Detections on the Armenian Population Around Lake Van

The first information about the political existence of Armenians around Lake Van was come across starting from the first half of the 9th century. Although the dominant element in the region was the Abbasids in the first half of this century, fights between the Abbasid-Byzantine and the Abbasid-Armenian princes occurred (Yıldız, 1980, p. 154).

Vanlı Ermeni Kadınlar

Armenian women from Van

Armenian dynasties in the Van region lived as semi-independent being under the rule of the dominant states starting from the second half of the 9th century onwards. Emir Yusuf from the Sacoğlu dynasty made Gagik (904-936) establish an Ardzeruni Kingdom in the east of Lake Van by supporting the Gregorian Ardzeruni dynasty in Van and Vastan against the Bagrationi dynasty at the beginning of the 10th century.

The Van region remained under the rule of the Sacoğlu (Sacid) dynasty, the Vaspurakan Armenian Princedom from the Ardzurini dynasty, the Mervanis, and the Byzantines in the 10th century. When the Turkish invasions started, Vaspurakan prince Senekerim allied with Byzantine Emperor Basil II and left Van to Byzantine and went to Sivas and Kayseri, which were given to him with about 14,000 Armenians. Therefore, the Vaspurakan Armenian Princedom in Van was ended. The Byzantines who occupied Van placed some of the Armenians in the region in Urfa in 1030.

Armenian historian Mateos explains this event of deportation:

The disgusting Greek nation, which was impotent and womanized, pulled off the most courageous children of Armenia and distributed them, they destroyed our nation, and eased the way for the Turkish invasion.

(Süslü, 1995, p. 79).

The Byzantines felt a grudge and hatred for Armenians due to the sect difference between them. When they entered a region, they tyrannized the Armenian people, distributed their armies, and exiled their commanders and religious leaders (Uras, 1987, p. 76-77). When Seljuks started their activities for conquering Anatolia and adopting it as a homeland, there was no Armenian political power left in the Lake Van region.

After the second half of the 11th century, Turkish dominion in the region was established. After the Seljuks, the Ahlatshahs became dominant in the region in the 12th century. After the beginning of the 13th century, the Lake Van region was under the rule of the Ayyubids, Kharzem Shah State, Anatolian Seljuk, Ilkhanids, Karakoyunlus, Akkoyunlus and Safevids, respectively. As a result of the 1534 and 1548 expeditions, Van, Adilcevaz, Ahlat, and Erciş came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

In the process of coming under Turkish rule, Armenians in the region sometimes fought against the Turks by allying with the Byzantine soldiers and sometimes fought against the Byzantines due to Byzantine suppression by allying with the Turks. After the absolute Turkish dominion, they chose to benefit from the Turkish governing’s understanding of tolerance and justice (Süslü, 1990, p. 5; Sevim, 1983). This situation continued in the Ottoman period as well. Armenians who came to a situation of almost non-existence in the Lake Van region were saved from disappearing by protecting their national and religious identities.

The number of sandjaks in the Van Governorship was shaped according to the progress of the Ottoman-Safevid political relations. The number of sandjaks in the governorship in the 16th-18th centuries varied between 13 and 34. Van, Adilcevaz, Bitlis, Erciş, Muş, Hakkâri, Mahmûdî, Hizan, Bargiri, Kârkâr, Şırvî, Kisan, Espayrid, Kotur, and Ağakis are the sandjaks least affected by this mobility (Kılıç, 2001, p. 189-210).

According to Evliya Çelebi, the non-Muslim population in the Lake Van region in 16th-17th centuries were completely made up of Armenians. As the non-Muslim elements, only Armenians lived in the cities of Van and Bitlis and there were no Greeks, Jews, Franks, or Copts (Evliya Çelebi, 1719-1720, vr. 224/b, 257/a). The detections of Tavernier, a contemporary to Evliya Çelebi, and Lynch who visited the city of Van at the end of 19th century are also in the same direction (Tavernier, 1682, p. 307; Lynch, 1901, p. 412).

The Armenian population living in the region of Lake Van in the time period of 1537-1637 is shown below in the table.

Place Date Tax population (soldier) Estimated population* Source
Van Province 1611 23.000 84.331 BOA, MAD 3260, p. 99


Van, Erciş, Bargiri Sandjaks 1605-1637 3.981 14.597 BOA, MAD 3443, s. 142, 143.
Van City 17. yy. 10000-11000 Kılıç, 1997, p. 256
Vastan City (With 15 villages) 1609-1610 700 2.567 BOA, MAD 4659, p. 11


Bitlis Sandjak 1540 5.065 houses 706 absolute 26.031 TKGMA, Kuyud-ı Kadime 109, vr. 10/b-98/b; Altunay, 1994, p. 36-55
Bitlis Sandjak 1609-1610 5.800 21.263 BOA, MAD 4659, p. 9
Bitlis Sandjak 1637 5.615 20.588 BOA, MAD 3443, p. 143
Bitlis City 1537 937 3.435 BOA, TD 189, s. 1; Altunay, 1994, p. 36-55
Bitlis City 1540 1.124 4.122 TKGMA, Kuyud-ı Kadime 109, vr. 2/b-9/b


Adilcevaz Sandjak 1548-1551 1.707 6.259 BOA, TD 297, p. 3
Adilcevaz Sandjak 1556 2.189 8.025 BOA, TD 297, p. 3
Adilcevaz Sandjak 1605 1.680 6.160 BOA, TD 730, p. 44
Adilcevaz City 1540 210 houses 102 absolute 1.152 TKGMA, Kuyud-ı Kadime 109, vr. 110/b
Adilcevaz City 1556 420 1.540 BOA, TD 297, p. 7, 11
Ahlat City 1537 67 245 BOA, TD 189, p. 14
Ahlat City 1540 137 502 TKGMA, Kuyud-ı Kadime 109, vr. 91/b
Ahlat City 1556 212 782 BOA, TD 297, p. 227

About half of the Armenian population of 23,000 soldiers who were registered for the whole of Van Province in 1611 were not in the Lake Van region. The total Armenian population living in the sandjaks of Van, Bitlis, Erciş, Adilcevaz, and Bargiri, which had a coast of the lake, was about 42,000. The remaining population lived in places which didn’t have a coast of the lake and Van and which are even outside of Turkey’s borders today. For example, Kotur Sandjak is today within the borders of Iran. In the Muş Sandjak, which didn’t have a coast of Lake Van, 2,281 Armenians and 6,134 Muslims lived there(Süslü, 1990, p. 109).

It can be said that at least half of the approximately 42,000 Armenians living in the Lake Van region were in the cities of Van, Bitlis, Vastan, Ahlat, Adilcevaz, Erciş, and Bargiri. There was an Armenian population of about 10,000 in Van city, 4,000-5,000 in Bitlis, 2,500 in Vastan, 1,500 in Adilcevaz and 1,000 in Ahlat. It is also known that some Armenians lived on Akdamar Island.

This can be said about the rate of the Armenian population before the Turkish-Muslim population: 85,000 Muslims lived in the Van sandjak in the middle of the 17th century and 33,000 of these lived in the city center. The Armenian population in city of Van was about 11,000. The proportional distribution in the Van and Adilcevaz sandjaks in the 16th-17th centuries was 80% Turkish-Muslims and 20% Armenians.

Çift süren Ermeniler, Van 1881

Ploughing Armenians, Van 1881

The Armenian population in the Van region relatively increased through the end of the 19th century. The reason for this was the placement of Armenians secretly brought from Caucasia to create a political existence after the year 1882 (Süleyman Sabri Pasha, 1928, p. 92).

According to the official statistics of the year 1914, 117,492 Armenians lived in the Bitlis Province and 67,792 Armenians lived in the Van Province. According to the same statistics, there was a Muslim population of 309,999 in the Bitlis Province and 179,380 in the Van Province (Süslü, 1995, p. 114-115). Therefore, 185,284 of the general population of 674,662 in the Lake Van region in 1914 belonged to Armenians and 489,379 belonged to the Turkish-Muslims. The Turkish-Muslim population percentage was 72.5% and the Armenian population percentage was 27.5%. These numbers confirm the detections in the 16th-17th centuries.

The Armenian population in the Lake Van region was concentrated in cities and towns. The most important reason for this was that the fortified castles in the cities and towns were convenient for living in security and that the opportunities of artistry and trading were more (Göyünç, 1983, p. 49).

The most significant factor influencing the population in the Lake Van region was the Ottoman-Safevid fight. This fight was against the Turkish-Muslim population living in settlements in the Lake Van region and a large population either was displaced or was massacred by the Safevids. There is no information or indication that these massacres to the Muslim population were also done to the Armenian population. The Armenian population though could also be a little be affected by this unstable political atmosphere in the region. However, there was no situation of where a remarkable number of the Armenian population left the region or were massacred.

In the censuses carried out due to the tax exemptions for the Turkish-Muslim people in some periods, those who had the ability to pay a tithe were registered. Muslim foundation officers, castle attendants, and timar holders should also be included in the Muslim population. It is a must that the placement and population condition in the Lake Van region should be evaluated by considering the political atmosphere in the region and the economic conditions shaped by this atmosphere.

In December of 1535, Bitlis judge Emir Şemseddin took refuge in the State of Safevid and took 400 houses of tribe members from the Rojiki tribe and his own family with him to Nakhchivan. During the 1578 Ottoman-Safevid wars, Şeref Khan and this population came back to Bitlis (Kılıç, 1997, p. 73-74; BOA, MD 32, 185). Masur Bey, who was the leader of the Dünbli (Donbalı) tribe, an effective tribe in the Bargiri region, declared his loyalty to the Ottoman Empire like Şeref Khan and came to Bargiri with the people of his tribe in the same year (Kütükoğlu, 1962, p. 65-66). The detailed books about Bitlis belong to a period when the Şeref Khan family was not in the region. For this reason, the most realistic numbers about how much the Muslim population was in Bitlis would only be possible with the results of a census carried out after the year 1578; but we are unfortunately deprived of such a book. While the number of neighbourhoods belonging to Armenians in the city of Bitlis was 16 in 1540, this number fell to 11 in 1655; while the number of Muslim neighbourhoods was 11 in 1540, this rose to 17 in 1655. This situation shows that the population movements of the city developed in favour of the Muslims (TKGMA, Kuyud-ı Kadime 109, vr. 2b/9b; Altunay, 1994, p. 34; Evliya Çelebi 3-4, vr. 224/b).

Safevid sultan Shah Tahmasb sieged Ahlat in 1552 and killed almost all Turkish-Muslim people and destroyed the castle. It is possible to see the traces of this destruction in the census carried out 4 years after the event. 500 Armenians and around 800 Muslims (except for the exempts) lived in Ahlat in 1540 (TKGMA, Kuyud-ı Kadime 109, vr. 2b/91b), which means that while there was the majority of Muslims by 60%, this rate became reversed in 1556 due to the Safevid invasion.

During the refuge of Prince Bayezid in Iran, tribes in Lake Van region and some groups who were not satisfied with the governance of Suleyman the Magnificent went to Iran in groups and joined the forces of Bayezid (BOA, MD 3, 1039). The fact that Shia caliphs coming from Iran convinced people and made them migrate to Iran in masses was also influential in the decrease of the Turkish-Muslim population in the Lake Van region (Kütükoğlu, 1962, p. 7; BOA, MD 3, 1422, 409/1221; MD 4, 1175). Most of those found guilty for having relations with Iran were exiled (Kütükoğlu, 1962, p. 9; BOA, MD 40, 246/568). There were also cases that some tribes, like the Halidi tribe, collectively went to Iran (BOA, MD 26, 29/78).

After the obtainment of political stability in the region, there was a new movement. For example, according to the results of census done after the disaster of 1552 in Ahlat, while the total number of villages was 104, only the number of villages left to timar holders raised to 160. It is indisputable that the placement of Muslim population here played a role in the recovering of the villages (Kılıç, 1999, p. 147).


* 2/3 of the Armenian taxpayers who were registered only as soldiers were accepted married according to leverage and 1/3 were accepted as single. Thinking that married taxpayers could be having a family of 5 people, each was multiplied by 5 and singles were added to the calculated number and an estimated population was gained.


  1. Archive Sources

a-Devlet Arşivleri Genel Müdürlüğü Osmanlı Arşivi Daire Başkanlığı (BOA)

aa- Maliyeden Müdevver Defterler (MAD)

No: 3260, 3443, 4659.

ab- Mühimme Defterleri (MD)

No: 3, 4, 26, 32, 40.

ac- Tapu-Tahrir Defterleri (TD)

No: 189, 297, 413, 730.

b- Tapu ve Kadastro Genel Müdürlüğü-Kuyud-ı Kadime

No: 109.

  1. Classics and Research Works

Altunay, Emine (1994), 1540 (H. 947) Tarihli Tahrir Defterine Göre Bitlis Sancağı, Ondokuz Mayıs University Institute of Social Sciences Department of Social Sciences Education Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Samsun.

Çelebi, Evliya (1719-1720), Seyahatnâme 3-4, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi Kütüphanesi Bağdat no: 305.

Göyünç, Nejat (1983), Osmanlı İdaresinde Ermeniler, Istanbul.

____________ (1986), “Van”, İslâm Ansiklopedisi, B. 13, MEB, Istanbul.

Kılıç, Orhan (1997), XVI. ve XVII. Yüzyıllarda Van, Van Belediye Başkanlığı Kültür ve Sosyal İşler Müdürlüğü Yayınları No: 6, Ankara.

__________ (1999), XVI.Yüzyılda Adilcevaz ve Ahlat (1534-1605), Ankara.

__________ (2001), “Van Eyaleti’ne Bağlı Sancaklar ve İdarî Statüleri (1558-1740)”, Osmanlı Araştırmaları (The Journal of Ottoman Studies) XXI, Istanbul, p. 189-210.

Kütükoğlu, Bekir (1962), Osmanlı-İran Siyasî Münasebetleri I (1578-1590), Istanbul.

Lynch, H.F.B. (1901), Armenia Travels and Studies, vol. II, London, New York and Bombay.

Ögel, Bahaeddin, Hakkı Dursun Yıldız, Fahrettin Kırzıoğlu, Mehmet Eröz, Bayram Kodaman and M. Abdulhalûk Çay (1986), Türk Millî Bütünlüğü İçerisinde Doğu Anadolu, 2nd press, Türk Kültürünü Araştırma Enstitüsü, Ankara.

Runciman, Steven (1989), Haçlı Seferleri Tarihi, B .I, trans. Fikret Işıltan, Ankara.

Sevim, Ali (1988), Anadolu’nun Fethi Selçuklulur Dönemi (Başlangıçtan 1086’ya Kadar), Ankara.

_________ (1983), Genel Çizgileriyle Selçuklu-Ermeni İlişkileri, TTK, Ankara.

Süleyman Sabri Paşa (1928), Van Tarihi ve Kürtler Hakkında Tetebbuat, Matbaa-i Ebuzziya, Istanbul.

Süslü, Azmi (1990), Ermeniler ve 1915 Tehcir Olayı, Yüzüncü Yıl Üniversitesi Rektörlüğü- Yayın No: 5, Ankara.

Süslü, Azmi, Fahrettin Kırzıoğlu, Refet Yinanç ve Yusuf Halaçoğlu (1995), Türk Tarihinde Ermeniler (Temel Kitap), Kars Kafkas Üniversitesi Rektörlüğü, Yayın No: 2, Ankara.

Tavernier, Jean-Babtiste (1682), Les Six Voyages en Turqie, en Perse et Aus Indes, B. 1, Paris.

Turan, Osman (1980), Doğu Anadolu Türk Devletleri Tarihi, Istanbul.

Uras, Esat (1987), Tarihte Ermeniler ve Ermeni Meselesi, Extended 2nd press, Belge Yayınları, Istanbul.

Yıldız, Hakkı Dursun (1980), İslâmiyet ve Türkler, Istanbul.

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