Exploring Nemrut Dağı -- the famous heads and beyond them
The famous heads of Nemrut Dağı
At a time when the news is full of stories about rulers and the sons that they've groomed to follow them it's as well to remember that ‘twas ever thus with power.
Over in southeastern Turkey there stands a monument to a son who succeeded a father and then squandered his legacy. High on Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nemrut) the famous tumulus surrounded by the fallen heads of the statues that once adorned it is a monument not to Mithridates I Callinicus, the man who founded the small Commagene Kingdom in the first century B.C., but to his son, Antiochus I Epiphanes (64-38 B.C.), who made the fatal mistake of siding with the Parthians against the Romans and was promptly overthrown.
Antiochus might have been forgotten by history had it not been for the excessive amour-propre that led him to arrange for a burial mound (his actual grave is yet to be found) at the highest point of his kingdom, which stretched roughly from what is now Adıyaman to Gaziantep. Not even satisfied with that, he had the mound bookended with statues of some of the gods, goddesses and heroes that the Commagenes had absorbed from the Greeks and Romans, amongst them Zeus, Fortuna and Hercules, a particular favorite. Today it's the chance to see the picturesque heads of these statues that inspires visitors to get up long before dawn and make the trek up the mountainside. In terms of the sheer pomposity of the monument, the only obvious parallel in modern times is the shrine that Gen. Franco had tunneled into the hillside at El Escorial in Spain.
Most visitors to Turkey yearn to visit Mount Nemrut, and it has become part of mountain mythology that the visit must be made at sunrise or sunset. In fact these are probably the worst times to arrive, especially if you're the kind of person who relishes being able to explore historical sights in peace and quiet, since noisy gaggles of tourists tend to create something of a circus atmosphere in front of the heads (which are now fenced off from visitors incidentally). Come a couple of hours after sunrise or before sunset and the odds are that you'll have this UNESCO world heritage site to yourself.
More to see than the heads
All the hotels in Kâhta and Adıyaman can book you a short tour to see the heads, but really they're only a small part of what the mountain has to offer. If you have the time it's much better to book on the longer tours that take in several other sites on the way up or down, bearing in mind that if you visit Nemrut for sunset and then explore the other sights in the morning you will have to pay the national park entrance fee twice.
Starting from Kâhta, you come first to a smaller tumulus, which was the burial mound of Antiochus' wife. This was once ringed with pillars topped with statues and is known as Karakuş (Blackbird) after the surviving pillar that carries a statue of a bird. The view towards Nemrut and out over Lake Atatürk from the top of the mound is simply breathtaking.
Tours continue to Çendere, where a humpbacked bridge dating back to the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) crosses the Çendere River. The three columns adorning it are memorials to the emperor and his second wife, and their son Caracalla; a fourth was taken down after Caracalla killed his brother Geta. In 1997 the bridge had to be virtually rebuilt after a tanker demolished it; today a new bridge carries the traffic and only pedestrians can cross the older version.
From Çendere the road continues north to another bridge dating back to Selçuk times, which looks down on raging white waters and up at a ruined castle. Just before it a turning on the left leads to the site of Kocahisar/Eski Kâhta (Old Kâhta), a detour well worth taking since from the village you get to see the spectacular remains of the 13th-century Yeni Kale (New Castle), built by the Mameluks and reminiscent of the Crusader castles of Syria. Unfortunately it's no longer possible to enter the ruins, although you can admire them from the terrace of a pretty adobe house that was once home to a German, or from the rose-filled garden of the Café Rome.
Finally, a fork in the road leads to the remains of Arsemeia, once the Commagene capital. Here a path runs down to a stele carved with the image of Mithras, a Persian god who had been absorbed into the Commagene belief system, then up to a cave where another stele shows Mithridates I Callinicus shaking hands with the Greek god Apollo. Finally the path strikes up the hill and emerges in front of the jewel in the Arsemeian crown, which is an undamaged stele showing Mithridates I Callinicus shaking hands with a naked Hercules who has the skin of the Nemean lion casually draped over his shoulder. Slippery steps descend into the ground, although it's a brave person who ventures far down them in the dark. Above them a lengthy inscription suggests that the king who founded the Commagene Kingdom is buried hereabouts in a grave far less ostentatious than his son's. It seems nothing short of a miracle that these carvings should have survived intact in this exposed position for more than two thousand years.
Spectacular mountain scenery
The lesser sites of Nemrut Dağı are impressive in their own right although what may stand out most in your memory is the spectacular mountain scenery, especially in spring when every field is bright with wildflowers. If you're up for still more spectacular scenery you might want to arrange one last separate excursion to Gerger Kalesi (Gerger Castle), a huge plug of rock topped off with slight fortifications dating back to Commagene times when this was Arsemeia on the Euphrates. To reach them you need to come equipped with sturdy climbing boots since there's no obvious path to the top. Ultimately, though, that hardly matters since the rock-cut image of Sames, father of Mithridates I Callinicus, that is the highlight of Gerger, can be made out from ground level. Besides, what you really come here for is the astonishing scenery along the way. Walk just a few meters from the castle car park and you'll emerge on a ledge from which you can gaze down on the waters of Lake Atatürk. If there's anywhere in Turkey more reminiscent of
Scotland it's hard to think where it might be.
So where should you base yourself to explore all these attractions? There are hotels to suit all budgets in Kâhta, and some smarter, more business-oriented hotels in Adıyaman, but for the real Nemrut experience you should probably stay up on the mountain itself in the village of Karadut. For comfort, you can put up in the Hotel Kervansaray or the Hotel Euphrat, but many people will enjoy the more basic charms of the Karadut Pansiyon where half-bo-ard arrangements are available. There's also a simple dormitory attached to the Café Rome.
WHERE TO STAY
Great İskender Hotel, Adıyaman. Tel: 0416-214 9001
Bozdoğan Hotel, Adıyaman. Tel: 0416-216 3999
Zeus Hotel, Kâhta. Tel: 0416-725 5694
Nemrutur Hotel, Kâhta. Tel: 0416-725 6881
Kommagene Hotel, Kâhta. Tel: 0416-725 9726
Karadut Pansiyon, Karadut. Tel: 0416-737 2169
Hotel Euphrat, Karadut. Tel: 0416-737 2175
Hotel Kervansaray, Karadut. Tel: 0416-737 2190
Cafe Rome Pansiyon, Kocahisar. Tel: 0416-741 2121
HOW TO GET THERE
The airport at Adıyaman is perfect for getting to Nemrut. Frequent minibuses link Adıyaman with Kâhta. In Kâhta and Karadut hoteliers will be able to arrange transport to Nemrut Dağı and associated sites. Dolmuşes from Kâhta bus terminal run as far as the village of Karadut on the mountainside.