19th century descriptions of Bedlis by western travelers.
By Behrooz Shojai | Part II | The Kurdish Globe What emerges from their writings is the successive decay and devastations of Bedlis due to the centralizing efforts of Ottomans and suppression of Kurdish rulers of Kurdistan.
The western travelers were impressed by Bedlis' ancient and picturesque appearance. Kinneir, who carried out a hazardous journey in the footstep of Xenophon's Ten Thousands, relates that "the city is so ancient, that, according to the tradition of the Koords, it was founded a few years after the flood by a direct descendant of Noah: the houses are admirably built of hewn stone, flat roofed, and for the most part surrounded with gardens of apple, pear, plum, walnut and cherry trees. The streets being in general steep are difficult of access, and each house seems of itself a petty fortress, a precaution not unnecessary in this turbulent part of the world: many of them have large windows, with pointed arches like the Gothic; and the castle, which is partly inhabited, seems to be a very ancient structure, erected upon an insulated and perpendicular rock, rising abruptly from a hollow in the middle of the city. The walls are built of the same stone as the houses, and the ramparts are nearly a hundred feet in height. The city contains about thirty mosques, eight churches, four hummams. The rivers are crossed by upwards of twenty bridges, each of one arch, and built of stone." (Kinneir, 1813:393-394) Lieutenant-Colonel Shiel gives an account of the town similar to Kinneir some twenty years later, but points out that the castle is in ruins: "The city of Bitlis has a very remarkable appearance: it is placed in a wide ravine, which is open to the east but closed by high mountains to the west; the houses are dispersed over the sides of the steep banks of the stream which runs through it, and on several neighboring hills. The form of the town is, therefore, most irregular; the houses are built of red stone, which is cut into square blocks, and the generality are of two stories, with grated windows to the street, which produces more resemblance to the towns of Europe than to those of Persia. Like Van, the streets are paved with round stones. From the irregular manner in which the houses are scattered over the hills, intermingled with gardens, the town covers a considerable extent of ground: it is not enclosed by a wall; but this is scarcely necessary, each house being in fact a fortress, and a strong one too. [?] Bitlis contains four caravanserais, three large and twelve small mosques, three baths, eight Armenian churches, and one Nestorian: the large mosques have each one very tall minaret, which has a pleasing effect, and they are said to be very ancient Mohammedan buildings. [?]The most remarkable object in Bitlis is the old castle, which is placed in the centre of the town, on a rock thirty feet in height, and built up with stone to the elevation of about one hundred feet; the walls are extremely thick, and a single gate leads through the narrow passage which gives admission to the fort. The extent of the inside may be 120 yards; it is now in ruins and filled with old houses. The wall is strengthened by several square bastions on the outside: at the height of sixty feet there is an inscription in Arabic, cut in stone. An old man informed me that, within his own remembrance, there was an inscription on the wall which stated that the castle was built 300 years before Mohammed." (Shiel, 1836:72-75) A quarter century later Wilbraham reaffirms that the town is in the process of decay: "Bitlis is a very curious town: its houses are all of hewn stone, and their grated windows give them the appearance of prisons. At the bottom of a deep and broad ravine stands a ruined castle, perched upon the top of a precipitous rock, of very small area. The town is built upon the steep banks of two mountain-streams, which unite beneath the castle walls." (Wilbraham, 1837:335) In sheer admiration, Horatio Southgate delivers an extensive description of Bedlis during his short stay: "Bitlis cannot fail to interest and surprise a stranger at first sight. Its picturesque situation among the mountains, and the singular internal appearance which the peculiar construction of its buildings gives it, make it entirely unlike most other Eastern towns. [?] The streets of the twon run in terraces along the steep sides of the valleys, and the passenger in looking up is often surprised to see houses and walls above his head. Most of the houses have gardens attached to them, which give to the city, from some points of view, the appearance of a paradise in the midst of bare and verdureless mountains. The mosques, houses, garden walls, and every other structure about the city, are built of a fine kind of sand-stone. It is cut into cubic blocks for building, and imparts to the city an air of remarkable regularity and solidity. [?] Bitlis offers some interesting proofs of its own antiquity. Fragments of stone, with remains of sculpture upon them, are seen in the walls of houses and gardens. One which I saw bore the figures of two lions rampant. The stranger is shown an ancient and deserted medreseh in the old style of Mussulman architecture, the work evidently of the same ages in which the [Kurdish] khans before spoken of were built. But the most imposing remains are the ruins of an extensive castle near the centre of the town. It is built on the craggy sides of a rock which forms the angle between two of the valleys, and the passenger, as he walks through the street, is surprised to see its walls towering above him to the height of several hundred feet." (Southgate, 1840:221) Bedlis after the Turkish centralization of Ottoman Empire Towards 1850s the Kurdish princes do not rule Bedlis, rather mudirs (governors) rule the city, who are appointed by Ottoman Caliph. Bedlis at this time has lost its former importance and even beauty. Layard relates of a town that resembles the post-tanzimat ottoman reforms, a city of ruins and remains: "Bitlis contains many picturesque remains of mosques, baths, and bridges, and was once a place of considerable size and importance. It is built in the very bottom of a deep valley, and on the sides of ravines, worn by small tributaries of the Tigris. [?] The bazrs are in the lowest parts of the town, and low, ill-built, and dirty. They are generally much crowded, as in them is carried on the chief trade of this part of Kurdistan." (Layard, 1953:36) As Layard describes there are only remains of the once beautiful Kurdish architecture of Bedlis; the mosques, baths and bridges are replaced by Western-wannabe Turkish architectural vulgarity. Next part of this article will be about the ethnic diversity and economy of Bedlis at the time when it was ruled by Kurds.
Sources Kinneir, Sir John Macdonald 1818. Journey through Asia Minor, Armenia and Koordistan. London.
Layard, Sir Austen Henry 1853. Discoveries among the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon: with travels in Armenia, Kurdistan, and the Desert. London: John Murray.
Shiel, Lieutenant-Colonel 1838. Notes on a journey from Tabriz through Kurdistan, Via VA'n, Bitlis, Se'ert and Erbil, to SuleA'maniyeh jin July and August 1836, The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol 8, London: Royal Geographical Society.
Southgate, Horatio 1840. Narrative of a tour through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia. Vol 1, London.
Wilbraham, Captain Richard 1839. Travels in the Trans-Caucasian provinces of Russia, Lakes of Van and Urumiah: and along the southern 1837. London.
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