Friday, October 31, 2008

Southeast Turkey: Part I


We made it back from our epic trip to southeast Turkey with a group from the RCAC. We were gone from about 5 am Saturday morning until about 1am Wednesday morning, and it was go, go, go the entire time! Everyone was exhausted by the time we landed in Istanbul Tuesday night, but it was worth it. There is so much to tell, and so many pictures to show, that we have decided to "publish" our adventure in installments. Follows here the first part: Malatya and Nemrud Dağı. (By the way, we figured out how to convert our keyboards to Turkish keyboards so we can type things correctly now!).

After a very early-morning departure from the Research Center, 18 of us boarded a plane to Malatya. The airport was tiny, but soon our bus arrived to pick us up. Our driver would make the entire trek with us, more than 1000 km over the next four days, and was very good and extremely patient. He was tipped handsomely.

Our first stop was "Eski Malatya" (old Malatya). The city used to be very important in the Christian period, when it was home to about 50 churches and at least six monasteries. There is a mosque there, Ulu Cami, that was supposed to have been built by the Selcuks in the 13th century. However, we were very disappointed to discover that it has been basically completely rebuilt in the past few years. It is still pretty, but there is nothing particularly historical about it. And, unfortunately, it was not open and there was no imam around to let us in. We spent about an hour walking around what basically amounted to a mid-sized village with not much to see at all. But here is the mosque anyway:

We then reboarded the bus for the 4+ hour trip to Nemrud Dağı. For those of you who do not know (which is probably most of you except those who have been to Turkey or seen a random History Channel special or something), Nemrud Dağı (that is, Mt. Nemrud) is a massive monument to Antiochus I, the king of the Kommagene empire, who ruled around 69 BC. "The what empire?" you might well ask. The Kommagenes were a short-lived empire in the area of southeastern Turkey who gained their independence from the Seleucids in 163/162 BC. Within a short 300 years they got too uppity and were eventually smacked down by the Romans and made a part of the province of Syria. A couple of generations before that happened, Antiochus I thought he was pretty important and had a massive burial mound constructed for himself on the top of a mountain peak, decorated with colossal statues.

To give you some idea of the scope of the project, look at the mound on top of this mountain:

It looks like a pile of sand, but is really constructed entirely of loose rock -- it's the highest burial mound in the world, in terms of its elevation. The work it must have taken to haul all of that stone to the tip-top of this mountain, the second highest in Turkey after Ararat, truly boggles the mind. It is not the largest such structure in Turkey, an honor that goes to a Lydian burial mound outside of Sardis that is so large Candace's mom was able to photograph it from an airplane last summer (we don't have that picture), but still, the fact that it is so high, in such a remote area, makes it a staggering project.

The mountain is located in a dry landscape, almost empty of vegetation, and there is nothing around except the road running to the small giftshop/rest area complex at the foot of the peak. There is a hostel a couple of miles before you reach that complex, and a few families herd their animals on the mountain or, presumably, work at the hostel or giftshop, but the area seems very, very empty. As Peter commented, he knew from descriptions that it would be remote, but he didn't expect it to be desolate. Here are some photographs, taken on the approach to the mountain and from the tomb at the top, that may help convey how bleak and awesome the terrain is:

The climb up is steep but stone stairs have been constructed, so it is a relatively easy, but tiring climb (or for about $7 you can have a local lead you up on a donkey, although that seemed like a terrifying idea since the path is so narrow and the drop so steep!).

The statues at the top represent the King Antiochus I and several gods. Since he considered himself a god as well, he had himself shown here, in matching statues on both sides of the mountain, seated in a group with other deities. There are also reliefs which were at one time installed down each side of the monument, showing Nemrud shaking hands with each one of the gods. The gods are a mix of traditional Roman and Eastern gods. So, for instance, there is Apollo-Mithras (Apollo is the Roman god of the sun, but here he is also Mithras, an Eastern god the Roman army started to worship after they learned about him during their tours), Zeus, and Hercules, as well as a representation of Tyche, the empire (and Fortune) personified as a woman. You can also see eagles and lions of course. As you can see from the pictures, the heads long ago fell off the statues, and archaeologists have lined them up in front of their bodies, which is slightly bizarre:

Top: The statues with their heads in front; Bottom: Peter's more artistic picture of it.

Peter with Apollo/Mithras on the East Terrace

Candace with Zeus on the West Terrace

Zeus and Antiochus, East Terrace

And just for Candace's mom, we will mention that there is a very strange conspiracy theory, based on the fact that one of the statues looks like Elvis, that Elvis was actually King Antiochus reincarnated. Problem: the one that looks (arguably) like Elvis is not the portrait of King Antiochus, but of Apollo/Mithras, as indicated by the type of Eastern cap he is wearing. Anyway, you can decide for yourself:

We were lucky enough to arrive just before sunset. Sunrise and sunset are touted as the best times to visit the monument because one set of the colossal statues is located on the east side, and one on the west, so the rays of the rising or setting sun strike the rocks and the statues and make them seem to almost glow. I can imagine that in the middle of the summer these are also very busy times to visit. Not a lot of tourists make it out to the site because it is so remote, but there is a fairly steady stream. We had hoped to be alone on the peak, but there were a good number of people there, even though as the sun went down it got quite cold. We were very surprised to see some fairly old women up there.

The descent was more difficult than the ascent. The way down from the west side is much more harrowing than the climb up -- for some reason there is no real path from the west platform so everyone was just making their way down the steep slope of loose rock until we joined the stone pathway about a quarter of the way down. So basically, the steepest bit of the descent was just loose rocks and gravel and a fairly steep grade. The two older Turkish ladies were in front of us (in long skirts and loafer-type shoes, completely inappropriate for that type of climbing). I'm putting a picture in because it is somewhat amusing that she is standing right in front of the sign that says don't do what she's doing!

Just after starting down, she actually did fall. Luckily the mountainside was so steep that she didn't really have very far to fall backwards before sitting down. We helped her up of course, and then Amanda, who was the closest to her in the line, gave her her arm and escorted her the rest of the way down. Meanwhile, the man who was with the two older women just walked on by as if nothing had happened! Peter offered his arm to the other woman, but she was insistent on going it alone, and made it down ok, thankfully.

Overall, Nemrud is definitely worth seeing, although it takes some effort. But somehow it wasn't as...big as we expected. It is, however, the most-photographed site in southeast Turkey, but even that has not been enough to attract the level of crowds that can spoil other sites. Go if you have the chance!

Group shot of the RCAC Fellows on top of Mt. Nemrud:

Sunset from Nemrud Dağı:

Another sunset pic: From left, Candace, Ivana, Amanda F.


1 comment:

Christina said...

Hey! I'm really enjoying living vicariously through you both. Great pictures! That is one place that is still on my "list" so I'm glad someone I know has really been there. As for the statue of Apollo looking like Elvis.....Apollo did have music in his life's food for thought.

Keep it coming! and be safe!