Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mount Nemrud, as close as you can come to the gods

The road to get there is by itself a unique experience as tension and expectations are building up all along the way!

As I’m approaching Kâhta in south-eastern Turkey,  I have my first glance of the mountains topped by the perfect conically shaped Tomb of Mount Nemrud. I have no idea what to expect for I only know the pictures of the colossal heads from many a travel magazine. Kâhta isn’t much, a few hotels and car rental companies - that sums it up. Yet it’s the last town of any significance before reaching my destination, Mount Nemrud. From here onwards, it is impossible to travel by bus and I have to board one of the smaller vans. This is where the true climb starts, a winding dirt road with short stretches of asphalt. I pass through settlements of about a dozen houses amidst generally bleached land. Higher up from one of the hilltops I view the immense surrounding landscape stamped by the Euphrates River which, because of the many dams built for irrigation purposes, looks as wide as a succession of lakes. Occasionally I pass patches of cultivated land fed by a scarce mountain stream. I don’t see a single soul although the houses seem to be occupied.

When the van stops, it appears that I’m in a place called Karakuş, i.e. a kind of tumulus framed by two columns with an eagle on top keeping watch. This is the Tomb of King Mithridates II (124-87 BC). In the back of the tumulus I discover another set of two columns that once were topped by lions. Halfway in between stands a lonely column carrying a relief of King Mithridates holding the hand of his wife, Laodike. Mithridates ruled over the Commagene Empire, just like Antiochus I, the builder of Nemrud, and his tomb is a discreet promise of what lies ahead. Since this is the first time I’m confronted with the Commagene, I  need to dig back into history.

This region was included in the Persian Empire from the 6th century BC until Alexander the Great’s victory at Issus in 333 BC. After his death in 323 BC, this part of his empire fell to Seleucos I Nikator (see: In the wake of Seleucos Nicator I). When in turn the Seleucid Empire was conquered by the Romans in 189 BC, it didn’t take long for new kingdoms to emerge. Commagene as one of the successors of the Seleucids occupied the area between the Taurus Mountains and the Euphrates River. The kingdom of the Commagene was founded in 162 BC by Mithridates Kalinikos I, who ruled over the Persians and Macedonians (descendants of Alexander the Great) which he joined together in a mighty buffer zone between the Parthians in the east and the Romans in the west. The peak of this kingdom was reached under Antiochus I Epiphanes (69-36 BC), the successor of Mithridates and thus the builder of Nemrud. Eventually, in 72 AD, the territory was annexed by Emperor Vespasian to the Roman province of Syria.

A tributary of the Euphrates, the Cendere, is a wide but short watercourse that lies across my road and on its narrowest point is has been bridged. This is not just any bridge but one that dates back to the 2nd century AD, built by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus. I am allowed to walk across the bridge on foot, a hugely gratifying experience! Imagine threading over a 2,000-years-old bridge. It makes you wonder about its role and purpose in this isolated and steaming hot place – it definitely commands high respect for the builders as far as I’m concerned.

The van drives on for another hour or so to stop at an idyllic mountain terrace with eating facilities sit amidst apple orchards. The view is superb and I have no idea how much further or how much higher I’ll have to climb for it already feels as if I have reached the top of the mountain range. The black ribbon of our road winds away in the landscape and disappears beyond the horizon into the unknown. Picking up the drive again, the van rattles over occasional brick-paved or totally unpaved roads. On a steep hill it suddenly comes to a final halt, this is the end. The last stretch has to be climbed on foot although I still fail to see the colossal heads that must be out there somewhere. After half an hour of huffing and puffing, scrambling over high steps up the rough slope, I finally reach the top at 7,700 feet.

I arrived at the very foot of a clean conical heap of loose gravel approximately 50 meters high and 150 meters in diameter, piled up on top the existing mountain presumably covering the Tomb of Antiochus. In fact this cone has been built with the material left over from carving the giant statues and many friezes that I’m about to see.

On the east and west side I discover the enormous statues and heads I recognize from the pictures. Here on the east side, a row of styled sitting figures that originally stood 8-10 meters high is facing me, their decapitated heads resting at their respective feet. From left to right, I’m identifying Apollo (equalling Mithra, Helios, Hermes); Tyche, Commagene's goddess of fertility; Zeus (equalling Ahora Mazda); Antiochus in person (why settle for less!) and Heracles (equalling Artagnes or Ares). These are in fact all the most important Persian and Greek gods of Antiochus’ empire and it is generally accepted that he attempted to unify his multiethnic kingdom in order to secure his authority. On either side of this group of statues stands an eagle, the symbol of freedom; and next to it a lion, as a symbol of courage. An identical group of figures is featured on the opposite western side, all decapitated as well, but catching the full sunlight because of the time of the day. While the statues on the eastern side are decorated with Asian attributes, those on the western side show European accessories – a true sign for Antiochus’ goal to joining east and west.

It is not clear whether the statues have suffered from the frequent earthquakes or if some odd archeologist tried to blow up the pile of gravel in order to find the still eluding tomb of Antiochus I. The path connecting the east and west side runs along the northern slope where a number of reliefs with unrecognizable artwork have been aligned. It appears that they were fitted in the ground with a kind of wedge, an intriguing feature. On the west side a few original reliefs are still in situ representing King Antiochus in person together with Apollo on one, with Zeus on the other and finally with Heracles on the next one.

What a place however for a sanctuary! It's hard to come any closer to the gods, I think. The view from up here beats everything I ever saw and surpasses any possible description. It is too grand, too wide, and too panoramic to comprehend. I take pictures, perfectly realizing that the eye sees far more than my camera, but temptation is far too big. I'm truly standing on top of the world! Who says that's in the Himalayas? I doubt you'll have such a view from there! What a beauty.
The big attraction is to visit these altars by sunrise or sunset. The very thought of witnessing the sun peeping above the horizon in the great silence and peace that comes with it must be extremely impressive and rewarding. Yet, you will not be able to enjoy the exceptional panorama I've been treated to. Besides, to get here before sunrise you’ll have to be on your way before the crack of dawn, and if you want to arrive by sunset you'll have to face a long scary and dangerous drive back in the dark. I'm not sure I would like that.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Mount Nemrud]

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