On the heads of giants

A date with history and a stirring sunset take Marianne Jacques on a rugged journey to an ancient site etched in stone.

SITTING in a packed, airless minivan, we bump over potholed roads through dusty mountain passes. In the back seat, laughing women clad in headscarves pass around biscuits and soft drink. A man leans out of the front passenger window, whooping and swinging a Kurdish scarf through the air.

The van driver asks me to marry him, for the third time today, to shrieks of laughter and cheers of "No" from the other female passengers. All the while the whole van is singing along with a Turkish disco version of Eye of the Tiger. Perhaps not your average tourist memory of Turkey but then Mount Nemrut lies a little off the radar of the well-worn coastal tourist route.

A World Heritage site, Mount Nemrut is in Adiyaman province in south-central Turkey. Images of its carved-stone heads gazing over the sun-scorched mountains are recognisable from countless tourist brochures and postcards.

Difficult to reach without your own transport, Mount Nemrut is best visited on an organised day trip from the nearby cities of Kahta and Adiyaman, or even from Goreme in Cappadocia. Such tours are easy to book locally and allow you to take in an impressive array of sights along the way, as well as bringing the opportunity to mix with Turkish tourists eager to share insights on their country as they discover a new part of it for themselves.

It is with much laughter, and narrowly escaping a betrothal, that we make our first stop of the day, at Cendere Bridge, to stretch our legs and find respite from the heat. The second-century Roman bridge straddling the cool mountain waters of the Cendere River is a popular picnic spot and has the festive air of a family barbecue.

It is here that I wish for the first time in my life that I was male. While the local men strip to their underwear for a cooling swim in the river, the women keep their modesty by wading in up to their knees, or retreating to the cool of the nearby cliff-face overhang. Trying to be respectful of social mores, I wade into the river fully clothed and am presented with a slice of watermelon by a young boy and invited to join in the children's pip-spitting competition.

After our dip, we head up the road to Yeni Kale. Perched atop a jagged cliff and overlooking a ravine, this 13th-century castle is a maze of stone caverns, crumbled battlements and tumbledown staircases. Light fills its narrow corridors through gaping holes in the walls and walking along the winding fortified pathways, it takes some self-control to refrain from playing at sword fighting or pretending to storm an enemy stronghold.

Our last stop before we reach the mountain peak brings us refreshments and shelter from the late-afternoon heat in a shady mountain tea house. An aged woman, body stooped as she serves us our tea on the terrace, shows me how to drink the strong, bitter brew with a sugar cube clenched between my teeth, so it slowly dissolves as I drink. From where we sit, the 2050-metre peak of Mount Nemrut is visible and we are keen to reach our final destination before the waning sun sets.

A small ticket office and visitors' centre mark the point where we leave our van and pay a small admission fee. From here you can either walk the 500 metres or so up the rocky path to the site or, if you dare, ride to the summit on one of the ragged-looking donkeys that ply the route.

The site was built as a shrine by Antiochus I, who ruled the Kommagene empire in the Ist century BC. It comprises two terraces - one facing east and one west - and each containing seven stone statues: Apollo, Zeus, Fortuna, Hercules and Antiochus himself, flanked by an eagle and a lion for protection.

Each statue stands eight to 10 metres high. Following the end of the Kommagene empire, the site was abandoned and earthquakes and the force of time separated heads from bodies, scattering them down the mountain. The site was "rediscovered" in 1839 and subsequent archaeological work led to the heads being moved back to the terrace and arranged at the feet of their bodies.

In recent years, the site has become popular at sunrise and sunset, when you can sit among the guillotined heads and watch the sun dance over the horizon. The hands-on nature of the site allows you to walk freely among the statues, closely examine their faces and pose for photographs. The rock mound between the terraces swarms with children trying to scramble to the top, giving the feeling that we have entered an antiquarian playground.

As the sun sinks, we gather at the western terrace to share biscuits and wine, with jokes being translated from Kurdish to Turkish, then Turkish to English - the laughter needs no translation. Then all is hush, with gasps and cameras poised as the sun melts into the distant hills, sending a blaze of oranges and pinks dancing across their peaks.

A warm glow caresses the chiselled features of the stone faces staring resolutely towards the horizon. As the shadows grow longer, a sharp chill sets into the air and it is time to depart for the bumpy journey back to the city.

I smile at the prospect of hearing The Final Countdown Turkish-disco style, the half-dozen further marriage proposals from our driver - and because I know the Turkish girls have a stash of chocolate and they like to share.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies daily to Istanbul via Frankfurt with return fares from $2507. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.

Regular coaches run from Istanbul's Main Bus Terminal to Kahta (20hr). Tickets can be bought at ticket office 19 in the terminal, from 60 lira ($38).

Staying there

The basic-but-clean Kommagene Hotel Camping has doubles from €15 ($20) a night. 81 Mustafa Kemal Caddesi, Kahta, +90 416 725 9726.

A more upmarket option is the three-star Zeus Hotel, with doubles from €45 a night. 20 Mustafa Kemal Caddesi, Kahta. +90 416 725 5694, zeushotel.com.tr.

Touring there

Kommagene Tours and Travel, 1 Mustafa Kemal Caddesi, Kahta, runs daily sunset tours of Mount Nemrut and surrounding sites from March to October. Tours depart Kahta at 1pm, returning at 9.30pm, and cost 65 lira a person. +90 532 200 3856, nemruttours.info.

Further information

tourismturkey.org, goturkey.com.