A Tale in Red: Sleeping with Selene and a Selcuk Cemetery

In 2011, on a scorching hot day, my journey took me through Tatvan to Ahlat. As I ventured along, I stumbled upon a cemetery, and its intriguing presence hinted at the historical treasures that awaited me in Ahlat. Eagerly, I made my way to the hotel on Lake Van’s shores. Though simple and rustic, the hotel offered a front-row seat to one of nature’s most magnificent spectacles—the moon gracefully reflecting its shimmering light upon the lake’s surface.

Ahlat is a town in Turkey’s Bitlis Province in the Eastern Anatolia Region. It is a place rich in history and cultural heritage. With a population of around 27,563 people, the town is predominantly inhabited by Kurds of the Bekiran tribe.

Situated on the northwestern shore of Lake Van, Ahlat offers breathtaking views of the picturesque lake. The town’s mayor, Abdulalim Mümtaz Çoban, works tirelessly to ensure the well-being and development of the community.

Ahlat’s history stretches back to ancient times when it was known by its Armenian name, Khlat or Chiat. Over the centuries, it witnessed the rise and fall of different rulers, including Arab governors, Armenian princes, and Arab emirs of the Qays tribe. The town’s strategic location made it an important stopover point on trade routes, attracting merchants and travellers alike.

During the 11th century, Ahlat came under the rule of the Seljuks, who bestowed control over the town to the Turkmen slave commander Sökmen el-Kutbî. The succeeding Shah-Armens (Ahlat-Shahs) made Ahlat their capital, leaving a lasting imprint on the town’s history.

In the following centuries, Ahlat experienced various shifts in power, coming under the control of the Ayyubids, the Kingdom of Georgia, and the Sultanate of Rum. The Mongol Empire eventually incorporated Ahlat into the Ilkhanate, with the Ilkhanid rulers minting coins in the town.

The Ottomans entered Eastern Anatolia in the early 16th century, gaining control of Ahlat under Sultan Selim I. However, the town remained a border district between the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire, leading to periods of alternating rule between the two powers. It was not until Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign that Ahlat became firmly incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.

During the 19th century, Ahlat changed governance, transitioning from local Kurdish chiefs to direct rule by the central Ottoman government. The population at the end of the 19th century was estimated at around 23700, with a majority of Muslims and a significant Christian Armenian minority.

Today, Ahlat is known for its rich heritage of historic tombstones left behind by the Ahlatshah dynasty, also referred to as the Shah-Armen or Ahlat-Shah dynasty. Efforts are underway to include these tombstones on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, recognising their cultural significance.

The Seljuk Square Cemetery Ruins are not just any burial ground; it is a mesmerising testament to the artistry and cultural richness of the region. Spanning an impressive area of 210,000 square meters, the cemetery, known as the Meydan Cemetery, is the third-largest Turkish-Islamic cemetery in the world.

Within the Meydan Cemetery, you will find a fascinating array of graves designated for specific groups of people. The Şahideli cist, Sandukali, and Akıt graves are reserved for scientists, artists, religious figures, and artisans. This unique categorisation reflects the significance attributed to various professions and societal roles within Ahlat’s history.

They are venturing deeper into the cemetery and exploring the intricate details of the tombstones themselves. On the east side of the headstones, you will discover the identity information of the deceased, providing a glimpse into their lives. Some monuments even reveal the profession and place of origin of the individuals laid to rest. This personal touch adds a layer of connection and humanity to the ancient stones.

But the west side of these tombstones genuinely captivates the eye. Prepare to be mesmerised by the intricate artwork and craftsmanship on display. The monuments are adorned with double-headed dragon motifs, reminiscent of Central Asian Turkish culture, as a powerful symbol of heritage and identity. Additionally, muqarnas decorations and geometric patterns grace the surfaces, showcasing the skill and creativity of the artists who carved them. These patterns create a visual feast for the senses, inviting you to appreciate the delicate beauty and attention to detail.

As you explore further, look at the inscriptions on the east side of the tombstones. These inscriptions credit the skilled artisans responsible for creating the headstones and often include verses from the Holy Quran, highlighting the importance of faith and spirituality in Ahlat’s history. The monuments are adorned with decorative elements such as palmettes, oil lamps, and textured triangles, adding depth and complexity to the overall design.

Walking among these ancient tombstones, you will feel a profound connection to the past, as if the spirits of the talented artisans and individuals they commemorate are still present. The Seljuk Square Cemetery Ruins in Ahlat offer a glimpse into the intricate tapestry of life, art, and faith that shaped the region’s history.

As I opened my eyes, a sense of tranquillity washed over me.  My time in Ahlat was brief but unforgettable. The scorching heat, the rustic hotel, the awe-inspiring view of the moon over Lake Van, and the mystical tales shared by Firat all contributed to a unique and magical experience. Ahlat had left an indelible mark on my heart. As I bid farewell to the cemetery and its mystical tree, I carried a piece of Ahlat’s spirit with me—a spirit that would forever evoke a sense of adventure and wonder whenever I thought of this extraordinary city on the shores of Lake Van. 

Our next stop wouldn’t be less exciting and full of adventure. Mount Nemrut.

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