Ahlat, Sultan Alp Arslan’s military base, can be considered an outdoor museum with its unique tombstones. Ahlat has numerous structures (mosques, tombs, graves, bridges, baths and aqueducts) that have witnessed the passage of time, such as a Seljuk graveyard, a castle, Hasan Padişah’s tomb, Emir Bayındır’s tomb, Sheik Necmettin’s tomb, Erzen Hatun’s tomb, the İskender Pasha Mosque and Bayındır Bridge.
Urartian roots, Seljuk and Ottoman Heritage
While it is named after Urartian King Lat, Ahlat contains numerous works of art and architecture from the Seljuk and Ottoman empires. Legend has it that King Lat, ruling the territory near Lake Van, was badly wounded during an attack against the city by the Med. The king’s daughter cried for her father, mourning and shouting: “Ah! Lat. Oh, dear Lat!” until the Med conquered the city. When the Urartian king died, this city he loved very much was named after him. The legend also claims that the Urartian people, the oldest inhabitants of the city, called it “Halads” while Armenians referred to it as “Shaleat,” Syriacs “Kelath,” Arabs “Hil’at” and the Persians and Turks called it “Ahlat.”
Introduction to Islam
The city’s inhabitants were introduced to Islam during the time of Omar, the second caliph. Eyad bin Ghanem, who conquered Jazira, also conquered Ahlat, making it part of the Islamic state. The tombs located at the entrance of the city, particularly that of Abdurrahman Gazi, are among the prominent works of architecture that stand out as symbols of the city’s Muslim identity. Abdurrahman Gazi’s tomb and the historic mosque near it are located on a green patch of land covered with roses on a hilltop with a vantage point over Lake Van, hinting at the richness of civilization in the district.
Starting in 1040, Ahlat served as a place of call for Turkmens arriving in Anatolia. The conquest of Anatolia started in Ahlat. In 1054, arriving from Ahlat, Tuğrul Bey blockaded Malazgirt but failed to conquer it. Under the rule of Sultan Alp Arslan, Ahlat served as a military outpost for the Seljuk military campaigns into Anatolia. Sultan Alp Arslan conquered Malazgirt with the help of Ahlat. According to historian Ibn al-Azraq, the inhabitants of Ahlat who lent support to Alp Arslan in the Malazgirt war returned from the war with rich war spoils, and the city was ruled by governors appointed by Alp Arslan from that time.
Tombstones that stopped the Russian army
History textbooks write that more than 2,000 people from Ahlat died during World War I. During and after the war, the people of Ahlat were frequently attacked by Russians or Armenians, and in dire straits, they migrated to other cities. At a time when World War I was being fought fiercely, the Russian army proceeded toward Ahlat. One evening, the Russian troops came close to the city and took up positions at the entrance of Ahlat. However, they were stunned by what they saw in the darkness of that evening. A large army was standing in front of the Russians without feeling the need to hide themselves. At the order of the Russian commander, Russian soldiers started a fusillade. But not a single soldier from the Turkish army moved to seek shelter. Despite the shower of bullets, they stood their ground. The Russian commander repeated his order to attack, with no visible effect. As night fell, the Russian army decided to stop firing and wait for the morning, but they were shocked by what they saw the next day. What stopped the big Russian army was nothing but tombstones, each taller than an ordinary person.
The tombstones, about 3 meters in height, are still there, as if the symbols of a seal impressed on the stones from a grandiose culture and civilization. In the graveyard of Ahlat, one gets the impression that the souls of the people who once had their name heard throughout the world with their works and services have haunted these tombstones. The Arabic inscriptions on these stones, each a wonderful work of art, are still vivid.
Ahlat was the first Turkish outpost, opening the doors of Anatolia to the Turks. “The mosques, tombs, the Seljuk graveyard, the bridges, the baths and the aqueducts in the city were built by our ancestors. They still stand erect, even in our time. Ahlat is the living witness to the civilization Turkey established in Anatolia at least 1,000 years ago. A museum will be built in Ahlat, and a cultural center building will soon be commissioned,” Bitlis former governor says.
Ahlat is an important district both in terms of its past and its natural assets. Ahlat’s mayor describes Ahlat as the door of Anatolia and the seal of Turkishness. Experts and historians have expressed agreement that large-scale projects should be implemented in order to promote Ahlat and the rich civilization of this city to the world.
First published in September 2009