Due to its isolated mountaintop location, Mt. Nemrut’s mysterious stone sculptures and massive artificial mound managed to elude visitors for centuries. But for the past few decades, visiting Mt. Nemrut has been considered the thing to do in southeast Turkey (at least until Göbekli Tepe‘s discovery). Even when compared with other landmarks from its era, there’s nothing else quite like Mt. Nemrut.
The site only became known to the outside world in the 19th century, when a German engineer who was laying out transport routes for the Ottomans was tipped off by locals. And the Commagene Kingdom’s (163 BC-72 AD) other landmarks weren’t discovered until 1939 by Friedrich Karl Dörner.
Major archaeological excavations began in the 1950s, largely carried out by Dörner and Theresa Goell. And they would both continue meticulously excavating the site for the next couple of decades. Mt. Nemrut was finally declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, with more excavations taking place at the turn of the millennium.
While most people just stick to visiting Mt. Nemrut, we’ll be going over several other historical sites to see in the area around Kahta, Adıyaman Province. They can all be visited within a single day, and you can learn more about transportation and accommodation options at the end of the article.
The Commagene Kingdom: A Brief History
The Commagene Kingdom lasted from 163 BC– 72 AD. Despite being relatively short-lived, and just one of countless kingdoms to have formed in Anatolia, it’s still remembered today for its fantastic monuments – particularly Mt. Nemrut.
The kingdom was bordered on the east by the Euphrates River and on the west by the Taurus Mountains, overlapping with the modern-day provinces of Adıyaman and Gaziantep.
It was originally a satrap of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and then the Seleucid Empire. But as the Seleucid Empire continued its decline, King Ptolemaeus of Commagene declared independence.
As with the neighboring kingdom of Sophene, the rulers of Commagene were members of the Orontid dynasty. This ancient Armenian dynasty ruled Armenia from 6th–2nd centuries BC following the fall of Urartu.
But Commagene existed just outside of Greater Armenia’s borders and had to deal with the powerful Armenian king Tigranes.
The Commagene kings could also trace their ancestry to legendary Persian and Greek monarchs, resulting in a fascinating blend of influences. And they cleverly used their mixed ancestry to play multiple sides. All the while, they grew rich due to their position on strategic trading routes.
The Commagene Kingdom was brought to its greatest height by its fourth king, Antiochus I (r. 70–38 BC). Despite having his daughter marry King Orodes II of Parthia, Antiochus pledged allegiance to the Parthians’ arch-rival, Rome.
He even fed the Romans with intelligence regarding Parthian troop movements. But he later turned around and publicly sided with the Parthians! The Romans, understandably fed up with his games, invade Commagene in response.
But they were unable to besiege Commagene and settled for a small bribe to leave Antiochus alone. This left the clever king free to work on his monumental building projects such as Mt. Nemrut.
History would later repeat itself when decades later, King Antiochus IV would be accused of betraying Rome. The Romans then took over for good this time, absorbing Commagene into their empire in 72 AD.
Located about 10 km from Kahta, the Karakuş Tumulus is one of Commagene’s more ‘recent’ monuments. The burial site was established by the fifth king, Mithridates II Callinicus (r. 38–20 BC), son of Antiochus I.
And much like his father’s Mt. Nemrut, this artificial mound sits atop a hill and is surrounded by stone carvings. But Mithridates II was not attempting to compete with Nemrut’s grandeur. Rather, the burial site was solely intended for the king’s female relatives, including his mother, sister and niece.
Approaching from the parking area, the first thing you’ll notice is a Doric column, about 9 meters high, topped with an eagle. It’s from this eagle that karakuş (‘black bird’) derives its modern name.
Supposedly, the mound was once entirely surrounded by columns but only a handful remain.
As you encircle the mound you can enjoy the stunning views of Adıyaman Province and the Ataturk Dam in the distance. This is arguably one of Turkey’s most picturesque regions, which is really saying something.
It’s also from here that you can glimpse the summit of Mt. Nemrut far off in the distance.
On the other side of the mound, meanwhile, are a pair of columns, one of which is topped with a bull.
Moving on, you’ll find a small lion head statue nearby an additional column. The relief at the top depicts Mithridates II shaking hands with his sister Laodice. Interestingly, however, Laodice is not the sister buried here.
It’s a faded inscription on this column that tells us the names of those entombed: Queen Isias, Princess Antiochis and Aka I.
Aside from this monument, Mithridates II is perhaps best known for ceding Zeugma, a city known for its beautiful mosaics, to the Romans. Most of these mosaics are now on display at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep.
Septimius Severus Bridge
Nearby is the Septimius Severus Bridge, the only landmark on this list not built by the Commagenes. Instead, it was constructed by the Romans in the 2nd century after the kingdom’s fall.
Constructed over the Cendere River, it’s named after the reigning emperor at the time, Septimius Severus.
The bridge and river are popular hangout spots for local families. If the weather is nice, expect to find a good amount of people here enjoying the scenery and cool water. There’s even a tea shop by the parking area.
You’re able to walk back and forth across the bridge, which remains in remarkably good condition. In fact, it’s one of the largest surviving Roman bridges in the world today.
On either side of the bridge are a pair of original Corinthian columns which remain standing. A Latin inscription states they were erected in dedication to the emperor and his family.
But as you’ll notice, one column by the entrance is missing. Severus’s elder son Caracalla (also known as Emperor Antoninus), could not come to terms with his brother Geta on how they should divide the kingdom.
As the story goes, Caracalla had his brother murdered and removed all references to him – including his column!
Eski Kahta Fortress
The next destination is Yeni Kale, also known as Eski Kahta Fortress due to its location in the village of Eski Kahta. It was originally the site of the Commagene Kingdom’s royal palace. However, it was largely rebuilt by the Seljuks in the 13th century.
Unfortunately, the castle was closed at the time of my visit due to restorations. Looking closely, you’ll notice that a lot of the walls are brand new, and a local I met expressed his distaste for the new look (a common reaction toward ‘restored’ sites in Turkey, it seems).
Within the castle are said to be a bazaar, prison, mosque and cisterns. Impressively, they managed to build such an elaborate structure along the steep, uneven outcrop.
Even if the castle is closed, Eski Kahta is still worth the stop if you’re touring the various landmarks around Mt. Nemrut. The views from the village are gorgeous, and you can even head over to a nearby creek where locals have picnics and swim.
Eski Kahta, in fact, is where I stayed during my visit. While seldom mentioned as an option (Adıyaman or central Kahta are the most common choices), it turned out to be a great idea.
After Mt. Nemrut itself, Arsameia is the most significant and remarkable landmark built by the Commagenes. It functions as a Hierothesion, or royal tomb, which King Antiochus I built in honor of his father, Mithridates I.
Situated along a steep hill are various inscriptions, statues and even tunnels. And as with everywhere else around the region, the views from the hill are stunning.
While not much remains today, at the top of the hill was the Commagene Kingdom’s capital, believed to have been founded by Antiochus I’s ancestor Arsames in the 3rd century BC.
Antiochus built a sacred road leading up to the top of the mountain in a zigzag formation. And the first carving visitors encounter, although damaged, depicts Antiochus shaking hands with Mithra-Appolo.
As you’ll also see at Mt. Nemrut, the Commagenes frequently syncretized gods from the Greek and Persian pantheons into a single figure.
As mentioned, Antiochus could trace his ancestry back to legendary monarchs from both sides. But this was also a time when, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, syncretization between Hellenic and Oriental deities became quite commonplace throughout the ancient world.
Heading upward, you’ll soon encounter yet another king/god pairing. But the carving is too damaged for us to determine who it represents (presumably, it was one of the deities also represented at Mt. Nemrut).
The back of the portraits, meanwhile, have retained their detailed Greek inscriptions.
Nearby is a rock-cut cavern which takes visitors about 14 steps down before it reaches a dead end. Considering how Mithraic rites were typically carried out in dark caverns, there’s a good chance this cave had some sort of religious function.
The official modern explanation, however, is that it was merely intended to store food and drinks.
Next, you will reach Arsameia’s main highlight – the impeccably-preserved portrait of Antiochus I shaking hands with Herakles (Hercules).
Just next to them, meanwhile, is the longest Greek inscription ever found in Anatolia! Consisting of 256 lines, the writing provides us with all sorts of important information about the kingdom. It goes into details about Arsameia’s founding, the ancestry of the dynasty, religious rituals, architecture and more.
The cavern beneath the inscription can be entered, and it’s much, much longer than the one before. Walking through it, it seemed to go on forever – though in reality it’s less than 150 meters long.
Using my cellphone as a light, I got deeper and deeper before I figured my driver would probably be getting worried. Back in the car, he told me that the original tunnel connected all the way to Eski Kahta Fortress!
Additionally, while this was far from obvious during my visit, the top of the hill is supposed to be accessible as well. It contains what’s left of Arsameia the city – which is hardly anything at all. And this is also where the mausoleum of Mithridates I was likely built.
Visiting Mt. Nemrut
Mt. Nemrut was named rather recently after the ancient Mesopotamian king Nimrod, as are many other sites in Turkey. But the site has nothing to do with him. Rather, it was constructed by King Antiochus I as his own burial mound. And clearly, he went all out with the project.
Most people visit Nemrut for either sunrise or sunset. I opted for the latter. But having visited, I’d do things a bit differently next time, which you can read more about below.
Driving up the steep and windy mountainous road, we finally arrived at the ticket office at around 17:30. The ticket costs a very reasonable 25 TL, while the office doubles as a small museum. And while I normally like to take my time at such places, I had an urge to reach the top as soon as possible.
After the ticket office, the road continues even further upward. There’s a small parking lot up here, after which there’s a walking trail to the top. At about 20 minutes, the walk is surprisingly long and much more physically intensive than most people expect!
There are two trails to choose from – one leading to the Eastern Terrace and another to the west. It really doesn’t matter, as you can easily walk from one to the other at the top. I decided to see the Eastern Terrace first before things got too dark.
As you make your approach, you’ll notice the massive artificial mound. The size of the mound often gets overlooked due to the focus on the statues around it. But it stands at an impressive 49 meters, making it as tall as some of the smaller pyramids of ancient Egypt!
At around 152 m in diameter, it’s largely comprised of loose rock. While much of it was likely sourced from nearby, it’s still incredible to consider what a large monument Antiochus I was able to build at this altitude.
The Eastern Terrace
Both sides of Mt. Nemrut repeat the theme which Antiochus presented at Arsameias – the monarch in the presence of the gods. And on either side, Antiochus erected monumental statues of himself together with several prominent deities.
While the two sides were likely once identical, the Eastern Terrace is the more impressive of the two, as the statues remain largely intact. Minus their heads, that is!
The statues were built of limestone and once reached up to 8 or 9 meters high. And again we see a syncretic merging of Persian and Greek divinities.
From left to right, the first figure is of Antiochus himself – the only mortal of the group. The next is the most mysterious of the bunch, as the inscriptions don’t explicitly name her.
But she’s generally described as the local fertility goddess of Commagene (thus simply named as Commagene). She’s also identified with Tyche, the Greek goddess who controlled a kingdom’s destiny.
Amazingly, her head was still intact upon the site’s discovery in the 19th century, but a 1963 lightning strike ultimately spelled her end.
In the center, the most prominent statue is that of Zeus, also identified with the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda. As the king of the gods, Zeus is appropriately the largest.
Next is Zeus’s son, Apollo, a god of light and also art, poetry and dance. He’s also identified with the Persian god Mithra, the favored deity of the nearby Parthian Empire.
But to make matters more complex, this tall-hatted figure is also syncretized with Helios and Hermes!
The last of the bunch is the legendary hero Herakles, identified with Ares, the Greek god of courage. Furthermore, he’s also identified with Verethragna, a Zoroastrian divinity who represented might.
Nearby are additional heads belonging to an eagle and a lion – two animals also featured at the Karakuş Tumulus (see above).
But why are the statues in such bad shape? They were most likely destroyed over time by various earthquakes and other natural causes like snowfall.
In 2002, the heads were moved from the positions in which they were found and placed to line up with their appropriate bodies. The move was highly controversial at the time, but it at least allows visitors to imagine how the scene once looked.
Across from the statue is a stepped rectangular platform used for animal sacrifices. According to inscriptions on the back of the altar, these ceremonies would take place at dawn.
The Northern Terrace
The trip between the Eastern and Western terraces is done via the Northern Terrace. The narrow area was entirely comprised of sandstone bases for stela (57 in total), all of which have toppled over.
The Northern Terrace offers some of the clearest views of the tumulus. It’s long believed that Antiochus I’s tomb is located somewhere within the rubble. But even after decades of research, archaeologists haven’t been able to detect it.
Antiochus probably used loose rocks so that any potential tomb robber would get buried in an avalanche. And this clever technique has kept his body undisturbed to this day.
The Western Terrace
The Western Terrace originally appeared identical to the eastern side, except the statues were built slightly smaller. However, the natural disasters took a much heavier toll here, and only small parts of the seated figures remain.
The heads here are scattered all over the place as they were first found. But presumably, they were propped up vertically for easier viewing.
The same five figures mentioned above are repeated here, along with a lion and an eagle. Over to the side, meanwhile, are a series of stela depicting Antiochus shaking hands with the same group of deities – quite like the scenes at Arsameias.
Also discovered at the Western Terrace was a carving called the Lion Horoscope, the oldest known horoscope in the world. The lion represents the constellation of Leo, while the combination of stars and planets around its body tell us about Antiochus I’s birth and succession to the throne.
It’s been missing since the 80s, however, and is now being kept elsewhere for safekeeping.
As the sun begins to set, the lighting grows increasingly dramatic. But the amount of people grows dramatically as well – just as how Antiochus I would’ve wanted.
In fact, he even encouraged people to come and party here after his death. He set money from his treasury aside to be used for this purpose, telling people to leave their worries and cares behind at the base of the mountain.
After a centuries-long hiatus, people from around the world can now come here and do just that.
As the sun disappeared beside the distant mountains, it was finally time to leave this strange and unforgettable place.
A large majority of tourists visit Mt. Nemrut at either sunrise or sunset. This has become such a standard trend that telling a local driver you want to visit at a different time will likely get a confused reaction.
When I reached the top of Mt. Nemrut at a little before 18:00, around 90 minutes before sunset, I mostly had the whole place to myself. But as it got closer to sunset, the crowds started pouring in, and things were quite packed by 19:00.
If you’re not into crowds, then you should arrive even earlier in the afternoon, provided you finished visiting the other Commagene sites in time.
But now having visited Mt. Nemrut, I know that the Eastern Terrace is the more impressive of the two sides. With that in mind, I think a morning visit would be ideal.
Many people come to see the sunrise, but this entails departing Kahta at around 2:00 in the morning! Aside from the crowds and the cold, a major issue with sunrise viewings is the thick fog which commonly obscures the view.
If I had to do things over again, I would skip both sunset and sunrise and visit in the morning sometime between 8-10 am. Presumably, this would give you both perfect lighting to see the Eastern Terrace while also allowing you to avoid the crowds.
Timing aside, be sure to bring some warm clothing to the top of Mt. Nemrut. Even in summertime, it gets quite chilly at the top.
Kahta in Adıyaman Province is the nearest city to Mr. Nemrut and the other Commagene sites. You can get there from either Urfa or Antep by taking a dolmuş (minibus) or coach to Adıyaman and then taking a dolmuş to Kahta. They typically just depart whenever full, but they should fill up fairly quickly.
At the time of writing, there are no direct coach buses connecting Kahta with Urfa or Gaziantep. Even if a bus company sells you a ticket for Kahta, they will make you transfer to another bus at Adıyaman.
This is what happened to me with the Has Bingöl company. At no point when buying the ticket did they mention a transfer, so it caught me by surprise. Luckily, the second bus departed shortly after.
Most visitors to the region either base themselves in the provincial capital of Adıyaman or in Kahta, the closest city to the Mt. Nemrut area. From either city, you shouldn’t have a problem seeing all the sites mentioned above in a single day, especially with your own transport.
However, there are also other accommodation options right nearby the Commagene Kingdom sites.
As mentioned above, I stayed in the village of Eski Kahta. It was in a room connected with Cafe Rome, situated just in front of the castle.
Mehmet, the owner, offered to drive me to all the Commagene Kingdom sites, including Mt. Nemrut, for 140 TL (just about $20 at the time). He also offered pickup from the Kahta Otogar (bus terminal) and transport back there for 80 TL in total.
So for 220 TL ($30), all my transportation needs and logistical concerns were taken care of, and Mehmet never asked for more beyond our initial agreement.
This was an amazing price, especially considering how another hotel was quoting me 65 euros! (But I can’t promise Cafe Rome’s prices will remain the same in the future. Be sure to ask in advance.)
The room at Cafe Rome was basic, but the price also included free breakfast and unlimited tea/coffee. Additionally, the views were stunning.
If you have your own car, you can get around to all the sites mentioned above at your own pace. The sites are well-marked on Google Maps while there are plenty of road signs throughout the area to point you in the right direction.
But what about those who came to Kahta via public transport?
In my case, my hotel owner was also my driver/guide and took me everywhere for just around $30 in total. That cut out a lot of the hassle of having to negotiate with a tour office/taxi driver separately.
If you’re staying in a hotel in either central Kahta or Adıyaman, they should be able to help you. Supposedly, there are also tour agencies you can ask as well. I even saw Mt. Nemrut tours advertised in Cappadocia!
But keep in mind that if you’re visiting at a time when tourist numbers are down, many of the standard tours may not be running. I visited in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. While things in Turkey were mostly open, many standard group excursions were not running – even in the touristy Aegean region.
With that in mind, visiting Mt. Nemrut with a private driver may be your only option for some time to come.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.