The cover of the previous edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Turkey features a photograph of a stone head, its face filled with cracks as though it were made from dried mud, sitting among boulders and scree, soaking in the sunset.
Among the icons of Turkey – the flag, the fez, the whirling dervish, the Blue Mosque, the ubiquitous face of Atatürk, the famous rugs – the strange and glorious heads of Mt. Nemrut … big … weird… easily find their place.
So I was faced with a dilemma: do I continue to enjoy the hiking in the fabulous valleys of stone pillars in Cappadocia (there are so many trails, I could spend weeks here), or do I go see the big weird heads? As I mentioned in a previous dispatch, it was like the flip of a coin: heads or trails.
My biggest reservation was time, since you have to travel so far, into the Southeastern Anatolia region of the country, the last chapter in the more than 600 pages of guidebook. When I discovered a tour group was giving a good price on a tour that would leave in time for me to enjoy the geo-cephalic site and still have a few days to get back west to the Aegean, I put down my Euros (wincing at the exchange rate… damn you weak dollar!), and packed my bags.
There are two things about Mt. Nemrut National Park that are misnomers. First, the Mt. Nemrut that you stand on when you walk to the summit is not the only Mt. Nemrut in Turkey. The other mountain is further east, towering more than nine-thousand feet above Lake Van. And, second, the giant stone figures on the mountaintop were not created by Nemrut, also known as Nimrod (he of Genesis, way before Phil Collins). They were commissioned by King Antiochus I Epiphanes who had an epiphany (ahem), and placed himself in the middle of figures of the gods: sun god Apollo; Fortuna; Zeus; Antiochus, and then Heracles. This is where he believed he would be when he died – among the gods.
The gods his people worshiped were an unusual amalgam of Greek and Persian gods. The stone heads were once on top of appropriately proportioned stone bodies. The five statues, flanked by lions and ravens on each end, stood atop the mountain in two sets, one facing east, the other west, saluting the sun at dawn and dusk.
As the old saying goes, “heads will roll.” Especially after sitting atop stone bodies over thousands of years, and suffering erosion and earthquakes.
So the heads, free from their stone necks, tumbled downhill. Now they sit in a row on the mountain’s eastern side, placed below the figures of their bodies, greeting the sunrise each morning with the same expression they’ve held for more than 2,000 years.
The tour took off from Göreme on Saturday morning and careened among mountain roads toward Malatya. On the way, we stopped at a Caravanserai, the Ramada Inns of their times, a combination shelter and marketplace, spaced about 40 kilometers apart on the old Silk Road.
In Kahramanmaras, we paused for some of the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten. Made from goat’s milk, it’s like sweet chevre, flavored with orchid roots and sprinkled with pistachio nuts.
One of the pleasures of traveling with a group is you meet people you’d never otherwise run into. We travel in two minivans, one of them filled with a bunch of friends from Barcelona. They tend to hang out together. In my bus is an Australian couple on a seven-month trip to the countries around the Black Sea. They’ve already been on the west side – Albania, Croatia and Bosnia. After Turkey, they’ll go through Armenia and up through Georgia and the Ukraine before they wind up back in Istanbul. All places where I would love to travel.
I guess it’s human nature to take the same seat each time you go inside the bus (just like my students tend to sit in the same seat they chose on the first day of class for the entire 15 weeks). I’m in the single seat next to the middle window. In the back seats of the bus, sits a couple from Italy and their little boy Luka. Because they’re over the rear axle, the seats are higher than the others and there’s a step up. Luka took delight in making the leap up into the back seat each time. I wish I could describe in words the giggles and gleeful cries he made as he jumped up the step and onto the seat cushions. Every time! It was hilarious and joyful and he did it at every stop, easily more than a dozen times in three days. Wish I were so easily amused (though some of you may think I am).
Zeynel, the guide, is known as Mr. Nemrut, he says, because he was among the first to take tour groups to the area beginning in the early 1990s. Though he got no sleep the night before our trip began, his enthusiasm never wavered, and he never tired of explaining the history of the sites, or of telling riddles – which the Australian chap was clever enough to solve every time.
We arrived at the hotel after dark, and would have a few hours between dinner and our wakeup call at 4 a.m. to make the trek up the mountain. I noticed on the drive up the mountain that the stars were absolutely brilliant, and I had hoped to see some of the Perseids meteor shower that had peaked the week before. So, after dinner, I walked up the road about a half a mile to a spot where none of the streetlights would affect my night vision, and I looked up to a brilliant sky. The cloudy Milky Way and billions of stars. I only saw one shooting star. But that was enough.
After four sweaty hours of near-sleep in a dank and airless room, I got up and climbed into the van with the others to make the 20-minute drive to the mountain top, where it would be another 30 minutes walking to the summit. We arrived before dawn, and with a couple hundred other folks, many of them huddled in blankets (one with a picture of mighty mouse) watched the sun rise and saw it begin to light up the stone heads.
Taking pictures was frustrating because the long shadows of dawn meant everyone who was walking around kept blocking the light on the stone faces.
After breakfast, our group headed to other sites in the region – a former palace ruins and catacombs, dating from the first century BCE; a roman bridge; an ancient mountaintop city. Then we drove south to a town called Sanliurfa, a pilgrimage town known as the “Prophet’s city” because it was here that many believe Abraham was saved by God from the fire, when He turned the flames into water and the burning coals became fish. Abraham landed in a bed of rose petals. The carp in the canals of the Gölbaşı area of Urfa are sacred representations of those fish from the tale, and they’re the best fed carp in Turkey (as well fed as the ones in the Pymatuning reservoir near my boyhood home, where the fish are so plentiful, the ducks walk on their backs).
Urfa also has a substantial bazaar, though we there on a Sunday, when most of the stalls were closed.
It struck me that as I’ve traveled in this part of the world, that a well-worn copy of Homer or the Old Testament would be just as useful as any modern guidebook. Except the lodging information is woefully out of date and I always have trouble with the cubit to meter to yard calculation.
At sunset, we made our way to Harran, another place mentioned in the Bible. It’s here where Abraham is believed to have spent some time about 4100 years ago. And there are bee-hive shaped mud houses dating from hundreds of years ago.
We walked around an old citadel (what the Turks call a kale) and had tea in the courtyard of a little bee-hive village, where a family makes a living showing their home and selling trinkets and cola to tourists.
As we made our way back to our hotel, after a dinner in Urfa, I thought back on where our day had begun, in the wee hours on Mt. Nemrut. It’s one of those days where you say: “oh yeah, that was this morning we did that?” Seems like so much longer than that.
The next day would involve bald ibises and a bus ride that, if I had known would take as long as it did, would have been a plane ticket. More on that later.
Here are some photos from Urfa and its bazaar: