Throne Room of The Gods
Written and photographed by Robert Arndt
"And I have decided to lay the foundation of this tomb, indestructible by the ravages of time, in closest proximity to the heavenly throne, wherein the outer form of my person shall rest through immeasurable time."
The young god-king Antiochus I, ruler of the independent kingdom of Commagene near the Euphrates River in what is today southern Turkey, wrote those lines over two thousand years ago. The intervening millennia have indeed left his outer form as undisturbed as he had intended, and his tomb atop a 7000-foot mountain peak, with the overwhelming ceremonial-religious site that surrounds it, is now one of modern Turkey's most remarkable historical treasures. But in the king's own time it was more. The great hierothesion or sacred place on Nemrud Dagh was the center of a kingdom and a religion, the interface between three civilizations and two empires, and the heart of an enduring mystery.
The mystery begins with the kingdom itself, about whose early history we know little more than that it was an Assyrian tributary, that it became independent in 163 B.C. and that it was, although very small, very fertile. According to Strabo, Commagene was rich in fruit trees and vines. It also exported grain, wood and wine and manufactured iron of unmatched quality. Known all over the ancient world, and produced in Asia Minor's earliest ironworks, the steel-like Commagene iron contained manganese, still used today to lend toughness and impact-resistance to steel.
Commagene itself displayed similar toughness and impact-resistance in the political sphere after Antiochus I succeeded to the throne around 70 B.C. Despite his precarious position?a petty prince trapped among the Armenians, the Romans, the Parthians and even Herod the Great?Antiochus managed to throw off Armenian overlord-ship, stave off Herod and, in 62 B.C., win independence and security from Rome. The Romans formalized Commagene's status as an independent state by a treaty that also confirmed Antiochus as ruler, thus giving him personally as well as his kingdom a badly needed measure of security.
With that assured, Antiochus turned his attention to religion. The cult of Mithra, the rock-born Persian sun-god, was Commagene's official creed, and each year a great ceremony ended with the reappearance of the king as the epiphanes, the incarnation on earth of the god. The monotheist Mithra cult nonetheless recognized other gods as manifestations of different aspects of the deity, and Antiochus spent some years in refurbishing, reconstructing and elaborating religious sites throughout his kingdom: he once boasted that he had left no holy place unadorned. His special attention went to a site where his father had been buried, the tomb cut deep in the solid limestone of a mountainside near Arsameia, overlooking the Nymphaios river.
There Antiochus established a major temple site dedicated to Mithra himself, endowing it with royal lands to provide it a permanent income, and decorating it with reliefs showing his father Mithridates being greeted, as an equal, by the gods. Here, too, was a tunnel that sloped downward over 45 degrees, running more than 500 feet into the mountain's heart; at the bottom of this tunnel, surrounded by the rock that gave Mithra birth, the mysteries of the cult were performed, and from the tunnel's mouth the king appeared each year as the god's incarnation.
From his father's tomb, Antiochus' mind turned to his own. In planning and building it during his own lifetime, however, he had more in mind than self-glorification. Influenced perhaps by his kingdom's dual role between east and west as buffer and borrower, or perhaps by his own ancestry?a combination of Persian, Greek and Anatolian?King Antiochus set out to create a new religion that would unite the varying cultural streams in his kingdom and similarly unite his people. Built on Mithraic principles, the new orthodoxy would emphasize that the varying names given the gods by different nations were only differences of language; it would establish Antiochus himself as fully co-equal with the other gods; and the vast, monumental religious site and tomb it centered on would proclaim the nobility and legitimate succession of Antiochus and his forbears all the way back to Alexander and Darius.
The tomb and its surroundings would occupy the most prominent site in the entire kingdom, a mountain-top holy since human memory; it would be the goal of religious processions and the site of monthly and annual celebrations; and it would be worthy to be what Antiochus intended: "the common throne room of all the gods."
That was two thousand years ago. What effect might the passage of that time have had on King Antiochus' grandiose conception? How would Western eyes today see the common throne room of all the gods? What could be the spirit of such a place in modern, secular Turkey? It was to answer these questions that we set out last fall to climb Nemrud Dagh, the center and highest point of the kingdom of Commagene and of the modern province of Adiyaman.
Airplane and bus brought us to Adiyaman town, a journey of several hours from Istanbul. En route we examined the list of modern-day visitors to King Antiochus' kingdom and to his 7000-foot mountain.
One of the earliest was Captain Helmuth von Moltke, a young German army captain seconded to the Ottoman imperial forces in 1838. By raft and on horseback von Moltke crisscrossed south-central Turkey on a reconnaissance mission during which he used Nemrud Dagh's bright, symmetrical peak as a triangulation point. But it was not until 1878, a full 40 years later, that a road engineer named Sester climbed the mountain and returned to the Berlin Academy of Sciences with an awed report that spurred Germany to investigate and then announce to the modern world the hierothesion atop Nemrud Dagh.
The world, as it happened, was not terribly interested and a further 50 years of neglect followed. Theologians, epigraphers and astronomers did some work on the discovery, but most seem to have relied exclusively on the descriptions published by the Germans?and by Osman Hamdi Bey, father of Turkish archaeology?in the 1880's and '90's. But at last, in 1952, a young American archaeologist, Theresa Goell, decided to undertake a new and thorough exploratory investigation of the mountain-top, an investigation that only now, more than 20 years later, is winding up. It had provided us with most of the background for our visit. Miss Goell has thoroughly mined the investigative and speculative riches of the Nemrud Dagh complex, and last summer she began a new campaign of "several seasons" to rebuild the site as King Antiochus left it.
Months of cruel drought had left Adiyaman dusty and scorched when we arrived. The town's chief virtue in our eyes was that one could hire a jeep there for the remaining section of the trip to Nemrud Dagh?a four-to-six-hour odyssey that we would undertake the next morning. In the meantime we found a hotel that rejoiced in the name of Wideawake?Uyanik in Turkish?whose owner took us thoroughly and competently in hand, proposing a schedule, arranging transport and recommending a restaurant.
In the morning we met driver Davrish and his jeep, both of them stocky and capable-looking, and both radiating a battered verve that somehow inspired confidence. Our route took us through some of Turkey's most remarkable scenery: dusty and all but treeless, violet and buff in color, yet, despite the drought, grimly determined to be productive: wheat stalks almost outnumbered the stones in the fields, and rare groves of pollarded oaks held goat-fodder in their branches above the level of the coming winter snows. Where a stream or ditch held water, a burst of vivid, almost violent, green reminded us of how Strabo had seen this land centuries ago and always, as we drove, Nemrud Dagh's white conical peak showed in the far distance. So symmetrical is the mountain's rounded cone that its apparent shape remained unchanged even while our angle of view shifted 45 degrees during the morning.
We rolled on through heat so intense that the air almost vibrated with it, past dun-colored villages so well built into their hillsides that only the black doorways and the stone rollers on their roofs betrayed human occupancy. Powered by four wheels, but often driving on only two, we twisted downward to the bed of the Nymphaios River (now called the Kahta Cayi). Davrish chose to ford it just below a Roman bridge, filling the simmering radiator and stripping for a swim himself in midstream.
From the river, we began the climb toward Nemrud Dagh's conical peak. With the mountain out of sight for the first time since leaving Adiyaman, we had to regain the plateau and then climb the remaining height to 7,000 feet, leaving behind us the Kahta Cayi and a pastoral tributary where cows and cowherds dozed side by side among brilliant purple oleander. On the way we explored the tomb of King Mithridates, Antiochus' father, and drank water filtered through a hundred feet of limestone into the royal burial chamber of 20 centuries ago?now a cistern for goats, shepherds and occasional tourists. We crossed the sloping path of the ancient processional way and climbed through a steep village built along ?and in?a rushing stream where Kurdish girls laughingly handed us bunches of sweet grapes and, still laughing, volleyed rocks at us when we raised our cameras. We climbed on, finally reaching the foot of Nemrud Dagh itself and catching sight again of the great tumulus at its top.
At this distance?two miles away through remarkably clear air?we could see that the huge cone, 315 feet high and 1,000 feet in diameter at its base, itself constituted the peak of the mountain; its unusual brightness even over large distances was the result of its composition: white limestone rubble, from gravel- to melon-size, held only by gravity in a gently rounded, 45-degree cone. On the side that faced us was a dimple in the curving surface: all that remained of some grave-robber's?or archaeologist's?attempt to tunnel into the loose, shifting gravel sometime during the last two millennia. Against the sky on the cone's east edge we could vaguely discern some vertical structure, but no other details were visible.
We drove the last winding miles up the mountain, grateful that just last year the rough dozer-cut road had been extended so far, and grateful too for the heavy sweaters we had been warned to bring. At this altitude there was a constant half-gale blowing, and the temperature drop since three hours earlier was fully 50?; we countered with several glasses of hot tea at the 'Nemrud Hilton,' a tiny hut whose fieldstone walls were held together by wide chinks, and which an enterprising villager had erected to feed the summer's archaeological team. Our goal loomed just above us.
Spurs of weathered limestone radiated from the top of the mountain?Nemrud Dagh's ribs showing through the thin scrubby soil?and formed barriers to our spiral clamber up the slope. But only a few minutes later we stood breathless on the skirts of the tumulus itself, and then walked around the path at its base?actually the top of an immense buried retaining wall?and discovered the east terrace.
Hewn into the mountain's flank was a level open area 75 by 110 feet in extent, cut into a U-shape by a 40-foot square fire altar, three steps high, placed in the center of the terrace's downhill edge. Opposite the altar, their backs to the gravel tumulus, were five colossal headless statues, three stories high, their seated figures built of massive limestone blocks and the monolithic heads, up to 10 feet tall, lying scattered around the terrace at the statues' feet. The stone bodies were built like massive architecture, with no implications of humanity or life in their formal, four-square fists-on-thighs positions; but the heads, in sharpest contrast, were not only alive but almost portrait-like, the faces expressing god-like power, serenity and concern. Indeed, these were the gods, seated here in their common throne room, each named not with one name but with two or three, Greek as well as Persian, in accordance with the syncretistic principle of King Antiochus' new religion. Flanked left and right by Commagene's eagle and lion were Apollo and Mithra in one godhead, Fortuna and the Persian fertility goddess and the personification of Commagene in one, the god-king Antiochus himself, Zeus/Oromasdes, and Hercules/ Ares/Artagnes in his lion skin and carrying a club. Here was the company among which Antiochus had set himself; here ceremonies on the 10th and 16th of each month?the days of the king's birthday and of his confirmation on the throne?honored all the gods.
The psychologically necessary connection to earth and mortality had not been neglected when this sanctuary was planned; the left and right edges of the terrace each are marked by a long, low sandstone plinth into which are socketed flat slabs of the same soft green stone: 15 on the north edge, 17 along the south. Though only fragments remain today, it is clear that each slab displayed a full-length relief of one of Antiochus' ancestors on its front face, with an identifying inscription on the back, and that the paternal Persian ancestors, beginning with Darius, were on the north side, and the maternal Greek ones, beginning with Alexander the Great, made up the south row. In front of each socket still stands a small altar stone for sacrifices, each a reduced version of the huge ones at the feet of the five great statues of the gods. This dual possibility of sacrifices either to mortal ancestors or to gods who, though immortal, yet included in their number those ancestors' offspring, somehow bridged the paradox of life and death, god-head and mortality, and made King Antiochus' invention a religion in the full sense of the word.
The awe, if not the belief, that was inherent in that religion is still very much present here, despite all the destruction that 20 centuries of time, weather and human interference have wrought. Though their heads lie scattered on the terrace, to climb behind the enthroned colossi a little way up the tumulus, and to sit and look over the shoulders of Apollo and Zeus as the sun rises behind a Genesis landscape, lighting the mist-filled Commagene valleys and gleaming on the Euphrates?this is to understand, in a way perhaps not possible by other means, what Commagene's monarchy and religion, and thus the kingdom itself, were all about. We stayed a long time on the east terrace, thoroughly chilled on the outside by the dawn gale, but as well warmed internally by our imaginings.
These were interrupted by the sight of a procession of people and donkeys on a trail below us that traversed around the mountain's peak. Wind-tattered scraps of music from drum and zurna floated up, and were answered by repeated shotgun blasts, all, we learned, in celebration of a village wedding.
Keeping sight of the bridal party as it marched around the contour of the mountain had taken us halfway round the tumulus to the west terrace, where the topography of Nemrud Dagh had dictated a somewhat different layout to King Antiochus' architects. On this smaller terrace, as on the larger east one, seven pedestals held five colossal statues of Antiochus and his fellow gods, flanked by the guardian lions and eagles. Here too, rows of commemorative plaques lined the open space, though not at opposite sides as on the east terrace but at the left and front edges. No fire altar ever existed here on the sunset side of the tumulus, and unlike the east one, this terrace had been built partly by cutting into the mountainside and partly by tilling in behind a megalithic retaining wall. Among the rubble on this terrace?littered like the east one with the heads of Fortuna, Antiochus, Zeus, Apollo and Hercules?is a large green sandstone plaque that archaeologists originally labeled a horoscope. It shows the Commagene lion, body in profile but looking out at the observer, and is spattered with 19 of the wavy six-pointed stars often depicted on Commagene coins and on the robes and headdresses of Commagene rulers. Recently, however, further studies have shown this relief to be an astronomic commemorative stone: the stars and the names, in Greek, of three planets graven in the stone identify a date in 61 or 62 B.C.: the day that King Antiochus was confirmed on the throne of Commagene by the Romans.
We wandered for some hours on the two great terraces and the connecting north passage, and then turned our attention to that part of the Nemrud Dagh sanctuary that, in our minds and in literal fact, overshadowed all the rest?overshadowed, indeed, all of Commagene: the tumulus. Antiochus' great proclamatory inscription on the backs of the east court's colossal statues, which has been found as well at half a dozen other sites in the kingdom, makes it clear that the king intended to be buried on Nemrud Dagh, and Karakush is only the nearest evidence that royal tumulus burials were common in many parts of Anatolia for centuries. That King Antiochus' grave is under the Nemrud Dagh tumulus itself is an obvious conclusion that has been put to the test any number of times, as dimples in the gravel surface of the cone still attest. The latest attempts to find the tomb under the tumulus have been Theresa Goell's: careful archaeological test trenches that revealed a stepped revetment of large, roughly-dressed stone under the gravel, and under that, the unbroken limestone bedrock of the mountain itself. From several directions, Miss Goell's team has tried to find the entrance of a tunnel into the tumulus base that might lead to a burial chamber; each time they found only bedrock. The result is particularly frustrating because the tomb of King Antiochus of Commagene, if it is ever found, would be the only known undisturbed royal burial of its period, and thus of inestimable scientific value.
These rich archaeological possibilities led America's National Geographic Society to finance a series of technical surveys of the Nemrud Dagh sanctuary, in the hope of pinpointing the location of the tomb that two millennia of searchers had failed to find. Under Miss Goell's direction, seismic, electrical, magnetic and gravitational methods would be brought to bear.
The seismic survey, nearly identical to methods used in oil exploration, foundered when dismayed engineers discovered that small explosions were so dissipated by the loose stone of the tumulus that no coherent reflection readings resulted, and that explosions large enough to overcome this difficulty would blow great holes in the surface. Electrical resistivity measurements were then tried, based on the fact that a void, such as a tomb, shows an anomalously high resistance compared to normal levels for the surrounding soil and rock. But this technology too was defeated by King Antiochus' tumulus: the gravel gave wildly varying base values for its own resistivity, meter needles leaping from one end of the scale to the other with the slightest shift of the electrical probes inserted into the surface of the mound. The gravitational survey was also unsuccessful; only the magnetic method produced coherent results, showing an anomaly?perhaps a void??in the east terrace, directly on the main axis of the whole complex. But an exploratory bore there showed only a geological quirk: iron-bearing rock had given a false reading.
In the following season the investigators, now wary of the difficulties, used a different type of seismic survey that replaced explosives with sledgehammer impacts as the shock source; this series of tests resulted in a good map of the bedrock that underlies the tumulus' gravel layer. According to the map, a twin peak of bedrock, with a saddle between the peaks, is the foundation of the tumulus, whose gravel layer varies between 10 and 26 feet in depth. In the bedrock there also appears to be a rough ramp that curves up from the north passage to the saddle at the peak, and the archaeological team speculates that King Antiochus' workers carried the limestone rubble up that ramp from the east and west terraces to the peak, dumping it there to form the tumulus' deep outer layer.
But with that, the greatest question remains unanswered. Where is the tomb? None of the surveys showed a burial chamber, and the seismic map shows nothing that might be the mouth of a tunnel leading to a tomb. The only remaining possibility is a shaft straight downward from the saddle between the bedrock peaks?from the very top of the tumulus to its heart. There, undisturbed "through immeasurable time," the god-king Antiochus' body may still lie today.
Toward evening, pensive and full of the strange spirit of this place, we climbed the tumulus itself. From its rounded top we could see almost the full extent of the "fertile though small," hilly kingdom of Commagene. Beneath our feet, the man who had called himself "the Great King Antiochus, the God, the Just, the Epiphanes" had been dead for 2,000 years, and not far to the east of us a flight of three jets of the Turkish air force swept glinting past as if to recall us to a more modern, faster-moving world. But we were standing on Nemrud Dagh, and they flew past below us.
Robert Arndt, a frequent contributor to Aramco World, lives and writes in Istanbul.
This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the September/October 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.