The historic town of BİTLİS (1545m altitude) is reached along an attractive winding gorge dotted with kervansarays and old bridges. Its lifeblood used to be its location on the main west–east transit road linking the Tigris and Euphrates basins with that of Lake Van, but Bitlis has recently been bypassed by a 4km-long tunnel. The plus side for visitors is that the once very noisy, polluted main drag is much more pleasant.
Bitlis is a fascinating and atmospheric town, ignored by most travellers in the headlong rush to Lake Van. Assuming you arrive early enough in the day, it’s easy to alight here and explore before you catch one of the very frequent dolmuşes on to Tatvan. The most important monuments lie west of the road, in narrow streets busy with people rather than vehicles.
With its dark stone houses and steep valley setting, Bitlis has the feel of an isolated nineteenth-century English mill town, though it once controlled the pass from Syria to the Van region and Persia and Armenia beyond. Before World War I it was a prosperous place, and about half the inhabitants were Armenian. Today this predominantly Kurdish town is impoverished, and its last major employer, a factory that processes the famous local tobacco, closed down in 2008.