Bitlis is a town in eastern Turkey and the capital of Bitlis Province. Kurds form the majority of the population, which was 65,169 (including the surrounding villages) as of 2000.
A folk etymology explanation of the name Bitlis, without any historical basis, is that it is derived from "Bedlis", the name of a commander said to have built Bitlis castle by the order of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia.
The city of Bitlis is located at an elevation of 1,400 metres above sea level, 15 km from Lake Van shores, 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. Tatvan, a port on Lake Van, lies 25km to the northeast, and the cities of Muş 100 km northwest and Diyarbakır 200km to the west. The climate of Bitlis can be harsh, with long winters and heavy snowfalls. Summers are hot, and often humid.
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 very large number of late-medieval Islamic buildings in the form of mosques, medresses, and tombs. Commissioned mostly by local Kurdish rulers, the architectural style of these buildings is very conservative and similar to much earlier Seljuk-period structures. Important monuments include the 12th-century Ulu Mosque with its 15th century minaret, and the Gokmeydani Medresesi and Sherefiye Mosque from the 16th-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 or Van, Bitlis houses do not have bay windows and balconies.
In the 9th century Bitlis was controlled by the Saybani emirs of Arzan, in the mid-10th century it was controlled by the Kaysite emirs of Malazgirt. Bitlis was attacked in 972 by the Byzantine empire as it attempted to annex the territories of the Armenian kingdoms and Arab principalities around Lake Van. At the end of the 11th century, with the collapse of Byzantine power after the Battle of Malazgirt, Bitlis fell under the control of Togan Arslan, a subject of the "Shah Arman" dynasty based in Ahlat.
Bitlis was a Kurdish emirate from the 13th to the 19th century. It was subordinate to the succession of larger powers ruling the Van region but always maintained a measure of independence This Kurdish dynasty lasted until 1849, when an Ottoman governor evicted the last emir. The city was also the home of the 16th century Kurdish historian, Sherefxan Bedlisi (also: Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi), who was also an appointed prince of the Persian and later Ottoman Empires.
First World War period
One third of the population of Bitlis was ethnic Armenian prior to the Armenian Genocide. 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 Front, Russian forces lanched an offensive to capture Mush and Bitlis. Mush fell on the 16th February. 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 2-3 March, during a blizzard, the 8th Caucasian Rifles advanced silently and, after several hours of hand to hand fighting, took the Turkish positions with 1000 prisoners. The Turks then abandoned Bitlis, retreating towards Siirt. A Turkish force commanded by Mustafa Kemal 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 the 2nd August Mustafa Kemal's XVI corps, together with Kurdish irregulars, attacked Bitlis and Mush. Fearing encirclement, General Nazarbekov, the Russian commander, abandoned Bitlis on the 5th August. When Mush also fell, he decided to abandon Tatvan 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 in the spring of 1917 prevented any further Russian gains.