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Kommagene: The History

Kommagene: The Forgotten Kingdom

The kingdom of Kommagene was situated in the south east of Turkey, at the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in Adiyaman.

"Oaks and plane trees cover the hillsides. The valleys are full of fig, olive, walnut and pomegranate trees, grapevines and oleanders, nowhere do the corn fields give such an abundant harvest. " You can hardly imagine that this description was given less than one hundred years ago, by a German who travelled through this region. If you read his report, it seems as if he describes paradise. Indeed, it is said that here once blossomed the garden of Eden.

Today, this land resembles little its former paradise. Most of the trees have been felled and goats are busily eating away the last vestiges of vegetation. Nevertheless, irrigation, presently undertaken, will work miracles, and efforts are undertaken to refoster the land. The soil is very fertile and silver mountain water sparkles from the numerous springs.

In the past, Kommagene was a very rich region known for its wealth of minerals and ores such as brown coal, gypsum, iron, gold and petroleum. A part of this richness has been re-discovered. In the sixties for example, an archeologist panned succesfully for gold in the Euphrates.

Another discovery has been petroleum. During the last few years there has been extensive drilling for crude oil. verywhere on the landscape the oil riggs of the Turkish Petrol Organisation (TPO) are multiplying, drilling for black gold.

But now, we have to travel back in time. Around 850 B.C. Kommagene appears for the first time in the annals of written history. According to the records of an Assyrian king, the population had to pay an annual tribute to him of gold, silver and the famous wood of the cedar trees. Apparently, the valuable cedar tree not only grew on the hillsides of the Lebanon in those days, but also in Kommagene. Kommagene became a satellite state of the Assyrians.

Around 700 B.C. a Kommagenian king rebelled against the Assyrians. The Assyrian king, Sargon, defeated him. Sargon has given us a vivid description of this rebel king : " He is a godless man, who does not fear the gods. He plots only bad things and is full of cunning." We may assume that Sargons' description is a little subjective. Sargon continues : " I took his wife, his sons, his daughters, his possessions, his treasures, and finally I took the population of his land and had them deported to the south of Mesopotamia (Iraq). Nobody escaped. The people of the south of Mesopotamia I transferred to Kommagene." As we see, the policy of deporting people was already excercised in those days. 

Around 600 B.C. the Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians. The last battle was fought at Samosata, a town which would become the future capital of Kommagene. Here, at the banks of the Euphrates the remains of the Assyrian army had united with the Egyptian army to withstand the Babylonians. The Babylonian king defeated the united forces.

The people of Kommagene saw, how in their turn the Babylonians were replaced by the Persians, around 550 B.C. and then the Persians by the Greek intruders under Alexander the Great.

Around 300 B.C. one of the heirs of Alexander the Great came into possession of the land. It was King Seleukos I Nicator, who founded the dynasty of the Seleucides. He is one of the Greek ancestors of the Kommagenian kings. Around 130 B.C. Kommagene became an independent kingdom.

King Mithridates I Kallinikos

Like many of the other small kingdoms of Asia Minor, Kommagene was a melting pot of people from east and west. They had different cultures, habits and spoke different tongues. They certainly did not feel united as one people. Family ties and bonds of blood were more important than belonging to the people of Kommagene. King Mithridates did a great deal to change this a ttitude.

For example, he organised each year in Kommagene, Olympic Games in honour of the ancestors. Those games could virtually be compared with the Olympic Games of the Greeks. In his younger years, King Mithridates was one of the participants, which made him popular amongst the Kommagenians. His skills won him many victories. As a result of his sporting achievements, Mithridates received the honorable name Kallinikos. This means literally 'He who triumphs beautifully'.

Mithridates married a Seleucid princess, named Laodike. They begat three daughters and after bearing their fourth daughter, they began to despair of ever having a son. This was very important, as without a son there was no heir to the throne, so the stability of the kingdom would be threatened. The joy and relief when Laodike bore a son was immense. He was given the name of the father of Laodike, Antiochus.

Mithridates was in need of help, for Kommagene was surrounded by powers which outnumbered Kommagene many times. Therefore Mithridates concluded a treaty with the gods. We do not know whether these gods were real or imaginary. Obviously it helped to protect his small kingdom and keep it independent.

Secondly this treaty softened the mutual discordance of his people. The population of Kommagene was a varied mixture of people, coming from different origins. They hardly felt that they were related to each other. However, by this treaty with the gods, there grew the feeling amongst them that they were a chosen people, favored by the gods and under their protection.

As a consequence of this, Mithridates could forge a link between the different population groups in his kingdom. To honour this treaty, Mithridates had built all over the country small sanctuaries, called temenos.

The temenos of King Mithridates were built on top of striking points in the landscape. From there you could always see the most important of them all, the sanctuary on top of holy Mount Nemrud. Each of these sanctuaries consisted of five stone slabs, depicting King Mithridates shaking hands with one of the gods.

Mithridates gave each of the five gods a Greek and a Persian name :

  1. Apollo/Mithras
  2. Artagnes/Herakles
  3. Zeus/Oromasdes
  4. Hera/Teleia
  5. Helios/Hermes

The Greek and Persian names of the gods meant that each Kommagenian, whether he had Greek or Persian ancestors, felt close to them. These stone slabs were known as steles. By these steles, Mithridates made everyone aware that through him alone, all of his subjects were under the protection of the gods. These temenos had to bear testimony of his treaty with the gods.

The five steles of King Mithridates I Kallinikos welcoming the Gods Apollo/Mithras, Artagnes/Herakles, Zeus/Oromasdes, Hera/Teleia and Helios/Hermes.

The 10th of Loos, the 14th of July was called the day of the "Manifestation of the Great Gods". It was also the day chosen for the coronation of Mithridates. Each year, on that particular day, all the citizens of Kommagene assembled at the small sanctuaries within reach of their village or town, to celebrate this occasion.

King Mithridates gathered together the nobles and other important men of Kommagene on top of Mount Nemrud. There, in the presence of hundreds of Kommagenians, the king received the representatives of the Great Gods. For the people of Kommagene this was the annual confirmation of their treaty with the gods.


King Antiochus I Theos

Antiochus, the son of King Mithridates, received an education from his parents which was a mixture of Greek and Persian. From his mothers side, queen Laodike, he descended from Alexander the Great. While from his fathers side, he descended from the Persian 'King of Kings', Darius I.

When Antiochus was still quite young, his father arranged a marriage for him with a Seleucid princess named Isias Philostorgos, 'the Beloved One'. Such a marriage had little to do with love, its purpose was purely political.

When Mithridates abdicated the throne in favor of his son, he stayed by his side. Together, they planned the sanctuary on top of Mount Nemrud. This was to be the spiritual centre of the treaty with the gods, for which Mithridates had lain the foundations.

As usual, Mithridates had a practical aim. It should become such an impressive monument, that it would give his subjects proof of the greatness of their treaty with the gods. As the Nemrud dominated the landscape, this proof could be seen by every Kommagenian from almost any place in Kommagene.

Antiochus had an idealistic aim. The cult of the treaty with the gods had to culminate in a new religion and Mount Nemrud was to become the centre. From Mount Nemrud his religion would radiate all over the civilised world. As the originator of this religion, he called himself Theos (God) directly after his coronation. A legend in his own mind !

For his father, Antiochus felt a deep respect, but his mother Laodike, he loved above all. He mentioned her specifically in various inscriptions, calling himself 'He who loves his mother'. He bestowed upon her the honorary name Thea (Goddess). Together with his mother he immortalised himself between the statues of the gods on Mount Nemrud. He, sitting at the left side of Zeus, as the king of Kommagene, Theos. She, sitting at the right hand of Zeus, as the mother of Kommagene, Thea.


Kommagene had an art tradition which was completely its own. It was an unique synthesis of Greek and Persian art. Antiochus stimulated the art in a special way. He gathered together at his court a group of artists and scientists. They were called Philoi, the 'Friends of the King'.

Under the reign of King Mithridates the art was still dominated by eastern influences. During the reign of Antiochus, the style became more naturalistic and less stylised. Antiochus himself, preferred the Greek culture. He called himself literally a 'Friend of Greeks and Romans'.

The statues on top of Mount Nemrud became the crowning glory of Kommagenian art. Here, east and west fused into total harmony. A beautiful example is the head of Antiochus at the West Terrace. Any superfluous detail that could possibly disturb the form of the statue has been avoided. There are no luxuriant beards, jewelry and other ornaments. In this way a harmonic tension has been realised in the carving of Antiochus. Even today the gazing head of Antiochus impresses the people by its timeless beauty.


Trade was an important source of income. The growing difficulties between the Romans and the Parthians hindered the profitable trade between east and west. The only independent state between both super powers, Kommagene, was an acceptable trading partner for the Romans as well as the Parthians. The Kommagenian traders could travel freely through the land of the Parthians. They brought among other things, exotic animals and spices from India and silk from China.

Antiochus could levy heavy tolls, as he controlled the passes of the Taurus Range as well as the crossings of the Euphrates river. Because of its wealth, Kommagene was not only a transit point but could afford to import costly goods as well.

The traders sold their valuable wares in Samosata to Roman traders and prosperous Kommagenian citizens. Under the reign of Antiochus, Samaosata became the centre of trade between the east and west. Here, Parthians, Kommagenians, Romans, Greeks and Arabs met.

War with Rome

After the Romans had obtained a foothold in Western Turkey, they captured one by one, the kingdoms of Asia Minor, Bythinia, Pisidia, Galatia and Cappadocia.

After Pergamum, they captured around 80 B.C. Bythinia and Pisidia. At the same time the Parthians reached the borders of Kommagene.

Around 70 B.C., the Romans destroyed their greatest enemy, the kingdom of Pontus. Next, the Romans overran the mighty ally of Pontus, the kingdom of Arm. Tocomplete their conquest, the Romans continued swiftly to the last independent kingdom, Kommagene. Like a steam roller, they invaded this small country.

In 69 B.C. the capital of Kommagene, Samosata, was besieged. Then the unexpected happened. The Roman war machine was stopped. To their horror, the Roman soldiers were ombarded with an alien substance, unknown outside Kommagene. A Roman historian Plinius recorded; "a soldier who is touched by it, burns with all his weapons". Obviously the fear caused by this weapon was tremendous.

Samosata could not be captured. There was a personal meeting between the Roman consul Lucullus and King Antiochus. We do not know what they discussed, but it resulted in the withdrawal of the Roman legions.

Still, the situation remained tense for Kommagene, as it was caught between two walls. On one side, the imperialistic, warlike Romans and on the other, the powerful realm of the Parthians.

Asia Minor 100 B.C.: Bythinia, Galatia, Cappadocia, Pisidia, Pontus, Arm, Seleucia, Kommagene, Parthia, Roma.

Asia Minor 80 B.C.: Bythinia, Pergamum, Galatia, Cappadocia, Pisidia, Pontus, Arm, Seleucia, Kommagene, Parthia, Roma.

Asia Minor 70 B.C.: Pontus, Arm, Seleucia, Kommagene, Parthia, Roma.

Asia Minor 60 B.C.: Kommagene, Parthia, Roma.

In 64 B.C. the Romans continued their conquests. The remnants of the Seleucid state were swept away and absorbed into the province of Syria. By this time Rome had subjected all the independent states of Asia Minor, except for Kommagene.

Kommagene even profited from the fall of the Seleucid state, by gaining a limited extension of territory. From the strategic position of Kommagene, it was obvious that sooner or later Rome had to conquer that land or halt its eastward expansion.

Therefore, Antiochus reinforced his ties with the Parthians by giving his daughter, Laodike, in marriage to the Parthian king. They begat a son named Pakoros. He was the favourite of his father and heir to the throne.

The wars in Asia Minor continued. In 53 B.C. the Parthians defeated the Romans and conquered Syria. Now, the subjected kingdom of Pontus felt strong enough to rebel against the Roman ursurper.

Julius Ceasar marched to Asia Minor and suppressed the rebellion. On the occasion of this victory, Ceasar spoke the famous words "I came, I saw, I conquered".

After the assassination of Julius Ceasar, the Roman empire was divided among his successors. Marcus Antonius received the east and Octavianus the west. Marcus Antonius held court at Tarsus, where his beloved Cleopatra kept him company. Even Julius Ceasar had succumbed to the beauty of the queen of Egypt.

Marcus Antonius defeated an army of the Parthians in 38 B.C. He killed Pakoros, the Parthian crown prince. His mother, Laodike and his father, the king of the Parthians, were full of grief. Antiochus felt compassion with his daughter and her husband for the loss of their son and wanted to help them.

When the survivors of the battle fled to Kommagene, Antiochus accorded them protection. He refused to yield the fugitives to Marcus Antonius. Instead, to avoid war, Antiochus offered the Roman 1000 talents. An amount equivalent to more than 25 tons of silver.

Marcus Antonius now saw a possibility to take possession of all the gold and silver of Kommagene, a land famed for its wealth. He refused the offer of Antiochus and demanded the entire treasure of Kommagene. Naturally, Antiochus did not feel inclined to agree.

Marcus Antonius, saw this as a grave insult by a petty local chieftain. He ordered his legions to invade Kommagene immediately. He himself stayed at the court of Tarsus in expectation of good tidings. In the meantime, he enjoyed the company of his beloved Cleopatra.

Unfortunately, the good tidings did not arrive. On the contrary, he received a message that the siege of Samosata was at a standstill. Marcus Antonius was forced to say farewell to the good life at the court. He left Tarsus and took personal command of his legions. To avoid failure, King Herod of Judea was summoned to his aid. Marcus Antonius felt confident that the job would soon be done.

Maybe this has happened : As the siege of Samosata continued the Kommagenian soldiers were amassing in the outlying districts of Kommagene. Loyal to the call of their king, every civilian who could wield a weapon reported for duty.


When their numbers were sufficient, they began an attack on the supply columns of Marcus Antonius. Soon the Romans were cut off from their supplies. Marcus Antonius had to send out his cavalry to re establish his provisions.

This was exactly what the military council of Kommagene had counted on. Now the time had come for the dreaded elite corps of Kommagene, the heavy armoured cavalry, to move in.

Horse and rider were protected by a heavy armour of black steel, which made them almost invincible. They numbered only a few hundred riders, but when they attacked, no enemy could stop them. This steel hammer was the pride of Kommagene.

In the mist of early morning they awaited the Romans. The horses nervously kicked the ground with their hooves. Suddenly, the shrill sound of the trumpets rent the silence. On that signal the riders advanced. It was too late for the surprised Romans to retreat. Hastily, the Roman cavalry closed their ranks to withstand the first blow.

When the trumpets sounded a second time, the Kommagenian riders glided into gallop. The earth trembled. Like rolling thunder they approached the Romans. With a tremendous blow the heavily armoured riders clashed onto the Romans. The light armoured Romans were felled like skittles. The Kommagenian riders ploughed through their ranks. Cold bloodedly, the disciplined Romans pulled themselves together. Counting on their far greater numbers, they tried to encircle the small iron force.

Again the trumpets sounded shrill. From behind the elite corps, like the wings of an eagle, two regiments of mounted archers swarmed out on both sides. A barrage of arrows was shot into the ranks of the Romans. Their light armour was insufficient protection against the piercing steel arrows and many of them were injured. While the heavily armoured cavalry continued to beat the Romans into the arms of the Kommagenian archers, the archers systematically shot them off their horses. Panic arose and the Romans broke their ranks. First they lost their heads and then their lives.

At the end of the day, Marcus Antonius had lost all his cavalry. Caught between the walls of Samosata and the Kommagenian cavalry, he was changed from the besieger into the besieged.

Whatever happened, Marcus Antonius was forced to relenquish the siege of Samosata. His ally, Herod, did not wait for the final outcome and had already returned to his kingdom, Judea. Empty handed, Marcus Antonius had to retreat. The magnanimous Antiochus gave him 300 talents to soften the blow. In exchange, Marcus Antonius had to deliver a renegade to Antiochus. Antiochus insisted on this, as he hated faithlessness and treachery.

The End of Kommagene

Shortly after these events, Antiochus died. Antiochus was interred in the sanctuary on the Nemrud, where his body was laid to rest in the tomb probably next to the tomb of his father.

The son of Antiochus, Mithridates II, succeeded him to the throne. Kommagene was no longer a match for the Roman empire. Under the reign of Mithridates II, Kommagene became a satellite state and finally a part of the province of Syria.

When the Parthian crown prince was slain in battle against the Romans, the sorrow of the king was so great that he abdicated. It was no comfort to him that Antiochus, the grandfather of the crown prince, was risking his kingdom by providing protection for the survivors of the defeated Parthian army.

The Parthian king was succeeded by one of his other sons. This son was merciless. He murdered everyone who could possibly threaten his throne. Laodike and her children were also assassinated.

Mithridates II transferred the body of his sister to Kommagene and buried her at the burial mound of Karakus (Black Bird). He placed the beautiful relief slab in memory of her. It shows his farewell to Laodike. From the inscriptions, we learn that Mithridates was very fond of her : "She was the most beautiful of all women..."

Mithridates built Karakus on the banks of the river Nymphaios. Also his mother Isias and his second sister Antiochis are buried here, together with Aka, the daughter of Antiochis. From the galleries of his summer residence, high above the dizzy depths of the ravine, he looked out over the green valley of the Nymphaios, at the striking mound of Karakus. In this way his beloved ones would always be close to him, even after their death.

His jealous brother, Antiochus II, tried to overthrow Mithridates II from his throne. For this, Antiochus II was adjucated by the Romans. The senate of Rome sentenced him to death and in 29 B.C. he was executed in Rome.

Kommagene became independent for the last time under King Antiochus IV. That was only for a short time. Antiochus IV was defeated by the Roman legions during the War of Kommagene in 71 A.D. The small army of Kommagene was disbanded. Its dreaded archers and heavily armoured cavalry were absorbed into the Roman army as the 'cohortes Comagenorum'.

To avoid any rebellion in the future, the Roman soldiers destroyed all the statues and buildings which recalled the earlier greatness of Kommagene. They demolished the sanctuary on holy Mount Nemrud. Kommagene died and the Nemrud began its long sleep, disturbed only by the howling of the mountain wind and the visit of a lost shepherd.

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