I finished my second glass of tea and walked to the stop from where the minibuses depart for Ahlat and Adilcevaz. The minibus left Tatvan just after 7.30am and I was in Ahlat’s cemetery not long after 8.15. The sun was shining and the visibility was perfect.
I had been to Ahlat before, but, during my earlier visit, had been so interested in the tombs and the fortifications which lie scattered far and wide across the surrounding countryside that the cemetery had not been examined with sufficient care. I was here to rectify the situation.
In the open space that lies behind a small museum is the famous Selcuk cemetery with about two or three hundred gravestones and small tombs. Many of the gravestones look superficially like Armenian khatchkars (Armenian for “stone crosses”), but, once you ignore their shape and height, you notice that all the carvings have an Islamic rather than a Christian character. Moreover, the inscriptions are in Arabic and Persian rather than Armenian. However, there is evidence that the Selcuks utilized the skills of Armenian stonemasons to produce the beautiful monuments.
Although the gravestones and tombs cluster in groups in the long grass, the wild flowers and the herb bushes, larger tombs lurk around the edge of the open space. In the distance are wonderful views of Lake Van and the surrounding mountains. Early morning, the cemetery is a sublime spot in which to walk. My only companions were professors and students from an Ankara university engaged in digs across the site. The professors and students were ably assisted by labourers who did the most demanding physical work.
Some parts of the cemetery are devoid of gravestones, but elsewhere the undergrowth threatens to bury the tombs, most of which have intricate inscriptions. Not far to the south of the cemetery is the 13th century Ulu Kumbet, the largest tomb in the Van region, and to the north are Cifte Kumbet, or the Twin Tomb, and Bayindir Turbesi, the latter with its colonnaded upper storey and distinctive mescit. Bayindir Turbesi dates from the end of the 15th century.
But back to the cemetery itself and some words penned by Gwyn Williams in 1972. Williams captures well the enduring appeal of this beautiful spot:
“There are acres and acres of lovely tall rectangular tombstones, some of them nearly 2 metres high and not all of them upright. They are all carved in relief with intricate designs, usually around a pointed panel in the lower part of the stone face. The reverse side of the stones often has a curious and unusual arrangement of symbols. The extent of the burial ground and the number and the beauty of the stones effectively record the prosperity, good taste and fine craftsmanship of medieval Ahlat. This long-abandoned graveyard is one of the strangest sights in Turkey and should not be missed. The forest of tall scrolled and lichened stones seen against the background of the lake and the far mountains seems no longer to have any reference to life or death, but a strange and absolute beauty.”