Mt Nemrut and Şanlıurfa: Southeastern Turkey’s archaeological wonders

One place I regretted not being able to see on my first trip to Turkey in 2015 was Mt Nemrut. It’s an archaeological site from the 1st century with large stone statues on top of a 2100m high mountain. As soon as I realised I would be going back to Turkey and entering the country in the southeastern region, I knew I would finally get to see this incredible place.

It was once a popular tourist attraction until the conflict erupted across the border in Syria and it became a no-go zone back in 2014-15. It’s now well and truly back open for tourists, although it still mostly sees domestic tourists from western Turkey, rather than many foreigners.

There’s also quite a few other archaeological sites in the area and I was able to see a few of them while I was based in Kahta, including what is thought to be the world’s first temple which has changed many historians beliefs about early human activity. However, Nemrut is the real highlight and I would urge more foreigners to make the effort to see it.

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Mt Nemrut ruins
East Terrace

What is Mount Nemrut?

At the summit of Mt Nemrut at over 2100m is the tomb of Antiochus I who reigned over the Commagene kingdom of Northern Syria and the Euphrates after the breakup of King Alexander’s empire. It consists of a number of stone statues of Gods on both sides of the peak and is considered one of the most ambitious sites of the Hellenistic period. Although, today, the stone heads have fallen onto the ground, the site is still well intact considering its age.

Mt Nemrut ruins
East Terrace

Getting there

Getting to the site itself is not necessarily easy for those travelling independently. If you are travelling with your own transport then it is no problem at all, but there is no public transport that reaches the mountain or site entrance itself, making an organised tour the most practical solution. There are basically four options to choose from for a visit to Nemrut:

From Cappadocia: By far the most popular option for Turkish tourists and those short on time, is an organised tour from Goreme in Cappadocia. It usually requires an overnight drive so that you are at Nemrut in time for sunrise or a long drive during the day for a sunset visit, before a long overnight drive back. It’s at least an 8 hour drive one way, making it a tiring and often rushed trip. You can also make it a two or three day tour from Cappadocia if you’d still prefer that than doing it independently. If this sounds like much less hassle then you can check out this trip from Viator here which includes Nemrut and Urfa.

From Kahta: The most comfortable option is to get yourself to Kahta by bus where there is decent accommodation options and organise a half day tour from there to Mt Nemrut, usually for either sunrise or sunset. It’s only an hour’s drive to the site and is usually done in conjunction with other archeological sites scattered nearby (more on this below).

From Karadut: The cheapest option but also somewhat challenging is to arrive in Kahta and then take either a local (very infrequent) minibus/dolmus or hire a taxi to Karadut, a small village at the base of Mt Nemrut. There are a couple of basic guesthouses available there. From Karadut, you can either hike up the mountain which is 12 km one way or take a taxi to the entrance and back, which the guesthouses can arrange.

From Malatya: The least popular option is to take a bus from any major city in Turkey to Malatya, a large city in Southeastern Turkey and then organise a tour or taxi from there to Nemrut. It would be around a two-hour drive one way.

Mt Nemrut
View from Mt Nemrut

Kahta

I chose to base myself in Kahta and I would recommend independent travellers to either do the same or take the option of staying in Karadut (the small village at the base of the mountain).

Kahta is a pretty standard Turkish town and there is not much appeal to it other than it’s location to Nemrut. There are a couple of decent restaurants and hotels and basic amenities like supermarkets and ATMs all along the main street.

How I got in to Kahta

I came from Diyarbakir and took the direct bus to Kahta which left at 2.30pm and took 3.5 hours. It cost 45 TL (AUD$11).

The other option from Diyarbakir is to take a dolmus/minibus to Siverek and then change to another dolmus to Kahta from there, it totals 30 TL for both legs.

Kahta is not necessarily that well connected directly to major cities because it’s a small town. However, it’s relatively easy to reach by changing to a dolmus connection from nearby towns like Siverek or Adiyaman.

Where I stayed in Kahta

There’s a handful of decent accommodation options in Kahta and I chose to stay at Kommagene Hotel (near the main intersection/roundabout in the middle of town, some of the buses actually stop right outside the gate or it’s a 7min walk from the bus station). The owner is a well versed tour operator and business man and he knows that everyone walking through his gate wants to go to Nemrut. So, of course, his tours are not that cheap BUT he’s reliable, it’s convenient and the driver was very good. Still, it’s worth negotiating and/or trying to share it with other people. It seemed to be the main place for backpackers and budget travellers in town, although there were very few of us around in general.

Kommagene Hotel charge 120 TL (AUD$30) per night, the rooms are large and comfortable with private bathrooms and breakfast included.

The half day tour to Nemrut was 30 euros, negotiable depending on total people.

Mt Nemrut ruins
West Terrace
Mt Nemrut ruins
West Terrace

Sunset tour of Mt Nemrut

The whole tour is around 5-6 hours if you include the other sites in the area such as Severan Bridge and Arsemia Ancient City. Severan Bridge is one of the oldest Roman bridges in the region and was built by the Commagene Kingdom. Arsemia was the ancient city and palace of the Commagene kings, but today there is only a couple of inscribed pillars, a well-intact stone relief of Hercules and the King and old tunnels running into the hill. Both are free to visit.

After visiting these two places we drove to the ticket office for Nemrut. I had to purchase an entrance ticket (20TL or AUD$5) and a bus transfer ticket (5TL or AUD$1.25), or you can choose to walk if you’re early enough. There were shuttles running frequently up towards the end of the road and back which saves a lot of time. From there you still have to walk the steps up to the summit. There are paths running in either direction but it doesn’t matter as both link up to the two sites. There is a west and east terrace, with the east being the most well preserved. It took me about 15 minutes to walk to the east terrace first and then just 5 minutes to walk from there around to the west.

The views are incredible of the surrounding landscape and the sunset was very beautiful. However, it was a lot more crowded than I expected with a lot of Turkish tour groups, but it was still a great experience. Bring a warm jacket though because it’s very cold and windy up there, regardless of the time of year.

Severan bridge
Severan bridge
Arsemia Ancient city
Arsemia Ancient City

Sanliurfa

Sanliurfa or Urfa is a pilgrimage town and the home of the cave in which it is believed Prophet Abraham was born.

Built around the cave is the Dergah Complex consisting of an Ottoman-style stone mosque. Men and women can both enter and visit the cave, albeit using different entrances and women must be fully covered with a headscarf. It is believed that Abraham lived in the cave until he was 15, hiding from the wrath of the then King who had heard a prophet would be born to destroy his kingdom.

There is also an old bazaar and a pretty park which is a nice place to stroll through while pilgrims pass on their way to pray at Abraham’s cave. There are plenty of nice restaurants and hotel options if you want to stay the night. However, I visited on an organised day trip from Kahta.

Urfa
Urfa
Urfa
Dergah Complex

Day trip of Sanliurfa and Gobekli Tepe

There was already an organised day tour leaving Kommagene Hotel to Urfa and Gobekli Tepe and so I just conveniently joined in. We left at 10am and drove the two hours to Urfa, stopping at a viewpoint of Ataturk Dam on the way for tea. First, we went to the archeological site called Gobekli Tepe, 12km out of town. It’s known as the world’s first temple or ritual site and when first excavated in 1994 it turned the dominant theory of human settlement on its head. Originally it was believed that religion and belief systems came after the evolution of agriculture and settled communities, however, this site now proves otherwise, and that perhaps hunter gatherers had developed some sense of religion prior to the transition to agricultural societies. You can read more about this on National Geographic here.

The stone pillars which are still being excavated today are estimated to be around 12, 000 years old, which is mind blowing. It’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and yet, it was extremely quiet as many people either don’t know about it or don’t bother to make the trip out to see it. Taking the site on face value it may not be as impressive as other archeological sites in Turkey, however, its sheer age and importance for human history makes it worth a stop. It will be a few years before the site is fully excavated and work is still being carried out. The entrance ticket is 30 TL (AUD$8).

From there we proceeded to Urfa and visited the Dergah Complex before having lunch in the bazaar and driving back to Kahta.

Gobekli tepe
Gobekli Tepe

How to get out

From Kahta, I wanted to head back to Diyarbakir before proceeding further east. Instead of a direct bus, I took a dolmus or minibus to Siverek which cost 15 TL and took 1.5 hours and then changed to another dolmus for Diyarbakir which cost 15 TL as well and took 1 hour. They tend to leave when full rather than on any sort of schedule but they were frequent enough, although I waited nearly an hour in Kahta for the bus to leave for Siverek.

Getting around Diyarbakir

In Diyarbakir, the bus station is quite far from the city centre and a taxi is expensive at around 40 TL. There are local buses that run from the centre out to the station and back frequently. From the station they leave from outside, along the main highway and on the opposite side of the road near the petrol station and supermarket. You will see a couple of them parked there or you can ask around, people helped me locate the stop at first as it’s about a five minute walk from the station area.

In the city centre they leave from near the main city wall and square, across the road from Elkin Hotel. You will see bus stops there with vans lined up, just ask for “Otogar” or check the signs on their windscreens. A one way trip from the centre to the station costs 2 TL but allow around 20 minutes to half an hour as they make plenty of stops.

Where I stayed

In Diyarbakir I stayed at Birkent Hotel, probably one of the most comfortable and best value 2 star hotels I’ve ever stayed. I would highly recommend it.

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