History of the Kurdish people

This article is part of the
Kurdish history and Culture series
Ancient history
Medieval history
Modern history

The Kurds are an ethnic group who have historically inhabited the mountainous areas to the south of Caucasus (Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges), a geographical area collectively referred to as Kurdistan. Most Kurds speak an Indo-European language belonging to the Iranian branch.

There are various hypotheses as to predecessor populations of the Kurds, such as the Carduchoi of Classical Antiquity. The earliest known Kurdish dynasties under Islamic rule (10th to 12th centuries) are the Hasanwayhids, the Marwanids, the Shaddadids, followed by the Ayyubid dynasty founded by Saladin. The Battle of Chaldiran of 1514 is an important turning point in Kurdish history, marking the alliance of Kurds with the Ottomans. The Sharafnameh of 1597 is the first account of Kurdish history. Kurdish history in the 20th century is marked by a rising sense of Kurdish nationhood focussed on the goal of an independent Kurdistan as scheduled by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. Partial autonomy was reached by Kurdistan Uyezd (1923–1926) and by Iraqi Kurdistan (since 1991), while notably in Turkish Kurdistan, an armed conflict between the PKK and Turkish Armed Forces was ongoing 1984 to 1999, and the region continues to be unstable with renewed flaring up of violence in the 2000s.



The term "Kurd" is first encountered in Arabic sources of the 1st century of the Islamic era.[1] The term seems to refer to variety of pastoral nomadism and possibly a set of political units, rather than linguistic group.[1] Books from the early Islamic era, including those containing legends like the Shahnameh and the Pahlavi Karnamak Ardashir-e-Papkan and other early Islamic sources provide early attestation of the name Kurd.[2] The term Kurd in the Middle Persian documents simply means nomad and tent-dweller and could be attributed to any Iranian ethnic group having similar characteristics.[3] In the early Islamic Persian and Arabic sources, the term Kurd became synonymous with an amalgamation of Iranian and Iranicized nomadic tribes and groups[4][5][6] without reference to any specific Iranian language.[1][7]

By the 16th century, Sherefxan Bidlisi states that there are four division of Kurds: Kurmanj, Lur, Kalhur and Guran. However, according to Vladimir Minorsky, only Kurmanj and possibly Kalhur come under the heading of Kurds, whereas Lur and Guran stand apart for both linguistic and ethnological reasons.[8][9] Despite the opinion of Minorsky and other linguists, the Kalhur and Guran speakers do not use linguistic differentiators. Rather they use cultural differentiators and consider themselves as Kurds, along with all Kurmanji, Sorani speakers .

The ultimate etymology of the name is unknown. It has been connected to various toponyms and ethnonyms of antiquity. Thus, one suggestion[by whom?] connects a tribal name known from Assyrian documents of ca. 1000 BC, which mention a people living in Mt. Azu or Hizan (near Lake Van) by the name Kurti or Kurkhi. The country of the Kurkhi included regions of Mount Judi and districts that were later called by the names Sophene, Anzanene and Gordyene.[10]

According to the British scholar G. R. Driver, the ethnonym originates even earlier, in 3rd millennium BC Sumerian records, as the name of a land called Karda or Qarda. This land south of Lake Van, was inhabited by the people of Su or Subaru who were connected with the Qurtie, a group of mountain dwellers.[11]


Kurdish is a language of the Northwestern Iranian group which has likely separated from the other dialects of Central Iran during the early centuries CE. Even though there are no records of the Kurdish language prior to the 13th century, the presence of Armenian loanwords indicates that there must have been Kurdish-Armenian contacts by at least 1100 CE.

The present state of knowledge about Kurdish allows, at least roughly, drawing the approximate borders of the areas where the main ethnic core of the speakers of the contemporary Kurdish dialects was formed. The most argued hypothesis on the localisation of the ethnic territory of the Kurds remains D.N. Mackenzie's theory, proposed in the early 1960s (Mackenzie 1961). Developing the ideas of P. Tedesco (1921: 255) and regarding the common phonetic isoglosses shared by Kurdish, Persian, and Baluchi, D.N. Mackenzie concluded that the speakers of these three languages form a unity within Northwestern Iranian. He has tried to reconstruct such a Persian-Kurdish-Baluchi linguistic unity presumably in the central parts of Iran. According to his theory, the Persians (or Proto-Persians) occupied the province of Fars in the southwest (proceeding from the assumption that the Achaemenids spoke Persian), the Baluchis (Proto-Baluchis) inhabited the central areas of Western Iran, and the Kurds (Proto-Kurds), in the wording of G. Windfuhr (1975: 459), lived either in northwestern Luristan or in the province of Isfahan.[12]

Muslim conquests

In 641 CE, Arab commander Utba ibn farqad conquered Kurdish forts of Adiabene. Around this time, Kurds lived a partly sedentary life and raised sheep and cattle in the regions of Beth Begash and Beth Kartewaye above Arbil in Adiabene. In 696, Kurds joined the Khariji revolt near Hulwan.[13]

Under the caliphs of Baghdad there were numerous uprisings. In 838, and again in 905, formidable insurrections occurred in northern Kurdistan; the amir, Aqpd-addaula, was obliged to lead the forces of the caliphate against the southern Kurds, capturing the famous fortress of Sermaj, whose ruins are to be seen at the present day near Behistun, and reducing the province of Shahrizor with its capital city now marked by the great mound of Yassin Teppeh. One of the very well known Kurdish scholars, Al-Dinawari (828–889), from Dinawar near Kermanshah, lived in this period. He has written a book about the ancestry of the Kurds.

A Kurd named Nasr or Narseh converted to Christianity, and changed his name to Theophobos during the reign of Emperor Theophilus and was the emperor's intimate friend and commander for many years.[14] Narseh joined Babak's rebellion in southern Kurdistan, but Abbasid armies defeated his forces in 833 and according to the Muslim historian Tabari around 60,000 of his followers were killed. Narseh himself fled to the Byzantine territories and helped form the Kurdish contingent of Theophilus. This Kurdish force invaded the domain of caliphate in 838 to help Babak's rebellion. After the defeat of Babak, Narseh and his followers settled in Pontus (north-central Anatolia).[15]

The eclipse of the Sasanian and Byzantine power by the Muslim caliphate, and its own subsequent weakening, let the Kurdish principalities and "mountain administrators" set up new independent states. The Shaddadids of the Caucasus and Armenia, the Rawadids of Azerbaijan, the Marwandis of eastern Anatolia, the Hasanwayhids, Fadhilwayhids, and Ayyarids of the central Zagros are some of the these Kurdish dynasties.

Medieval Kurdish dynasties

In 837, the Kurdish lord Rozeguite, founded the town of Akhlat on the banks of Lake Van and made it the capital of his principality, theoretically vassal of the caliph, but in fact virtually independent. The Principality of Ake ruled a Carduchian land which lay between the upper valley of the Centritis and the Zabus. It was situated between Arzanene and Adiabene. At the beginning of 10th century, it became a vassal of the Artsrunis of Vaspurakan. Andzewatsi was another principality located in southeast of Lake Van and northwest of Ake and its princes were a branch of Medo-Carduchians of Mahkert. In 780, its chief prince Tachat Andzewatsi was in Caliph's obedience. After him, the dynasty declined and it was reduced to vassalage of the Artsrunis in 860.[16]

In the first half of the 10th century, the Aishanid dynasty (912–961) ruled over a vast area in the central and northern Zagros. In the second half of the 10th century, Kurdistan was shared amongst five big Kurdish principalities. In the North the Shaddadid (951–1174) (in parts of Armenia and Arran) and Rawadid (955–1221) in Tabriz and Maragheh, in the East the Hasanwayhids (959–1015), the Annazid (990–1117) (in Kermanshah, Dinawar and Khanaqin) and in the West the Marwanid (990–1096) of Diyarbakır. Remnants of the Shaddadid Kurds are found nowadays in the Kalbajar and Lachin regions of Azerbaijan.

Later in 12th century, Kurdish dynasty of Hazaraspid established its rule in southern Zagros and Luristan and conquered territories of Kuhgiluya, Khuzestan and Golpayegan in 13th century and annexed Shushtar, Hoveizeh and Basra in 14th century.

One of these dynasties would have been able, during the decades, to impose its supremacy on the others and build a state incorporating the whole Kurdish country if the course of history had not been disrupted by the massive invasions of tribes surging out of the steppes of Central Asia. Having conquered Iran and imposed their yoke on the caliph of Baghdad, the Seljuq Turks annexed the Kurdish principalities one by one. Around 1150, Ahmad Sanjar, the last of the great Seljuq monarchs, created a province out of these lands and called it Kurdistan. The province of Kurdistan, formed by Sanjar, had as its capital the village Bahar (which means "spring"), near ancient Ecbatana (Hamadan), capital of the Medes. It included the vilayets of Sinjar and Shahrazur to the west of the Zagros mountain range and those of Hamadan, Dinawar and Kermanshah to the east of this range. A brilliant autochthonous civilization developed around the town of Dinawar (today ruined), located 75 km North-East of Kermanshah, whose radiance was later on partially replaced by that of Senna, 90 km further North[17]

Marco Polo (1254–1324), famous for the first "world trip", met Kurds in Mosul on his way to China, and he wrote what he had learned about Kurdistan and the Kurds to enlighten his European contemporaries. The Italian Kurdologist Mirella Galetti, sorted these writings which were translated into Kurdish.[18]

Ayyubid period

The Middle East, c. 1190. Saladin's empire and its vassals shown in red; territory taken from the Crusader states 1187–1189 shown in pink. Light green indicates Crusader territories surviving Saladin's death.

The most flourishing period of Kurdish power was probably during the 12th century, when the great Saladin, who belonged to the Rawendi branch of the Hadabani(or Adiabene) tribe, founded the Ayyubite (1171–1250) dynasty of Syria, and Kurdish chieftainships were established, not only to the west of the Kurdistan mountains in Syria, but as far away as Egypt and Yemen.

Kurdish principalities after the Mongol period

After the Mongol period, Kurds established several independent states or principalities such as Ardalan, Badinan, Baban, Soran, Hakkari and Badlis. A comprehensive history of these states and their relationship with their neighbors is given in the famous textbook of Sharafnama written by Prince Sharaf al-Din Biltisi in 1597.[19] The most prominent among these was Ardalan which was established in early 14th century. The state of Ardalan controlled the territories of Zardiawa (Karadagh), Khanaqin, Kirkuk, Kifri, and Hawraman. The capital city of the state was first in Sharazour in Iraqi Kurdistan, but was moved to Sinne (in Iran) later on. The Ardalan Dynasty continued to rule the region until the Qajar monarch Nasser-al-Din Shah(1848–1896) ended their rule in 1867.

Safavid period

During the years 1506–1510, Yazidi Kurds revolted against Shah Ismail I Safavi (who himself had Kurdish ancestry [20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32]). Their leader, Shir Sarim, was defeated and captured in a bloody battle wherein several important officers of Shah Ismail lost their lives. The Kurdish prisoners were put to death "with torments worse than which there may not be".[33]

Displacement of the Kurds

Removal of the population from along their borders with the Ottomans in Kurdistan and the Caucasus was of strategic importance to the Safavids. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, along with large groups of Armenians, Assyrians, Azeris, and Turkmens, were removed from the border regions and resettled in the interior of Persia. As the borders moved progressively eastward, as the Ottomans pushed deeper into the Persian domains, entire Kurdish regions of Anatolia were at one point or another exposed to horrific acts of despoliation and deportation. These began under the reign of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp I (ruled 1524–1576). Between 1534 and 1535, Tahmasp began the systematic destruction of the old Kurdish cities and the countryside. When retreating before the Ottoman army, Tahmasp ordered the destruction of crops and settlements of all sizes, driving the inhabitants before him into Azerbaijan, from where they were later transferred permanently, nearly 1000 miles east, into Khurasan. Some Kurdish tribes were deported even farther east, into Gharjistan in the Hindu Kush mountains of present day Afghanistan, about 1500 miles away from their homes in western Kurdistan.

Shah Abbas inherited a state threatened by the Ottomans in the west and the Uzbeks in the northeast. He bought off the former, in order to gain time to defeat the latter, after which he selectively depopulated the Zagros and Caucasus approaches, deporting Kurds, Armenians, and others who might, willingly or not, supply or support an Ottoman campaign.

The magnitude of Safavid Scorched earth policy can be glimpsed through the works of the Safavid court historians. One of these, Iskandar Bayg Munshi, describing just one episode, writes in the Alam-ara ye Abbasi that Shah Abbas, in furthering the scorched earth policy of his predecessors, set upon the country north of the Araxes and west of Urmia, and between Kars and Lake Van, which he commanded to be laid waste and the population of the countryside and the entire towns rounded up and led out of harm's way. Resistance was met "with massacres and mutilation; all immovable property, houses, churches, mosques, crops ... were destroyed, and the whole horde of prisoners was hurried southeast before the Ottomans should counterattack". Many of these Kurds ended up in Khurasan, but many others were scattered into the Alburz mountains, central Persia, and even Balochistan. They became the nucleus of several modern Kurdish enclaves outside Kurdistan proper, in Iran and Turkmenistan. On one occasion Abbas I is said to have intended to transplant 40,000 Kurds to northern Khorasan but to have succeeded in deporting only 15,000 before his troops were defeated.[34] [35]

Following the Battle of Chalderan, Sultan Selim I (the Grim), deported several populous Kurdish tribes into central Anatolia, south of modern Ankara. In their place, he settled a few, more loyal, Turkmen tribes. While the deported Kurds became the nucleus of the modern central Anatolian Kurdish enclave, the Turkmen tribes in Kurdistan eventually assimilated.[36]

Battle of Dimdim

There is a well documented historical account of a long battle in 1609–1610 between Kurds and the Safavid Empire. The battle took place around a fortress called "Dimdim" (DimDim) in Beradost region around Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran. In 1609, the ruined structure was rebuilt by "Emîr Xan Lepzêrîn" (Golden Hand Khan), ruler of Beradost, who sought to maintain the independence of his expanding principality in the face of both Ottoman and Safavid penetration into the region. Rebuilding Dimdim was considered a move toward independence that could threaten Safavid power in the northwest. Many Kurds, including the rulers of Mukriyan (Mahabad), rallied around Amir Khan. After a long and bloody siege led by the Safavid grand vizier Hatem Beg, which lasted from November 1609 to the summer of 1610, Dimdim was captured. All the defenders were massacred. Shah Abbas ordered a general massacre in Beradost and Mukriyan (reported by Eskandar Beg Turkoman, Safavid Historian in the Book Alam Aray-e Abbasi) and resettled the Turkish Afshar tribe in the region while deporting many Kurdish tribes to Khorasan. Although Persian historians (like Eskandar Beg ) depicted the first battle of Dimdim as a result of Kurdish mutiny or treason, in Kurdish oral traditions (Beytî dimdim), literary works (Dzhalilov, pp. 67–72), and histories, it was treated as a struggle of the Kurdish people against foreign domination. In fact, Beytî dimdim is considered a national epic second only to Mem û Zîn by Ahmad Khani. The first literary account of this battle is written by Faqi Tayran.[37][38][39]

Ottoman period

When Sultan Selim I, after defeating Shah Ismail I in 1514, annexed Armenia and Kurdistan, he entrusted the organisation of the conquered territories to Idris, the historian, who was a Kurd of Bitlis. He divided the territory into sanjaks or districts, and, making no attempt to interfere with the principle of heredity, installed the local chiefs as governors. He also resettled the rich pastoral country between Erzerum and Erivan, which had lain in waste since the passage of Timur, with Kurds from the Hakkari and Bohtan districts.

Battle against Yazidis

In 1640, Ottoman forces under the command of Firari Mustafa Pasha attacked the Yazidi Kurds of Mount Sinjar (Saçlı Dağı). According to Evliya Çelebi, the Ottoman force was around 40,000 strong. The battle lasted for seven hours and at the end 3,060 Yazidis were slain. The day after the battle, the Ottoman army raided and set fire to 300 Yazidi villages. Between 1000 to 2000 Yazidis had taken refuge in some caves around Sinjar. They were also massacred after the Ottoman army attacked the caves with cannons and hand grenades.[40]

Rozhiki Revolt

In 1655, Abdal Khan the Kurdish Rozhiki ruler of Bidlis, formed a private army and fought a full scale war against the Ottoman troops. Evliya Çelebi noted the presence of many Yazidis in his army.[41] The main reason for this armed insurrection was the discord between Abdal Khan and Melek Ahmad Pasha the Ottoman governor of Van and Abdal Khan. The Ottoman troops marched onto Bidlis and committed atrocities against civilians as they passed through Rozhiki territory. Abdal Khan had built great stone redoubts around Bitlis, and also old city walls were defended by a large army of Kurdish infantry armed with muskets. Ottomans attacked the outer defensive perimeter and defeated Rozhiki soldiers, then they rushed to loot Bidlis and attacked the civilians. Once the Ottoman force established its camp in Bidlis, in an act of revenge, Abdal Khan made a failed attempt to assassinate Melek Ahmad Pasha. A unit of twenty Kurdish soldiers rode into the tent of Yusuf Kethuda, the second-in-command and fought a ferocious battle with his guards. After the fall of Bidlis, 1400 Kurds continued to resist from the city's old citadel. While most of these surrendered and were given amnesty, 300 of them were massacred by Melek Ahmad with 70 of them dismembered by sword and cut into pieces.[42]


The system of administration introduced by Idris remained unchanged until the close of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29. But the Kurds, owing to the remoteness of their country from the capital and the decline of Turkey, had greatly increased in influence and power, and had spread westwards over the country as far as Angora.

After the war the Kurds tried to free themselves from Ottoman control, and in 1834, after the Bedirkhan clan uprising, it became necessary to reduce them to subjection. This was done by Reshid Pasha, also a kurd [43] The principal towns were strongly garrisoned, and many of the Kurd beys were replaced by Turkish governors. A rising under Bedr Khan Bey in 1843 was firmly repressed, and after the Crimean War the Turks strengthened their hold on the country.

Kurdistan as an administrative entity had a brief and shaky existence of 17 years between 13 December 1847 (following Bedirhan Bey's revolt) and 1864, under the initiative of Koca Mustafa Reşit Pasha during the Tanzimat period (1839–1876) of the Ottoman Empire. The capital of the province was, at first, Ahlat, and covered Diyarbekir, Muş, Van, Hakkari, Cizre, Botan and Mardin. In the following years, the capital was transferred several times, first from Ahlat to Van, then to Muş and finally to Diyarbakır. Its area was reduced in 1856 and the province of Kurdistan within the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1864. Instead, the former provinces of Diyarbekir and Van have been re-constituted.[44] Around 1880, Shaikh Ubaidullah led a revolt aiming at bringing the areas between Lakes Van and Urmia under his own rule, however Ottoman and Qajar forces succeeded in defeating the revolt [45]

Bedr Khan of Botan

Kurdish independent kingdoms and autonomous principalities circa 1835.

The modernizing and centralizing efforts of Sultan Mahmud II, antagonized Kurdish feudal chiefs. As a result two powerful Kurdish families rebelled against the Ottomans in 1830. Bedr Khan of Botan rose up in the west of Kurdistan, around Diyarbakır, and Muhammad Pasha of Rawanduz rebelled in the east and established his authority in Mosul and Erbil. At this time, Turkish troops were preoccupied with invading Egyptian troops in Syria and were unable to suppress the revolt. As a result, Bedr Khan extended his authority to Diyarbakır, Siverik (Siverek), Veransher (Viranşehir), Sairt (Siirt), Sulaimania and Sauj Bulaq (Mahabad). He established a Kurdish principality in these regions until 1845. He struck his own coins, and his name was included in Friday sermons. Bedr Khan Beg made two campaigns in 1843 and 1846 against the peaceful Assyrian Christians (Nestorians) of Hakkari region and massacred 50,000 Assyrians. Those Assyrians who met their fait were the mother and the two brothers of the spiritual Assyrian leader Mar Shimun. In 1847, the Turkish forces turned their attention toward this area, and defeated Bedr Khan and exiled him to Crete. He was later allowed to return to Damascus, where he lived until his death in 1868.

Bedr Khan become a king when his brother died. His brother's son got very upset over this and finally the Turks tricked him in fighting his uncle. They told him that they would make him king if he killed Bedr Khan. So he brought many kurdish warriors with him and attacked his uncle's forces.. Finally he won over him, but instead of becoming a king like the Turks said, he got executed.[46] There are two famous kurdish songs about this battle, called "Ezdin Shêr" and "Ez Xelef im" (both can be found on http://www.kurdishmusic.eu/siwanperwerm.html)

After him, there were further revolts in 1850 and 1852.[47]

Shaikh Ubaidullah's Revolt and Armenians

Kurdish costumes, 1873.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 was followed by the attempt of Sheikh Obaidullah in 1880–1881 to found an independent Kurd principality under the protection of Turkey. The attempt, at first encouraged by the Porte, as a reply to the projected creation of an Armenian state under the suzerainty of Russia, collapsed after Obaidullah's raid into Persia, when various circumstances led the central government to reassert its supreme authority. Until the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829 there had been little hostile feeling between the Kurds and the Armenians, and as late as 1877–1878 the mountaineers of both races had co-existed fairly well together.

In 1891 the activity of the Armenian Committees induced the Porte to strengthen the position of the Kurds by raising a body of Kurdish irregular cavalry, which was well-armed and called Hamidieh soldiers after the Sultan Abd-ul-Hamid II. Minor disturbances constantly occurred, and were soon followed by the massacre of Armenians at Sasun and other places, 1894–1896, in which the Kurds took an active part. Some of the separatist Kurds, aimed to establish a separate Kurdish state.[citation needed]

20th century history

Rise of nationalism

File:Kurdish cavalry.jpg
Kurdish men and women cavalry during World War I

Kurdish nationalism emerged after World War I with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire which had historically successfully integrated (but not assimilated) the Kurds, through use of forced repression of Kurdish movements to gain independence. Revolts did occur sporadically but only in 1880 with the uprising led by Sheik Ubeydullah were demands as an ethnic group or nation made. Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid responded by a campaign of integration by co-opting prominent Kurdish opponents to strong Ottoman power with prestigious positions in his government. This strategy appears successful given the loyalty displayed by the Kurdish Hamidiye regiments during World War I.[48]

The Kurdish ethnonationalist movement that emerged following World War I and end of the Ottoman empire was largely reactionary to the changes taking place in mainstream Turkey, primarily radical secularization which the strongly Muslim Kurds abhorred, centralization of authority which threatened the power of local chieftains and Kurdish autonomy, and rampant Turkish nationalism in the new Turkish Republic which obviously threatened to marginalize them.[49]

Western powers (particularly the United Kingdom) fighting the Turks also promised the Kurds they would act as guarantors for Kurdish freedom, a promise they subsequently broke. One particular organization, the Kurdish Teali Cemiyet (Society for the Rise of Kurdistan, or SAK) was central to the forging of a distinct Kurdish identity. It took advantage of period of political liberalization in during the Second Constitutional Era (1908–1920) of Turkey to transform a renewed interest in Kurdish culture and language into a political nationalist movement based on ethnicity.[49]

During the relatively open government of the 1950s, Kurds gained political office and started working within the framework of the Turkish Republic to further their interests but this move towards integration was halted with the 1960 Turkish coup d'état.[48] The 1970s saw an evolution in Kurdish nationalism as Marxist political thought influenced a new generation of Kurdish nationalists opposed to the local feudal authorities who had been a traditional source of opposition to authority, eventually they would form the militant separatist PKK – listed as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, European Union, NATO and many states that includes United States), or Kurdistan Workers Party in English.

Kurds under the Young Turks regime

Jakob Künzler, head of a missionary hospital in Urfa, has documented the large scale ethnic cleansing of both Armenians and Kurds by the Young Turks during World War I. He has given a detailed account of deportation of Kurds from Erzurum and Bitlis in winter of 1916. The Kurds were perceived to be subversive elements that would take the Russian side in the war. In order to eliminate this threat, Young Turks embarked on a large scale deportation of Kurds from the regions of Djabachdjur, Palu, Musch, Erzurum and Bitlis. Around 300,000 Kurds were forced to move southwards to Urfa and then westwards to Aintab and Marasch. In the summer of 1917, Kurds were moved to the Konya region in central Anatolia. Through this measures, the Young Turk leaders aimed at eliminating the Kurds by deporting them from their ancestral lands and by dispersing them in small pockets of exiled communities. By the end of World War I, up to 700,000 Kurds were forcibly deported and almost half of the displaced perished.[50]

After World War I

Some of the Kurdish groups sought self-determination and the championing in the Treaty of Sèvres of Kurdish autonomy in the aftermath of World War I, Kemal Atatürk prevented such a result. Kurds backed by the United Kingdom declared independence in 1927 and established so-called Republic of Ararat. Turkey suppressed Kurdist revolts in 1925, 1930, and 1937–1938, while Iran did the same in the 1920s to Simko Shikak at Lake Urmia and Jaafar Sultan of Hewraman region who controlled the region between Marivan and north of Halabja. A short-lived Soviet-sponsored Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iran did not long outlast World War II.

From 1922–1924 in Iraq a Kingdom of Kurdistan existed. When Ba'athist administrators thwarted Kurdish nationalist ambitions in Iraq, war broke out in the 1960s. In 1970 the Kurds rejected limited territorial self-rule within Iraq, demanding larger areas including the oil-rich Kirkuk region. For recent developments see Iraqi Kurdistan.

In 1922, an investigation was initiated for Nihad Pasha, the commander of El-Cezire front, by Adliye Encümeni (Council of Justice) of Grand National Assembly of Turkey with allegations of fraud. During a confidential convention on the issue on 22 July, a letter of introductions by the Cabinet of Ministers and signed by Mustafa Kemal was read. The text was referring to the region as "Kurdistan" three times and providing Nihad Pasha with full authorities to support the local Kurdish administrations (idare-i mahallîyeye dair teşkilâtlar) as per the principle of self-determination (Milletlerin kendi mukadderatlarını bizzat idare etme hakkı), in order to gradually establish a local government in the regions inhabited by Kurds (Kürtlerle meskûn menatık).[51]

In 1931, Iraqi Kurdish statesman Mihemed Emîn Zekî, while serving as the Minister of Economy in the first Nuri as-Said government, drew the boundaries of Turkish Kurdistan as: "With mountains of Ararat and the Georgian border (including the region of Kars, where Kurds and Georgians live side by side) to the north, Iranian border to the east, Iraqi border to the south, and to the west, a line drawn from the west of Sivas to İskenderun. These boundaries are also in accord with those drawn by the Ottomans." [52] In 1932, Garo Sassouni, formerly a prominent figure of Dashnak Armenia, defined the borders of "Kurdistan proper" (excluding whole territory of Wilsonian Armenia) as: "...with a line from the south of Erzincan to Kharput, incorporating Dersim, Çarsancak, and Malatya, including the mountains of Cebel-i Bereket and reaching the Syrian border", also adding, "these are the broadest boundaries of Kurdistan that can be claimed by Kurds."[53]

During 1920s and 1930s, several large scale Kurdish revolts took place in this region. The most important ones were 1) Saikh Said Rebellion in 1925, 2) Ararat Revolt in 1930 and 3) Dersim Revolt in 1938 (see Kurds in Turkey). Following these rebellions, the area of Turkish Kurdistan was put under martial law and a large number of the Kurds were displaced. Government also encouraged resettlement of Albanians from Kosovo and Assyrians in the region to change the population makeup. These events and measures led to a long-lasting mutual distrust between Ankara and the Kurds .[54]

For more recent Kurdish history see Kurds, Iranian Kurdistan, Turkish Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurds in Turkey and Kurds in Syria.

Current situation


Map of Kurdish-inhabited areas

About half of all Kurds live in Turkey. According to the CIA Factbook they account for 18 percent of the Turkish population.[55] They are predominantly distributed in the southeastern corner of the country.[56]

The best available estimate of the number of persons in Turkey speaking the Kurdish language is about five million (1980). About 3,950,000 others speak Northern Kurdish (Kurmanji) (1980).[57] While population increase suggests that the number of speakers has grown, it is also true that use of the language has been discouraged in Turkish cities, and that many fewer ethnic Kurds live in the countryside where the language has traditionally been used. The number of speakers is clearly less than the 15 million or so persons who identify themselves as ethnic Kurds.

From 1915 to 1918, Kurds struggled to end Ottoman rule over their region. They were encouraged by Woodrow Wilson's support for non-Turkish nationalities of the empire and submitted their claim for independence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The Treaty of Sèvres stipulated creation of an autonomous Kurdish state in 1920, but the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 failed to mention Kurds. In 1925 and 1930, Kurdish revolts were forcibly suppressed.

Kurdish mother and child, Van, 1973

Following these events, the existence of distinct ethnic groups like Kurds in Turkey was officially denied and any expression by the Kurds of their ethnic identity was harshly repressed. Until 1991, the use of the Kurdish language – although widespread – was illegal. As a result of reforms inspired by the EU, music, radio and television broadcasts in Kurdish are now allowed albeit with severe time restrictions (for example, radio broadcasts can be no longer than sixty minutes per day nor constitute more than five hours per week while television broadcasts are subject to even greater restrictions). Additionally, education in Kurdish is now permitted though only in private institutions.

As late as 1994, however, Leyla Zana, the first female Kurdish representative in Turkey's Parliament, was charged for making "separatist speeches" and sentenced to 15 years in prison. At her inauguration as an MP, she reportedly identified herself as a Kurd. Amnesty International reported that "[s]he took the oath of loyalty in Turkish, as required by law, then added in Kurdish, 'I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework.' Parliament erupted with shouts of 'Separatist!', 'Terrorist!', and 'Arrest her!'"[58]

Kurdish boys, Diyarbakir.

The Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), also known as KADEK and Kongra-Gel, is considered by the US to be a terrorist organization dedicated to creating an independent Kurdish state in a territory (traditionally referred to as Kurdistan) consisting of parts of southeastern Turkey, northeastern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran. It is an ethnic secessionist organization using diplomacy towards the Turkish state, but also force against military targets for the purpose of achieving its political goal.

Between 1984 and 1999, the PKK and the Turkish military engaged in open war, and much of the countryside in the southeast was depopulated, with Kurdish civilians moving to local defensible centers such as Diyarbakır, Van, and Şırnak, as well as to the cities of western Turkey and even to western Europe. The causes of the depopulation included PKK atrocities against Kurdish clans they could not control, the poverty of the southeast, and the Turkish state's military operations.[59] Human Rights Watch has documented many instances where the Turkish military forcibly evacuated villages, destroying houses and equipment to prevent the return of the inhabitants. An estimated 3,000 Kurdish villages in Turkey were virtually wiped from the map, representing the displacement of more than 378,000 people.[60][61][62][63]

Nelson Mandela refused to accept the Atatürk Peace Award in 1992 because of the oppression of the Kurds. After the rejection, Turkish press called him 'An Ugly African' and 'Terrorist Mandela'.[64]


Kurds make around 17% of Iraq's population. They are the majority in at least three provinces in Northern Iraq which are known as Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds also have a presence in Kirkuk, Mosul, Khanaqin, and Baghdad. There are around 300,000 Kurds living in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, 50,000 in the city of Mosul and around 100,000 Kurds living elsewhere in Southern Iraq.[65] Kurds led by Mustafa Barzani were engaged in heavy fighting against successive Iraqi regimes from 1960 to 1975. In March 1970, Iraq announced a peace plan providing for Kurdish autonomy. The plan was to be implemented in four years.[66] However, at the same time, the Iraqi regime started an Arabization program in the oil rich regions of Kirkuk and Khanaqin.[67] The peace agreement did not last long, and in 1974, the Iraqi government began a new offensive against the Kurds. Moreover in March 1975, Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Accord, according to which Iran cut supplies to Iraqi Kurds. Iraq started another wave of Arabization by moving Arabs to the oil fields in Kurdistan, particularly those around Kirkuk.[68] Between 1975 and 1978, two-hundred thousand Kurds were deported to other parts of Iraq.[69]

During the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, the regime implemented anti-Kurdish policies and a de facto civil war broke out. Iraq was widely-condemned by the international community, but was never seriously punished for oppressive measures such as the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the wholesale destruction of thousands of villages and the deportation of thousands of Kurds to southern and central Iraq. The campaign of Iraqi government against Kurds in 1988 was called Anfal ("Spoils of War"). The Anfal attacks led to destruction of two thousand villages and death of between fifty and one-hundred thousand Kurds.[70]

The President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, meeting with U.S. officials in Baghdad, Iraq, on 26 April 2006.

After the Kurdish uprising in 1991 (Kurdish: Raperîn) led by the PUK and KDP, Iraqi troops recaptured the Kurdish areas and hundreds of thousand of Kurds fled to the borders. To alleviate the situation, a "safe haven" was established by the Security Council. The autonomous Kurdish area was mainly controlled by the rival parties KDP and PUK. The Kurdish population welcomed the American troops in 2003 by holding celebrations and dancing in the streets.[71][72][73][74] The area controlled by peshmerga was expanded, and Kurds now have effective control in Kirkuk and parts of Mosul. By the beginning of 2006, the two Kurdish areas were merged into one unified region. A series of referendums were scheduled to be held in 2007, to determine the final borders of the Kurdish region.

In early June 2010, following a visit to Turkey, by one of the PKK leaders, the PKK announced an end to the cease fire,[75] followed by an air attack on several border villages and rebel positions by the Turkish air force.[76]


a view of Sanandaj, a major city in Iranian Kurdistan.
A view of the city from Mount Abidar.

The Kurds constitute approximately 7% of Iran's overall population. The Persians, Kurds, and speakers of other Indo-European languages in Iran are descendants of the Aryan tribes that began migrating from Central Asia into what is now Iran in the 2nd millennium BC.[77] According to some sources, "some Kurds in Iran have resisted the Iranian government's efforts, both before and after the revolution of 1979, to assimilate them into the mainstream of national life and, along with their fellow Kurds in adjacent regions of Iraq and Turkey, has sought either regional autonomy or the outright establishment of an independent Kurdish state".[77] While other sources state that "most of the freedoms Turkish Kurds have been eager to spill blood over have been available in Iran for years; Iran constitutionally recognizes the Kurds' language and minority ethnic status, and there is no taboo against speaking Kurdish in public.".[78]

Statute of a Kurdish girl with vase in Abidar, Sanandaj.

It is also notable that Shia Kermanshahi Kurds, with the population of 1,550,000, have no interest in autonomy.[79][80]

In the 17th century, a large number of Kurds were deported by Shah Abbas I to Khorasan in Eastern Iran and resettled in the cities of Quchan and Birjand, while others migrated to Afghanistan where the took refuge.[81] The Kurds of Khorasan, numbering around 700,000, still use the Kurmanji Kurdish dialect.[56][82] During the 19th and 20th centuries, successive Iranian governments crushed Kurdish revolts led by Kurdish notables such as Shaikh Ubaidullah (against Qajars in 1880) and Simko (against Pahlavis in the 1920s).[83]

In January 1946, during the Soviet occupation of north-western Iran, the Soviet-backed Kurdish Republic of Mahabad declared independence in parts of Iranian Kurdistan. Nevertheless, the Soviet forces left Iran in May 1946, and the self-declared republic fell to the Iranian army after only a few months and the president of the republic Qazi Muhammad was hanged publicly in Mahabad. After the 1953 Iranian coup d'état, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became more autocratic and suppressed most opposition including Kurdish political groups seeking greater rights for Iranian Kurds. He also prohibited any teaching of the Kurdish language.[83]

After the Iranian revolution, intense fighting occurred between militant Kurdish groups and the Islamic Republic between 1979 and 1982. In August 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini declared a "holy war" against the Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy or independence, and ordered the Armed Forces to move to the Kurdish areas of Iran in order to push the Kurdish rebels out and restore central rule to the country.[84] An image of a firing squad of Revolutionary Guards executing Kurdish prisoners around Sanandaj gained international fame and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980,and there is also other images available of Kurdish militants capturing the supporters of the Iranian regime.[85] The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps fought to reestablish government control in the Kurdish regions; as a result, around ten thousand Kurds were killed.[83] Since 1983, the Iranian government has maintained control over the Iranian Kurdistan.[86] Frequent unrest and the occasional military crackdown have occurred since the 1990s.[87]

In Iran, Kurds express their cultural identity freely, but have no self-government or administration. As in all parts of Iran, membership of a non-governmental political party is punishable by imprisonment or even death. Kurdish human rights activists in Iran have been threatened by Iranian authorities in connection with their work.[88][89] Following the killing of Kurdish opposition activist Shivan Qaderi and two other Kurdish men by Iranian security forces in Mahabad on 9 July 2005, six weeks of riots and protests erupted in Kurdish towns and villages throughout Eastern Kurdistan. Scores were killed and injured, and an untold number arrested without charge. The Iranian authorities have also shut down several major Kurdish newspapers and arrested editors and reporters. Among those was Roya Toloui, a Women's rights activist and head of the Rasan ("Rising") newspaper in Sanandaj, who was alleged to be tortured for two months for involvement in the organization of peaceful protests throughout Kurdistan province.[90] According to the one of Iran analyst's of International Crisis Group (a NGO founded in 1995 by World Bank Vice-President and former US diplomats ), "Kurds, who live in the some of the least developed parts of Iran, pose the most serious internal problem for Iran to resolve, and given what they see next door—the newfound confidence of Iraqi Kurds—there's concern Iranian Kurds will agitate for greater autonomy." [91]


Kurds and other Non-Arabs account for 10% of Syria's population, a total of around 1.9 million people.[92] This makes them the largest ethnic minority in the country. They are mostly concentrated in the northeast and the north, but there are also significant Kurdish populations in Aleppo and Damascus. Kurds often speak Kurdish in public, unless all those present do not. Kurdish human rights activists are mistreated and persecuted.[93] No political parties are allowed for any group, Kurdish or otherwise.

Techniques used to suppress the ethnic identity of Kurds in Syria include various bans on the use of the Kurdish language, refusal to register children with Kurdish names, the replacement of Kurdish place names with new names in Arabic, the prohibition of businesses that do not have Arabic names, the prohibition of Kurdish private schools, and the prohibition of books and other materials written in Kurdish.[94][95] Having been denied the right to Syrian nationality, around three-hundred thousand Kurds have been deprived of any social rights, in violation of international law.[96][97] As a consequence, these Kurds are in effect trapped within Syria.[94] In February 2006, however, sources reported that Syria was now planning to grant these Kurds citizenship.[97]

On 12 March 2004, beginning at a stadium in Qamishli (a city in northeastern Syria where many Kurds live), clashes between Kurds and Syrians broke out and continued over a number of days. At least thirty people were killed and more than 160 injured. The unrest spread to other Kurdish inhabited towns along the northern border with Turkey, and then to Damascus and Aleppo.[98][99]


Kurds had been living in regions bordering modern day Afghanistan since the 16th century notably in north eastern Iran where the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas exiled thousands of Kurds.[100] Many of those who were exiled ultimately made their way into Afghanistan, taking residence in Herat and other cities of western Afghanistan. The Kurdish colony in Afghanistan numbered some tens of thousands during the 16th century.[81] Some Kurds held high governmental positions within Afghanistan, such as Ali Mardan Khan who was appointed the governor of Kabul in 1641.[101] The Kurds devotedly sided with the Afghans during their conflicts with the Safavid Empire, and in their subsequent conflicts with other regional powers.[102] The number of Kurds currently in Afghanistan is difficult to calculate, though one figure notes that there are approximately 200,000.[103] It remains unclear however whether the Kurds of Afghanistan have retained the Kurdish language.


Between the 1930s and 1980s, Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union, within which Kurds, like other ethnic groups, had the status of a protected minority. Armenian Kurds were permitted their own state-sponsored newspaper, radio broadcasts and cultural events. During the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, many non-Yazidi Kurds were forced to leave their homes. Following the end of the Soviet Union, Kurds in Armenia were stripped of their cultural privileges and most fled to Russia or Western Europe.[104]


In 1920, two Kurdish-inhabited areas of Jewanshir (capital Kalbajar) and eastern Zangazur (capital Lachin) were combined to form the Kurdistan Okrug (or "Red Kurdistan"). The period of existence of the Kurdish administration was brief and did not last beyond 1929. Kurds subsequently faced many repressive measures, including deportations. As a result of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, many Kurdish areas have been destroyed and more than 150,000 Kurds have been deported since 1988.[104]

Kurds In Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon

The Kurdish leader Salah El Din Al-Ayubi along with his uncles Ameer Adil and Ameer Sherko, were joined by Kurdish fighters from the cities of Tigrit,Mosul, Arbil and Sharazur in a drive towards 'Sham' (Today Syria and Lebanon) in order to protect Islamic lands against the crusader attack. The Kurdish King and his uncles ruled north Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Egypt for a short period. Salah El Din in Syria, Ameer Sherko in Egypt and Ameer Adil in Jordan, with family members ruling most of the cities of today's Iraq. The Kurds built many monumental castles in the lands which they ruled especially in what was called 'Kurdistan of Syria' and in Damuscus, the capital of Syria. A tall building, called 'Qalha', is still standing, in the mid south-west quarter of Damascus. The Ayubian dynasty continued there for many years, all from Kurdish decent.


The Kurds are Aryan race.[105][106] Although Kurdistan came under the successive dominion of various conquerors, including the Armenians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and Persians,[105] they may have remained relatively unmixed by the influx of invaders, because of their protected and inhospitable mountainous homeland.[106]

Genetic testing amongst randomly chosen Kurdish populations has began to shed light into the disparate origins of the Kurds. The results reveal a variety of connections amongst the Kurds, when assessing paternal and maternal lineages. Overall the Kurds share some genetic ties to other speakers of Iranian languages as well as with various peoples from the Caucasus such as the Armenians which suggests that the Kurds have ancient ethnic ties that connect them to both the early inhabitants of the Kurdistan area, such as the Hurrians.

Similarity to Europeans and peoples of the Caucasus

A study by Richards and colleagues of mitochondrial DNA in the Near East found that Kurds, Azeris, Ossetians and Armenians show a high incidence of MtDNA U5 lineages, which are common among Europeans, although rare elsewhere in the Near East. The sample of Kurds in this study came from northwest Iran and northeast Iraq, where Kurds usually predominate.[107]

A geographically broad study of the Southwest and Central Asian Corridor found that populations located west of the Indus Valley mainly harbor mtDNAs of western Eurasian origin.[108]

When Ivan Nasidze and his colleagues examined both Mitochondrial and Y-Chromosome DNA, they found Kurdish groups most similar genetically to other West Asian groups, and most distant from Central Asian groups, for both mtDNA and the Y-chromosome. However, Kurdish groups show a closer relationship with European groups than with Caucasian groups based on mtDNA, but the opposite based on the Y-chromosome, indicating some differences in their maternal and paternal histories.[109]

Similarity to Azeris of Iran

According to DRB1, DQA1 and DQB1 allele frequencies showed a strong genetic tie between Kurds and Azeris of Iran. According to the current results, present-day Kurds and Azeris of Iran seem to belong to a common genetic pool.[110]

Similarity to Georgian people

David Comas and colleagues found that Mitochondrial sequence pools in Georgians and Kurds are very similar, despite their different linguistic and prehistoric backgrounds. Both populations present mtDNA lineages that clearly belong to the Western Eurasian gene pool.[111]

Similarity to Jewish people

There also appear to be some links to northern Semitic peoples such as the Syrians and possibly ancient Hebrews, but fewer links to southern Semites in the Arabian peninsula in spite of the region having been conquered very early by Muslim Arabs. In 2001 Nebel et al. compared three Jewish and three non-Jewish groups from the Middle East: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Kurdish Jews from Israel; Muslim Arabs from Israel and the Palestinian Authority Area; Bedouin from the Negev; and Muslim Kurds. They concluded that Kurdish and Sephardic Jews were indistinguishable from one another, whereas both differed slightly, yet significantly, from Ashkenazi Jews. Nebel et al. had earlier (2000) found a large genetic relationship between Jews and Palestinians, but in this study found an even higher relationship of Jews with Iraqi Kurds. They conclude that the common genetic background shared by Jews and other Middle Eastern groups predates the division of Middle Easterners into different ethnic groups.[112]

Interestingly, Nebel et al. (2001) also found that the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH), considered the most definitive Jewish haplotype, was found among 10.1% of Kurdish Jews, 7.6% of Ashkenazim, 6.4% of Sephardim, 2.1% of Palestianian Arabs, and 1.1% of Kurds. The CMH and the most frequent Kurdish haplotype (MKH) were the same on five markers (out of six) and very close on the other marker. The MKH was shared by 9.5% of Kurds, 2.6% of Sephardim, 2.0% of Kurdish Jews, 1.4% of Palestinian Arabs, and 1.3% of Ashkenazim. The general conclusion is that these similarities result mostly from the sharing of ancient genetic patterns, and not from more recent admixture between the groups.[112]

See also

See also


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  4. ^ Wladimir Iwanov:"The term Kurd in the middle ages was applied to all nomads of Iranian origin".(Wladimir Ivanon, "The Gabrdi dialect spoken by the Zoroastrians of Persia", Published by G. Bardim 1940. pg 42)
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