Visiting The Seljuk Tombstones Of Ahlat – Haunting Beauty In Eastern Turkey

Okay, so where are we up to? We showed you the map of our route from Patnos to Tatvan on our little mini road trip. Our first stop was Adilcevaz with the centuries old mosque and beautiful views across Van Gölü, and then it was time to press on towards Ahlat. And the Seljuk tombstones of Ahlat are the subject of this post.

Ahlat Tombstones, Bitlis

If you remember, we’d just got back from a longer East Turkey road trip the day before and we were all mildly fatigued – so this little jaunt along the lake shore was all about chilling out and enjoying some scenery along the way.

So Much To See, So Little Time

There’s much more to Ahlat than you’re going to see in this post. According to some write-ups we’ve seen, Ahlat is worth a whole day of your time, so perhaps we did it an injustice by only sticking around one site for an hour or so. But then that’s what happens when you haven’t got the luxury of time to play with, and what we saw was definitely memorable enough, anyway…

Ahlat, Lake Van, East Turkey

Entering the cemetery at Ahlat on the shores of Van Gölü

13th Century Tombstones

Because Ahlat is well known for its graveyard. This isn’t any ordinary graveyard, however. The tombstones in this cemetery are said to date back to the 13th century, to the Seljuk period.

They’re set over a sprawling, grassy landscape. The first springtime wildflowers were peeping through when we were there. New life after the long harsh winters suffered by this area of Eastern Turkey.

Perfect Setting

The tombstones are surrounded by distant hills to one side and  overlooked by majestic Süphan Dağı (Turkey’s second highest mountain) to another side. The ripples of Lake Van lap the shoreline opposite the entrance. No, this is not a bad setting…

Ahlat Tombstones, Lake Van, East Turkey

Tombstones in the cemetery at Ahlat

Primary Evidence

The Ahlat tombstones are all beautifully engraved – some more preserved than others. These taller, more intricately carved stones in the photo above obviously belong to more prominent people. According to the information board, these are the tombs of the Muslim judges.

Rumi patterns and Arabic calligraphy provide both the primary historical evidence and the aesthetics. And – rightly so, you have to think – the craftsmen who carved these tombstones were also respected for their work. They got to ‘sign’ the tombstones. These were designed by ‘Üvey’s son, Ali.’

Mind-Blowing

But do you know what? We’re history lovers. We read. We visit historic sites. I have a minor armchair obsession with archaeology. But east Turkey just blew our minds. While we’re gazing at these haunting tombstones of Ahlat, none of us are really concentrating on the historical detail of what we’re witnessing.

Ahlat and Süphan Dağı, East Turkey

Ahlat and Süphan Dağı

For so many year, we’ve read about the springtime wildflowers around Van Gölü. And now, here we are on the shores of the lake, in spring, and our feet are sinking in a vast carpet of colourful buds. Snow-covered Süphan Dağı watching over us. A constant presence. And these monuments are springing forth from the meadowland at a whole host of weird and wonderful angles.

All To Ourselves

Yet, apart from the odd crow sitting atop a tombstone, we’re the only three people here. Everything about east Turkey is just so overwhelming that the history is something to read at leisure another time. When you’re actually in its presence, face to face, you just want to try to take all in and appreciate where you are. In the moment.

Ahlat Cemetery & Süphan Mountain, East Turkey

Ahlat Cemetery with Süphan Dağı in the background

And just as we’re feeling like three tiny beings in a huge, beautiful empty world, two moving dots appear on the horizon. Eventually, as the dots get closer, we realise these dots are on pushbikes. They’re kids on pushbikes and they’re heading our way…fast!

Self-Appointed Ahlat Tour Guides

Ohhh, joy. Peace over with as they abandon their bikes on the ground next to our distant car and come hurtling towards us. They spot our friend is Turkish and set about impressing their knowledge upon her whilst also providing credentials.

“Abla, abla, we can tell you all about these tombstones. And we know everything. We won a gold medal at school for being able to remember everything about them. We’ll tell you all about them, abla.”

Ahlat Selçuk Cemetery, East Turkey

Ahlat Selçuk Cemetery

And they do indeed set about telling ‘abla’ all about the history of the tombs…with gusto! The smaller of the two kids keeps trying to butt in – but there’s no way the taller one’s gonna let that happen. Oh no, he’s on a mission. We’re all automatically heading back towards the car, slowly, as our friend’s history lesson continues. She relays bits back to us.

Local Knowledge

“They’re saying the tombs which are lying down belonged to the women and the men’s ones are standing.”
“And do they sound convincing,” we ask. “Do they know their stuff?”
“No idea if it’s all true but it’s a brilliant spiel,” she replies.

And me and Barry are quietly chuckling, and the two kids, one on each side of our friend (who is a teacher in these parts) continue their story. They must have binoculars somewhere because we’ve got no idea where they popped up from.

More Money, Please

We reach the car, get in and our friend passes them 5 TL through the window. They look a bit miffed by this – obviously they think their knowledge doesn’t come cheap. Wonder if the taller, more forthright kid shared the 5 TL with his sidekick…? Not our concern. I put the car in reverse, pull out of the car park and we’re now continuing along the road to the town of Tatvan.

Ahlat Tombstones, Bitlis: Useful Information

  • As we said above, there is more to the town of Ahlat than we’ve shown here.
  • At the car park entrance, there is a small museum which is closed on Mondays – the day we were there.
  • Entrance to the site is free (May 2013). It has been being excavated by Professor Recai Karahan of Yuzuncu Yıl University in conjunction with the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry since 2011.
  • Along with Köyceğiz in the Muğla Province, Ahlat was awarded Cittaslow status in March 2019. This means its way of life should be preserved for years to come. 
  • The tombstones of Ahlat are on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. Visit our page for UNESCO sites in Turkey that have been awarded World Heritage status.

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Comments

  1. . . another thoroughly enjoyable read – it’s on the list next time we are over there.

    • A really perfect setting and we didn’t see the main tomb, even.So much to see around here and even though we were there fr a lot longer than we expected, we feel like we’ve only seen a tiny smidge of east Turkey.

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