Şanlıurfa: "Mount Nemrut & Heads of State"
October 24, 2009
Dear Family and Friends,
The bus ride form Mardin to Şanlıurfa (178 km - 110 mi) was a straight shot from east to west across the agricultural plain of Upper Mesopotamia. Olive trees, pistachio trees, apricot trees, cotton and corn fields are all irrigated with the river waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. As I travel across "the land between the waters," my university course, Ancient History 101, comes alive.
The area around the city of Urfa (pop 463,000) has been a battleground for more than three thousand years: first the Hittites in c.1370 BCE, then the Assyrians, Alexander and the Macedonians, Aramaeans, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Byzantines, Crusaders, Seljuk Turks, Saladin and the Kurdish Ayyubids, Mamluks, and finally the Ottoman Turks. Urfa was renamed Şanlıurfa (glorious Urfa) in 1984.
Şanlıurfa is a place of history and legend:
"Legend had it that Abraham (Ibrahim), who is a great Islamic prophet, was in old Urfa destroying pagan gods one day when Nimrod, the local Assyrian king, took offence at this rash behavior. Nimrod had Abraham immolated on a funeral pyre, but G-d turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. Abraham himself was hurled into the air from the hill where the fortress stands, but landed safely in a bed of roses." *
The Gölbaşı area is a recreation of the story, with a rose garden and the pools of water with sacred, pampered carp - eat one and go blind. Beyond the pools is the Dergah complex, a place of active pilgrimage, with mosques and parks and Hazreti Ibrahim Halilullah (Prophet Abraham's birth cave). Café tables surround the pool - a cool and restful spot for a glass of hot tea before the long walk up the stairs on the side of Damlacik Hill to the Citadel. #
The Citadel is mostly in ruins except for a pair of columns, the throne of Nemrut (Nimrod)? There is no question though that the view over Urfa is just spectacular.
With car and driver, Joowee from Malaysia, and Alexandra and Gian from Australia were my travel companions on the long daytrip to Mount Nemrut. I expected to see a stunning sight at our destination, and my expectations were met. What was unexpected were the sights along the way.
On the Euphrates River, the Atatürk Dam is the largest of twenty-two dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The dam stands 169 m (550 ft) high and 1,820 m (6,000 ft) long and is the sixth largest in the world. The dam controls the irregular flow of the river, provides irrigation for the region, and produces a lot of electricity. The dam created the reservoir Lake Atatürk, extending over an area of 817 km2 (315 sq mi) with a water volume of 48.7 km³ (63,400 million cu yd). That's a lot of water, used for fisheries and recreation.
(The dam and lake are named for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), the founder of the Turkish Republic.)
Below the dam, The Euphrates continues its southeasterly journey through the low-lying brown Anatolian hills to Syria and then into Iraq where it meets the Tigris to flow finally into The Persian Gulf.
Above the dam, the placid lake is an ideal spot for a picnic or a fishing trip. But not today. Our midmorning tea and snack await us in Adiyaman.
Beyond the small city and the floodplain of The Euphrates, the gentle hills give way to the Malatya Dağları, a mountain range of bizarre, contorted, twisted outcrops that hold a treasure of ancient art and architecture.
Atop a rocky hillside, The Karakus Tumulus (burial mound) is a memorial grave of the Commagene royal family (1st Century BCE). A lion sits atop one of the 9 meter (29 ft) columns. On another, an eagle.
The Cendere Koprusu, a Roman bridge, was built late in the 2nd century when Septimus Severus conquered Mesopotamia. It is one of the oldest bridges known in the world that is still in use. It spans the Kahta River in one single arch. It is constructed of 92 stones each weighing about 10 tons. The three columns, two at one end and one at the other, are 9-10 meters in height. The pillars are dedicated to the emperor, his wife Julia Domna and son, Caracalla (of the baths in Rome). Originally, there were four pillars. Septimus' second son Geta was assassinated by his brother. (As joint emperors, they just didn't get along.)
We cross the bridge, continue up into the mountains and travel four hundred years back in time to the Arsameia ruins. We navigate a narrow rocky path to an embossed relief of King Mithradates whose battle head-dressed profile faces the valley below. Along the path we find a large relief of Mithradates shaking hands with the mythic Greek god Herakles (Roman Hercules). The largest Greek inscription in Anatolia sits below the statue and alongside a 158 meter deep tunnel.
I'll try to describe Mount Nemrut:
For centuries, the heads of the heads of state sat on their own shoulders and bodies above this royal burial mound - this huge pile of rocks and stones on the summit of Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nemrut 2,134 m - 7,001 ft). Earthquakes shook the heads off the shoulders. Now, along with their lion and eagle guardians, the two-meter-tall heads of state sit on the gravel with silent and solemn stares, gazing with a godly, vacant visage into the distant deep valley below.
Many of the heads face east. In the afternoon light they are grey specters in the shadow of the mountain. On the opposite side of the gravel hill, crowned kings and bearded gods are steeped with the gold-rose-pink rays of the setting sun.
Along with my new regal friends, I sit and stare into the darkening valley. It is clear that this site was built by an arrogant, even megalomaniacal king - aren't they all? It is also clear that these heads of state will still be here for others to admire, long after me and my cameras are consigned to history.
I take a few more photos on the way down the steep, bone-rattling mountain path. This is the second time in my travels I have tried to take shots from the back of a moving donkey. I still can't get the hang of it.
* "Turkey." Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. 2009. pg 609.
My host in Şanlıurfa was Özcan Aslan and his family. Özcan runs a charming gusthouse and arranges the tours to Mt Nemrut.
# Tea at Balikli Gol Ayn-Zeliha