The dynasty is sometimes also called Sökmenli in reference to the founder of the principality, Sökmen el Kutbî, literally Sökmen the Slave, one of the commanders of the Great SeljuqAlp Arslan. Ahlatshah Sökmenli should not be confused with the Artuqid branch of Sökmenli which ruled in Hasankeyf during approximately the same period.
Another title Sökmen and his descendants assumed, as heirs to the local Armenian princes according to Clifford Edmund Bosworth, was Shah-i Arman, often rendered as Ermenshahs (Ermenşahlar).
The Beylik was founded by the Turkish slave commander Sökmen who took over Ahlat (Khliat or Khilat) in 1100. Ahlatshahs were closely tied to Great Seljuq institutions, although they also followed independent policies like the wars against Georgia in alliance with their neighbors to the north, the Saltukids. They also acquired links with the branch of the Artuqid dynasty based in Meyyafarikin (now Silvan), becoming part of a nexus of Turkish principalities in Jazira and Eastern Anatolia.
The Ahlatshahs reached their brightest period under the fifty-seven year reign of Sökmen the Second (1128–1185). He was married to a female relative (daughter or sister) of the Saltukid ruler Saltuk. Since Sökmen II was childless, the beylik was seized by a series of slave commanders after his death. In 1207, the beylik was taken over by the Ayyubids who had long coveted Ahlat and had come to the city at the invitation of people of Ahlat after the last Sökmenli ruler's kill by Tuğrulshah, who was Erzurum melik of Sultanate of Rûm and brother of Kayqubad I.
The Ahlatshahs left a large number of historic tombstones in and around the city of Ahlat. Local administrators are currently trying to have the tombstones included in UNESCO's World Heritage List, where they are currently listed tentatively.