Up Mount Nemrut

Author on donkey on Mount Nemrut

Mount Nemrut, which I ascended in October, partly by vehicle and partly on a mule, rises in the Lake Van region of southeastern Turkey.  It is the burial place of King Antiochus I, of the Commagene dynasty, who lived from 69-36 B.C.  He came from a socially prominent family: On his Persian father’s side he descended from Darius and Mithridates, and on his mother’s from Alexander the Great.   Exhilarated by these high antecedents, and “Augustus” and “The Great” and “The Magnificent” being inadequate, he awarded himself the title of “Theos,” “God,” and thus felt entitled to a glorious resting-place.

He chose a spot about 7,000 feet up a mountain in the Taurus chain into whose rocky summit Antiochus dug a tomb above which is piled a huge conical tumulus of stones, so vast that after many attempts the tomb has never been found.  It’s very hard to dig into an immense rockpile:  You can set off a slide that might engulf you – and in this case, also the statues near the base.  That did in fact occur at one time – people rooting around in the enormous hill of rocks triggered a subsidence that supposedly reduced its height by a third. Since then, the excavators have abstained.

What with being a god and all, Antiochus wanted his own three-story statue to be surrounded by other divinities of comparable rank, so we see him placed on the terraces of the tumulus in the company of a 30-foot Zeus (Ahuramazda for the Persians), Apollo (Mithra), Hercules, and such dignitaries.  Also huge symbols of his reign, notably a giant eagle and a giant lion.

Antiochus dedicated parts of his realm to support the maintenance of all this, plus a priesthood to provide perpetual hosannas, plus funds to furnish sumptuous feasts and other entertainments for the worshippers, including due recognition for his fellow-divinities: a trust, in fact.  Its provisions warned that if its terms were neglected, the wrath of the gods represented there would fall upon the delinquents.  Curious, naming God as your trustee! And in vain, alas.  Over time part of the tumulus slid down over the statuary, which vanished.  The celestial trustees apparently took this as releasing everybody from their functions, so no more hosannas, feasts or celebrations.   The centuries have toppled all these structures, so that the dug out and re-erected bases are now separated from the statues themselves.  Still, the ensemble is prodigiously impressive, looking out over a vast landscape toward the Euphrates River and Syria.  The whole affair was forgotten for long ages, until a road builder suggested to the Germans that there might be something in there worth looking for.  Now you can drive most of the way up.

After Syria, but out of sight, come Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia; then you reach the Black Sea.  This part of southeastern Turkey lies within Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which I crossed periodically.   It is part of the old Fertile Crescent, now, alas, largely dried up.

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Traveling in the area, I gazed at the current oldest shrine in the world, at Gobekli Tepe, erected by hunter-gatherers in about ten thousand BC;  and also at the birthplace of Abraham, at Harran, on the Syrian border.  It’s hard to comprehend the flow of time and civilizations in Asia Minor.  Even the Mt. Nemrut tumulus, two thousand years ago, is only one-sixth of the way back in time to Gobekli Tepe!    From then follow the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Hittites and Urartians. Entire civilizations!  Then the Persians, who appeared from north of the Black Sea around 2000 BC and created a relatively advanced empire that evolved hieroglyphics, a sophisticated civil code, and concluded a peace treaty with Rameses, the first known to history.

Then Alexander the Great came upon the scene, then the Romans.  (Antiochus had wished his realm to be culturally half Persian and half Greek.  The Romans wanted none of that.  In their period everything had to be entirely Roman).   Then the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols.

The Ottoman Empire arose in the 14th century AD, eventually encompassing dozens of today’s countries, from Romania to Yemen.  It lasted until after World War I,  when as “the sick man of Europe” it fell apart.   Finally a junior army officer, Mustapha Kemal  – “Ataturk” – pulled Turkey together, westernizing its alphabet, its dress, its legislation, its elections.  His handsome, stern, intense, unsmiling face is seen everywhere in the country.  A heavy drinker and smoker, he died at age 57.

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Going back to the Ottomans, they made a practice of importing Christian slaves from their conquered domains.  Soldierly men were conscripted into the sultan’s army, while handsome girls entered his harem and became the mothers of his children, who in turn became sultans.  As a result, later sultans had essentially no Turkish blood at all.

Until the mid-19th century, a new sultan upon his accession typically snuffed out all his siblings,  to eliminate the risk of a challenge to his throne.  The record in this department goes to Mehmet IV, who had his 19 brothers all garroted, plus seven of his father’s pregnant concubines.

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One merit of travel in Turkey is that you have a healthy breakfast instead of the great American disastrous feed composed of a pileup of fatty foods: eggs, ham, sausage, sweet baked goods with butter and jam, and maybe steak.  You come to enjoy fruit, yogurt, healthy grains, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, flat bread, and tea.  I remember reading in the old Life magazine about a woman reporter’s inquiry into longevity in eastern Turkey.  She found lots of folks there who did indeed appear exceedingly old.  They seemed to have three things in common – a lean diet, a community that respected the elderly, and a practice of light outdoor work:  hoeing, or whatever.  That seemed to do it.  One ancient worthy confided to the reporter, “Up until a hundred, a man is still a man, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN, but after that, it’s not the same.”   I myself did not find a way of verifying this proposition.

Some rank Turkish cuisine among the greats, which is occasionally true in Istanbul, but not in the provinces.  I turned away part of what was served – too spicy, queer – and was hesitant to even attempt “stuffed long paunch,” which appeared on one menu.  Turkey does make a good beer, Efes, but not wine. The yogurt is a joy everywhere.

I observe that elderly Turks in the countryside seem to possess a noteworthy gift of sitting around for very, very long periods exchanging comments on the passing scene, either in an open-air courtyard or khan, or a teahouse, a chaikhana.  The uniform for a senior in full fig starts from the top with a knitted skullcap – white, if he’s a hadji who has completed his pilgrimage to Mecca. He should not be clean shaven.  A dark open jacket surmounts an anonymous shirt and a pair of huge trousers, whose central division falls to the knees.  (It is said that the savior may be born to a man, and this diaper-like arrangement should catch the infant before it falls to the ground).  The hands are kept busy with prayer beads, probably a string of 30, and the feet are encased in sandals with the heels crushed down.  Nearby leans a walking stick with a flat, not curved, handle.  Thus arrayed, one is prepared to discuss any subject under heaven, drink tea or play backgammon, chess or dominoes.  When a piece is played it is put down with a sharp whack, to insure victory.

The women, with head scarves, are at home, or walking a pace behind their men, or in the market.

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I find Istanbul (formerly Byzantium and Constantinople), to be perhaps after Rome and Paris the most prodigious capital in Europe.   Talk about “dreaming spires!”  And the endless exciting traffic streaming  up and down the Bosphorus!  And the Roman antiquities!  And don’t overlook the whirling dervishes and the wonderful hamams or Turkish baths.  Innumerable excellent little restaurants.  Fascinating carpet stores, a handful really serious.  My favorite hotel, where I’ve stayed often, is the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, up in the touristic center, next to the Hagia (rhymes with Hi-ya) Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Justinian’s immense underground Cistern, the Great Covered Bazaar and the rest.

I’ve sailed down the coast many times over the years:  wonderful.  I have a few bits of counsel:  One, get a first-hand report on the boat, including the captain and crew.  Write “the boat is fit to sail and will be sailed upon request” into the charter party.  In both Greece and Turkey the crew generate excuses to run under power.  Two, the most picturesque area is way down toward Syria.   You pass waves of beautiful coastal mountain ranges going inland, four, five, six banked up behind each other.  And if you do start down that way, try to get inland to visit Cappadocia.

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What about the Kurds, who overlap the area I visited and indeed dominate some of its towns?  I do not think one should fear too much trouble from that quarter.  Unlike the citizens of greater Tibet, where the Chinese, intense racists, have always been oppressive, Turkey has almost always been tolerant, and is making a particular effort to develop their territory.

And Islamism?  Ataturk insisted that Turkey become secular, and he was successful enough so that a serious relapse seems most unlikely.

I must say that notwithstanding his brusque and indeed cruel methods, Ataturk (“father of Turks”) seems to have been right in pulling Turkey culturally out of the middle east toward Europe.  Today it has a far better flavor than its neighbors to the south.  It is becoming a business giant.  And one must expect that later in this century it will become the dominant country in its part of the world.