the tumulus trail and we shared our impressions of Mt. Nemrut with each other as we walked down to the small group of buildings in the parking area. He had not seen me get to the top, so he was relieved that I had made it. We took a seat at one of the snack areas while we decided whether or not we were going to try and get a ride back to town. My legs were feeling a lot better and the moon was so close to full that the entire landscape was bathed in bluish light, so we decided to walk back. As much as it pained me, I bought a giant bottle of water from the snack shop (my legs were cramping because I hadn’t drunk enough water) and then we set off into the darkness. Just before we left
The Thrones of Kings and GodsThe Thrones of Kings and GodsThe Thrones of Kings and Gods

These were from the east terrace.
the parking area we passed a van that was blasting Turkish music and all of the guys were dancing around it as if they were in a night club - Cars were still arriving and several people were just starting their walk up to the statues, which left me wondering if the amazing mountain top was a sort of night time hang out area for the locals after all of the tourists went home.

A steady stream of cars and vans passed us on the road as we descended, but, by the time we reached the curve in the road that had been aflame with sunlight on the way up, the cars had just about disappeared. Due to my leg problems we decided to stick together on the way down. The landscape was even more magnificent in the moonlight than it had been during the day. The rock-strewn hills, the steep faces of the ravines and the tree-filled gorges all had a new air of mystery lurking in their pitch black shadows. I remember wondering what the area would have been like on a similar night two thousand years before when Asiatic lions and leopards and wolves and, maybe even the Caspian tiger, still roamed the area - For all we knew, they could have been watching us from the shadows even then as we walked. The road, though potholed, made for an easy path to follow, so we turned our attention to the landscape and the magnificent blanket of stars that filled the sky. We kept up a slow pace. My legs were still bothering me a bit, so I was forced to stop a few times to stretch. At other times an approaching car would force us to get off of the road to let them pass. Eventually we reached the top of the hill, near the point where we first spotted the tumulus peak of Mt. Nemrut. My legs were requiring more frequent stops and it was getting late, so when a car with three Turkish men pulled over and offered us a ride, we reluctantly accepted and packed into the back seat. Our conversation was fairly limited, but we managed to let the men know where we were staying and where we were from and we found out that they were from a town close by. Ten minutes later we had covered the remaining six kilometers or so and they pulled off of the road next to our pension and we thanked them and said farewell.

We had done what we had come to Karadut to do. The magnificent site on top of Mt. Nemrut was unique in its strangeness and on par with many of the world’s most scenically located ancient sites. We reached the remote summit on foot and we watched, with ancient gods and kings, as the sun sank below the western horizon. The stunning moonlight walk back down the mountain was an unexpected adventure, but a fitting end for our visit to the grand mountain-top mausoleum of King Antiochus I. We spent the rest of the evening talking with the other travelers in the pension and making plans for the next morning’s journey - To where, we didn’t yet know…


1st March 2009

Great Photos
The setting sun made for some great photos Keith!

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