BMCR 2018.08.25

Die Sakralarchitektur der kommagenischen Hierothesia und Temene. Asia Minor Studien, 83

Werner Oenbrink, Die Sakralarchitektur der kommagenischen Hierothesia und Temene. Asia Minor Studien, 83. Bonn: Rudolf Habelt Verlag, 2017. viii, 216; 75 p. of plates. ISBN 9783774940833 €79,00.

Despite its rather small territorial extent, the historical and cultural landscape of Commagene, its history, and its monuments have fascinated scholars for generations (and still do today), inspiring a vast number of studies from a broad spectrum of academic perspectives, which include Hellenistic monarchy, ancient religion, aspects of cultural transformation, and astrology, just to name a few. Since its discovery by Western scholars in 1882, the hierothesion of Antiochus I Theos at Nemrud Dağı has been the focal point of research, as most recently proven by the publication of the results of the unfortunately ill-fated International Nemrud Dağı Project, edited by Hermann A. G. Brijder.1 This sumptuous volume not only provided a more than welcome update and alternative to Donald H. Sanders’ comprehensive 1996 publication of the results of the American excavations at Mount Nemrud,2 but also attempted to further our understanding of the whole system of official (i.e., royal) Commagenian cult places known as hierothesia and temene. These considerations as well as certain chronological questions in Brijder’s publication, however, would have benefited from a thorough analysis of the surviving architectural remains of Late Hellenistic Commagene, as previously noted by the author of the book that is reviewed here.3 Werner Oenbrink on his own has undertaken this desired and ambitious effort of presentation, examination, and (re-)evaluation of Commagenian sacral building activity, which peaked in the first half of the first century B.C. during the beginning of the reign of Antiochus I Theos. The result is the monograph at hand, published in the ever-productive Forschungsstelle Asia Minor series at the University of Münster.

The introduction (pp. 1–3) offers definitions of the useful and conventionally-accepted terms that appear in the book’s title, characterizing hierothesia as sepulchral sanctuaries with royal tombs, inscriptions, colossal statues, and stelae with depictions of the monarch’s ancestors, while temene are defined as smaller supplementary cult places with reliefs and inscriptions. The author explains and emphasizes the necessity of the study at hand in the face of a scholarly tradition that has mostly ignored the fragmented architectural remains of the Commagenian sites so far. Furthermore, new evidence from excavations and collections that can be assigned to sanctuaries of the aforementioned categories has considerably enhanced our understanding of these sites since the last major publications.

Chapter I, consisting of 161 pages (pp. 5–166) and thus constituting the chief part of this study, is divided into two parts: hierothesia (pp. 6–141) and temene (pp. 142–166). Both open with an overview of all known sanctuaries of the respective categories, their locations, and characteristics. These introductions are extremely helpful because out of the five hierothesia4 and multiple temene in Commagene, only three sites are discussed in detail, as these are the only examples that provide material remains of their monumental architecture.

Subsequently the hierothesion of Arsameia on the Nymphaios / Eski Kale, from which most of the architectural fragments derive, is discussed at length (pp. 16–123). The author initially offers a critical discussion of Wolfgang Hoepfner’s well-known reconstruction of the sanctuary,5 deeming it–as well as Brijder’s more recent attempt from 2014 (largely based on Hoepfner’s suggestions)–”problematisch” (p. 27). The detailed catalogue that follows is the core of this part of the book. It files each fragment according to architectural orders, construction units, and structural ornamentation, thus ordering a puzzling wealth of fragmentary architectural elements, sharing concise descriptions, measurements and all available information on material, find spots and affiliations, as well as giving dates. The description of each group (elements of Doric order, bead bases, entablature, decorative strips, jambs, etc.) is preceded by a short introduction that provides a summary and precise observations. After remarks about the sanctuary’s facilities and altars (pp. 102–105, again accompanied by a catalogue of all fragments) as well as building techniques (pp. 106–108), Oenbrink produces a new, revised reconstruction of its architectural history (pp. 108–123). The re-evaluation of all available data points to multiple phases of building activity, with some architectural structures dating as far back as Achaemenid times. Contrary to previous assumptions, a major palatial complex was already built and subsequently extended under the rule of Mithridates I Kallinikos (at the latest), including the access to a stairway and a representative southern façade on the western plateau. The majority of surviving architectural fragments nonetheless dates to the reign of his son, Antiochus I Theos, who established the sanctuary’s final configuration, including the processional way and Friedrich Karl Dörner’s Sockelanlage I–III.6 Fragments of sacrificial and votive altars from Imperial times attest that the place was not abandoned when Commagene became part of the Imperium Romanum, but rather remained intact as a site of cultic activity.

The second hierothesion discussed in this book, the sepulchral sanctuary of Kâhta / Güzelçay Köyü (pp. 124–141), was only recently (and more or less accidentally) discovered and identified, based on fragmentary inscriptions in a private collection.7 It stands between the town of Kâhta and the village of Güzelçay, close to the Atatürk Barajı. With considerable areas flooded by the dam, no excavations have been conducted, and only parts of the architecture are superficially visible. Following an introduction, all fragments of this context are presented in catalogue form, consisting of three parts (architectural elements of Doric order, architectural elements of Corinthian order, jambs). Oenbrink remains cautious about the original appearance of the sanctuary, this time sharing mere “thoughts” (pp. 140–141) rather than a reconstruction. However, the author suggests that the fragments of the Doric order should be understood as part of a stoa or columned hall, as part of an elaborate and monumental complex comparable to the sanctuary of Arsameia on the Nymphaios.

The second part of Chapter I deals with the Commagenian temene (pp. 142–166). The introduction (pp. 142–150) provides a very welcome overview of these smaller sanctuaries, which are mostly identified by stelai with inscriptions or reliefs, and conventionally thought to have functioned as supplementary hypaethral cult places. Single temene can be located, e.g. in Lacotena / Direk Kale, Üçgöz / Sofraz Köy, and Çaputlu Agaç Küllük / Boypeypınarı, while cultural centres, such as Zeugma / Seleukeia on the Euphrates and Samosata, might even have featured multiple temene. The author points out that the current state of research still lacks fundamental information about the structural contextualization and architectural monumentalization of the Commagenian temene, which prohibits further understanding of these sites. In recent years, the sanctuary of Iuppiter Dolichenus at Doliche / Dülük Baba Tepesi has occasioned a wealth of archaeological research and publication activity, enabling the author to give a more detailed discussion of the temenos here (pp. 150–166). The data is provided as a two-part catalogue (architectural elements of Doric order, facilities and altars). While a (now lost) limestone inscription verifies the existence of a temenos at Doliche, all architectural elements subsequently listed and identified as Late Hellenistic by the author stem from spolia used in the walls and foundations of a monastery, and thus Oenbrink’s assignment of them to the temenos is hypothetical.

Chapter II (pp. 166–178) puts the results of the aforementioned case studies into the broader context of Hellenistic architectural history. The author argues that regional stonemasons worked simultaneously on the Commagenian hierothesia and temene. Largely relying on a close examination of the evidence from Arsameia on the Nymphaios, he emphasizes that the sacral architecture and building methods of Commagene are the result of both a reception of contemporary Hellenistic forms and styles, as well as a continuation of well-established traditions of Asia Minor. Furthermore, a certain regional identity is displayed in distinctive anomalies and playful variations (e.g., details of the Doric and Corinthian orders). By also taking into consideration the palatial complex at Samosata, Oenbrink’s final remarks (pp. 170–178) widen the scope even more and challenge conventional scholarly positions on Commagenian architecture in favor of a more differentiated approach. He suggests that Commagenian architecture relied far less on Greek prototypes than previously assumed, as it incorporated elements that are atypical to monumentalization in the western Hellenistic fashion. These include corridors, square rooms and closed courtyards, features that are reminiscent of Mesopotamian residential architecture. Thus Commagenian rulers rather selectively combined different Greek and “Oriental” traditions, blending these with regional concepts, and developed their own distinctive—and at times eclectic— repertoire.

The author’s well-structured study is an advanced and detailed appraisal that carefully (re-)examines regional building activities based on sparse archaeological evidence, critically discusses previous hypotheses, and offers new, thought-provoking ideas. Unfortunately, the surviving record of architectural remains allows only a limited understanding of the history of Commagene’s monumentalization. Oenbrink’s selection of the two hierothesia and one temenos studied in detail here is not a pars pro toto choice by the author, but represents the current state of archaeological evidence, despite the fact that 15 hierothesia and temene have been identified in Commagene, and more cult places no doubt existed, especially around the capital, Samosata. The author himself is therefore not shy in pointing out that some of his conclusions must remain hypothetical until further evidence is uncovered.

In spite of its culturally interesting and relevant results, the reader must be aware that most of the content of this study consists of architectural analysis, but many short summaries contribute to the accessibility of the text for the reader, and the book is richly illustrated with previously unpublished images and drawings of the architectural fragments (in black and white) as well as 16 coloured plates, several plans, and reconstructions (although the latter are mostly derived from older literature). At times the images are too small to examine the details. Although a few images of the beautiful Commagenian landscape are included, this book is certainly not that type of popular Commagene text that aims to encourage the reader to explore this magnificent spot on his or her own, but rather appeals to scholars already familiar with the region and its monumental remains. More importantly, however, it does encourage further archaeological research on Late Hellenistic architecture in Eastern Asia Minor generally, and on ancient Commagene particularly. ​


1. H. A. G. Brijder (ed.), Nemrud Dağı. Recent Archaeological Research and Conservation Activities in the Tomb Sanctuary on Mount Nemrud (Boston and Berlin 2014). The project of the Dutch International Nemrud Foundation, which aimed not only at the archaeological research but also at developing concepts of preservation at Nemrud Dağı, was prematurely stopped by the Turkish Directorate of Antiquities in 2006.

2. D. H. Sanders (ed.), Nemrud Dağı. The Hierothesion of Antiochus I of Commagene (Winona Lake 1996).

3. See Oenbrink’s review in sehepunkte 15.4, 15.04.2015. For an extensive review of Brijder’s publication see also M. Blömer in Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 112, 2017, 101–107.

4. Nemrud Dağı, Arsameia on the Nymphaios / Eski Kale, Karakuş, Gerger Kalesi, Kâhta / Güzelçay Köyü. Contrary to the views of, for example, Helmut Waldmann and Bruno Jacobs, the author of this book–rightfully, in my opinion–excludes the tumulus of Sesönk / Diliki Taş from the list, as it appears to have been a pure grave monument with columns rather than an actual hierothesion. For the opposing view see H. Waldmann, Die kommagenischen Kultreformen unter König Mithradates I. Kallinikos und seinem Sohne Antiochos I. (Leiden 1973), 58; more recently B. Jacobs, Die Heiligtümer Antiochos’ I. von Kommagene als sakrale und soziale Räume, in: M. A. Guggisberg (ed.), Grenzen in Ritual und Kult der Antike. Internationales Kolloquium Basel, 5.–6. November 2009 (Basel 2013), 157–170, esp. 157–158.

5. W. Hoepfner, Arsameia am Nymphaios 2. Das Hierothesion des Königs Mithradates I. Kallinikos von Kommagene nach den Ausgrabungen von 1963 bis 1967 (Tübingen 1983). See also id., Arsameia am Nymphaios und der Allgötterkult Antiochos I. Schriften, Bilder und Säulen als Zeugnisse späthellenistischer Kultur, in: J. Wagner (ed.), Gottkönige am Euphrat. Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene (Mainz 2000) 56–73.

6. The term Sockelanlage was coined by the discoverer and excavator of Arsameia on the Nymphaios, Friedrich Karl Dörner, and refers to several structures for the erection of relief stelai and cultic inscriptions along the processional way. For descriptions, see, e.g., F. K. Dörner and T. Goell, Arsameia am Nymphaios. Die Ausgrabungen im Hierothesion des Mithradates Kallinikos von 1953–1956, IstForsch 23 (Berlin 1963), esp. 106–109 (Sockelanlage II), 114–123 (Sockelanlage I), and 123–128 (Sockelanlage III).

7. Made known by Charles Crowther and Margherita Facella, see id., New Commagenian Royal Inscriptions from the Neşet Akel Collection (Kâhta), in: E. Winter (ed.), Kult und Herrschaft am Euphrat. Dolichener und Kommagenische Forschungen 6, AMS 73 (Bonn 2014) 255–270. ​