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Mount Nemrut and the God King of Commagene

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.    

Statue heads atop Mount Nemrut

Statue heads atop Mount Nemrut. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

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.

Well preserved statues remaining on Mount Nemrut

Well preserved statues remaining on Mount Nemrut. Source: BigStockPhoto

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.

Row of stelae on Mount Nemrut

Row of stelae on Mount Nemrut. Photo source: MTM Holidays

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!

Featured image: Some of the heads of the colossal statues at Mount Nemrut with the mound in the background. Photo source:

By Ḏḥwty


Learning Sites, Inc., 1996. Nemrut Dagi, Turkey. [Online]
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Jacobs, B., 2011. Nemrut Daği. [Online]
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UNESCO, 2014. Nemrut Dağ. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Kingdom of Commagene. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Mount Nemrut. [Online]
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I am interested in organise religious doctrines how it has shaped human control system and power distribution

Tsurugi's picture

From what I've read and seen in various documentaries, archaeologists think that the tomb of Antiochus must be somewhere in the area but they haven't been able to find it. They did find a long tunnel that goes straight into the mountain for a hundred feet or so, then dead ends. It is aligned to the dawn equinox, I believe, so it seems to have some significance but no one knows what. Eventually they stopped looking for the tomb, but went on assuming it must be there.

I don't understand that at all. To me, looking at the place, it seems obvious that the tomb is underneath that huge mound of gravel! Where else would it be??

Of course, actually digging it out would be a monumental task. As each shovelful of gravel was removed, the mound would shift and fill the hole back in, so tunneling to the center isn't possible. You'd have to remove almost all of the gravel making up the mound to get to whatever it is covering. Perhaps archaeologists decided that sounds like too much work...?

In any case, it's a brilliant way of sealing one's tomb away from casual graverobbers and even determined government sanctioned looters like archaeologists!

But it still baffles me that no one has tried to dig it out. The fact that it would be so difficult to do means it probably hasn't been done, which means it would be one of those extremely rare discoveries: an undisturbed tomb of royalty. Like Tutankhamun, which to this day remains one of the richest single discoveries in the field of archaeology both in terms of cultural artifacts and material wealth. It's just so strange they don't dig it up.

Or...considering all the stuff about gods and such....maybe they're afraid of what they'd find if they did?

Perhaps they might find....THE HOLY HAND GRENADE OF ANTIOCH

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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