Mount Nemrut is one of Turkey’s most spectacular ancient sites; a mysterious mountaintop mausoleum scattered with stone heads. A UNESCO World Heritage Site also known in Turkish as Nemrut Dağ or Nemrut Daği, it remains one of my favourite places I’ve visited on my travels. It’s not the easiest site to visit thanks to its remote location deep in the heart of Central Anatolia but it will reward those who make the long journey to see it with evocative sunsets and sunrises over its stone sculptures and ‘throne of the gods’.
On my first solo trip back in 2005, I set out to backpack around some of Turkey’s most epic historic sites. And the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is known as the Cradle of Civilisation is ripe with these as some of the earliest civilisations developed in this fertile zone.
Mount Nemrut was at the top of my bucketlist thanks to its colossal stone head sculptures which look like something from Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. There are two terraces of statues which are oriented to catch the light at sunrise and sunset.
You might not have heard of the Mount Nemrut, but if you’ve been to Turkey you might recognise the head of Apollo (or Mithras/Helios/Hermes) from photos. He’s one of the most recognisable icons of Turkish tourist literature and is routinely splashed over brochures, posters, flyers, Nat Geo covers, and desktop backgrounds.
WHAT IS NEMRUT DAGI?
The name ‘Nemrut Daği’ is Turkish for Mount Nimrod (Mount Nemrut) and refers to both the mountain itself, and the fascinating ancient site which sits at its summit. Which is basically a grandiose and self-important mausoleum.
Situated in the Anti-Taurus mountains, Nemrut Dağı is famous for its ancient stone heads on a remote site atop Mount Nemrut (Nimrod), the highest in the area.
It was built in 62BC by Antiochus I Epiphanes, son of the founder of the Commagene kingdom in the 1st century BC. Never heard of the Commagenes? Nope, me neither.
The Commagene Kingdom was briefly (163BC-72AD) a small buffer state between the Seleucid and the Roman Empires and occupied a small independent territory between the Taurus mountains and Euphrates River.
But anyway, Mount Nemrut was all the more alluring for its mystery.
Intended to be a religious sanctuary as well as a tomb for its creator, two terraces of stone statues were built to be illuminated by the light of the golden house. One terrace faces east, one west. The statues represent Antiochus himself, as well as eagles, lions, and various gods from different religions of the area.
It’s an astonishing site, but remote and of (comparatively) little historical significance. Mount Nemrut isn’t exactly undiscovered, it gets its fair share of tourists. But miles from anywhere, you have to be relatively determined to get to Mount Nemrut– or at least prepared to sit on a bus for a long time.
WHERE IS MOUNT NEMRUT?
HOW TO GET TO MOUNT NEMRUT
Mount Nemrut is located in the mountains of Central Anatolia and is commonly considered one of the highlights and main tourist attractions of Eastern Turkey. The nearest airports are Adıyaman (closest), Malatya, and Gaziantep (most frequent flights).
Approximate distances to Mount Nemrut:
- 1200km from Istanbul
- 600km from Cappadocia
- 750km from Ankara
- 100km from Malatya
- 85km from Adıyaman
- 240km from Gaziantep
- 180km from Urfa
MOUNT NEMRUT TOURS
It’s easiest to take a tour to Mount Nemrut as the minibuses drive right up to the entrances to the site. From here it’s a 20-minute uphill walk to the terraces.
Tours approach from two sides: Kahta (south) and Malatya (north). If you want to keep the costs down then head to either city independently, and you should be able to find a good-value tour on the ground through a local agent or your accommodation. Kahta, in particular, is the main gateway to Mount Nemrut, and only a 40-minute drive or bus ride from Adıyaman airport.
Alternatively, there are multi-day Eastern Turkey tours available which incorporate Mount Nemrut into their itineraries, departing from Istanbul or Cappadocia.
VISITING MOUNT NEMRUT INDEPENDENTLY
Most tours, though, make the long trek out to Nemrut Dağı only to visit for either sunrise or sunset. But I’ll be damned if I was going to come all this way and not see both!
My Rough Guide to Turkey had made a brief mention of a cheap dorm near the summit (I have no idea whether this still exists). Putting my trust in this lone sentence, I took a multi-day tour from Cappadocia via Urfa. This tour visited Mount Nemrut from the Kahta side for sunset. I stayed the night at the top, woke up for the sunrise, walked down to Karadut (glad this was downhill as it takes a few hours), then negotiated a ride for onwards travel to Malatya with another tour group.
This made sense for me as I wanted to see both sunrise and sunset and ideally didn’t want to double back on myself.
However, the simplest way to do it DIY is to stay overnight in Karadut, a village in the National Park which is the closest point you can reach by public transport. Staying overnight allows you to see both sunrise and sunset. There are a few hotels/guesthouses in Karadut, and they can arrange a tour to the summit for you (for an extra charge):
ESKI KAHTA CASTLE
The bonus of taking a tour is that extra sites are usually included. And in Turkey, even the ‘minor’ sites tend to be impressive.
One of these—a castle near Kâhta—turned out to be one of my favourite spots in the country.
You know that scene at the end of The Land Before Time, where the sun peeks out from behind the clouds to reveal the Great Valley? That’s what the view was like from Eski Kâhta. When I see sights like this, I get some epic soundtrack music going on in my head. This happened frequently around Turkey.
Turkey has such an embarrassment of riches that this spectacular castle was a mere pit stop. It was empty of other tourists and scant on information and any health and safety considerations. Our group was let loose to climb around and explore.
I have no idea who built it or why due to the lack of information at the site. A quick Google suggests that it’s a Mamluk fortress and currently being restored—somewhat unsympathetically—so may not still be open to the public.
VISITING THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
The minibus took us to the facilities at the base of the summit where I was relieved to discover that the dorm did indeed exist, alongside a cafe and toilet facilities. There were a few busloads of tourists for the sunset on the West Terrace.
The West Terrace is a 20-minute walk from the car park. This is side featuring most of the stone heads that you see in photographs.
The rest of the group departed back for Göreme, and I checked out my sleeping quarters, which turned out to be a metal shed with a few beds.
Pro tip: it’s cold and windy at the top of mountains, even at the height of summer. Take warm clothes. And a head torch will come in handy if you’re climbing the summit in the dark hour before sunrise.
Luckily there was warm hospitality and ladlefuls of something hot to be found in the cafe. I was up again a 4 am to walk to the summit in darkness to catch the sunrise which was spectacular and well worth the extra effort.
It’s well worth the effort to stay overnight at Mount Nemrut if you have the time. Although there’s not much to see other than the terraces, the solitude after the bus groups have departed is enjoyable and the sunrise was special. I would recommend sunrise over sunset if you have to choose between them; you can’t beat the early morning light.
THE HISTORY OF MOUNT NEMRUT
You’d expect a mausoleum of this size to be built for someone of great significance, but not really. Antiochus was just your standard ancient megalomaniac.
Ruling over an independent kingdom on good terms with the Romans and the Parthians on either side, he reinforced his claim to the throne with claims to be descended from Apollo, Darius the Great of Persia and Alexander the Great. One inscription reads:
“I, the great King Antiochus, have ordered the construction of these temples. . . on a foundation which will never be demolished… that prove my faith in the gods. At the conclusion of my life I will enter my eternal repose here, and my spirit will ascend to join that of Zeus in heaven.”
Mind you, as ancient megalomaniacs go Antiochus was fairly benign, and something of a peacemaker. The kingdom flourished under his rule thanks to his adroit handling of Roman and Persian politics.
The statues represent a mishmash of local religions – Greek, Armenian, Persian – that he brought together in a syncretic imperial cult. The site was intended to be a place of religious worship and festivities long after his death.
This was not only a bid to knit together this small but ethnically diverse kingdom but also to appease his Roman and Parthian friends.
The site remains the most notable legacy of this short-lived kingdom.
As was the fashion with religious monuments, the closer to the heavens the better. Not only is it at the top of the highest mountain in the area, but Antiochus raised it by a further 200ft by adding a conical burial mound. 50ft has since been lost to earthquakes and human erosion.
As with all of the best ancient sites, it still has mysteries.
We still don’t really know how it was constructed. Some of the stone blocks weigh up to 9 tonnes. How did they get up there?
The statues were originally seated but at some point decapitated and the heads strewn across the site in an act of religious vandalism, most likely by early Christians or Arabs.
And although it’s assumed that Antiochus was buried there, to date his remains have not been found.
The sanctuary at Nemrut Dağı fell into disuse after the Commagene territory was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire, and remained unknown to the wider world until an Ottoman-employed German engineer rediscovered it in 1881.
It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Poor old Antiochus. Such grand dreams, but for hundreds of years just a lonely echo in the valley.
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