The hierotheseion (royal burial precinct) of King Antiochos I of Kommagene (reigned ca. 69–36 b.c.) stands on Nemrud Dagi, the highest point of his domain, near the modern village of Kahta in the southeastern Turkish province of Adiyaman. It has been characterized by UNESCO as “one of the most ambitious constructions of Hellen[ist]ic times.” The megalomaniac king reshaped the 7,000-foot-high (2,150-meter) mountain by leveling the rock and filling the artificial platform with huge statues of himself and the gods (whom he claimed as kin); he then ordered a 500-foot-diameter (150-meter), 163-foot-high (50-meter) tumulus (artificial peak) of fist-sized rocks to replace the natural summit. It is believed that his tomb, yet unopened, lies beneath the massive pile of rubble.
Kommagene was a small buffer state between the Roman Empire and the kingdom of Persia. Located between the Amanos Mountains and the upper Euphrates, its capital Samosata commanded a strategic crossing of the great river. Mithradates’ father, Ptolemy, used that fact to seize control of the resource-rich area. It became an independent state in 162 b.c. After a brief subjection of the area to the Armenians, in 69 b.c. the Roman general Pompey installed Antiochos I on the throne. About 100 years later King Antiochos IV lost his wars with Rome and Vespasian absorbed Kommagene into the province of Syria.
Antiochos I attempted to establish a new order. His first action was to build a hierotheseion to his father Mithradates Kallinikos I (died 63 b.c.) in the city of Arsameia (now Eski Kale). Its decorations and inscriptions made it clear that Antiochos intended to Hellenize the Kommagenian culture, uniting die Persian Parthian world with the Greco-Roman; in effect, he set out to establish a new religion in which his own assumed divinity loomed large. Nowhere was that more evident than in his own hierotheseion on Nemrud Dagi.
The great tumulus is flanked on the east, west, and north by terraces carved from the mountain; it has been estimated that their creation involved the removal of 7 million cubic feet (200,000 cubic meters) of rock cut away by hand. On the east terrace stood an array of statues of the king and the gods, up to 33 feet (10 meters) high, carved from massive stone blocks mined in a remote quarry. The figures were set in order and identified by inscriptions written in Greek and Persian: Antiochos himself, the mother goddess Kommagene, the father god Zeus-Oromasdes (largest of the statues), Apollo-Mithras, and Herakles-Artagnes. Their faces were finely carved in the late Hellenistic style. At either end, the row of deities was guarded by the royal symbols: an eagle and a lion. At the eastern corner of the terrace stood a pyramidal altar of fire, and various elements around the platform carried carved relief portraits of the illustrious Persian and Macedonian ancestors whom Antiochos claimed as his own. Other relief decoration abounded.
As far as the topography would allow, the west terrace, set some 33 feet (10 meters) lower than the east, was organized in the same way, to much the same purpose: the apotheosis of Antiochos. The syncretized Persian and Greek gods facing east and west on the respective terraces revealed Antiochos’s attempted cultural synthesis. One inscription asserted that he had commissioned the site for posterity “as a debt of thanks to the gods and to his deified ancestors for their manifest assistance”; he wanted to set for his people an example of the piety due “towards the gods and towards ancestors.”
The north terrace, 269 feet (80 meters) long, was used for assemblies and rituals and also served as a processional way connecting the other terraces. Gigantic stone eagles flanked its entrance. The great tumulus was built on a rocky hill framed by the terraces. According to inscriptions, this was the place where Antiochos ordered that his remains should be buried. He died before his elaborate project was completed, and his son Mithradates neither finished the monumental work nor promoted the religious synthesis begun by his father. The site was
abandoned, the last of its priests probably leaving soon after a.d. 72.
Nemrud Dam was rediscovered in 1881 by one Karl Sester; an 1882–1883 German exploratory expedition followed, as well as a Turkish investigation. The findings of both groups were published, but no more research was carried out until 1938, when Germans F. Karl Dörner and Rudolf Naumann visited the site. Dörner returned after 1951 to work with the American Teresa Goell. In 1984–1985 a Turkish-German restoration team, led by Dörner, reerected the bases of the statues in their places. In 1987 the site was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and the following year a 35,000-acre (13,850-hectare) region around Nemrud Dagi was declared a national park. In July 1997 the Turkish government assured the world that the stone heads—all had fallen from their places—would be reset, and measures would be taken to protect the site, not only from natural damage but also from that caused by vandals or just careless tourists. Eighteen months later, the Netherlands-based International Nemrud Foundation received presidential support for a five-year master plan to restore the site, and work commenced at the end of May 2000.