Multiculturalism and ethnic tolerance of Bedlis
The Kurdish city of Bedlis has a rich history of tolerance and coexistence
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
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.
Bell, James 1832. A System of Geography, Popular and Scientific, vol IV. Glasgow.
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.
Murray, Hugh 1834. An Encyclopaedia of Geography. London: Longman.
Shiel, Lieutenant-Colonel 1838. Notes on a journey from Tabriz through Kurdistan, Via Vân, Bitlis, Se’ert and Erbil, to Suleïmaniyeh 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.
Travernier, Jean-Baptiste 1681. Les six voyages de JeanBaptiste Tavernier … en Turquie, En Perse, et aux Indes, vol I. Paris:Gervais Clouzier.
Ussher, John 1865. A Journey from London to Persepolis, London.
Wilbraham, Captain Richard 1839. Travels in the TransCaucasian provinces of Russia, Lakes of Van and Urumiah: and along the southern 1837. London.