We had not come to eastern Turkey to see the city of Van, Tuşba, the Muradiye Falls or Akdamar Island, with their ancient legends, fascinating history and scenic beauty. Instead, leaving them all behind we headed for Ahlat.
Only Lake Van remained our faithful companion as we drove on, looking out onto its magical beauty. Referred to as the ‘sea’ by local people, Lake Van spans the province of Bitlis to the west and Van to the east. Ahlat lies on its western shore between the towering mountain of Nemrut to the southwest and Süphan to the northeast. Behind the town stretches the plain of Ahlat. Mount Nemrut is the last of Turkey’s volcanos ever to erupt, and it was one of its ancient eruptions which created Lake Van. The flowing lava petrified to form a natural dam, behind which the waters collected to form Turkey’s largest lake. In the crater of Mount Nemrut itself is Lake Nemrut, also a record holder as Turkey’s deepest lake.Ahlat is famed for its Seljuk period mausoleums, whose magnificent architecture and stone carving have led historians to describe it as the land of the Seljuk renaissance. These tombs number among the greatest monuments of early Turkish civilisation in Anatolia.
The history of this region can be traced back to the 15th century BC. It was ruled in turn by the Assyrians, Urartians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, Seleucids, Parthians and Alatosians, to be followed by the Byzantines, Abbasids and diverse principalities. Ahlat, anciently Hilat, changed hands frequently, and was the scene of countless uprisings and invasions. The Seljuk Turks took Ahlat in 1093, and ruled here until 1230. This was followed by more centuries of upheaval, which lasted until Ahlat became part of the Ottoman Empire after the Battle of Çaldıran in 1514. So Ahlat is a town which has seen many peoples come and go, and survived periods of prosperity and adversity.Two hours after setting out from Van our coach arrived in Tatvan, where we halted briefly. The mood of exploration was upon us, and each of the villages and towns with their own distinct character that we had passed through had beckoned us to stay and discover them. In Tatvan we were almost tempted to remain overnight, but as the blue sky was concealed by lowering clouds we decided to carry on to our final destination of Ahlat without delay. During the 45 minute journey to Ahlat we conversed excitedly. We had heard so much about it, but none of us had ever been there before. On our arrival we were met by Hasan Uludağ, director of the town’s guest house for teachers, which since the Selçuk Hotel was closed for renovation, was for the moment the only place to stay in Ahlat. We spent four nights there.
The next morning we set out to see the renowned mausoleums, known as kümbet, nineteen of which are scattered over the area. Some stand by the road, some at the edge of fields, others in peoplsre gardens or on hilltops. These centuries old buildings are among the finest examples of Seljuk architecture, and the final resting places of many eminent figures of the period. Most of the kümbets have a square base above which is a polygonal drum supporting a cylindrical body, covered by a conical roof with an interior cupola. A few, such as that of Şeyh Necmeddin, are square. One of the most distinctive kümbets is that of Emir Bayındır, encircled by short columns linked by arches. Among those most renowned for their ornate carving are Usta Şagirt Kümbet (Ulu Kümbet) dated 1273, the Hasan Padişah Kümbet and Double Kümbets dating from around the same time, the Hüseyin Timur Kümbet (1279) and Bugatay Aka Kümbet (1281).As we went from one to the other, we felt as if we had travelled back in time. Most had richly decorated portals, carved in relief with dragons, geometric and floriate motifs, and inscriptions.
The Seljuk graveyard at Ahlat is another extraordinary sight. Here the graves are marked not by kümbets, but by great stones 2 metres in height, known locally as akıt. Like the kümbets, the stone carving on these tombstones is remarkable, turning the cemetery into an openair museum. No two are alike, and for hours we wandered from one to the other.On the days that remained to us we visited the ancient ruined city, the Ottoman castle whose construction commenced during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) and was completed during the reign of his son Selim II (1566-1574), Ahlat Museum and other sights.hlat is a town with a population of over ten thousand which sprawls along its 5 kilometre long main street, Sanayi Caddesi. Seated on small stools outside the coffee houses and shops along here we got to know the town’s modern inhabitants over our glasses of strong tea. Behind the main street are the charming one and two storey houses built of local Ahlat stone, and almost buried in green foliage. Each house has a large garden planted with mainly apricot, cherry, walnut and plum trees, and surrounded by a wall of the same stone. As we wandered around we were offered fruit by the women, who spend their lives behind these walls.The economy of Ahlat is based on farming and animal husbandry, but it is also famous still for its stone and stone masons. As well as the Ahlat stone, pumice is quarried in the region. With its spectacular setting on Lake Van, Mount Nemrut, fascinating historic monuments, and friendly inhabitants Ahlat more than repaid our curiosity.
We ended our sightseeing with a visit to Lake Nazik, accompanied by local journalist Mehmet Ali Köprücü. Like Lake Van this was also formed by a lava dam. The views were superb, and we did not return until we had watched the sun set over the beautiful landscape. The exhilaration of seeing new places and making new friends was now mingled with the sadness of departure, but we were taking with us wonderful memories of Ahlat.