Arsameia ad Nymphaeum

Arsameia ad Nymphaeum (Arsameia on the Nymphaios), located at the foot of Mount Nemrut in Eastern Turkey and known today as Eski Kale, was a royal seat and the summer capital of the Kingdom of Commagene, an ancient kingdom of the Hellenistic Age. It lays near the Nymphaios (Kahta Çay) River, a tributary of the Euphrates. Arsameia was named after King Arsames from Armenia who founded the Kingdom of Commagene around 260 BC. Its identification was based on a monumental inscription cut into the rock of a hillside to the south of Eski Kale. The ancient city extended to two opposite hills on either bank of the river. Scattered ruins from different periods can be seen on these hills today together with reliefs depicting dexiosis (handshake) scenes between deities and kings of Commagene.

Coordinates: 37° 56′ 34″ N, 38° 39′ 25″ E

Arsameia was first settled in the 3rd century BC by Arsames who fortified the city as part of his building of a power base against Seleucus II Callinicus (246-26 BC). It is here that, about a century later, one of the descendants of Arsames, King Mithridates I Callinicus, was to build his royal monuments and a cult center (hierotheseion). This made the city a place for worshipping the members of the royal house of Commagene.

The city was surrounded by walls and had a royal palace and luxurious public buildings. An inscription on the rock reports in detail the benefactions of Mithridates’ son, Antiochus I Theos, to Arsameia. Antiochus improved and expanded the palace, reinforced the city walls, secured water supply from nearby springs, constructed altars and dedicated statues to the royal family of Commagene. He also commemorated his father by building a hierothesion upon the Acropolis plateau of Arsameia and constructed a hierothesion for himself at Nemrut Dağ.

In the Late Roman and the Early Byzantine period, Arsameia declined and was restricted to a fortified position on the hill of the subsequent Yeni Kale (“New Castle”), the fortress built by the Mamlūk sultans.

Excavations carried out in the 1950s at the hierothesion at the top of the hill confirmed four periods of occupation; Hellenistic (2nd-1st centuries BC), Roman (1st-2nd centuries AD), Middle Ages (9th-10th centuries AD and 13th-14th centuries AD). The surviving ruins are located mainly at the top of the Eski Kale hill. A processional road that started from the Nymphaios River led to the side of the hill. Three reliefs depicting dexiosis scenes between deities and kings of Commagene define the path up to the sacred place. The best-preserved of all the relief stelae shows king Mithridates, dressed in Persian attire, shaking hands with Herakles (the Persian Artagnes). It stands above a remarkable rock-cut inscription which describes the founding of Arsameia.

There are several other important sites in the vicinity of the famous mountain of Nemrut Dagi including the Karakus Tumulus that served as the burial place of the female members of the royal dynasty of Commagene (Isias, Antiochis and Aka), and the incredibly well-preserved Roman Bridge at Cendere erected by four Commagene cities around AD 200 in honour of the Emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna and his sons Caracalla and Geta (see here). This was the heartland of the small kingdom of Commagene.


Back inscription of the fragmented dexiosis scene with Mithras and the river Nympaios in the distance.
The right half of a dexiosis scene: the sun god Mithras shakes hand with a King, Mithridates or Antiochus. Only Mithra survives; of his counterpart only a shoulder has been found. Mithras is shown with the characteristic rays of the sun radiating from the god’s head and wearing a Phrygian cap
(photo: Ste.caneva, Wikimedia)
A monumental niche with barrel vault carved into the rock almost ten meters long, wide, and high. This underground chamber may be the burial chamber of king Mithridates or a Mithraeum (temple to Mithras).
Relief of a dexiosis scene inside the chamber. The unidentified king is shaking hands with Mithras who can be identified because of his solar rays.

Fragments of a relief depicting Mithridates and Antiochus.
Dexiosis relief depicting king Mithridates shaking hands with Herakles-Artagnes and the Great Cult Inscription which contains the history of the founding of Arsameia.
The entrance to the 158m long tunnel with, above it, the Great Cult Inscription that describes the building activities of Antiochus at Arsameia and specifies the ritual celebrations to be practised in honour of his father. The tunnel that might lead down to a cistern/spring but its purpose remains uncertain.
Close-up to the Great Cult Inscription, the longest Greek inscription found in Turkey. It is written in Greek in five columns.

I erected altars and sacred votive offerings as benefits the manes of my father in
accordance with my piety, and I have established statues and images of the gods, together with the representation of myself, lifelike in shape and form, for eternal memory’.

Dexiosis relief depicting King Mithridates I Callinicus, father of Antiochus I Theos, shaking hands with the Persian deity Artagnes, identified by Greeks as Hercules.
The processional way leading up to the Acropolis. It was punctuated with monumental pedestals upon which stood relief sculptures and inscriptions.
The Acropolis of Arsameia.
A fragmented column with beautiful fruit motifs, possibly a part of an altar.
The Acropolis of Arsameia.
The Acropolis of Arsameia.


Buthrotum (Butrint)

As Albanian’s first designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Butrint (ancient Buthrotum) is the most famous and most visited archaeological site in the country. Located in southern Albania directly opposite the Greek island of Corfu, Butrint offers a combination of historic ruins and natural beauty. Its well-preserved ruins are nestled in a marshy landscape between an inland lagoon and the Ionian Sea and surrounded by densely forested hills. The remains of the ancient city span 2,500 years, from the Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Christian and even Venetian periods.

“Let me tell you that Buthrotum is to Corcyra (Corfu) What Antium is to Rome – the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world” – Cicero Letters to Atticus 4.8.1

Buthrotum in the Augustan Age.

Coordinates: 39° 44′ 44″ N, 20° 1′ 14″ 

The earliest archaeological evidence of settled occupation dates to between the 10th and 8th centuries BC, although the legend associated with its origins speak of the city’s foundation by Trojan exiles. The Roman writer Virgil, in the Aeneid, describes Butrint as founded by the Trojan prince Helenus, a son of King Priam of Troy, and as appearing as a «Troy in miniature» (parva Troia) to the hero Aeneas who stayed there after his own escape from the destruction of the city.

Buthrotum appears in the written sources during the 6th century BC when the city was a small acropolis under Corcyrean control. The city grew in importance and developed its trade thanks to its access to the Straits of Corfu. The situation changed radically at the turn of the 4th century BC when the Molossians invaded the coast of Northern Epirus. The city was fortified with a new 870 m-long wall and numerous gates. By the late mid-3rd century BC, the settlement included a theatre that could accommodate about 2,500 people, an agora, as well as a sanctuary dedicated to the god of healing, Asclepius.

Due to its favourable location, Buthrotum played an important role in the Roman civil war in 49-48 BC and served as a base for Caesar’s army. In 31 BC Augustus, fresh from his victory at Actium, established a Roman colony and the city expanded considerably and remained an important road-station on the way to Nicopolis, the capital city of the Roman province of Epirus Vetus. The Roman Forum was constructed in the Augustan period while the city witnessed its greatest period of prosperity in the 2nd century AD when numerous bathhouses, fountains, and public buildings were constructed and the theatre was renovated.

Reconstruction of the sanctuary, Theatre and Forum, c. AD 100.

The town suffered much damage from an earthquake sometime in the 4th century AD but survived into the Late Antique era, becoming the seat of a bishopric with Christian buildings including a large basilica and a Baptistery, one of the largest such paleochristian buildings of its type. The city then went into a long decline and was abandoned until 1928, when the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini’s Italy sent an expedition to Buthrotum.

The archaeological site has been the heart of the Butrint National Park, established in 2000 in order to preserve the natural ecosystems and woodlands which has a wide variety of animal habitats and great biodiversity. A network of walking trails exists in the park which leads to the many historical buildings and the rich variety of Mediterranean habitats. The finds from the site are on display in the small museum located on the top of the hill where the acropolis of Buthrotum once was.


The early fortifications dating back to the 4th century BC. The wall was constructed without mortar, using large blocks of stone.
The Lake Gate or Scaean Gate built in the 4th century BC within the Hellenistic city walls.
The Lion Gate, with a relief of a lion devouring the head of a bull. The relief was carved in the 6th century BC but added in the 5th century AD to lower the gate and make it easier to defend Butrint.
Inscription naming Junia Rufina at the Spring of the Nymphs behind the Lion Gate. 2nd century AD.
The Agora and the Roman Forum in the background.
The Roman theatre, built in the 2nd century AD over an earlier 4th century BC Greek Theatre.
The theatre was partly dug into the southern slope of the acropolis and could accommodate about 2,500 people.
Roman Forum. View of the Capitolium (?) and the Peristyle building.
The sacred well in the Sanctuary of Asclepius.
The Asclepian Treasury, built to hold offerings made to the god Asclepius. The earliest Sanctuary comprised a temple to the God, a stoa and a treasury to hold the offerings made to the god.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius was later modified to include a theatre and a perisytyle building, probably a pilgrim’s hostel.
The public bath-house with hypocaust and hot plunge bath.
The public Bath-house with the Apodyterium (undressing room).
The Agora.
The Roman Nymphaeum, a fountain dedicated to the nymphs. 2nd century AD.
The great Late Roman residence known as the Triconch Palace. The original townhouse was developed into a great palace around AD 400.
The conversion of the villa into a grandiose palace involved the expansion of the original courtyard and a new east wing. This housed a luxurious triconch dining room attached to a riverside entrance.
The Great Basilica, the seat of the bishop. 6th century AD.
The Great Basilica originally had thee aisles separated by colonnades of columns and capitals reused from earlier buildings and a floor paved with mosaic.
The Baptistery with its well-preserved mosaic pavement featuring iconography relating both to Christianity and to aristocratic life. Early 6th century AD.
Detail of the mosaic floor of the Baptistery.
The Medieval waterfront wall.
The Museum of Butrint which houses finds of the Italian archaeological mission that first excavated in Butrint from 1928 to 1940.
Imperial portraits from Butrint. From left to right: Emperor Augustus, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Empress Livia, Antinous.