Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and eth­nic tol­er­ance of Bedlis

The Kur­dish city of Bedlis has a rich his­tory of tol­er­ance and coex­is­tence

The Kurdish Globe - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS - Behrooz Sho­jai Part III

yards of Coulty, a vil­lage six miles E. of the town, pro­duce ex­cel­lent wine and brandy (ar­rack). […] The gar­dens are ir­ri­gated by small aque­ducts or canals, which con­vey the water from the rivers or moun­tains, and I have sel­dom seen any il­lit­er­ate peo­ple who can bet­ter un­der­stand the art of hy­draulics. Some of their aque­ducts carry water from a dis­tance of five or six miles.” (Kin­neir, 1813:393-396) Thus “The bazaars are well sup­plied with fruits and pro­vi­sion.” (Bell, 1832:160)

On the in­dus­try of Bedlis, Shiels re­counts that “of butch­ers, bak­ers, gun­smiths, and sil­ver­smiths, the num­ber is very con­sid­er­able, there be­ing nearly twenty of each trade. The prin­ci­pal man­u­fac­ture is coarse striped cot­ton cloth, and the chief ex­port is to­bacco. Pears, ap­ples, plums, apri­cots, grapes, mel­ons, cu­cum­bers, let­tuces, cab­bages, and other veg­eta­bles, come to per­fec­tion”. (Shiel, 1836:72-75) As late as 1830s, due to Kur­dish rule, there was enough sta­bil­ity in Bedlis to make it a cen­ter of trade in the area, as South­gate says: “Raw cot­ton is brought from Per­sia, and cot­ton cloths are man­u­fac­tured in the town. The other prin­ci­pal ar­ti­cles of trade are woolens, to­bacco, and gall-nuts. There are large dye-houses, and as many tan­ner­ies in the place. Ra­kee is dis­tilled only for the con­sump­tion of the city, which amounts to sixty okkas, or about 150 pounds, daily. Fish are brought in con­sid­er­able quan­tity from the lake of Van and salted. Gum Ara­bic is a large ar­ti­cle of trade, 15000 okkas, in­tended chiefly for the Euro­pean mar­kets, be­ing an­nu­ally car­ried away. The city has seven khans, two of which are ex­clu­sively for mer­chants, and the trade em­ploys 200 car­a­van horses owned in the place. […] The mar­ket was well sup­plied with early fruits and veg­eta­bles.” (South­gate, 1840:221)

One of the ear­li­est ac­counts of the Kur­dish rulers was writ­ten down by Tav­ernier. As he de­scribes the Kur­dish rulers of Bedlis were al­most in­de­pen­dent: “Prince of the coun­try is the most pow­er­ful and the most sig­nif­i­cant of all, be­cause he ac­knowl­edges nei­ther the Grand Seigneur of the Port nor the King of Per­sia, whereas the other Beys are all vas­sals of one or the other. Th­ese two pow­ers have much in­ter­est to talk with him” (Tav­ernier, 1692:303) The Je­suit priest Avril dur­ing his jour­ney in the East was warmly wel­comed by the peo­ple and the Prince of Bedlis; avril re­lates that “for we were ex­treamly belov’d over all the city; the Emir, who was Chief Com­man­der, had a great value for us. (Avril, 1692:44) Un­for­tu­nately, as it was the case with all Kur­dish lords, the house of Bedlisi emirs was marginal­ized due to in­ter­nal con­flicts, which Kin­neir at­tests that Bedlis “was the res­i­dence of the an­cient khans or begs of Betlis, the most pow­er­ful princes in Kur­dis­tan, un­til ru­ined by fam­ily feuds”, adding that “Betlis is nom­i­nally sub­ject to a beg, ap­pointed by the pasha of Moush, but the real author­ity is pos­sessed by the Khan of the Kurds, the de­scen­dant and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a long line of feu­dal lords who were for­merly the masters of all the sur­round­ing ter­ri­tory. He has within th­ese few years, in cer­tain de­gree be­come sub­ject to the Porte, and pays it an an­nual trib­ute”. (Kin­neir, 1813:393-396)

The last emir (prince) of Bedlis was Sher­iff Beg, about whom there are sev­eral re­ports. Wil­bra­ham in­forms us that he “had com­menced the long and slip­pery as­cent which con­ducted to it, when I was met by sev­eral horse­men, whom Sher­iff Beg had sent to meet me. He was anx­ious that I should re­main for some days un­der his roof, but, as soon as I men­tioned that I was really pressed by time, he, with true courtesy, ceased to urge the sub­ject, and or­dered an es­cort to be in readi­ness on the fol­low­ing morn­ing to con­duct me to the cas­tle of Khan Mah­moud.” (Wil­bra­ham, 1837:338) Shiel on his jour­ney through Kur­dis­tan nar­rates that “We were lodged in the Gov­er­nor's house, a large stone square build­ing in­clos­ing a wide court, and placed on the top of a high hill, where it stood alone, over­hang­ing a part of the city. The Gov­er­nor, a Kurd Beg, named Sherif Beg, was ab­sent in Reshid Pasha's camp; but his wife sent his two young sons to con­grat­u­late me on my ar­rival, which they did with the grace­ful man­ners one usu­ally finds in Asi­atic chil­dren of high rank. […] The ter­ri­tory of Bitlis ex­tends twelve hours to­wards Se'rt, twelve to­wards Mush, four to­wards Di­yarbekir, and four to­wards Van. The only no­tice which St. Martin takes of this city is, that it has been al­most al­ways gov­erned by Kurd Begs, whose sub­jects are the most civilised of their race. (Shiel, 1836:72-75) The last ac­count of Kur­dish emirs of Bedlis is from South­gate, who re­lates that “The Bey of Bitlis is him­self a Kurd, and a brother of the Pasha of Moush, within whose province the city falls. The man­ner in which he re­ceived me shows with how free a spirit he holds his author­ity. He seemed, in­deed, more like an in­de­pen­dent chief­tain, rul­ing in his own hered­i­tary right, than a gov­er­nor de­riv­ing his power from an­other. The same spirit pre­vails among the peo­ple. The name of Sul­tan sel­dom reaches their ears. Re­tired within their own moun­tains, they think of no other coun­try or ruler but the city they live in and the Bey who gov­erns it. (South­gate, 1840:220)

The sup­pres­sion of the Bedlis Prin­ci­pal­ity

by Ot­tomans

To­wards the end of 1840s the trav­el­ers met new rulers of Bedlis. South­gate’s ac- count of the Prince of Bedlis are the last one de­pict­ing an al­most in­de­pen­dent prin­ci­pal­ity, though the Prince’s former author­ity was cur­tailed by the cen­tral­iz­ing ef­forts of the Porte. Usher re­lates that “un­til of late years the town had been gov­erned by its hered­i­tary chiefs, but Sher­iff Bey, the last ruler, hav­ing re­belled against the supreme author­ity at Stam­boul, and af­ter a strug­gle which lasted some time with vary­ing success, been forced to suc­cumb to su­pe­rior force, was sent pris­oner to Con­stantino­ple, and the district which he had long ruled con­verted into a Turk­ish government sub­ject to the pashalic of Diar­bekir. Thus, af­ter the fall of Beder Khan Bey, the most pow­er­ful of the semi-in­de­pen­dent chiefs of Kur­dis­tan had at last been brought un­der sub­jec­tion and a coun­try which for a long time had pro­fessed only a nom­i­nal al­le­giance to Con­stantino­ple was re­duced to a state of obe­di­ence.” (Usher, 1865:346) The fa­mous Bri­tish arche­ol­o­gist and politi­cian Sir Austen La­yard also men­tions about the fate of the Kur­dish prince of Bedlis: “The haunts for the last of the Kur­dish rebels were on the shores of Lake Van. Af­ter the fall of the most pow­er­ful of their chiefs, Beder Khan Bey, they had one by one been sub­dued and car­ried away into cap­tiv­ity. Only a few months had, how­ever, elapsed since the Beys of Bitlis, who had long­est re­sisted the Turk­ish arms, had been cap­tured.” (La­yard, 1853:9) La­yard then gives an ac­count of the gov­er­nor of Bedlis, who had been ap­pointed by the Ot­toman Turk­ish government in Is­tan­bul. The Turk­ish masters of Kur­dis­tan had in­ter­est­ing opin­ion about their Kur­dish sub­jects. La­yard’s own words de­scribe best their at­ti­tude, which pre­vail un­til now: “I called early in the morn­ing on the mudir or gov­er­nor, one of the house­hold of old Es­sad Pasha, who was at that time gov­er­nor-gen­eral of Kur­dis­tan, in­clud­ing Bitlis, Moush and sur­round­ing coun­try, and resided in Diar­bekir. He […] spoke in great con­tempt of the Kurds now that they had been sub­dued, treat­ing like dogs those who stood humbly be­fore him. The Turks, how­ever, had but re­cently dared to as­sume this haughty tone.” (La­yard, 1853:9)

Since then Bedlis is the sub­ject of Turk­ish Valis, or gov­ern­ers ap­pointed by the cen­tral government in Ankara. Apart from spo­radic Kur­dish con­ver­sa­tion among its peo­ple, it is not easy to rec­og­nize any Kur­dish sub­stance in present day Bedlis. Bedlis’ great Kur­dish his­tory has fallen into obliv­ion.

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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.

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Wil­bra­ham, Cap­tain Richard 1839. Trav­els in the Tran­sCau­casian prov­inces of Rus­sia, Lakes of Van and Uru­miah: and along the south­ern 1837. Lon­don.

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