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Bitlis is a town in eastern Turkey and the capital of Bitlis Province
Bitlis Province
Bitlis Province is a province of eastern Turkey, located to the west of Lake Van.-History:Bitlis was formed as an administrative district in the 17th Century...

. The town is located at an elevation of 1,400 metres, 15 km from Lake Van
Lake Van
Lake Van is the largest lake in Turkey, located in the far east of the country in Van district. It is a saline and soda lake, receiving water from numerous small streams that descend from the surrounding mountains. Lake Van is one of the world's largest endorheic lakes . The original outlet from...

, in the steep-sided valley of the Bitlis River, a tributary of the Tigris. The local economy is mainly based on agricultural products which include fruits, grain and tobacco. Industry is fairly limited, and deals mainly with leatherworking, manufacture of tobacco products as well as weaving and dyeing of coarse cloth. Bitlis is connected to other urban centres by road, including Tatvan
Tatvan is a city at the western end of Lake Van, and is the regional center of the identically-named district within Bitlis Province in eastern Turkey. It has about 96,000 inhabitants. The mayor is Abdullah Ok .- Transport :...

 on Lake Van, 25 km to the northeast, and the cities of Muş
-Computing:* Mus, a file extension used by Finale * MUS, the internal music format used in Doom -Three-letter acronyms:* Mitsubishi UFJ Securities * MUS, the NATO country code for Mauritius...

 (Mush), 100 km northwest, and Diyarbakır
Diyarbakır is one of the largest cities in southeastern Turkey...

, 200 km to the west. The climate of Bitlis can be harsh, with long winters and heavy snowfalls. Summers are hot, and often humid.

Ancient and medieval

The origin of the name Bitlis is not known. A popular folk etymology explanation, without any historical basis, is that it is derived from "Lis/Batlis", the name of a general said to have built Bitlis castle by the order of Alexander the Great. To Armenians, it was known as Balalesa or Baghaghesh, and later Baghesh. According to one popular Armenian folk story, on a cold, wintry day a donkey left its stable and wandered down the valley below. The donkey died of the freezing temperatures and was only discovered in the spring, once the ice had melted; thus, it received the name Pagh Esh, or "Cold Donkey."

Baghesh was one of the most important cities of the Kingdom of Armenia's province of Aghdznik'
Aghdznik , also known as Altzniq or Arzanene, was a province of Greater Armenia. It covered an area of , divided into 11 districts:*Angegh-home*Tigranakert*Arzn*Qagh*Ketik*Tatik*Aznvadzor*Erkhetq*Gzeghq*Salnodzor*Sasun....

, and it served as the primary fortress of the province's canton of Salnodzor. Some medieval Armenian writers, such as Anania Shirakatsi
Anania Shirakatsi
Anania Shirakatsi was an Armenian mathematician, astronomer and geographer. He is commonly attributed to having written the Geography .-Life:Scholars are split on where exactly Anania was born...

 and Vardan Areveltsi
Vardan Areveltsi
Vardan Areveltsi was a thirteenth century Armenian historian, geographer, philosopher and translator. In addition to establishing numerous schools and monasteries, he also left behind a rich contribution to Armenian literature...

, later mention it as a part of the canton of Bznunik'
Bznuniq was a region of the old Armenia c. 300-800, north-east of Lake Van, later the region of Khelat. It was ruled by the Bznuni family....

. The fortress guarded the Baghesh Pass, which linked the southern reaches of the Armenian Plateau to northern Mesopotamia. The Arabs conquered Baghesh at the end of the seventh century and it eventually became the capital of the Zurārid emirs
An emirate is a political territory that is ruled by a dynastic Muslim monarch styled emir.-Etymology:Etymologically emirate or amirate is the quality, dignity, office or territorial competence of any emir ....

of Aghdznik'. Due to the fact that it fell on an important trade route, it prospered greatly.

The next two centuries, however, marked a turbulent period in the town's history. After Bugha al-Kabir
Bugha al-Kabir
Bugha al-Kabir al-Sharabi or Bugha the Elder, also known as Bugha al-Turki , was a 9th-century Turkic general who served the Abbasids....

's destructive 852-855 campaign in Armenia, the Shaybanid emirs of Arzan wrested control of Baghesh from the Zurārids; thereafter, in the first quarter of the tenth century, it was taken by the Kaysite emirs of Manzikert. In his 929-30 campaign against the Kaysites, the Byzantine
Byzantine usually refers to the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.Byzantine may also refer to:* A citizen of the Byzantine Empire, or native Greek during the Middle Ages...

 general John Curcuas was able to capture and annex Baghesh. Following the devastation of the Arab emirs in the second half of the tenth century, a great number of Kurds settled in Baghesh and at the end of the century, the city fell into the hands of the Kurdish Marwanid
Marwanid, , was a Kurdish dynasty in Northern Mesopotamia and Armenia, centered around the city of Amed . Other cities under rule were Arzan, Mayyāfāriqīn , Hisn Kayfa , Khilāṭ, Manzikart, Arjish. The founder of the dynasty was a Kurdish shepherd, Abu Shujā Bādh bin Dustak...

 dynasty after breaking from Buyid rule. At the end of the eleventh century, with the collapse of Byzantine power after the Battle of Manzikert
Battle of Manzikert
The Battle of Manzikert , was fought between the Byzantine Empire and Seljuq Turks led by Alp Arslan on August 26, 1071 near Manzikert...

, Bitlis fell under the control of Togan Arslan, a subject of the Shah Arman (Also called Ahlatshah) dynasty based in Akhlat' after brief Dilmachoglu
Beylik of Dilmaç
Beylik of Dilmaç was a small principality in East Anatolia founded in the 11th century .After the battle of Malazgirt in 1071, the victorious Turkmen tribes led by ghazi warriors began to settle in Anatolia. One of these warriors was Dilmaç oğlu Mehmet...

 rule. It was also ruled by Ayyubid (1207–1231), Khwarezm Shahs (shortly rule in 1230), Sultanate of Rûm
Sultanate of Rûm
The Sultanate of Rum , also known as the Anatolian Seljuk State , was a Turkic state centered in in Anatolia, with capitals first at İznik and then at Konya. Since the court of the sultanate was highly mobile, cities like Kayseri and Sivas also functioned at times as capitals...

 (1231–1243) and Ilkhanate
The Ilkhanate, also spelled Il-khanate , was a Mongol khanate established in Azerbaijan and Persia in the 13th century, considered a part of the Mongol Empire...



Bitlis was a Kurdish emirate from the 13th to the 19th century. Though often subordinate to a succession of larger powers that ruled the Van region, it always maintained a measure of independence. In the 14th century its emirs, the Kurdish Rusaki family, were vassals of the Karakoyunlu
Karakoyunlu is a town and district of Iğdır Province in the Eastern Anatolia region of Turkey. Part of the district forms the international border between Turkey and Armenia.-History:...

 and the emirate's territory also consisted of several smaller emirates: Ahlat
Ahlat is a historic town and a district in Turkey's Bitlis Province in Eastern Anatolia Region. The center town of Ahlat is situated on the northwestern coast of the Lake Van. She was the district in Van Province between 1929-1936...

, Mush, and Hinis. The emir of Bitlis submitted to Timur
Timur , historically known as Tamerlane in English , was a 14th-century conqueror of West, South and Central Asia, and the founder of the Timurid dynasty in Central Asia, and great-great-grandfather of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, which survived as the Mughal Empire in India until...

 in 1394, but later helped the re-establishment of Karakoyunlu control in the region. After the collapse of the Karakoyunlu state, the Bitlis emirate disintegrated. However, in the 1470s it took the Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep Turkomans) three successive sieges to capture Bitlis and in 1494/95 the Ruzaki recaptured the town. Armenians formed a large part of the city's population. A number of monasteries were permitted to be built by the Kurdish emirs and during the fifteenth century, Biltis flourished as a center for Armenian manuscript production.

Bitlis was forced to accept a Persian governor during the invasion of the Safavid Shah Ismail, but sided with the Ottoman forces as they approached the region. Its emir, Sheref, later changed his allegiance to the Persians. An Ottoman army besieged Bitlis for three months in 1531/32, but was forced to retire. Sheref was killed in battle in 1533 and his son and successor submitted to the Ottoman Empire
Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...

. Mush and Hınıs were removed from the Bitlis emirate, becoming separate sanjak
Sanjaks were administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire. Sanjak, and the variant spellings sandjak, sanjaq, and sinjaq, are English transliterations of the Turkish word sancak, meaning district, banner, or flag...

s but still with Ruzaki bey
Bey is a title for chieftain, traditionally applied to the leaders of small tribal groups. Accoding to some sources, the word "Bey" is of Turkish language In historical accounts, many Turkish, other Turkic and Persian leaders are titled Bey, Beg, Bek, Bay, Baig or Beigh. They are all the same word...

s. A Jesuit mission was established in Bitlis in 1685. The Ruzakid Kurdish dynasty in Bitlis lasted until 1849, when an Ottoman governor evicted its last emir, Sheref Bey, who was taken to Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

 as a prisoner. After this, Bitlis was governed by a Turkish pasha
Pasha or pascha, formerly bashaw, was a high rank in the Ottoman Empire political system, typically granted to governors, generals and dignitaries. As an honorary title, Pasha, in one of its various ranks, is equivalent to the British title of Lord, and was also one of the highest titles in...

 and formed the capital of a vilayet bearing its name.


In 1814 the population of Bitlis town was said to be 12,000 people - one half Muslim, the remainder Christian Armenian. In 1838 its population was said to be between 15,000 to 18,000 - two thirds Muslim, one third Armenian, and a small minority of Syrian Christians. In 1898 Lynch considered the population to be close to 30,000, comprising 10,000 Armenians, 300 Syrians, and the rest Muslim Kurds. The Armenians had five schools for boys and three for girls. One third of the population of Bitlis was ethnic Armenian
Armenian people or Armenians are a nation and ethnic group native to the Armenian Highland.The largest concentration is in Armenia having a nearly-homogeneous population with 97.9% or 3,145,354 being ethnic Armenian....

 prior to World War I. In 1915, Turks and Kurds, led by Jevdet Bey Pasha, massacred some 15,000 Armenians in Bitlis.

In February 1916, as part of the Caucasus Campaign
Caucasus Campaign
The Caucasus Campaign comprised armed conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, later including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Central Caspian Dictatorship and the UK as part of the Middle Eastern theatre or alternatively named as part of the Caucasus Campaign during World War I...

, Russian forces launched an offensive to capture Mushand Bitlis. Mush fell on February 16. At Bitlis, the Turkish positions were in a strong location on the outskirts of the town and could not be outflanked because of the narrowness of the valley. On the night of March 2–3, during a blizzard, the 8th Caucasian Rifles advanced silently and, after several hours of hand to hand fighting, took the Turkish positions with 1,000 prisoners. The Turks then abandoned Bitlis, retreating towards Siirt. A Turkish force commanded by Mustafa Kemal
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was an Ottoman and Turkish army officer, revolutionary statesman, writer, and the first President of Turkey. He is credited with being the founder of the Republic of Turkey....

 had been advancing to help defend Bitlis, but did not arrive in time. In August 1916, the Turkish Second Army started an offensive against the Russian front in eastern Turkey.

On August 2, Mustafa Kemal's XVI corps, together with Kurdish irregulars, attacked Bitlis and Mush. Fearing encirclement, General Nazarbekov, the Russian commander, abandoned Bitlis on August 5. When Mush also fell, he decided to abandon Tatvan
Tatvan is a city at the western end of Lake Van, and is the regional center of the identically-named district within Bitlis Province in eastern Turkey. It has about 96,000 inhabitants. The mayor is Abdullah Ok .- Transport :...

 and the whole Mush valley and retreat to Ahlat. In September, the Turkish offensive stalled and was turned. Nazarbekov advanced as the retreating Turkish forces withdrew from Tatvan and Mush, but he did not have the available forces to recapture Bitlis as winter approached. The Russian Revolution
February Revolution
The February Revolution of 1917 was the first of two revolutions in Russia in 1917. Centered around the then capital Petrograd in March . Its immediate result was the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the end of the Romanov dynasty, and the end of the Russian Empire...

 in the spring of 1917 prevented any further Russian gains.


Bitlis preserves more medieval and traditional architecture than any other town in eastern Turkey. They are of a high quality and are mostly constructed from locally-quarried light brown stone, sometimes called Ahlat stone.

The town contains a large number of late-medieval Islamic buildings in the form of mosques, medresses, and tombs. Commissioned mostly by its local Kurdish rulers, the architectural style of these buildings is very conservative and similar to much earlier Seljuq-period structures. Important monuments include the 12th-century Ulu Mosque with its 15th century minaret, and the Gokmeydani Medresesi and Sherefiye Mosque from the sixteenth century. Until 1915 there were five Armenian monasteries and several churches in Bitlis – only a 19th-century Armenian church survives, now used as a warehouse.

Bitlis is also notable for its many old houses. These are built of cut stone and are often large and impressive structures. Most have two stories, but three stories are also found. Ground floors were generally intended for storage and stables, with the residential quarters on the upper floors. Ground floor rooms have few windows, upper floors are well lit. Roofs are flat and covered with beaten clay. Unlike traditional houses in nearby Erzurum
Erzurum is a city in Turkey. It is the largest city, the capital of Erzurum Province. The city is situated 1757 meters above sea level. Erzurum had a population of 361,235 in the 2000 census. .Erzurum, known as "The Rock" in NATO code, served as NATO's southeastern-most air force post during the...

 or Van
Van, Turkey
Van is a city in southeastern Turkey and the seat of the Kurdish-majority Van Province, and is located on the eastern shore of Lake Van. The city's official population in 2010 was 367,419, but many estimates put this as much higher with a 1996 estimate stating 500,000 and former Mayor Burhan...

, Bitlis houses do not have bay windows and balconies.


Bitlis has a dry-summer continental climate
Continental climate
Continental climate is a climate characterized by important annual variation in temperature due to the lack of significant bodies of water nearby...

 according to the (Köppen climate classification
Köppen climate classification
The Köppen climate classification is one of the most widely used climate classification systems. It was first published by Crimea German climatologist Wladimir Köppen in 1884, with several later modifications by Köppen himself, notably in 1918 and 1936...

 Dsb). Bitlis has hot, dry summers and freezing, snowy winters.

Notable individuals

The city was the home of the sixteenth century Kurdish
Kurdish people
The Kurdish people, or Kurds , are an Iranian people native to the Middle East, mostly inhabiting a region known as Kurdistan, which includes adjacent parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey...

 historian, Sherefxan Bedlisi (also: Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi), author of the Sharafnameh, and who was also an appointed prince of the Persian and later Ottoman
Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...


Ottoman administrator and Kurdish religious scholar and author Idris-i Bitlisi
İdris-i Bitlisi
Idris Bitlisi / Idris Bidlisi or Idris-i Bitlisi / Idris-i Bidlisi, a Kurdish religious scholar and Ottoman administrator, born in Bitlis in or around 1452-1457. There is some controversy about his actual place of birth possibly having been Diyarbakir. His full name was Mevlana Hakimeddin İdris...

 is claimed to have been born in Bitlis also. He was instrumental in conquest, Ottomanization and administration of Ottoman lands from Urfa, Mardin to Egypt.

American writer William Saroyan
William Saroyan
William Saroyan was an Armenian American dramatist and author. The setting of many of his stories and plays is the center of Armenian-American life in California in his native Fresno.-Early years:...

's parents were immigrants from Bitlis to Fresno, California. He wrote a play entitled "Bitlis" about his "return" to the city he considered his homeland, which he actually did visit in later years.

Kâmran İnan
Kâmran Inan
Kamran Inan , Turkish politician, statesman of Kurdish origin, diplomat and scholar. Representative in Parliament from Van and Bitlis numerous times. Graduate of Ankara University Faculty of Law, and Ph.D. in Law from University of Geneva...

 (Hizan, Bitlis, 1929), a well known Turkish politician, diplomat, and scholar was from Bitlis. He has written about the history of Bitlis.

Twin towns — sister cities

Bitlis is twinned
Town twinning
Twin towns and sister cities are two of many terms used to describe the cooperative agreements between towns, cities, and even counties in geographically and politically distinct areas to promote cultural and commercial ties.- Terminology :...

Isparta is a city in western Turkey and the provincial capital of the Isparta Province. The city's population is 222,556 and elevation from sea level is 1035 m. Another name of the city is "City of Roses"....

, Turkey

Further reading