In 1880 a German engineer called Karl Sester, riding his horse in central Anatolia in Eastern Turkey, came face to face with massive statues standing next to an enormous burial mound. It was strange that the site had not been found by a Westerner before as the area had been visited by many explorers. The local inhabitants knew all about it, and it was they who told the German about the site. Climbing to the top, Sester saw massive statues of figures sitting on thrones. All around lay stone limbs, faces, animal heads and blocks with Greek inscriptions.
An expedition to Anatolia
As soon as he could, Sester reported his discovery to experts in Berlin. At first there was little interest and some of them did not believe him, but one year later an archaeologist named Puchstein mounted an expedition. Sester accompanied him and together they discovered that the large mound was the tomb of Antiochus I, king of Commagene.
This was an ancient Armenian kingdom of the Hellenistic period, lying at a strategic point between the Taurus Mountains and the Euphrates. The region had been inhabited by various peoples, including the Assyrians, the Persians, the empire of Alexander the Great and the Seleucid Empire. Around 162 BC the region became independent and acted until 72 AD as a buffer state between the Parthian and Roman Empires. Finally, Commagene became a province of Rome.
Antiochus I built himself an enormous tomb
Antiochus came to the throne in 98 BC and wanted to increase Greek influence in the empire. First he built a burial monument for his father, Mithridates Kallinikos, in Arsamea, today’s Eski Kale. Later Antiochus built an enormous tomb for himself at the foot of Mount Nemrut. The 50 metre high burial mound was intended as the centre of a cult with himself at its head. The location on the high mountain top symbolised Antiochus’ divine status.
His grave is decorated with images of Greek, Roman and Persian gods as well as local Anatolian deities. Each image blends characteristics representing gods from the various cultures. Antiochus believed that after death his soul would have its seat next to Zeus-Oromasdes, a combination of the chief Greek god and the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda of Persia. On the terrace in front of the mound he built a colossal statue of himself between the other gods.
Later in life he took the side of Pompey against Julius Caesar and supported the Parthian enemies of Rome. He died around 31 BC and was interred in his uncompleted tomb. His son Mithridates did not complete the tomb and rejected the new religion, which had not really caught on.
The monument is in the form of a hill with a diameter of 200 metres and is reached by two steep paths, marked at the top by pillars. There are broad artificial terraces on the east and west sides and a smaller terrace on the north side. The colossal images of the king and his personal deities are carved out of the rock along a 200 metre processional way. The images on the east side are still in a good state but those on the west side have collapsed as a result of earthquakes. It is remarkable that the burial chamber itself has not been found. It probably lies in the rubble somewhere under the mound.
Since 1987 the monument has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey