Cemeteries are of particular significance in the historic fabric of Anatolian Turkish cities, just as mosques, madrasas, fountains, hammams (baths), houses, and even picturesque beauties like historic trees. One may recall the urban cemeteries in almost every town of Turkey, most notably Zincirlikuyu, Karacaahmet, Edirnekapı and Eyüp Cemeteries in Istanbul, or the ones in Konya, Ankara, Akşehir, Afyon, Tokat, Old Malatya, Bursa, Erciş, as well as the cemeteries and tombstones seen in any town.
Indeed, every tombstone is, as an element of material culture, the final remain of one’s existence in the mortal world. On the other hand, each tombstone also represents the past of that place. Furthermore, both cemeteries and tombstones are signifiers of mortality more humane within its whole natural quality.
In this context, as a medieval town in eastern Anatolia, Ahlat in itself has a significant place in the cultural geography of cemeteries throughout Turkey.
So far, six different cemeteries which are of historical value and spreading over large areas have been identified in Ahlat. The largest among them is also the earliest – the Meydanlık Kabristan which has seemingly been in use since the period of Armenshahs in the late eleventh and early twelfth century. Numerous monumental tombstones were added as the burial area expanded during the Ayyubid, Seljuk, Ilkhanid, Jalairid, Karakoyunlu, Ag Qoyunlu, Safawid and finally Ottoman periods.
One may argue that a school of tombstoneworking existed in Ahlat during the Seljuk period and the end of the thirteenth century when number and sizes of works increased with high quality craftsmanship. Works by identified twenty-two different artisans were produced around the end of the thirteenth and during the first quarter of the fourteenth centuries. Although the quality of works seems to decline in the second half of the fourteenth century, it improved during the early fifteenth century thanks to a group of works among which we see cenotaphs for emirs or descendants of emirs.
It is also interesting that after a short period of improvement no more tombstones were erected until the early sixteenth century, and despite a few new but short-lived works, Ahlat style tradition of tombstones was abandoned in the end.
Among examples extant today, Ahlat style tombstones not only represent the spirit of medieval Anatolia with their geometric, figurative, and calligraphic elements, but also combine art traditions and styles which we encounter in stone, wood and plaster artefacts from Eastern Anatolia to Afghanistan to Iran, Caucasus to Jazira and Asian hinterland so as to reflect phenomena of medieval trends. In this context, tombstones owe their uniqueness to their amazing designs and plasticity as well as to their sculptural unity. This comes forward as the characteristic of masters of Ahlat. Besides, it has been proven that the development and progress of their styles can be tracked thanks to the master inscriptions.
Ahlat’s cemetery with its density of works and monumental tombstones has a unity unparalleled in the Islamic world and this aspect should place Ahlat as an open air museum in the world heritage list and memory.