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Behind The Shot: Journey To An Ancient Mountain

Mount Nemrud, Turkey

Photo By Chris Rainier

High in the Taurus Mountains in central Turkey lie the ancient burial grounds of the kings and queens of the Commagene Kingdom. Ever since I was a child, I had dreamed of going to these ancient lands and photographing the 2,000-year-old ruins found windswept on Mount Nemrud.

More than 40 years ago, after I had finished working for Ansel Adams as his photographic assistant, I began a lifetime adventure of searching out and photographing sacred sites around the globe. I call them “power points,” places that are either natural landscapes or religious spiritual sites where there is a presence of something powerful, something magical, an energy that evokes a life force that connects everything in the universe. However one describes it, I went in search of the sacred from Tibet to the Aborigine lands of Australia, from the icebergs of Antarctica to the volcanos of Iceland.

Over the years, I learned to be patient, to find the right light, the right moment to photograph these places. The famous photo poet Minor White once said, “Slow down until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” I took this to heart and often slowed down significantly and spent time in the land, learning the seasons, learning from the light, and eventually began to photograph many of the sites in the sublime silver-gray light of the full moon. I would design my whole travel experience to be somewhere powerful on the full moon.

These journeys took me to the Taj Mahal to experience this remarkable monument and its white marble facades shimmering in the moonlight, and to the Moai statues on Easter Island, and to spending the night in ancient Kiva sites in the Southwest desert of the United States. Adams observed that the quality of your image, whether photographing a person or a landscape, is in direct proportion to the quality of the relationship you have with the subject. I believe this to be paramount to my photography—to give myself the gift of spending time on the land, intimately feeling the power of place.

I dreamed of getting permission to travel to Mount Nemrud, but for many decades Turkey was hard to reach for foreigners. The opportunity finally happened last year as borders slowly began to open after the pandemic. Turkey lies at the crossroads of the East and West. I found it a remarkable country with stunning landscapes, kind and open people, and an ancient culture that was integral to the trade along the Silk Road connecting the Far East to Europe.

I arrived in Turkey before the full moon and spent several days scouting the ancient ruins for the perfect spot that would be bathed in a mysterious light. On the day of the full moon, I spent the night making exposures, wanting to find the right balance of light to make the ruins shimmer with a sense of sacredness—a sense of mystery. With the completion of this image, my journey into the sacred was winding to a conclusion.

After several hundred images, thousands of miles and decades of exploration, it was time to publish the photographs in a book and gather my own thoughts along with the essays of some of the world’s great thinkers and experts on the meaning of “sacredness.” My book, SACRED, will be published in October 2022 by Earth Aware Editions. 

See more of Chris Rainier’s work at

Canon EOS 5DS R, Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM, Gitzo tripod. Exposure: 1/30 sec., ƒ/18, ISO 1000.