Mount Nemrut and the God King of Commagene

Mount Nemrut (Nemrut Dagi in Turkish) is a monumental site belonging to the Kingdom of Commagene, a small, independent Armenian kingdom that was formed in 162 B.C.  This was a period during which the once mighty Seleucid Empire was beginning to disintegrate, allowing certain areas of its empire to break free from the centralised control of the Seleucids. Located in the eastern Taurus mountain range in southern Turkey, near the town of Adiyaman, Mount Nemrut is home to an ancient complex built by the fourth, and arguably the most famous, king of Commagene, Antiochus I Theos (the ‘God King’).

King Antiochus I, ruler of Commagene from 70 BC to 36BC, was a most unusual king. He claimed descent from Greek conqueror Alexander the Great on his mother’s side, and from the Persian King Darius the Great on his father’s side, thus combining the west and the east. But what was particularly salient about this king was his unerring pride and his over-extended ego.  Antiochus I claimed he had a special relationship with the gods and instituted a royal cult in the Greek form of the religion Zoroastrianism with the clear intention of being worshipped as a god after his death.

King Antiochus I practised astrology of a very esoteric kind, and laid the basis for a calendrical reform, by linking the Commagene year, which till then had been based on the movements of the Sun and Moon, to the Sothic-Anahit (Star of Sirius) and Hayk (Star of Orion) cycle used by the Egyptians as the basis of their calendar. This would suggest that Antiochus was knowledgeable about, if not fully initiated into Hermeticism.

Antiochus commissioned the construction of a magnificent religious sanctuary on Mount Nemrut (Nemrud Dagi), a 2,100 metre high mountain where people could come and pray to him.  Antiochus wanted his sanctuary to be in a high and holy place, close to the gods in order to be in rank with them, and high enough that the whole kingdom could see it and remember him.  The tomb-sanctuary was built in 62 BC and consists of a pyramid-shaped mound of stone chips with a diameter of 145 m and was 50 m in height. Two antique processional routes radiate out from the east and west terraces. The scale of this structure and the amount of labour that was required to build it are impressive on their own. Nevertheless, it is the cultural assimilation reflected in this monument that sets it apart from most other superstructures.

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Statue heads atop Mount Nemrut.

Antiochus himself called Mount Nemrut the hierothesion, or the ‘common dwelling place of all the gods next to the heavenly thrones’. This attempt to gather all the known gods on Mount Nemrut can be seen on the eastern and western terraces of the mound. On the eastern terrace of Mount Nemrut, there is a row of five colossal limestone statues. An identical row of statues can be found on the western terrace. These seated statues face outwards from the tumulus, and are flanked by a pair of guardian animal statues – a lion on one end and an eagle on the other. An inscription refers to the summit as a sacred resting place where Antiochus, the ‘God King’ would be laid to rest and his soul would join those of other deities in the celestial realm.

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Well preserved statues remaining on Mount Nemrut.

Based on the inscriptions at their bases, the statues have been identified as representing Antiochus I himself, the All-Nourishing Commagene, Zeus-Oromasdes, Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes and Artagnes-Herakles-Ares. The statue of Antiochus I shows that the Hellenistic ruler cult was adopted by the Commagenian king. This adoption of Hellenistic religious practice is reinforced by the presence of standard Hellenistic deities such as Zeus, Apollo and Ares. Yet, at the same time, Eastern deities, such as Oromasdes and Mithras are merged with their Hellenistic counterparts. Thus, one is able to see that Antiochus I was attempting to achieve a kind of religious syncretism. Antiochus I’s effort to bring together East and West can also be seen in the two rows of sandstone stelae mounted on pedestals. On one row of stelae, relief sculptures of Antiochus’ paternal Persian ancestors can be seen, while the other row of stelae depicts his maternal Macedonian ancestors. Thus, Antiochus was able to use his illustrious genealogy to justify his claim to the Commagenian throne. Perhaps the building on Mount Nemrut was an effort by Antiochus to solidify his reign and that of his successors.

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Row of stelae on Mount Nemrut.

Antiochus instructed that every year after his death, great festivities would be held at the sanctuary – his birthday was celebrated on the 16th of each month and his coronation was celebrated on the 10th of each month.  Priests appointed by Antiochus made offerings and conducted ‘splendid sacrifices’ on altars to honour the illustrious king. Antiochus’ sanctuary was forgotten for centuries, until it was re-discovered by a German archaeologist in 1883. In 1987, Mount Nemrut was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, so that it could protected and preserved for the years to come, something that Antiochus would presumably be very pleased about !

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