In the book by Sarkis Arutyunyan “Armenian Mythology”

…Stone piles – the subjects of legends about the shepherd and his flock – are associated with various hills and elevations of Armenia. Similar legends about petrified camels and their herder are primarily associated with two famous peaks: Masis and Nemrut, and the hills and cliffs surrounding them.

The legend of the camels that turned to stone on Mount Nemrut is told in several versions. In N. Sarkisyan’s version, a tyrant king named Nemrut, who ruled over vast southern regions, ascended to the peak of Mount Nemrut.

There, at a tremendous height, he founded his palace so that everyone would acknowledge him as a god. Herds of camels brought construction materials to the mountain’s peak, primarily sand from the shores of Lake Van near Datvan. The magnificent structure amazed onlookers.

Climbing onto the roof of the newly built palace, Nemrut aimed his bow at the sky to kill God and take His place. Seeing the king’s arrogance, God took a large fish from the sea, raised it, and held it in the air over Mount Nemrut.

The arrow struck the fish, blood splattered down, and Nemrut began convincing everyone that he had killed God. Enraged, God sent lightning bolts, which petrified the camel herds on the spot, and Nemrut, with his new palace, sank into the ground. From this spot on the ground, water began to gush, erasing all memory of him.

In the next version, recorded by Bense, King Nemrut began constructing a vast fortress reaching the heavens on the namesake mountain. Witnessing this audacious endeavor, God unleashed a fierce storm, caused an earthquake, and destroyed the fortress.

One of the fortress stones reached as far as Urfa, raising so much dust upon falling that light dimmed in the city, hence the saying, “Your dust rises to Urfa.” The caravan of camels carrying stones and sand for continued construction turned to stone.

In the third version recorded by the author, Nemrut was an idolater. He transported soil on camels to pile up a mound reaching the heavens to challenge God. By God’s command, the camels turned to stone. From a distance, they appear as camels, but up close, they are clearly rocks. Having ascended the hilltop, Nemrut sank into the ground. This hill is Mount Nemrut.

In the version recorded by G. Srvandzyants, the petrified camels are associated with Bel. The idol-worshipping king Bel, with a large army, waged war against the Armenian king. The latter, with God’s help, killed Bel, removed the top of Mount Nemrut, made a tandoor (a type of oven) in its place, hung the body of his adversary there, and burned it.

By God’s will, the fire turned into water, the ashes sank into the ground so that the wind would not scatter Bel’s remains. Out of fear, the people and Bel’s camels turned to stone. According to Srvandzyants, these black stones are located “from the village of Datvan across the borders of Djrhor to the plain towards Nemrut,” and “locals call them camels and herders of Bel.”

In the mentioned four versions, we see the same legendary event – the transformation of camels and their herders into stone. In the first three versions, Nemrut is a foreign tyrant king or idolater who builds on Mount Nemrut or where the mountain once stood, a palace, fortress, or hill to reach the heavens, compare himself to God, or confront Him. In all three versions, God punishes Nemrut with death, destroys his construction, and turns the camels to stone.

Nemrut is the biblical Nimrod, the grandson of Ham, son of Cush. “… He began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Genesis 10:8-9). The Bible states that he reigned in Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh, i.e., in Mesopotamia.

In Jewish traditions, Nimrod is portrayed as rebelling against God, an adversary of God, who rallied his entire nation against Jehovah, waged war against other nations, was a zealous idolater, and led the construction of the Tower of Babel, also called the “House of Nimrod.”

In Muslim mythology, Nemvrod is depicted as a tyrant. Failing to construct the Tower of Babel, he ascends to the heavens in a box carried by four eagles. When the earth vanishes from sight, Nemvrod fires arrows toward the sky.

Archangel Gabriel (Jibrail) returns these arrows smeared in blood. Nemvrod believes he has wounded God. The angel offers him a chance for redemption, but Nemvrod challenges God to hand-to-hand combat.

However, Nemvrod’s people are dispersed by clouds of mosquitoes. One mosquito enters Nemvrod’s nostril and torments him for forty years. The tyrant only feels relief when a hammer strikes an anvil (italicized by the author).

The places highlighted in italics demonstrate the commonality between Armenian legends about Nemrut, Jewish and Muslim traditions about Nimrod-Nemvrod. The most significant connection is the latter’s close association with the Tower of Babel, as the leader of its construction, which was named after him.

In Armenian traditions, the construction of a palace, fortress, or an earthly mound reaching the heavens are variants of the Tower of Babel’s construction, associated with one of the peaks of Armenia, Nemrut.

Just as the Tower of Babel is destroyed by Divine power (or, according to the Bible, remains unfinished due to the confusion of languages), the construction of Nemrut is destroyed, and he himself perishes.

The historical basis for the legend of the Tower of Babel’s construction is believed to be the multi-storied temple to the god Marduk in Babylon with its tall tower (H. Gunkel) or the high ziggurat temples (R. Koldewey, A. Parrot).

The historical basis for the tale of Nemrut’s palace or fortress could be the magnificent temple with giant stone statues, built in the 1st century BC on the eponymous mountain by the King of Commagene, Antiochus I, which has remained in ruins to this day (a second mountain with the same name, Nemrut, is located in present-day Turkey near modern-day Adiyaman – editor’s note).

It’s crucial to note that the construction of the Tower of Babel, through the name of its builder Nimrod-Nemvrod, became associated with Mount Nemrut and was localized in Armenia. Even in local Armenian dialects, the name Nemrut turned into a negative epithet, expressing concepts such as “gloom,” “cruelty,” and “bitterness.” (see the phrase “նամրութ մարդ”).

According to the storyteller Murad Kubadyan (Sukiasyan) from the village of Tsakh in Khlat, the legendary Nemrut was an unattractive man, which is also one of the meanings of the mentioned epithet. Folk etymology fully aligns with the negative essence of the mythical image.

Some researchers believe the name Nimrod-Nemvrod derives from the name of the Sumerian-Akkadian god of war and hunting, Ninurta.

This name was adopted by the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I, who conquered Northern Mesopotamia, i.e., territories south of Lake Van, hinted at in N. Sarkisyan’s version.

One can conclude that the Nemrut from Armenian traditions and the Semitic Nimrod-Nemvrod-Ninurta (legendary or historical) are identical in their deeds and trace back to the legend from Mesopotamia.

Already M. Khorenatsi identified Nemvrod with Bel: “I say that he who bears the name of Cronus and Bel is Nebrot”, “… Nebrot, that is, Bel.” M. Abegyan considered this historian’s statement to be an author’s assumption that had no factual basis and was not found in the sources used by Khorenatsi.

As we have already seen, in the fourth version of the tale recorded by G. Srvandztyants, the camels, petrified near Mount Nemrut, belong to Bel. This plot, of course, differs from the others; it can be considered a distant and abbreviated version of the legend about Hayk and Bel, without mentioning the former’s name. M. Abegyan rightly highlights here the transformation of camels into stone and the story of the formation of a lake at the top of Nemrut as the most significant elements.

Let’s consider the connection of the tales of Nemrut with legends about a petrified shepherd (driver) and his flock (caravan of camels). In both cases, the scene and its consequences are associated with mountains and their peaks. However, in the first case, the main character becomes the owner of the camels (Nemrut, Bel) and not their driver.

The confrontation of the character (shepherd, camel driver, Nemrut) with a saint or God manifests in various forms and reaches different degrees.

This includes reducing the number of animals initially promised as a sacrifice, replacing them with unclean animals, refusing Christ or an angel’s request, betraying the saints (Saint Barbara, hermit Gregory), desecrating a drinking water source, and ultimately rebelling against God.

Regarding punishment in the legends about Nemrut, the main character does not turn into stone but falls underground, which gets flooded, or the water covers his ashes in a furnace.

To fall underground, to be at the bottom after being flooded – this is typical of the fate of the dragon, the opponent of the storm god. The mentioned motif indicates that we are dealing with one of the variants of ancient storm myths.

There’s another similar motif – Nemrut’s attempt to reach the heavens is akin to dragons’ attempts, using storm clouds during a storm, to rise from the bowels of the earth and gorge to the sky, to swallow the sun.

The fish, held by God in the heavens in the path of Nemrut’s arrows, apparently symbolizes the fish Lycaon-Leviathan, which protects and shields the Universe from the destructive forces of chaos.

The fish takes on the arrow (a symbol of destruction) directed towards the sky and God (universal order), preserving the harmony of the Universe.

Following this, the wrath of God ensues, with lightning from the heavens, terrible storms, and earthquakes (scenes of a stormy battle). These correspond to Armenian notions of the battle of the archangel Gabriel, armed with a flaming sword, along with other angels against dragons wanting to devour the sun.

As a result of this battle, angels bind the dragons and leave them near the sun, which burns them with its heat and turns them to ash, which then falls to the earth. In another version, the angels throw the dragons from the sky downward, where they crash into a mountain and shatter into small pieces.

The disappearance of God’s enemy beneath the ground, followed by water spreading across the earth, marks the conclusion of most storm legends. Similarly, the primary Indo-European storm myth concludes: after the victory of the storm deity over the snake (Dragon), its adversary drowns in the water spreading across the earth.

Thus, Nemrut’s battle against God is essentially the dragon’s fight, embodying the forces of chaos, against the storm deity. As for the name Bel, it likely stems from the Indo-European root bhel— to blow up or grow.

From this, the Greek-Balkan mythological Bellerophon is derived, known in the legend of killing Beller.

In several Balkan languages, traces of this name can be followed. For instance, in Albanian, bullar means reptile or snake, the same meaning is present in the Serbo-Croatian “blavor”, and in Romanian, balaur means dragon.

This allows us to conclude that originally the name Bellerophon meant “snake killer” or “dragon slayer”, referring to one of the heroes of storm myths.

In Celtic myths, names like Balor, Bolor, Balur, stemming from the same root, refer to a one-eyed monster giant. Its venomous eye only opens during battle, killing everything alive with its gaze.

The name of this monster is associated with stone elevations, for example, Balor ua Neit (Balor, grandson of Net).

In the Armenian language, from the same root comes the word blur (hill), bolor (whole, round), and bogh (plant bud). In our legends, Bel is closely related to hills and elevations. According to Khorenatsi, Hayk orders the “body of Bel… to be buried on an elevation”, and according to the tale recorded by Srvandztyants, the Armenian king “by the hand of God struck down Bel, took off the top of Nemrut, dug a pit at this spot, arranged a furnace, hung Bel inside and burned him.”

Recalling the circular shape of the furnace, the semantic kinship between the name Bel and the Armenian words blur and bolor becomes clear, based on the ancient and productive root bhel. From the word bolor derives bolorel— to twist, coil, surround, and complete a circle in the sense of finishing. These words are closely associated with reptiles, primarily with snakes.

One can recall other, non-linguistic facts. According to G. Srvandztyants, “At the top of Nemrut, there is still a tandoor with water. This water, descending beneath the mountain, forms the source of the Megraget River… The source of Megraget is a circular pool in the Mush valley near the city of Odz (in Armenian “Snake” – ed. note)…

Local residents tell legends about this source.” To demonstrate the connection between the tandoor on the peak of Nemrut and the source of Megraget, Srvandztyants cites a widespread tale of a shepherd’s staff that fell into the lake at the top of Nemrut and drowned in its waters.

Days later, the shepherd saw his staff in the hands of another shepherd, who found it near the source of Megraget. It’s noteworthy that the river Megraget originates from the water-filled “tandoor” (water basin) on the peak of Nemrut, and by its plain source is located in a city named Odz.

An underground channel connects the water springing from the place where Bel was burned, with the aforementioned city. The peak source, created by God’s decree and associated with the name Bel, gives birth to the plain source, associated with the word “Snake”.

Thus, both names are equated. Snakes at water sources are dragons that block the path of water, to whom young virgins are sacrificed. The storm hero or god kills such a dragon, liberates the swallowed maiden-Sun, and marries her.

In general, the shepherd and his flock symbolize in mythology a positive beginning, representing the king and the people, the spiritual shepherd and the flock, and the patriarch of the family, and its members. The shepherd also symbolizes a guardian, protector, provider, guide, and savior.

He also acts as a deity – for example, the ancient dying and resurrecting gods Dumuz-Tammuz and Attis. At the same time, the shepherd enters the Indo-European storm legend in a dual role – sometimes on the side of the storm deity, sometimes on the side of its adversary – the dragon or Satan.

Contemporary research argues that shepherds are antagonist deities, fighting for the flock. The images of the shepherd and the flock are also linked to the underworld and death. The shepherd acts as the king of this realm, shepherding the souls of the dead.

This duality of the shepherd’s image is also manifested in Armenian traditions; he is loyal to God and also acts as a renegade. Legends of petrified shepherds and flocks (camel drivers and caravans) are connected with this duality and confirm the original connection with storm myths.

“Bel, with his untamed and monstrously vast horde, akin to a raging torrent descending from a steep incline, hurried to reach the dwelling boundaries of Hayk, relying on the bravery and strength of his mighty men.

Then, a wise and thoughtful giant, with thick curly hair and sparkling eyes, hastily gathered his sons and grandsons, brave bowmen, few in number, and others under his command, reaching the bank of a lake with salty water teeming with small fish (Lake Van – translator’s note).

Gathering his warriors, he said to them, “When you encounter Bel’s hordes, try to approach the place where Bel stands surrounded by a crowd of brave men. Either we will die and our people will be enslaved by Bel, or we will showcase the skills of our fingers upon him, scatter the horde and achieve victory.”

Advancing many stages forward, they reached a flat area between the highest mountains. Taking a position on an elevation to the right of the water flow and looking up, they saw the chaotic crowds of Bel’s hordes spread out across the land in wild rapid movement, and Bel, silently and motionlessly standing surrounded by a dense crowd on a mound to the left of the water, as if on a watchtower.

Hayk identified in this group the armed detachment with which Bel had advanced ahead of the horde, surrounded by a few chosen ones in military gear, noticing that there was a significant distance separating him from Bel’s hordes.

Bel wore an iron helmet with shining pendants, copper plates on his back and chest, armor on his calves and arms; his waist was belted, on the left a double-edged sword, in his right hand a spear of incredible length, in his left a shield, with elite warriors on both sides.

Seeing Bel in heavy armor and elite men on his right and left, Hayk positioned Aramaneak with two brothers on the right, and Kadmos and two of his other sons on the left, for they were skilled with both the bow and the sword. He himself stood at the front, with the rest of the army positioned behind. Forming a triangular-like formation, he began to slowly advance.

When the giants of both sides met, their fierce clash sent a terrifying rumble across the land; they terrified each other with various methods of attack. Many mighty men from both sides were felled to the ground by the blade of the sword, and both sides remained undefeated in battle.”

“Faced with such an unexpected and questionable situation, King Titanid was horrified and, turning back, began to climb the same hill he had descended from.

He hoped to stay amidst the crowd until the entire army caught up and he could resume the attack. Seeing this, Hayk, armed with a bow, rushes forward approaching the king, tightly pulls back the bow, wide as a lake, and with a three-feathered arrow hits the breastplate; the arrow, piercing through between the shoulders, embeds itself in the ground.

Then the proud Titanid, crashing to the ground, breathes his last. Witnessing such an incredible feat of bravery, his horde scatters in all directions. Enough has been said about this.

On the site of the battle, Hayk constructs a dastakert and in honor of the victory in battle, he names it Hayk. For this reason, the region is now called hAyoTdzor (a region on the southern coast of Lake Van — editor’s note).

The hill where Bel fell with his brave warriors, Hayk named GerezmanK (grave — translator’s note), which is now pronounced as GerezmanakK. But the corpse of Bel, covered in herbs, Hayk, according to the chronicler, orders it to be carried to hArk (this historical region is usually located on the banks of the Aratsani River, north of Mount Nemrut — editor’s note) and buried on a hill, in sight of his wives and sons. Our country, named after our ancestor, is called Hayq.”

M. Khorenatsi

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