The King Under the Mountain

High above the barren, stretching expanse of southeastern Turkey, we gather on the rocks scattered around the conical peak of Nemrut Dağı and watch the sun sink below the Eastern Taurus mountain range.

We are a group of nearly 30 English instructors, here to join the excited crowd of Turks, foreign travelers, and, on this particular evening, a delegation of some high ranking diplomats from Ankara.

We huddle on stacked boulders, pulling our scarves higher around our red cheeks while the temperature falls rapidly along with the sun. The waning sunlight casts a golden glow on the western face of Nemrut, illuminating the fallen heads of 30-foot tall statues that were erected here in the 1st century BCE. I imagine a lavish tombstone adorning the toppled statues might carry the following:

“Here lies the late Hellenistic King Antiochos I Theos of Commagene, the most famous of this kingdom, who has consecrated this site near to the Gods to be his final resting place. May his body be preserved for eternity.”

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The rocks we are gathered on lie next to what is presumably an enormous temple-tomb where King Antiochus I is buried. After the Romans defeated the Seleucid Empire in 190 BCE, the successor state Commagene was established to occupy the Taurus mountains and the Euphrates. The wide range of cultural influences in the area caused King Antiochus I to carry on a dynastic religious program that, besides including both Greek and Persian deities, also included King Antiochus’ own family lineage.

For this reason, many of the statues are themselves tributes to the King and his ancestors. The megalomaniac King thought himself a god, so he had the giant statues of himself placed next to those such as Hercules, Zeus, and Apollo. The fallen heads of two lion and eagle statues also stand watch over the King’s burial ground.

I can’t help but admire his choice of location for the impressive Hierothesion. At over 7,000 feet, Mount Nemrut is one of the highest peaks in southeastern Turkey. Looking out over the sprawling hills and ravines below, which stretch away from me in jagged switchbacks as far as I can see, I feel a bit divine myself. Though we took a minibus almost the entire way up the side of the mountain, we still had to climb several hundred steps to reach the terraces surrounding Nemrut’s peak. I was a bit short of breath on the way up and wasn’t sure whether to attribute that to the rapid elevation gain or to my growing affinity for endless Turkish breakfasts.

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After catching my breath and getting a closer look at the ruins, it dawned on me how impressive a feat it must have been to build this tomb. Though they have long since been toppled, the statues were once colossal; UNESCO claims some of the stone blocks used to make them weigh up to nine tons. The tomb is also heralded as a unique artistic achievement, the complex design and scale of which are unequaled in the ancient world.

For this reason, among others, UNESCO gave Mount Nemrut the deserving distinction of World Heritage site in 1987, and ever since it has been one of the most celebrated historical sites in Turkey.

Though many of the English teachers who came together on this trip took 10-14 hour bus rides to arrive, there was no doubt in any of our minds that the lengthy travel was worth it. It was the first time since orientation that many of us got to see each other, and instead of resting up before the long day of sightseeing that concluded with our visit to Nemrut, we crammed into our generous hosts’ living rooms in Malatya (a city near Nemrut where several of our group are placed) and told stories of teaching, traveling, and Turkey long into the night.

Our daylong tour began with a marvelous Turkish breakfast en route to Adıyaman, one of the nearest cities to Mount Nemrut, and then continued with a visit to the Severan Bridge named in honor of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. Constructed of 92 stone blocks, the bridge bends over a small creek that runs from a cavernous pool a hundred yards upstream. We stopped here for çay before driving on to the Kâhta castle, which was unfortunately closed for restorations.

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Still, we decided to spend an hour or so at a small cafe outside the castle entrance to eat a picnic lunch we packed, and I was quite sure that the Turkish man running the cafe had never had this many patrons at once–or at least not this many Americans.

The highlight of this stop for me was getting to play tavla (backgammon) with one of our bus drivers who put on the most animated, trash-talking displays I’ve seen while playing a board game. Though I retained the right to roll my own dice, I’m fairly certain he moved all of my pieces for me, in between bellowing HOOOs and HAAAAs after every roll. The Turks sure take their tavla seriously.

Finally, after gulping down several more glasses of amber tea, we packed back into the two minibuses we rented and climbed another two hours through a winding, narrow road until we reached the parking lot just below Nemrut’s peak.

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The chill is biting now, and we huddle closer beneath blankets in the fading light. Most of our group is scattered along several rock outcroppings overlooking the eastern terrace of Nemrut. Crowds gather below, faces turned toward the sun, watching it make its final descent behind the distant mountains.

It’s a strange feeling sitting here, surrounded by a group of people I met just over a month ago but who I now feel I know quite well. The feeling only grows stranger as I look down at the twenty-or-so men in pressed suits and designer dress shoes, who seem quite ill-equipped for both the cold and the dusty trek around the mountain. I’m told they are a delegation of politicians from the ruling AKP, traveling here from Ankara to visit one of Turkey’s most prized historical sites. I wonder how many of them have been to Nemrut before.

As the last of the sun dips between two far-off peaks, we quickly take in several more breaths of this miraculous view, surely one we will not soon forget. I push away the noisy bustle of shivering tourists trying to make their way back down to the parking lot and try for just a moment to imagine this place as King Antiochus I saw it–certainly a place fit for a king.

And then, with just one blink, the sun is finally out of sight, and the massive stone heads have seen it set once again. For over two thousand years they have watched the same breathtaking scene every night. I am envious at the thought.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own, and they in no way reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission, the United States or Turkish governments, or any other affiliated agencies.

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2 responses to “The King Under the Mountain

  1. Jacob

    An amazing tale Aven, that last picture of the sunset is especially beautiful. I wished to use the word “inspiringly” beautiful but apparently inspiringly is not a word. I feel that it is fitting, however, because despite our great gap in distance I was taken away for a few minutes from the confines of my dormitory to the hills and majesty of Turkey and was reminded of the beauty of the world and inspired to add a new place on my ever growing places to travel list. Also, plus 1 for the Hobbit reference.

  2. Bill Kearney

    Nicely expressed – thank you for sharing

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