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Nemrud Dagi, Turkey

Hellenistic Mountain-Top Sanctuary - Description and History

page updated November 28, 2016


 Nemrud Dagi - setting

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Map showing site locationThe sanctuary of Nemrud Dagi is one of the most remarkable, best preserved, but least known monuments of Asia Minor. The site, called by its builder a hierothesion, or "common dwelling place of all the gods next to the heavenly thrones," is situated 2150m above sea level atop one of the highest peaks in the Anti-Taurus Mountains of southeastern Turkey near the banks of the Euphrates River (see the map at the left; hover over to enlarge; and the GoogleEarth view below). The monument is one of the premier sites of the Late Hellenistic period. It was constructed by King Antiochus I of Commagene in the mid-1st century BCE to command a 360o view of the ranges, plains, and towns that comprised his ancient kingdom. It became the main sanctuary of his ruler cult to which worshippers from all over this kingdom were expected to go on the monthly and yearly anniversary of the king's birth and his accession to the throne.

The marker points to the location of Nemrud Dagi.


 Nemrud Dagi - flyover

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Begin the animation to view a fly-over of the site. The animation has been excerpted from our latest (2011) 3D model of Nemrud Dagi; a complete virtual world is currently under construction.


 Nemrud Dagi - site description

Nemrud Dagi site planA Herculean effort by any standard, the construction of the site, covering more than 26,000square meters, involved carving three large terraces into the living rock of the mountain to flank its peak at the east, west, and north; the peak itself was covered with rubble chips to form a 50m-high tumulus. The plan of Nemrud Dagi (seen at the left; hover over to enlarge) was drawn in 1956 from the site survey by H. Brokamp for the Theresa Goell excavations.

View up to the East TerraceView up to the East Terrace from one of the processional ways leading to the site laid out by King Antiochus (image courtesy of Donald H. Sanders; hover over to enlarge).

East Terrace reconstructedThe East and West Terraces together contain an astonishing array of sculpture, inscriptions, and architectural elements (a rendering from our 3D model at the left shows the East Terrace; hover over to enlarge). Each terrace bears a set of five colossal seated figures (8-9m high) of King Antiochus and his Greco-Persian tutelary deities. In addition, there are dozens of reliefs with over-lifesize figures portraying Antiochus' glorious maternal and paternal ancestors garbed in authentic period costume; each stela bears an inscription on its back that identifies the figure on the front.  Investiture reliefs, scenes depicting Antiochus being greeted individually by each member of his pantheon, and the earliest known calendrical horoscope also appear.  Numerous statues of lions and eagles guard the site's features, and altars are profuse.

The ensemble was carefully linked to the townspeople in the surrounding countryside by three processional ways, one leading up to each terrace. Each pathway was guarded by an advisory maker warning visitors to only have pious intentions or be struck down by the thousand arrows of Apollo and Heracles. Nemrud Dagi is truly a remarkable testimony to the skills of King Antiochus and his historians and artisans.


 Nemrud Dagi - discovery and excavation

East Terrace as excavatedThe monument was first discovered for Western eyes in the late 19th century.  It had always been known to the local population, who revered the site as the legendary home of their ancient kings. After a series of seemingly fantastic reports by 19th-c. German explorers (telling of giant statues, 100s of relief sculptures, and immense animals), incredulous authorities sent a team to Turkey to climb Nemrud Dagi. At the same time, the Turks sent an investigative contingent (view from the East Terrace fire altar toward the great podium at the left; photo courtesy of Donald H. Sanders; hover over to enlarge; compare with the rendering above, taken from the same vantage point). Each group set out to upstage the other; neither group spent more than a couple of weeks recording the visible remains as best they could in up to 4m of snow, howling winds, and with minimal equipment. The two reports made by the two 19th-century teams, valuable as they are for detailed accounts of the site's sculpture and inscriptions, are incomplete and inaccurate; yet the two publications became the accepted foundation upon which numerous art historical, genealogical, and religious interpretations and extrapolations have been based. As a result, a false and biased view of the king, his sculpture, his lineage, his reign, and his political proclivities has pervaded Late Hellenistic scholarship to this day.

The site of Nemrud Dagi remained an enigmatic and distant curiosity until the excavations of American archaeologist Theresa Goell (the first Western woman to penetrate this far into Kurdish Turkey) and her international team of collaborators exposed the entire site in the 1950s. Her efforts to reveal the true nature of Antiochus' architectural and sculptural programs continued into the 1960s with the pioneering use of many geophysical exploration techniques. Miss Goell died in 1985, leaving her final analyses and excavation report unfinished. After many decades of research, a full publication of Nemrud Dagi has emerged, coordinated by archaeologist Donald H. Sanders, with the assistance of many from Goell's original team of investigators.


 Nemrud Dagi - site significance

West Terrace lion horoscope

  • The site possesses the earliest extant Greek Horoscope in the form of a striding lion (see the image at the left from the West Terrace example; courtesy of Donald H. Sanders; hover over to enlarge)--a reading of its date firmly fixes the site in time, a rarity in archaeological research.
  • The inscriptions on the back of the ancestor stelae provide conclusive evidence, available nowhere else in the ancient world, for the sequence of Seleucid, Macedonian, and Persian rulers back to Alexander the Great and Darius I, making the stelae on Nemrud Dagi crucial historical documents.

  • Evidence exists here for demonstrating for the first time that Alexander was called "the Great" already in antiquity.

  • The fusion of Greek and Persian deities and religious rituals at Nemrud Dagi, evident in the sculptural iconography and the inscriptions, provides stunning evidence of the extent to which the Mithraic religion had moved from the Near East toward Europe, marking here in Commagene the crucial crossing from East to West of this popular counterthrust to the emergence of Christianity.

  • The attention Antiochus' craftsmen paid to precise historical details of regalia on the figures depicting rulers hundreds of years earlier than the Hellenistic age is unprecedented.


 Nemrud Dagi - selected bibliography

Goell, Theresa
1961     "Throne above the Euphrates," National Geographic 119:390-405.

1957     "The Excavation of the Hierothesion of Antiochus I of Commagene on Nemrud Dagh (1953-1956)," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 147:4-22.

1952     "Nimrud Dagh: The Tomb of Antiochus I, King of Commagene." Archaeology 5.3:136-144.

Hamdy, Osman Bey & Osgan Effendi
1883     Le tumulus de Nemroud-Dagh: voyages, description, inscriptions. Constantinople: Pera, Loeffler.

Humann, Karl & Otto Puchstein
1890     Reisen in Kleinasien und Nordsyrien. 2 vols. Berlin: Reimer.

Sanders, Donald H.
1996     >Nemrud Dagi: The Hierothesion of Antiochus I of Commagene: results of the American excavations directed by Theresa B. Goell. 2 vols. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. (This report can be obtained directly from the publisher.)

Sanders, Donald H. & David W. J. Gill.
2004     "Theresa B. Goell," pp.482-524 in Getzel M. Cohen and Martha Sharp Joukowsky, eds., Breaking Ground: pioneering women archaeologists, Ann Arbor MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey) has prepared the official Nemrud Dagi Conservation Program Website under the guidance and support of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and with information and images provided by Learning Sites.