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Ascending Abraham’s Nemesis


At the summit of Mt. Nemrut, a king has surrounded himself with the gods. These are our last two days of exploring new stages of the Abraham Path in southeastern Turkey.

The climb up makes me realize it should have been the start of our trip rather than its end. This is by far the most spectacular walk of our weeklong journey. Lead by guides Omer and Haji, we are perhaps the first visitors to explore the eastern ascent on foot. For some in our group it also the toughest stage, the grand finale of roughing it for a week in a region that is pretty much devoid of Western travel deluxe.


At 2,150 meters (just over 7,000 feet), Mt. Nemrut’s summit is only a lower to medium range peak to climb in Turkey, whose mountains in the far east reach as high as 5,000 meters. But no mountain has a story like this one. After a slow start to the day, a brisk climb leads us across narrow shepherd trails and scrambling over sharply jagged rocks that ring the summit as a barrier of natural barbed wire. All guidebooks mention Mt. Nemrut but none is helpful on how to ascent it on foot. Fortunately, our guide Haji climbs as if it was his own backyard. I also carry a map ably pre-scouted through Google Earth by Julian Bender, one of Abraham Path’s trail experts. We can see the sharp peak for most of our ascent. It appears deceivingly close at the start, but as we progress our legs tell us otherwise. Haji (pictured) is the oldest of our group and probably the fittest; he seems to enjoy moving up and down between the front and back end of our group. For the rest of us, the summit is not for free.


But what is the summit, exactly? The natural peak of Nemrut has remained covered for more than two millennia and the pyramid that sits on top of the mountain consists of hundreds of thousands of small stones, the debris of the larger than life godly statues at its foot. This is, allegedly, the last resting place of King Antiochus I, who ruled over this region 70-38 BC. From high up the gods still watch over its fate, greeting the sunrise and sunset each day. In the last hour of our climb, we step up the pace to make sure we do not miss the spectacle of the gods bidding farewell to the day.


Apart from meeting the giant statues and the pyramid, the objective of our venture today is to test a possible extension of the Abraham Path into these mountains. The trail presently starts in Yuvacali, situated in soft gentle hills some 50 kilometers north of one of the birth cities of Abraham, Urfa. It was there that, according to the local Muslim tradition, Abraham was born and where he challenged a king by the name of Nemrut and his worship of idols. The mountain we climb up is named after that king, the nemesis in Abraham’s early life. Though Antiochus only enters the story two millennia later he chooses this mountain top at the end of his life, not only as his last resting place, but more prominently as a symbol of his companionship and peer stature to Greek and Roman gods.


Beyond his own depiction amidst Zeus, Apollo, and Hercules, there are giant stone slabs depicting Mars, Venus and Mercury. Antiochus himself takes center stage, allegedly being buried somewhere underneath the 50-meter tall pyramid of small stones. It is a place inaccessible to man as any excavation would destroy the structure. Apparently not all visitors understand this: multiple signs read “Do Not Climb!” The pyramid style grave — a burial mound called a tumulus — is an unverifiable story of burial but regardless of the presence of a megalomaniac king underneath, its iconic shape stands out from the mild, rounded and natural summits of the sister peaks in the area.


Far below us flow the tributaries to the Euphrates, a river central to the story of Abraham. We cross it by ferry the next day. It has been a rewarding journey with a true grand finale. Mt. Nemrut in all senses is the other half of the Abraham Path. It is topographically the half that was missing until this week: a true mountain stage for fit and adventurous walkers, and a natural balcony overlooking the more gentle stages on the other side of the Euphrates. And until we explore northern Iraq, a journey planned for the fall of 2014, this will certainly be the path’s highest point to date.

But thematically also, it is the other half of the story: all that Abraham revolted against. Mt. Nemrut represents the deeply fascinating heritage of an old world before the dominance of monotheism. It will be approximately six days walking to connect Mt. Nemrut back to Yuvacali, the village where we started last week. That route will include a spectacular descent towards and crossing over the Euphrates. Yet another journey to look forward to.

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Wandering between Sacred Foxes and Abraham

By Stefan Szepesi

Days two to four of my seven-day walk-and-talk with a group of seven friends. Our purpose: to test new sections of the Abraham Path between Urfa and Harran in southeastern Turkey and then climb up into the mountains north of the mythical Euphrates river. We come across plenty of landmarks not immediately associated with Abraham: we walk past an ancient Yezidi shrine and mysterious Roman ruins, visit the world’s oldest religious temple and climb a “Holy Hill” in the centre of the Chief God of the Pagans to find desert rock carvings in devotion to the Sun and the Moon. These places pretty much sum up everything Abraham rebelled against: especially in the Muslim and Jewish traditions, he was the father of monotheism, the belief in One God. But they are no less a part of the story of this region.

In between sightseeing and walking these places we eat and sleep in villages on the trail. We are the odd strangers walking into a different home and a different world. This idea of cultural exchange is central to the path: hospitality bridges the East-West cultural divide. Not that this is always easy. Nearly all of the facets of conventional travel are absent in the homestay model. Guests need an open mind and an ability to adapt: there is little personal space, few moments alone and less control over events. Everything is shared except a common language. In a curious way that also helps. Perhaps because we speak no Kurdish or Turkish and the families speak very little English, a rigid protocol of any kind is absent. There’s one exception: the ankle length skirts the women in our group have to put on in most homestays; a cultural prerequisite that comes with travelling this particular part of the Abraham Path. That’s not always convenient or comfortable. And as with so many issues coming one’s way on the path, it is best dealt with by humor. And by the daily walking –without skirts– that allows for all the mental and physical space one could possibly desire.

On our second day, we walk between the Kurdish villages of Yuvacali and Golli. A gentle stroll of five hours over mellow hills.

We find the first red and white Abraham Path trail markers of the Urfa section of the path. This is no easy job: the terrain is mostly agricultural here so finding large stones to mark is not straightforward. At times, the markers venture across a field that has just been harvested. In six months from now, they may well be hidden amidst the wheat or tobacco that is planted here. But all in all, it is a major step forward that the trails are now marked: no symbol states more clearly that the path is real. In addition, walkers can download maps and GPS data of the route before they set out, but today I keep my GPS switched off as I follow the footsteps of Fatih Salva, our guide, who has been down this route countless times already.

After lunch in the tiniest hamlet of Golli, we are driven 30 km southwards to the mysterious excavations of Göbeklitepe for sunset. In 1996, the discovery of the world’s oldest temple -built 11,500 thousand years ago- put conventional theory on the origins of religion on its head.

Rings of huge T-shaped pillars up to six meters tall were constructed inside and on top of one another; they feature larger than life carvings of foxes, wild pigs, scorpions, snakes and a dozen other animals. Every few decades the rings of statues would be buried and a new round of temple construction would commence. It is but one of the many mysteries. Humans settling down and starting agriculture was always supposed to have preceded the origin of religion and the construction of places of worship, let alone pilgrimage. But at this place no remnants of human settlement have been found.

Darkness falls and we arrive for dinner and our third homestay experience in Kisas. It is an Alevi town in the midst of endless cotton plantations irrigated by the abundant water from the Atatürk Dam. We sit on carpets mixed between the extended family of hosts Izzet and Asia. There is abundant food for hungry walkers, plenty of laughter and then Alevi music. Kisas more than any village I’ve been too on the path takes in each visitor as an imperative to display local culture to both guests and their own community. The Alevi are a group of intensely fascinating yet complex communities spread across Turkey, and making up anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of its population. Estimates have varied so widely because identity, language and religion are part very distinct, part overlapping with Kurdish, Arab, Turkish, Turkmen, Azeri and other communities. Two musicians from the village come into the room. They sit in our midst, but do not speak; instead, they let their instruments talk for them. Without a common language and in a region battered and bruised by definitions of identity, poetry and song are the save ground to get to know one another.

The next two days we venture into the Tektek Mountains, a desert landscape of nomads, desolate temples and ruins of empires long past. After the gentle cultivated hills earlier on, the landscape towards Sogmatar provides for a different walking experience all together. The group explores the two-day route for the first time, aided by Kurdish guide Fatih and his Arab colleague Hussayn. It is rough and solitary terrain, filled with rocks, and without any shade. It is sunny and 25 degrees Celsius, warm for the time of the year, but comfortable for a few hours walk. The Tektek region must be merciless in scorching summer temperatures of 40 and above. A few hours later, in the midst of nothing, the small village of Sogmatar appears, surrounded by pagan temples, mystic wells, caves and the ruins of grand towers.

This is the center of  Marelahe, the Chief God of the Pagans. It is surrounded by the ruins of seven temples built in worship of the Sun, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. Syriac inscriptions of an amazing clarity adorn a cave and two rock carvings on top of the “Holy Hill” that rises above Sogmatar.

We stroll through a village that is nearly empty.

For years, archeological protection has stopped any new construction inside the community; whilst preserving the heritage of Sogmatar it is also gradually depopulating the town: the old buildings are often unfit as living quarters. We settle down for our first Arab homestay. It is run by the father of our guide Hussayn, Halil Ibrahim. Yet another namesake of Abraham.

The following morning we explore a new route connecting Sogmatar to another protected enclave in the desert, Shuayb City, and then move southwards, 15 km from the Syrian border, to walk around the ruins of ancient Harran.

Here the world of pagan worship that Abraham rebelled against fuses with the order of monotheism. For centuries, the two existed side by side; a place of religious tolerance where one of the world’s first universities was founded. It is from Harran that Abraham starts his long quest, a walk that spans across the entire region to places such as Damascus, Jerusalem, Nablus, Beersheva, Egypt and Mecca. Abraham as the first pilgrim, the first backpacker, the first long-distance walker.