Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.05.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.34

Herman A. G. Brijder (ed.), Nemrud Dağı: Recent Archaeological Research and Conservation Activities in the Tomb Sanctuary on Mount Nemrud.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2014.  Pp. x, 686.  ISBN 9781614517139.  €249.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Ian Kuniholm, University of Arizona (

Table of Contents

The introduction (pp. 1-22) has a capsule description of the monument, its excavation history, a summary of recent field and publication seasons by the Dutch team, a complaint about the lack of permits, a comment about the dispersal of the statue fragments to at least four museums, another on a financial squabble between Dutch and Turkish authorities, a number of photographs of varying quality and relevance including pictures of the Dutch restoration-house and tourists draped all over the statuary, two good plans, and finally a disclaimer: “Since I am not a philologist, one should not expect many new insights in this field.” This last is a pity: Elizabeth Asmis commented after a lecture given by this reviewer at Cornell in 1976 that the nomos inscription is a seriously sophisticated document that shows that these remote Commagenians were in touch with all the latest philosophical ideas in Athens and elsewhere in the Greek-speaking world.

Part I (pp. 38-175) is “A survey of the topography and history of the Kingdom of Commagene, and King Antiochus I's religious & cultural program and divine-ruler cult.”

The mountain of Nemrud, some 7325 feet (2206 m.) asl, is capped by a huge tumulus of fist-sized rubble (presumably containing the grave of Antiochus), flanked on the East and West Terraces by a row of colossal, limestone, syncretistic, Graeco-Persian deities (Zeus-Oromasdes, the biggest, is 9.70m. high on the West Terrace, and 9.35m. high on the East Terrace and up to some 50 tons each), from left to right as the viewer faces them: Antiochus I, Commagene/ Fortuna personified, Zeus-Oromasdes (Ahuramazda), Apollo-Mithra-Helios-Hermes, Artagnes/ Verathragna-Heracles, the whole row flanked at either end by guardian eagles and lions (drawing, p. 80). Across their backs is the well-known nomos inscription which calls the complex a hierothesion, and tells why Antiochus built it: to honor the gods, himself, and improve the public morals of Commagene. At the end of the book 32 plates of line-drawings reproduce all the statues with details of all the heads.

Antiochus claimed descent on his father’s side from Darius I and on his mother’s side from Alexander the Great. In rows on either side of the East and West terraces are some 15 generations of paternal and maternal ancestors (genealogical tables, p.53 and p.325) carved on sandstone reliefs. The identifications on the reverse sides have become harder to read over the years, but the late nineteenth-century investigators seem to have gotten them in proper order.

Some scholars, especially those who have not visited Nemrud Dağı, have concluded that these attributions and the nomos inscription—ordering the people of Commagene to pay an annual visit and tribute on the occasion of the anniversaries of Antiochus’s birth and accession to the throne—are indicative of megalomania, but the king was merely attaching himself to the two best-known dynasties of his time, and other scholars have concluded that his was indeed a sincerely pious wish. Part of the trouble was the original misidentification of the statue of Apollo-Mithra-Helios-Hermes, seated right next to Zeus, as Antiochus, a matter that was straightened out by John Young in AJA 68 (1964), 29-34, where he pointed out that the Armenian royal tiara is worn only by the king. Thus Antiochus sits at a respectful distance from Zeus, next to the lion and eagle. Although no paint traces exist, aside from some in recently-uncovered inscriptions, Brijder gives us reconstruction proposals of how the statues might have looked if painted (pp. 109-112).

Visitors to Nemrud, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the site, often forget to ask the obvious questions: why is the hierothesion there in the first place? How was it paid for? What kind of manpower was necessary to build it? Commagene is on the silk-road where it crosses the Euphrates at Samosata. Other trade-routes cross the region from north to south, and import duties and transit taxes must have brought in significant wealth. The summit is visible from many miles away, and access routes marked at the upper end by propylaia hodos stelae (with instructions about proper behavior within the sanctuary) give us an idea of how pilgrims marched in from 20-plus towns and cult sites including Samosata, Arsameia-on-the-Euphrates, Selik, Dikili Taş or Sesönk, Palaş, Boybeypınarı, Sofrazköy (45 kms. to the NW), Eski Taş (28 kms. to the NE), Damlacık, Kılafık Höyuk, and Zeugma (the latter with four reliefs). This is the first proper listing in one paper of all of the mountain’s subsidiary towns and sites. In all these localities dexiosis reliefs may be seen with Antiochus being welcomed with a handshake into the afterlife by one of the aforementioned deities. So many copies of the nomos inscription exist, on stelae or carved in solid rock, that the occasional crack or fissure, or in one instance damage where the relief was converted into an oil-press, do not prevent the complete reading of the text . Brijder also has thoughts on the actual ritual itself which he thinks was likely to have been more Greek than Persian. More of these locations of the nomos inscriptions anddexiosis reliefs have been found to the east rather than the west of the mountain, so Antiochus’s assertion that the “whole kingdom” was to come and pay tribute may be stretching his claim a bit.

Part II (pp. 176-312) is a “Survey of previous explorations and archaeological activities on Nemrud Dağı and in other Commagenian sanctuaries and sites: the sites revisited and reviewed.”

The monument was seen by a number of 19th century travelers, beginning with Moltke (not yet von Moltke) in 1838, Ainsworth in 1839, Sester, a highway engineer whose report inspired the visit by Humann and Puchstein in 1882, and which led to their excavations in 1883, Osman Hamdi Bey and Osgan Efendi (referred to in the text as Effendi, or Mr. “Mister”) also in 1883. Brijder provides a translation of much of their German and French texts, respectively. Osman Hamdi Bey and Osgan Efendi also spotted the Karakuş tumulus with columns surmounted by lions and recumbent bulls and a dexiosis relief of King Mithradates II and his sister Laodice shaking hands in a farewell gesture, the identification later confirmed by Friedrich Karl Doerner who was able to read the inscription when the light was just right. Doerner and Rudolf Naumann commenced excavations at nearby Arsameia-on-the-Nymphaios in 1938, followed by a collaboration between Doerner and Theresa Goell in the 1950s. There they found an enormous stela of Antiochus shaking hands with Apollo-Mithra-Helios-Hermes, now re-erected and possibly in the best condition of any such relief in all of Commagene. The great cult inscription, a version of the nomos, carved into the solid rock at the mouth of a tunnel whose end has not yet been reached, was found nearby in 1953. Brijder gives us a translated version of the rest of Doerner’s campaigns at Arsameia. There is virtually no criticism of Doerner, aside from a complaint about his use of iron reinforcing rods on the statuary—in contrast to everybody else who has worked in Commagene —which is a welcome change in tone.

Part III (pp.312-434) “Nemrud Dağı, a survey of the activities on the mountain in the second half of the 20th century: a critical review,” is indeed critical, largely about the activities of Theresa Goell between 1953 and 1956. She moved things around without proper documentation and changed her mind about identifications of figures so many times that, until the two-volume posthumous summary of her work edited by Donald Sanders appeared in 1996, the actual situation on the mountain was well-nigh incomprehensible. Line drawings (pp. 327-328 and 337-338) show all the ancestors with superimposed fragments of sandstone that are still assignable to a stela on about half of them. The West Terrace figures are in a marginally better state of preservation as are the investiture stelae on the N pedestal of the W Terrace.

The building techniques of the colossal figures are discussed, including the damage caused to the statues by the 50 one-kg. dynamite charges used by Goell and the Lerici Foundation to try to locate the grave chamber which—if unplundered—would have been the first Hellenistic royal grave ever found. The results of the new geophysical explorations by the Dutch team are at the end.

Part IV (pp. 435-504) “The International Nemrud Dağı Project, 2001-2003: documentation, stone deterioration research & archaeological preserving [sic] activities” is a stone-by-stone analysis of what the Dutch group did, including the development of a Site Information System, the results of a GPS survey, the difficulties caused by heavy snow slides and the building of a steel and wood barrier to prevent more snow damage. The LisCAD contour map (p. 448) incorporating the latest technology shows that Humann and Puchstein came remarkably close in 1883 to what the latest technology can do. Photographs show the resetting by the construction firm ENKA of some of the colossal figures.

Short essays on the petrography of the monument, diagnosis of weathering damage, deterioration of the statuary, methods of preservation, stabilization, transportation of particularly fragile items to the temporary restoration-house on the site, and the damage caused by thousands of tourists will be of interest to anybody interested in site-preservation. This reviewer knows of no classical archaeological site subject to more extremes of temperature (below freezing to over 110oF. in less than 12 hours), hailstorms, snowstorms, violent windstorms which blow particles of rock across the surfaces of the statuary, and from time to time the odd earthquake.

Part V (pp. 506-611) “Further research on Mount Nemrud by members of the International Nemrud Dağı Project and others,” includes a mixed bag of epigraphic information (M. P. Schipperheijn and O. M. van Nijf, pp. 506-510). Humann’s is still the best for the nomos, but there is now evidence for a partly-erased earlier inscription. There is a short piece regarding conservation of sandstone, a repetition of the tale of woe caused by earlier excavators, an interesting discussion (Rudy Dillen, pp. 533-562) of the coins of Commagene issued by 13 kings and civic entities (black-and-white photographs might have been more decipherable), the largest number—some 494 coins of 11 types—from Antiochus IV.

An important rediscussion by Maurice Crijns (pp. 563-599) of the Lion Horoscope, now dates it to July 14, 109 BC, commemorating possibly both the birth of Antiochus I and the coronation of his father Mithradates I. Efforts to date the orientation of the East Terrace, because of the alignment ca. 50 BC with Regulus, and the West Terrace with the winter solstice (Mithras’s birthday) are unconvincing. Earlier attempts to make some sense of this were hampered by the fact that magnetic north had been used by the surveyors instead of true north. The plaster cast of the lion made in 1883 by Osman Hamdi Bey, now in the Berlin Museum, is the best-preserved image from the mountain.

A penultimate note by Miguel John Versluys on the Hellenistic context of Nemrud Dağı sums up the characteristics of the monument in four words: monumentality, visibility, ideology, and eclecticism, as a “bricolage of ‘Greek’ and ‘Persian’ elements-as-cultural-concepts” in the Hellenistic world.

The past 120 years of excavation and other interventions, and the building of access roads from Adiyaman and Malatya that provide easy tourist access, have wreaked havoc on this formerly isolated, and therefore protected, sanctuary. The monument might yet be “saved” by an international effort to build a museum, collect and reassemble the scattered reliefs, and possibly erect weatherproof replicas on the terraces, but the failed effort to start such a project—even with a Dutch pledge of over two million Euros toward it—shows how difficult this is likely to be.

De Gruyter—who normally publishes clean texts—should be taken to task for the dismal lack of proofreading/copyediting by a native English-speaker. On one page alone there are 13 misspellings or other infelicities. Since the volume was not printed on glossy stock, the decision to publish most of the 316 figures in color should have been rethought. The black-and-white plans (p. 231) reproduced from Humann and Puchstein’s visit in 1883 are among the clearest—and therefore effective—in the book. Finally, figures are supposed to tell a story that words cannot. A color photograph of empty bottles thrown away by visitors to Arsameia (p. 261) is typical of what hinders appreciation of this expensive book and negates the effort that Brijder and colleagues put into it.

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