In search of giant heads. My Mount Nemrut travel expedition.
I had travelled deep into central Turkey in search of the fabled, legendary giant heads of Nemrut Dagi– Mount Nemrut.
Mount Nemrut is far from anything.
I had travelled to the small, provincial town of Kahta in South Eastern Anatolia. The Turkish language and culture was slowly transforming into Kurdish as I travelled deeper into the Anatolian heartland. This was where the two cultures merged and conflicted with one another, but I was in search of something older than both of these peoples.
From Kahta I travelled further into Anatolia. After a long journey that took me far from the nearest city- I had come from Cappadocia- I now found myself travelling even further from the nearest town to Mount Nemrut. I was heading into rural Turkey.
Another bus from Kahta got me as close I could get to the nearest village after a journey through winding valleys and deep gorges. I was dropped at a crossroads. A sign pointed in the direction of the mountains. The village was still 2 kilometres away. Mount Nemrut was another 20 kilometres. I started walking up hill.
I was staying as close as I could get to the heads of Mount Nemrut. I was in Karadut, a village of one street, with a solitary mosque, a few houses and a lot of goats. Murat, a local Kurdish man, welcomed me into his Pansion, an unassuming but friendly home stay, with some much needed Chai.
This was the closest I could get to Mount Nemrut. I still had a huge mountain to traverse to reach the heads, the ancient heads that had brought me all this way.
Murat offered to take me as close as he could get in his car. The heads are atop a huge tumulus, and the mountain is just over 2000 metres high. It’s possible to walk, but it’s a long walk, and it’s all uphill. A brutally steep hill. In March, the weather was still horrendous as well. The cold winds were whipping through the mountains and the roads were slippy with the slowly melting snow.
I wrapped up warm for the final part of my journey to the mountain top. I didn’t know what to really expect, but I expected the cold.
The road upwards was still covered in snow in places, and the sides of the road had a layer of thick ice which still hadn’t melted.
Murat dropped me as close as he could get to the summit, then he ran off into the warmth of the Chai shop at the bottom of the last section of the climb. I had to walk the last stretch, a steep uphill section to the heads of Nemrut.
Snow covered the summit of the mountain, and the paths around it. Deep snow. I wanted to see the sun set from the top, but conditions were Arctic in the dieing light.
I pulled my scarf tighter around my frozen face, and there, at the top, were the ancient heads of Mount Nemrut.
The whole mountain top, the tumulus, the statues and the enormous heads were constructed by King Antiochus I in 62 BC. He was a small ruler with big ambitions, and an even bigger ego.
His Kingdom, Commagene, was rather insignificant in the politics of the day, but he’d created a cult of personality around himself. He wanted to be a God. So he had his tomb built on the tallest mountain he could find, and had his own statue surrounded by that of the Gods. And on both sides of the tumulus, the huge peak he had built, were statues of himself and his family. He was trying to deify himself, and he asked that for eternity, rituals and celebrations of his life would be held here each year.
That didn’t work out. His Kingdom fell. The statues survived, inaccessible at the top of Mount Nemrut. The harsh weather has caused 2000 years of erosion. And the statues were decapitated. No one quite knows how. Maybe they fell. Maybe the statues were beheaded by a rival King. Maybe the Gods couldn’t stand Antiochus’ arrogance.
Now the giant heads lie at the foot of the stone bodies they once stood astride. A sorrowful memorial to the long dead ruler of a long dead Empire. While change swept through the surrounding valleys, different tribes fought for the land, different rulers instigated their will and different figures asserted their place in history, the stone heads of Nemrut have remained at the summit of the mountain, decapitated and mournful.
I walked around the mountainside, trudging through the snow to see all of the statues. The views from the top were magnificent. This was a place fit for the Gods.
A local security man works at the summit, keeping the visitors from causing any damage or from taking the treacherous wrong paths down from the mountaintop in the snow.
He lived at the top for 3 days in a row at a time, during the bitter cold winter and the scorching hot summers. He said that he never tired of this view. He eagerly showed me the photos he’d taken on his phone that same morning, when he’d got up to see the sunrise at 6am, as he did every day he was at the top, no matter the weather.
The pictures were beautiful. And the sunset I was witnessing now, as the light faded and the colours exploded across the sky, were biblical.
The statues and heads had survived here for 2000 years, amidst the invasions and empires that wrought havoc through Anatolia. Maybe Antiochus was a God, and this, his final resting place amongst the statues he constructed for his own deification, was a place more than man.
I don’t know. All I knew was that the cold was starting to give me frostbite. With the enigma of who decapitated these giant statues lost in the howling wind, as darkness fell, I went in search of Chai.
Mount Nemrut Travel Advice!
In winter, the roads are impassable. I visited in March, this is the earliest you can really visit and by October the roads will be blocked again. It gets cold here. Really cold. So be prepared.
The best base for exploring Mount Nemrut is the village of Karadut. I stayed at Nemrut Dagi Isik Pansion, run by Murat. He can provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for extra cost. Rooms were aout 30 TL per person. There’s a few guest houses in the village too aside from this.
The closest town to Karadut is Kahta. Tours also run from here to the mountain, but it’s not quite as nice a place to stay. Kahta has connections to larger cities in the area, such as Adiyaman and Malatya, and occasional connections further afield too. Using minibuses you can get to Diyabakir, via Siverek and anywhere else in Anatolia too.
From Kahta to Karadut, it’s about 40 minutes of driving. Minibuses leave from the Kahta bus terminal, but not regularly. I managed to get a big bus at about 8am, after I arrived from Cappadocia on a night bus. It was actually the same bus I’d arrived on, so check if your bus carries on further than just Kahta before you get off as I did! This only went as far as the crossroads, where I had to walk up the hill to the village. You might be able to catch a lift for this last stretch with a guest house owner if you know when you will be there or if you get lucky and someone’s driving past or calls someone in the village. If you can’t find a direct minibus from Kahta, just ask for a bus towards Gargar or even Siverek. To get out again, there are definitely minibuses back to Kahta at around 7.30am each day.
A car ride to the top of Mount Nemrut is around 50-70 TL depending on your group size and negotiation skills. Your guest house can sort this for you. There’s supposedly a 12 TL entrance fee to the site, however in March there was no one even at the ticket office.
A hike to the top would take around 3 or 4 hours from Karadut depending on your fitness. It’s a long walk, up a tarmac road.