Mount Nemrut

Mount Nemrut is home to the fascinating burial complex (hierothesion) of King Antiochus I who reigned in the 1st century BC over Commagene, a small kingdom founded north of Syria and the Euphrates after the breakup of Alexander The Great’s empire. Located within the Nemrut Dağı National Park, approximately 75 km east of Adıyaman, Mount Nemrut is one of Turkey’s prime tourist attractions where most visitors come to experience the pure magic of the setting at either sunrise or sunset. The hierotheseion of King Antiochus I is one of the most ambitious constructions of the Hellenistic period, and was thus inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1987 and was established as a National Park the following year.

Coordinates: 37° 58′ 54″ N, 38° 44′ 28″ E

The hierothesion of King Antiochus I is 50-meter-high man-made burial mound situated upon the peak of Nemrut Dağ within the Taurus mountain range of South-East Turkey, over 2,150 m above sea level. The site was rediscovered in the early 1881 by Karl Sester, a German engineer assessing transport routes for the Ottomans, who reported the discovery of a large number of colossal statues, which he believed to be Assyrian in origin. Systematic excavations followed in the mid-twentieth century by Friedrich Karl Dörner, who worked collaboratively on the site with Theresa Goell, an American archaeologist who devoted herself to the excavation of Nemrut Dağı.

The monumental tomb is dated to the latter part of Antiochus’ reign, c. 50-36 BC. The sacred complex area of about 500 square metres comprises of a 50 m high cone-shaped tumulus flanked by terraces on its north, east and west sides, and a stepped altar. The body of King Antiochus is thought to have been buried in a chamber beneath his man-made mountain, but despite repeated attempts, his tomb has yet to be found.

The East and West terraces had colossal seated statues as well as rows of relief stelae (orthostates). The statues have been identified as Antiochus I and a pantheon of Greek, Armenian, and Iranian. The East Terrace is the best preserved and features mostly intact torsos with their heads placed in front. This terrace consisted of a high podium with a row of five colossal enthroned figures flanked at each end by eagles and lions intended to protect the sanctuary. The five enthroned figures depicted King Antiochus I and four tutelary gods: Zeus-Orosmasdes-Ahura Mazda, Artagnes-Bahram-Heracles-Ares, Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes, and Commagene-Atargatis-Juno Dolichena. On the back of these statues, Antiochus ordered the inscription of a long text in Greek (nomos) which included historical and legal aspects regarding the hierothesion and the establishment of the new cult. A row of now badly damaged sandstone orthostates depicting King Antiochus’ ancestors once lined the northern and southern sides of this terrace. A square and stepped altar platform is located on the east side.

The West Terrace had the same features as those displayed on the East Terrace but was considerably narrower than its eastern counterpart and had no main altar. It is now also more damaged, although the colossal heads are better preserved. The order of the enthroned statues, this time facing the setting sun, are identical to those of the east terrace. The orthostates depicting King Antiochus’ ancestors are also much better preserved. The West Terrace is completed by five reliefs depicting Antiochus shaking hands (dexiosis) with each member of his pantheon. It also included the famous ‘Lion Horoscope’, a relief depicting a lion with stars on his body (probably the constellation Leo) and a crescent moon on his chest. It has been argued that the scene might represent a kind of horoscope, one of the oldest known in the world. Recent research has shown that the lion slab may reflect the situation of the skies at special moments of the year 49 BC when the construction of the monument might have started. The dexiosis reliefs and the Lion Horoscope have been removed from the site and are stored in the Adıyaman Archaeological Museum.

Above the lion’s back three stars are depicted with sixteen points instead of eight. These are not stars but planets. From left to right they are Mars, Mercury and Jupiter. Above them you can read their Greek names: 1. Mars: ΠΥΡOEIΣ HPAKΛEOΣ Pyroeis Heracleos “the flaming one of Herakles” 2. Mercury : ΣTΙΛΒΩΝ ΑΠΟΛΛΩΝΟΣ Stilboon Apollonos “the shining one of Apollo” 3. Jupiter : ΦΑΕΘΩΝ ΔΙΟΣ Phaeton Dios “the radiating one of Zeus”.

The North Terrace is the least spectacular, and it was probably never finished as the stelae lying nearby are all unworked, bearing no inscriptions or reliefs. There is also no statue. Some scholars have advanced the possibility that this terrace was allocated for the use of kings who would take the throne after Antiochus.

There are several other important sites in the vicinity of the famous mountain of Nemrut Dagi. These include the Karakus Tumulus that served as the burial place of the female members of the royal dynasty of Commagene (Isias, Antiochis and Aka), the remains of Arsameia on the Nymphaios, where Antiochus built a hierothesion for his father, Mithridates I Callinicus (see here), 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).


The new Mountain Nemrut Visitor Center. The building hosts an exhibition of photographs depicting Nemrut.
The climb to the top of Nemrut.
  • The East Terrace
View of the East Terrace.
High podium with a row of five colossal seated figures. From left to right : King Antiochus I Theos, Commagene-Tyche, Zeus-Oromasdes, Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes, Artagnes-Herakles-Ares, an eagle.
Head of Zeus-Oromasdes.
Heads of Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes and Commagene-Tyche.
Head of Antiochus.
The East Terrace at sunset.
Head of Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes.
The gallery of the Macedonian ancestors.
The square and stepped altar platform located on the east side of the East Terrace.
  • The West Terrace
The West Terrace with the tumulus behind.
View of the West Terrace.
Head of King Antiochus.
The heads of an Eagle and Heracles-Artagnes-Ares, Apollo-Mithras and Commagene-Tyche.
Head of Heracles-Artagnes-Ares.
The West Terrace.
Head of Zeus-Oromasdes.
The West Terrace.
Head of Commagene Tyche.
Reliefs of the Persian ancestors of King Antiochus.
Relief of one of the Persian ancestors of King Antiochus.

  • The North Terrace
The North Terrace. The stelae on this terrace bear neither portraits nor inscriptions, as Antiochus probably intended them for his descendants.


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 (he also constructed a hierothesion for himself at Mount Nemrut).

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 Mount Nemrut 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 Nymphaios 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 Antiochus 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 the Greeks as Heracles.
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.