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Face-to-Face With Ancient Civilizations

After a full day of academic talks during the opening of the 2014 Dialogue of Civilizations conference, top archaeologists from around the world put aside their PowerPoint presentations and flew out from Istanbul to distant Adıyaman in far southeastern Turkey to begin the itinerant phase of the gathering (read earlier posts). From the airport in...

After a full day of academic talks during the opening of the 2014 Dialogue of Civilizations conference, top archaeologists from around the world put aside their PowerPoint presentations and flew out from Istanbul to distant Adıyaman in far southeastern Turkey to begin the itinerant phase of the gathering (read earlier posts).

From the airport in Adıyaman, buses took us to a huge family-style Turkish lunch full of grilled meats and vegetables and attended by an eager mother dog, though her pups were nowhere to be seen. On one side, hand-painted murals decorated the nearby retaining wall with images of the archaeological sites in the area. On the other was a lake formed of water from the Euphrates River, held back into this tiny valley branch by the Atatürk Dam.

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Not bad art for a roadside restaurant. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

After another good drive, we made our way up the winding, climbing, often guardrail-less road into the mountains to visit the 1st-c. B.C. site of Nemrut Dag. Near the top, one peak stood out as brighter, smoother, rounder, and seeming bare of all vegetation: the manmade rock pile covering what is presumed to be the tomb of King Antiochos I. Remote sensing tells scholars there’s something in there, but no one has made their way through to find out. In the mid 20th century, Theresa Goell, an amateur archaeologist, made several attempts but to no avail. According to our guide, her ashes were scattered on the mountaintop.

The tomb itself, being likely intact with Antiochos’ remains and (other-)worldly possessions inside is only part of the story. The main draw are the giant limestone heads perched atop the tumulus. Originally the heads were perched appropriately on the huge statues of sitting bodies further up the hill, themselves now in various stages of disrepair. (See digital reconstructions from the Nemrut Foundation.)

The bodies of beasts, men, and gods sit atop Mt. Nemrut. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The bodies of beasts, men, and gods sit atop Mt. Nemrut. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Antiochos was king of the Commagenes, a group whose name means “the community of families.” Positioned as they were in time and space, they descended from and looked to both the East and the West. Accordingly, the king had sets of statues erected on both sides of the mountain, looking out over seemingly endless rhythms of mountains and valleys in both directions, and bearing multiple regional names for various gods such as “Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes,” (read names and translations of the inscriptions from the back of each statue).

A few times the sun peeked out from the generally cloudy skies, throwing bright light and clear, dark shadows on the ancient faces. Archaeologists who had seen the site many times were still struck with the awe and wonder that everyone felt upon seeing such an unusual sight.

The sun shines briefly on the heads of Antiochos's statues. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The sun shines briefly on the heads of Antiochos’s statues. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

After the sun was obscured for good, the temperature dropped and we descended against strong winds and boarded the minibuses again. The road down this side of the mountain was narrower, steeper, windier, and generally more terrifying in every possible way than the route up. At the bottom we visited a Roman bridge built around 200 A.D. which still arches across the Cendere River. This bridge was already old when Constantine built his new city on the Bosporus.

Columns dedicated to the emperor, his wife, and one son remain. That of the other son was removed upon his vanquishing. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Columns dedicated to the emperor, his wife, and one son remain. That of the other son was removed upon his vanquishing. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Seeing these sights brought three main points of reflection to mind:

1) Antiochos embraced his kingdom’s diverse backgrounds and beliefs and promoted new rituals to have people come together around. Could modern countries do the same?

2) When the emperor Caracalla wanted his rival brother’s name removed from all monuments across the empire, 3,000 km away, soldiers tore down the column that bore his name at one end of the bridge on the Cendere. How far reaching are our civilizations? How quick to execute partisan vengeance?

3) Antiochos’s statues and tomb were far more grand than the Romans’ bridge, but were lost to legend for centuries while the bridge was still in use by automobiles until a few years ago. What projects do civilizations today put their faith and resources into, and how likely are they to last materially? Maybe more importantly, how long will they last as inspiration?

Share your thoughts and join the conversation on Twitter with #5Civilizations.


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Meet the Author

Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.