[quote style=”1″]I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read…
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
-Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
For as long as I’ve known about Mount Nemrut, I have felt an intense draw to the location. The remains of an ancient burial mound built by the self-declared God-King Antiochos I of the Commagene Empire – a short lived successor state to Alexander the Great’s Empire, notable for its perfect synchronization of Armenian, Greek, and Persian religions into the tombs construction in the first century BC – have haunted my dreams and constantly pulled my attention to South Eastern Turkey. My desire to see the tomb was so strong, that it was the number one item on my bucket list.
Having wrangled up a group of 13 other Fulbrighters with Daniel and Fabio, our university representative hired a mini-bus to take us along the winding mountain road to Nemrut. Nemrut, four hours away from Malatya if you go directly, is truly much further if you stop to admire the breathtaking beauty of where the Anatolian steppe runs into the Tauros Mountains.
This hair-pinned road is literally a path through history – for those who know where to look, as our driver luckily did – as it is littered with the remains from each successive empire making itself present in Anatolia: Commagene mountain capitals, a Greco-Roman necropolis, a Commagene burial mound for the not-quite-as-holy royal family, still intact Roman bridges, and Seljuk bridges which even today can, terrifyingly, bear the weight of a mini-bus.
Of course, each successive stop only did more to whet our appetites and raise our expectations for the glories and amazement that surely awaited us at the summit on Mount Nemrut, 7,000 feet up. “If this burial mound and guardian eagle pedestal is cool here,” I thought, “just imagine how breathtaking Nemrut itself will be.”
These thoughts continued to surge and roll through my head as our bus quickly gained, and slowly lost, elevation through more and more remote mountain paths. After passing through our last mountain village, our bus was stopped at the Nemrut ticketing office where, in typical Turkish fashion, our driver insisted everyone on the bus was a student so we could receive half-off admission. Good ol’ Mehmet.
Then, there we were. Terrifyingly parked on a parking lot 7,000 feet in the air on the tallest mountain in visible distance. All around us were the brown shrub covered foothills of Nemrut – considered high by me just an hour ago, but now seemingly insignificantly small compared to our height. Ahead of us was a 400 meter vertical hike to the man made summit of the mountain – all we could do was press forwards. 400 meters might not sound like a whole lot, but the difficulty of the hike really hits you when you’re not used to that altitude… and not in the best of shape… and when you’re scared of heights. With a few breathing stops – and a quick word of encouragement from Danielle – we suddenly found ourselves at the east terrace of Mount Nemrut, an hour before sunset.
At the east summit were the remains of five gigantic seated figures, and their respective heads placed in front of them. Behind these long-forgotten figures rose the burial mound of Antiochos, pushing at least another four hundred feet into the air. Although the figures themselves were haunting, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the landscape spread out before us – hundreds of mountain and hill ridges stretching as far as I could see.
Crossing around to the western summit of Nemrut, the setting sun cast a magical golden light on the remains there. Another five or six heads stood at attention, eternally gazing west as their bodies stood in a much worse state of disrepair behind them. This side of Nemrut was surprisingly full of people, and I recognized tourists from England, Japan and Turkey – something I did not expect. Honestly, the other tourists would have gotten on my nerves a little – as we all jostled for space to take pictures of the heads while fighting each other’s shadows – if it wasn’t for one thing; the sunset.
As the sun slowly began to sink in the west, it became the most beautiful sunset of my life. Suddenly, everyone stopped focusing on the heads of a long dead king and his forgotten gods and instead, totally harmoniously, sat down and watched nature unfold. Beer and wine appeared amongst the crowds as we all found a place to sit and watch.
To truly understand the beauty of this sunset, you need to remember that Nemrut is the tallest summit in the area, but is still surrounded by other impressively tall mountains. So, as the sun set, it was actually setting behind another mountain in the distance. It gave the illusion of the sun setting beneath your feet. Simultaneously, the sun had not truly set but had merely disappeared behind the opposing mountain ranges meaning that half the sky was orange and golden above, while below the sky continued to be blue with daylight. Even after the sun had completely disappeared behind those other peaks, Nemrut was still illuminated by a mixture of soft blue daylight and the last remnants of the day from the west while simultaneously basking in amazing silver light from a rising full moon in the east.
As the sun was giving its last goodbye behind the mountain, I turned to the girl I found myself sitting next to – the driver’s cousin – and I said in Turkish “how amazingly beautiful, right?” She just gave me a crooked smile and said, in English, “Of course,” before turning back to watch the end of the sunset. At that moment, everyone had forgotten about the heads’ of Nemrut behind us.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy: The Ruins of Harran. Please, don’t forget to share!