From the Top of Nemrut Dağı

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Of all the gorgeous places in Turkey – Pammukale, Cappadocia, Kekova, Istanbul – it’d be pretty easy to skip right over Nemrut Dağı. After all, it’s tucked away in the southeastern corner of the country, only a few hundred miles from the Syrian border, far off of the well-traveled circuit of Istanbul, Pammukale, and Antalya.

The Taurus Mountains, looking towards the Euphrates River
The Taurus Mountains, looking towards the Euphrates River

And it’s a world totally different. Where the Mediterranean areas of Turkey are resplendent with brilliant greens and blues, the southeastern parts of the country feature a far more muted palette, one filled with dusty greens, beiges, and greys. Drive through the southeastern part of Turkey and you’ll have no doubt that you’re properly in the Middle East. The desert heat radiates from the sandy ground, and the horizon is hidden in a muddled, heat-rippled haze. That’s not to say that the area still isn’t beautiful; it’s just a totally different kind of beauty compared to the glittering wares of the Grand Bazaar, the stark white of Pammukale, and the brilliant blues of Kekova.

The view from breakfast in the Taurus Mountains
The view from breakfast in the Taurus Mountains
Waiting for the sun to set on Mount Nemrut.
Waiting for the sun to set on Mount Nemrut.

At seven thousand feet, Nemrut Dağı, which is part of the Taurus Mountains Ragne, is the major destination of the area around Kahta, the nearest town. Getting there involves winding your way along steep roads that cling to the sides of the hills. There’s a reason that nearly everyone who goes to Nemrut Dağı does so with a driver from the area: trying to drive those roads if you’re not familiar with them would be like saying, “I wouldn’t mind plummeting to my death today.”

The statues and busts on the eastern terrace.
The statues and busts on the eastern terrace.
Heads on the western terrace.
Heads on the western terrace.

Nemrut Dağı is mainly famous for the massive stone busts that sit on the two terraces – one facing east and one west – near its peak. Here’s your history lesson for the day: in the first century BC, King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene had his own tomb built on Nemrut Dağı. As having your tomb constructed on the peak of a mountain wasn’t self-aggrandizing enough, Antiochus commissioned massive, thirty-foot statues of himself and gods from various religions. Flanking the tomb were sculptures of lions, eagles, and Greek, Iranian, and Armenian gods. This wasn’t all the product of megalomania, though. The state of Commagene had a multiethnic population, and by depicting so many gods from different religions, Antiochus sought to unite his people. (I wonder how well that worked when he urged his people to worship him at the same level…)

Taking a bunch of selfies doesn't really compare to having a thirty-foot statue of yourself commissioned...
Taking a bunch of selfies doesn’t really compare to having a thirty-foot statue of yourself commissioned…
On the walkway between the terraces.
On the walkway between the terraces.

Time takes a toll, though; at some point, the statues were beheaded, and now all that remains are the heads. Even those aren’t in the best condition, and it’s not just because of Nemrut’s harsh weather conditions; the degree of damage, especially to the noses, suggests that the statues were subjects of iconoclasm. All that being said, they’re still impressive, even in a state of dilapidation. (And they make your average tombstone-crowning angels look paltry in comparison. Forget the angels. Who wouldn’t want a thirty-foot statue of themselves constructed on their tomb?)

Statues before sunset
Statues before sunset

As impressive as the historical side of Nemrut Dağı is, the views aren’t anything to sniff at, either. Being seven thousand feet above sea level is pretty much guaranteed to give you a nice vantage point, especially at sunset. In the day, the surrounding hills are hazy and beige with dust. At sunset, though? As the sun ignites the sky into scarlet and copper, the fading light dyes the hills velvety purple. I saw some amazing sunsets in Turkey…and the one at Nemrut Dağı is definitely in the top ranking.

Every evening, people gather at the peak to watch the sunset, and it feels like those few dozen are the only people in the world. There are barely any artificial light to be seen. In areas that secluded, light pollution absolutely flatlines at zero. The only light came from the sun as it sank beneath the horizon.

By day, the Taurus Mountains are dull in color. At sunset, it's a different story.
By day, the Taurus Mountains are dull in color. At sunset, it’s a different story.
As per usual, I scrabbled my way up to an even higher vantage point from which to watch the sunset.
As per usual, I scrabbled my way up to an even higher vantage point from which to watch the sunset.
Another gorgeous sunset in the books.
Another gorgeous sunset in the books.

When we returned to our hotel, which was located in one of the valleys made by the foothills, that pristine quality only became more heightened. Three weeks on the road had begun to tire me out, and I’d intended to make an early night of it and turn in after dinner. “Not yet,” one of the brothers who ran the hotel insisted. “You need to see the galaxy first.” Confused, I’d headed back to the terrace where we’d eaten and laid flat on my back. He’d flipped the switch to turn off the external lights illuminating the terrace, and in the darkness above, I saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life. The sky erupted with silver.

I thought I’d seen starry skies before. I was wrong. Stars swirled across the sky, sometimes in heavy, sparkling swaths and sometimes in brilliant, singular pinpricks. It wasn’t until nearly an hour (and three shooting stars) later that I’d managed to drag myself away to bed.

It was like I was seeing how beautiful the night could actually be for the first time. But I suppose that’s logical, right? A gorgeous sunset leads into a gorgeous night.

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