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Seljuk Cemetery seeks spot on permanent UNESCO list

Unique necropolis in southeastern Bitlis boasts world’s tallest gravestones, towering 4 meters in height

Anadolu Agency

A group of towering Seljuk tombstones some 400-700 years old in southeastern Turkey, now part of UNESCO’s temporary world heritage list, is working to make the leap to the permanent list in 2019.

Located in the Bitlis province, the Ahlat district, also known as “Kubbetul-Islam”, is home to the largest necropolis in the Islamic world.

Characterizing the tombs as monuments, Ramazan Gencan, the Culture and Tourism Ministry’s provincial director, said the Seljuk Cemetery has great importance for the Turkish-Islamic world, second only to the proto-Turkic Orkhon inscriptions in Mongolia.

The Seljuk Square Necropolis, built on a 220-square-meter area, includes more than 8,000 tombs with reliefs and carvings, including ornamental, cairn, and cist-type sepulchers.

Gencan also spoke about the work at the site, with local, national and international work being carried out under the auspices of Turkey’s government.

“Our excavations continue. Unearthing of the tombs, repairs, restoration, and cleaning of the stones are ongoing,” Gencan added.

Recai Karahan, head of the excavations, said his team has repaired nearly 600 tombstones over the last seven years.

Some 550 tombstones have been transcribed, while another 500 were cleared of lichens, he added

-Nothing else like it

Karahan, an art history professor at eastern Van’s Yuzuncu Yil University, stressed the cemetery’s uniqueness.

“There is no cemetery of this kind in the world. No one can encounter such giant monolithic tombstones, 4 meters [13 feet] high, with an additional one to one-and-a-half meters [3-4 ft] underground,” he said.

Calling these “cultural works”, Karahan said the tombstones also feature Ottoman-era ornamentations with geometrical and floral decorations.

Ismail Ustaoglu, Bitlis’ governor, said the excavations have the potential to boost tourism in the region.

Echoing Karahan on the tombstones’ unrivalled height, Ustaoglu underscored their engravings and motifs.

“Verses of the Quran, hadiths, and brief information about the people in the graves are written on the tombstones,” he said.

UNESCO’s website lauds the site, saying, “Some of the most outstanding tombstones and mausoleums of the early Turkish period in Anatolia are to be seen in Ahlat. These works are not only important sources of information on the technical and decorative repertoire of the period, but also act as historical sources for important masons and craftsmen, whose names appear in inscriptions there.”

UNESCO’s 39th General Conference is being held in Paris from Oct. 30 to Nov. 14.

Turkey’s first entry on UNESCO’s World Heritage list was in 1985, with the Goreme National Park and rock sites of Cappadocia and the Great Mosque and Hospital of Divrigi -- both in central Turkey -- and the historic areas of Istanbul.

The Hittite capital Hattusha was added to the list in 1986, followed by Mt. Nemrut in 1987, and Hierapolis-Pamukkale and the ancient city of Xanthos-Letoon in 1988.

In 1994, the city of Safranbolu was added to the list, followed by the archaeological site of Troy in 1998, Selimiye Mosque and its social complex in 2011, and the Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in 2012.

The latest entry came in July, when the Aphrodisias archaeological site in southwestern Turkey was added.

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