6 April 2018

Mount Nemrut – Home to Gods Beheaded

The Adiyaman Province of Turkey in the south east of the country is not wealthy – it is still classified as a developing rural region. Yet 25 miles from the small town of Kâhta the visitor discovers the remnants of once fabulous wealth.  High on the summit of Mount Nemrut is a huge but little visited necropolis, home to the beheaded gods of the past.

Sixty two years before the birth of Christ, King Antiochus I ordered a huge tomb come sanctuary to be built for himself. His place of burial was flanked by huge statues – one of himself but others of animals.

There were also gods – a syncretism of Iranian, Armenian and Greek which testify to the cultural mix of the area two thousand years ago.  Hercules is there, as is Zeus, Tyche and Apollo.  Their names were inscribed upon them – those Greek ones we recognize from books and movies as well as their Iranian and Armenian counterparts – Vahagn, Aramazd and Ahura Mazda.

Antiochus was half Armenian and half Greek – another reason why his tomb reflects more than just a single culture. This area was a true cross-road of peoples but there was but a single enemy at the time – the Romans. Antiochus managed to keep his kingdom of Commagene independent, even while many Anatolian territories were being annexed. The enemy became a treasured ally.

Antiochus was already part of a dynasty but he wanted to see this preserved. So he created a royal cult and his tomb was built in order for his vassals to worship him after his death. A Greek inscription reveals that he was buried here at the roof of his world as a sign of his parity with the gods.

The complex on Mount Nemrut (or Nemrut Dagi as it is locally known) was built so that many religious festivals could be held there. He commanded that his birthday should be celebrated on the 16th of each and every month and his coronation celebrated likewise on the 10th. To afford this he bought up wealth generating estates and properties which were legally bound to the sites.

He put in charge whole families with a vested interest in keeping this particular status quo. The priests of the tomb complex were to instruct their sons in administering the estates and so ensure that these celebrations would last in perpetuity. Or so Antiochus imagined.

Yet times change and at some point in the history there was a collective effort to demolish the statues – to bring down the gods of old.  All of the statues have been decapitated – their heads roughly removed from their bodies. Archaeologists placed them upright but have not attempted to re-attach the head to the bodies. So, their dismembered heads lie where they fell.

Over the centuries people forgot about Antiochus’ tomb. Then in 1883 an engineer from Germany, Charles Sester, was assessing transport routes for the Ottoman Empire. He discovered more than he had bargained for. As he and his team dug they rediscovered the beheaded gods for the world.

We know that the damage was intentional as there is a pattern to it, particularly their noses. When and exactly why it was done is lost to history. The area is under snow for several months a year and so the statues have naturally weathered too, making it difficult to ascertain when injury came to the gods of Mount Nemrut.

Yet despite the distance from their bodies the heads of these gods are still magnificent and their divinely icy stares still demand something – if not worship then certainly awe. The ruins of the tomb-sanctuary of Antiochus are magnificent to behold even today.