IN THE LAP OF THE GODS1 We got up at 8:00 and showered then paid for our room and went out to have breakfast and find the tourist office again. A dölmus arrived to pick us up at 12 and we loaded up our gear along with a Canadian guy, 2 Americans and three people from Hong Kong. Our two Kiwi friends were there too and we set off out of Malatya and into the hills.
At first the road was flat and straight but soon began to rise until we were winding our way over a high pass with a stiff wind blowing from the south. All around us terraced farms and small villages clung to the hillsides. We stopped for çay on the way down the other side of the pass, the road descending towards a huge braided river flowing east-west at the bottom of a vast valley. Once we had crossed the river (I thought that it may have been the Euphrates but decided that we weren’t far enough east yet) we began to ascend again, this time up a gravel road through round, eroded hills on which grew many varieties of trees. We stopped for another çay break at a small hospital then descended once again into a deep, rocky gorge.
The surrounding mountains were composed of stark, bare rock but even so, small farms and houses sheltered with stands of poplars clung to patches of flat land. There was arable land on the valley floor and many of the farms were irrigated by complex channels built around bluffs and along metal channels. The features of the people, too, were changing, their features weathered and dark with slightly oriental eyes. The houses no longer had pitched roofs but now had flat roofs constructed of mud and timber.
We crossed one more river then finally began the last ascent up the steep, zig-zag road leading to the top of the range, at the end of which reared Nemrut Daği. Huge bluffs of shattered grey rock towered above us and even at that altitude (6000 ft) there were summer pastures for stock marked out by neat stone walls. In several places shepherds sat watching flocks of sheep, goats and cattle and down the road came a stream of people leading donkeys loaded up with grass cut from the highest meadows for use as feed for stock in the coming winter.
We stopped at a two story hotel nestled in a basin below the summit and Linda and I along with Kelly, the Canadian guy Steve, and the two Kiwi guys, Tony and Russ, had a long argument with our slimy little Turkish guide and the hotel owner about sleeping out on the summit. They couldn’t come up with a valid reason why we couldn’t do so, so we loaded our packs back on to the dölmus and went on up to the top.
Nemrut Daği is the last resting place of Antiochus I, king of the land in High Mesopotamia called Commagene. Antioch I lived 2,000 years ago at a time of peace in the land between the rivers and had nothing to do but consider the afterlife and his passage into it. So he built on the summit of Nemrut Daği, 2,150 metres above sea level, a huge tumultus or funerary mound, flanked by huge statues of the Gods facing east and west.
We paid 2,500TL each to a sly-looking attendant then began to explore the extraordinary area. There was a very strong wind howling across from the west and the view was reduced by a haze of dust but even so the power of the place captivated us. The heads of the statues have long since tumbled to the ground and now stare sightlessly out over the surrounding land as if the sight of 600,000 sunrises and sunsets has blinded them forever. The tumultus is also a mere shadow of its former self, having been reduced by half by the heavy-handed searching of treasure hunters and archaeologists for the tomb of Antioch I but it is still an impressive structure.
We set up camp in the lee of a metre high stone wall which gave us some protection from the screaming wind then walked around the foot of the tumultus to the westernmost set of statues to watch the sunset, along with about 200 other people who had mysteriously appeared from the village below. The sunset itself was unremarkable but it is easy to see what a beautiful and magical place the old King had chosen as his final resting place.
We went back down to our camp and had a meal of bread, tomatoes and red wine and talked for a while. Later on, Russ and I took our camera gear over to the foot of the east-facing statues to take some photographs of the heads staring out across the ghostly moonlit hills. It was eerie and quite unnerving walking around amongst the toppled heads, their stone features casting long, silent shadows across the stony ground on which they stood. Above us the headless torsos of the statues sat immobile in the wind as if awaiting the day when the gods they represent would return to replace their lost heads in their rightful places. We took several photographs each in the pale silver light and I went and stood out on the flat stone altar in front of the statues. The wind out there was fierce and it was impossible to stand still enough to take a photograph so we left the statues and went back to camp.
Tony suggested that because we were up there, we might as well climb the tumultus so the three of us – Russ, Tony and myself – walked around to the west-facing statues, took a few more photographs then began the climb to the very top of the mountain. The going was steep and the footing was loose and dangerous but we forged a rapid pace and it only took us 5 minutes to reach the top. As we stood on the 2,150m summit, our breath coming in ragged gasps, the wind screamed out of the caverns of the night as if Apollo and Zeus and the spirit of the old King himself were shouting at us to be gone from their sacred spot. We only stayed long enough to take some photographs then left the summit to the spirits and the wind and descended back to camp.
Tightly wrapped in our sleeping bags (in my case two sheets and the tent) we sat and ate biscuits and drank the remaining wine while we listened to Cold Chisel on Kelly’s walkman. I spent a cold and sleepless night.
1In this instance, the heading in my diary for that day refers to an instrumental track of the same name from the Alan Parsons Project album Pyramid. I am listening to the track as I write this entry.