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18th April 2012

A year ago today I set off on a memorable trip to Nemrut Dagi, one of the most mystical and awe-inspiring places in Turkey. Nemrut Dagi (Mount Nimrod) is a 7001 ft. (2134 m) high mountain in the south-east of Turkey. Atop the mountain sits a mass of stone chippings, piled high into a conical summit. Either side of this man- made summit dome or tumulus, to the east and the west, are stone terraces which originally hosted enormous statues of several Greek, Armenian and Iranian Gods and of the architect of this strange place – King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene.  It is thought that the site is actually the royal tomb of King Antiochus I, who constructed it in 62 BC. Over the centuries since then, the site has crumbled into ruins. Earthquakes have toppled the enormous stone heads from the shoulders of the statues and left them scattered around the mountain top and iconoclasts have damaged the faces of the statues. However, this has only added to the atmosphere of this lonely, high place and drawn tourists from all over the world. Such is the importance of the ruin that it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Stone heads at Nemrut Dagi, Turkey
Photo: Stone heads at Nemrut Dagi
I had first read about it in the excellent book Danziger’s Travels by Nick Danziger (who visited it in the early nineteen-eighties enroute to Iran and Afghanistan) and it had fired my imagination and been at the top of my wish list of places to visit in Turkey ever since. In April 2011, I finally got my opportunity to travel there. At this time I was living in Iskenderun, in the Hatay region of southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. I had only arrived in Iskenderun on 29th March to teach English at a school in the town but I wasted no time in making travel arrangements. My main problem was that I only had one day off a week, and the mountain was a considerable distance from Iskenderun (235 miles to Kahta, the nearest town to Nemrut Dagi). It seemed to me that the only way to get there and back within the time available was to hire a car in the late evening as soon as I finished my last lesson at school, drive overnight to Nemrut Dagi to arrive in time for sunrise over the eastern stone terrace, explore, and then drive all the way back to Iskenderun in time to return the hire car. It was an ambitious plan that would involve about 20 hours of travel and a lot of uncertainty. I had only driven in Asia once before (for about 15 minutes in Indonesia) and never on the right hand side of the road with no-one else in the car. It was going to be a challenge and an adventure. I found a hire car place in town, and with the help of Google Translate and my Turkish phrasebook I made arrangements a week or so beforehand to pick up a car at 21:30 on 18th April. The next day I told my adult students about my plan, casually asked about the price of petrol in Turkey and received a nasty shock! The price of 1 litre of petrol in Turkey at that time was 4.20 Turkish Lira or approximately £1.85. I hadn’t realised that Turkey has one of the highest petrol prices in the world! It soon became clear that relative to my wages as an English teacher this trip was going to be extremely expensive as a solo venture, but I was looking forward to the trip too much to back out at that point. I had other concerns apart from the cost of petrol. April was the very beginning of the tourist season for Nemrut Dagi. It was easily possible that the road to the summit would be blocked by snow. It would help if I could find out if it was open for sure – but how? Luckily, I hit on the idea of looking for recent photos of the summit on flickr.com and quickly confirmed that someone had taken photos up there just a few days before. I could see from the photos that there was still snow on the summit and the stone heads were poking through. It made for interesting and unusual images. The second, and perhaps biggest problem was navigation. I had found a route planner on the internet that gave me the shortest road route to the mountain but the difficulty remained of navigating on my own at night, while driving on difficult roads. I scoured the shops of Iskenderun for a road atlas to no avail. In the end there was no alternative but to trace out the entire route on Google Earth and program waypoints into my handheld GPS device. I also plotted the positions of almost all of the petrol stations en route, so I could be sure I would not run out. Breaking down in a hire car in the middle of Turkey at night was something I really hoped to avoid! At last the night of the 18th April arrived. I finished my last English lesson of the evening at 9 pm, collected my equipment from the staff room and set off to meet the owner of the hire car shop, who was opening up especially for me to collect my car. Initially things went well. We completed the paper work quickly but when we went out to the car he found that the vital ownership documents were missing. We wasted valuable time driving across to the other side of town, collecting his friend, driving across town again and finally collecting another car that I could use. We then had to drive all the way back to the office in the town centre so that I could sign the release form. I was nearing the limit of my patience but eventually, at 10pm I set off out of Iskenderun and on to the coastal motorway, heading north to Dortyol. The initial motorway section was probably the easiest part of the drive. I just had to be vigilant of metal debris on the carriageway (which was frequent) and the large Turkish trucks in the slow lane, which quite often had no tail lights or red reflectors and would loom suddenly out of the darkness ahead. After the coastal town of Dortyol the road swung east towards Osmaniye and the motorway eventually took me to the north of the city of Gaziantep, before I had to turn off on to a more minor road. It was then that the driving became much more challenging in the dark – looking out for potholes and avoiding the odd stray dog when I passed through small towns. Without doubt the worst part of the journey was the section between Besni and Adiyaman where the road wound up into the mountain but was being resurfaced. Miles of loose chippings, no road markings and clouds of dust made driving at night extremely difficult and slow. It seemed to go on forever and I was grateful when I caught sight of the lights of Adiyaman in the distance. At one point in the journey the batteries in my GPS ran out, and I stopped in a layby high in the hills to get a new set out of my rucksack in the trunk. It was a lonely place. The batteries had run down quickly because I was using the back-light on the display, so to  avoid draining the new set as rapidly I drove the rest of the way with the car interior light on! Once I reached Khata and turned off on the road to Nemrut Dagi I really felt a growing sense of excitement and adventure. It seemed like I was in the middle of nowhere and the terrain outside was a rocky, scrubby wilderness. At Narince, the road forked off onto an extremely narrow track and the climb began in earnest through the mountains. Passing through the tiny hamlet of Karadut (Black Mulberry), with it’s little mosque lit up with strings of neon green lights, confirmed I had nearly arrived.
Finally, at an altitude of just over 5000 ft, I reached the small ticket office at about 4.30 am. There were no signs of life as I pulled up in the small grassy car park. I got out my kerosene stove and made myself a welcome cup of coffee and stretched my legs after the long drive. Fortunately it was quite a sheltered spot. No sooner had I drained the dregs from my mug than a minibus turned up with the first batch of tourists ready for the sunrise! The driver honked his horn, waking the poor attendant who had been sleeping in the ticket booth. Seeing this, I hurriedly packed away my stove, bought a ticket for the summit, and set off in the car on the final climb up to the top. The road writhed around a series of switchbacks over precipitous drops (which thankfully I could not see in the darkness). In places thawing patches of snow and ice lay by the side of the road, dribbling water across the track. In a short space of time I arrived at my destination, the small car park and cafe below the summit of Nemrut Dagi. The wind was howling outside and it was extremely cold. I put on all of my warm clothes, walked up past the cafe, and took the right hand fork in the path up towards the eastern terrace. At that altitude and carrying my camera gear and tripod it was hard work and I had to pause to catch my breath many times. Just before the eastern terrace, the path cut a channel in a slippery snow field, over a nasty drop. I tip-toed across rather gingerly and now I was at the base of the huge tumulus of stone chippings. As I rounded the hill, I reached the eastern terrace and there were the enigmatic stone heads and the remains of the seated statues behind.
Eastern Terrace of Nemrut Dagi
Photo: The Eastern Terrace of Nemrut Dagi (Mount Nimrod)
I had arrived just in time – there were already a small group of tourists on the terrace from various different countries. They had mainly come up in mini-buses on guided sunrise tours from Khata.
When sunrise came, it was unfortunately disappointing. The sky was cloudy and mostly overcast, but this was not unexpected at this time of year. About 15 minutes after sunrise I found myself suddenly and completely alone – the others had all had to go back on their various tours and I was left to take in the tranquility and eerie majesty of that strange perch in the mountains. The advantage of having my own vehicle was now obvious and considerable. I took some photographs of the heads in the pale dawn light. They were an unusual sight, one with a high conical hat,  another with a full beard, and on the far right the head of a lion. What stories those faces could tell if only they could talk! Of centuries being buried by snow, blasted by the winds and baked in the summer sun! They had been sitting on that high plateau since before the birth of Christ and before the Roman invasion of Britain, unknown and forgotten until they were discovered by chance by a German engineer in 1881.  The constant freeze-thaw cycle of those isolated centuries had riven their faces with deep cracks and lines, like the wrinkles on the faces of old, wise men. I found them fascinating and they held my attention in a way that no other ancient ruin I had visited had done before. It was bitterly cold in the wind, but I spent a couple of hours up there before retreating to the warmth of the cafe and a much needed cup of Turkish coffee. The cafe was snug and comfortable, lined floor to ceiling with Turkish rugs and selling an assortment of photo books and  carved stone trinkets. It took some will power on my part to head back out into the wind, and hike up the trail to the western terrace, which proved a much more tricky proposition than my earlier outing. Large, steep snowfields soon covered the trail and without the benefit of crampons, I had to carefully kick steps in the snow and ice to keep my footing. It was painstakingly slow and exhausting work. In between the ice field, where the snow had melted, were jumbles of rock and among these hundreds of ladybirds were emerging for the spring. Their little red shells were easy to spot between the stones.
Snow slopes on Nemrut Dagi, Turkey
Photo: Snow slopes on Nemrut Dagi, Turkey
The reward for risking my neck on these steep slopes came when I reached the western terrace, where the heads were even more photogenic and better preserved than their counterparts on the opposite flank of the hill. They seemed to peer out from holes in the snow, waiting for the spring and the warmth of the sun. I couldn’t believe that I was completely alone up there, and I took a lot of photographs before I headed down again, picking my way slowly over the snow once again.
Stone head on the Western terrace of Nemrut Dagi, Turkey
Photo: Stone head on the Western Terrace
The Western terrace of Nemrut Dagi in snow, April 2011
Photo: The Western Terrace in the snow, 19th April 2011.
By the time I reached my car it was around 11 am. My original plan had been to return to the car park by the ticket booth, get some sleep, have some lunch and then set off on the drive back to Iskenderun. However, absent-mindedly I completely forgot, and drove straight past the car park and on down the mountain. So instead, I stopped in a lay-by once I was off the worst of the road, and had lunch standing in a rock-strewn field full of small stunted trees. Eventually a farmer appeared with some sheep and looked a little surprised to see me, but he returned a friendly wave.
After that I set off in earnest for Iskenderun. At least now I had the benefit of daylight and the driving was easier, although navigating the now-busy streets of the town of Adiyaman was more challenging. When I had driven through in the small hours of the morning they had of course been deserted. For the first part of the drive I didn’t feel particularly tired, but eventually needed some sleep and saw the opportunity to turn down a side track in a small town, park up and rest. When I woke up perhaps half an hour later, a large herd of fresian cows were heading my way and so I decided to move on! A couple of stops at service stations, and another sleep break near Osmaniye saw me back on the coastal motorway. The blue of the eastern Mediterranean was a welcome sight and, passing through Dortyol, it wasn’t long before the mosques and minarets of Iskenderun were in sight, clinging to the flanks of the Nur mountains.  My journey was nearly over. I managed to find a parking spot opposite my flat on Pınarbaşı Street amongst a jumble of vehicles. It was about 6.30 pm when I got back to my flat and I was really exhausted. I was extremely relieved to hand back the hire car, undamaged, later that evening. Of all the places I visited in Turkey Nemrut Dagi remains my favourite. Indeed, I liked it so much that I revisited it later that year (the black and white photograph at the start of this article was taken on that second visit). I really recommend that you try to visit if you are in Turkey. There are organised trips available from Kahta or Malatya and I even saw trips advertised as far away as the tourist hub of Cappadocia. It is definitely worth making time in your itinerary if you can. All photographs copyright Rowan Castle 2011.