Sunday, July 8, 2012

Days Seven And Eight: Roads. The Decapitated Gods Of Mount Nemrut. More Roads. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

These are days seven and eight of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

The narrow road cut through the crests and troughs of the rising shadow-filled mountains, and our car bravely made its way forward.  A half-moon hung in the sky, softening the sky's broad darkness.  We were tired, and quiet mostly.  It was three in the morning, and we had been traveling together for exactly a week.

We didn’t know whether we were going the right way or not.  We hadn’t seen a sign for a dozen kilometers or so, and the road looked too obscure, too uncertain.  A white panel van passed us, speeding up the winding road.  “That’s a tour bus,” I said, straightening up in my seat with rising hope.  “We’re going the right way.”

“It’s not a tour,” our navigator snapped.  “Tours couldn’t have vans that small.  It wouldn’t be efficient.”

Maybe we were getting a little grumpy.  We had woken up too early.  We had been in the compact car for too long.  The silence came over us, and kilometers sped beneath us.

And then in the East the darkness changed.  A thin band of orange broke against the horizon, dropping off into blue, which smeared into the nighttime black.  It was the first touches of morning light.  We were racing against it.

By four thirty in the morning we parked on a steep parking lot filled with tourist vans.  The night was cold and windy.  My only pair of trousers had ripped back in Mardin, so I was wearing nothing more than salmon-colored shorts and a thin T-shirt.  I had failed to have the foresight to wear shoes instead of sandals.

In front of us was a mountain peak, a darker imposition against the moony night.  This was Mount Nemrut, one of the most famous sights in Turkey.

Hints of sunrise.  Photo by Jenna Staff.
We walked up.  It felt good to walk.  Walking kept us warm.  The path was steep and pebbly, and we could see almost nothing in the morning darkness besides the growing band of light to the East, and the dim outlines of the rolling hills beneath us, and the dark shape of the peak to the left of us.  It was beautiful, but we were tired, and maybe too tired and too cold to appreciate the beauty.  We said little to each other.  We passed by other tourists who were puffing their way up the mountain, pausing for breath against a pile of stones.  One group, bundled warm in blankets and coats, looked at my T-shirt and short and could do nothing but laug.

By five we made it to the Eastern Platform of Mount Nemrut, and the first light of the day was spilling out against the stone peak.  The heads of decapitated gods stood before us, each as tall as a man.  The heads of five men—gods and kings—were flanked by an eagle and a lion.  They all looked out towards the morning empty eyes.  On the rise of the hill behind them stood the five bodies of these heads, indistinct blurs in the morning darkness.

Heads, before the dawn.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

Mount Nemrut is the mausoleum of Antiochus the first of Commagene who lived in the first century BC.  Antiochus’ small kingdom was a mixture of Persian, Greek and Armenian cultures that had torn its independence after the Roman Empire defeated the Seleucids.  Antiochus, whose full name was Antiochos, a just, eminent god, friend of Romans and friend of Greeks, declared himself a god, and planned that after his death his body should be moved away from the people and closer to the gods.  He chose Mount Nemrut.  Here he established a group of priests who would celebrate his birthday and his coronation once a month, for all eternity.

The heads depict Greek-looking kings with Persian hats.  There is Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes; Zeus-Oromasdes; the king Antiochus himself, god-like a pround; Heracles-Artagnes-Ares, a queen, and Tyche-Fortuna herself.  Sometime after Commagene’s inevitable fall, once the birthdays and coronations were forgotten, these heads were broken off and tumbled down to the terrace below.  They were only rediscovered in the 1880s, when a German Engineer found them while looking for transport routes for the Ottoman Empire.

The heads slowly became illuminated by the rising morning light.  The shadows deepened their features.  The stones became more alive.  You could now see the curls of their beard, the arrogance in their eyebrows, the peak of the eagle’s beak, the fierceness of the lion’s eyes.

On the terrace a motley of people jabbered at each other.  Everyone snapped pictures, and posed for pictures, and clucked at each other about how funny the pictures looked, and crowded around the good vantages for photos.

We moved onto the Eastern pedestal to look out across the mountains, still dark with nioght.  There we had a moment of repose, and pulled the blanket up around us against the cold.  The light on the horizon became thicker, and now you could just make out the swell of red that would become the sun.

As the light grew, slate-colored lakes started to shimmer in the valleys below us.  Then all at once it was bright enough that I could actually see the pages of my notebook.  Seven vans pulled up to a special access parking lot below us, and they disgorged a pilgrimage of tourists who climb up the steep path, just in time for the sunrise.

Then the salmon-colored light swelled over the mountain.  Sunrise was coming.  The crowd silenced.

Like that—in a moment—it was day.  The sun peeked over the ridge of the mountain before it resolutely lifted itself up out of its mountain bed.  More photos were snapped.  A man posed for a novelty shot where it looked like he was holding the sun between two pinched fingers.  But despite all that, it was beautiful, and for a moment I felt a sympathy with the other tourists.  We were all feeling this beauty.

Sunrise.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

And then the tourists evaporated, like morning dew.  We walked around the peak of the mountain, suddenly alone again, admiring the stone heads in the cool morning light.  Then we walked around the peak to look at the Western Platform where another set of decapitated heads faced the setting sun.


This, for eight hours.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

Then it was days of driving.  We drove from Gaziantep to Adiyaman, and then to Mount Nemrut.  Then we wound our way back, retracing our steps, heading West to the dream-like province of Cappadocia.

Again, it was a day of Turkish road travel.  We passed a car with its passenger seat packed full of sheep.  A minaret sprouted from a boxy factory.  Road workers hid from the heat in the small shade of tree planted on the median strip of the road.

As we moved west, the earth rose to become a rolling Medeterranian farmland of olives and grapes, before peaking to become a series of craggy, pine-lush peaks.  The setting sun hit a splatter of clouds, marking the edges of the clouds white.

Then all at once the hills fall away into a stone-littered scraggly mud-splattered expanse rising with rocks and dust.  Ahead of us lay mountains, dark and broad.  We were leaving the East, with its rough brilliance, into the more popular tourist-areas of central Turkey.


In the style of Maximum Fun’s Jordan Ranks America, we ranked Eastern Turkey.

Standing tall at number five is “Hello, money!” the two words known to every single barefoot child you may happen to run across.

Making a strong debut at number four, it’s goats.  They’re cute, their shaggy, they seem to be content where they go, they make great cheese.  The consensus is:  goats are great.  Why don’t we have more goats?  Can we get some pet goats or what?

An old favorite retains spot number three.  You guessed it, it’s the shalwar, the Turkish farmer’s M.C. Hammer pants.  Baggy, with a crotch that dips past the ankle, nothing says “fashion” like these centuries-old trousers.

A surprise at number two!  It’s horrible drivers!  Passing you at a hundred and thirty kilometers an hour as you make a blind turn down a mountain road!  Demonstrating fantastic feats of steering-wheel acrobatics on roundabouts!  Honking while you’re stopped at a red light!  The drivers of Eastern Turkey will give you the ride of your life!

Taking the top spot at number one it’s Kebabs.  Lunch and dinner, why would you want to eat anything else?  These flame roasted skewers of meat can be angelically good or give you food poisoning.  But one things’ for sure:  it’s the only thing on the menu!

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

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