A look at the history of Kurdish people

kurds_aleviBy Anna Merianou

1. The people

The Kurds are an ethnic group who has historically inhabited the mountainous areas to the south of Caucasus, a geographical area collectively referred to as Kurdistan. Most Kurds speak an Indo-European language belonging to the Northwestern Iranian branch. Kurdistan is divided into 4 different parts which are in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Kurdish people have one of the longest ethnic histories in the Middle East. Their lineage dates back to as early as 2400 BC, where they occupied the same lands as they do today. However many foreign invasions and immigrants shaped the face of the Kurdish people over time.

Though Kurds had followed the teaching of Islam since an Arabic invasion in the 7th century, their culture remained distinctly different from all the others found around it. This early separatism would lay the groundwork for problems in outside parties ruling the area.


2. Etymology

The term Kurd is first encountered in Arabic sources of the 1st century of the Islamic era. The term seems to refer to variety of pastoral nomadism and possibly a set of political units, rather than a linguistic group.

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. In the early Islamic Persian and Arabic sources, the term Kurd became synonymous with an amalgamation of Iranian and Iranicized nomadic tribes and groups without reference to any specific Iranian language.


3. Prehistory

At the period of 641-905 AD, 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 Armenia and Arran, the Rawadids of Azerbaijan, the Marwandis of eastern Anatolia, the Hasanwayhids, Fadhilwayhids, and Ayyarids of the central Zagros are some of these Kurdish dynasties and principalities.

Throughout Kurdish history after the Muslim conquests, there was a tendency for Kurdish tribes to move northwest as vassals of greater Muslim powers from the Zagros to east Assyria and south-central Armenia, to west Assyria and west Armenia, to in modern times, migration of individuals into western Turkey, western Europe or even the Western Hemisphere..

Around 1150, Ahmad Sanjar, the last of the great Seljuq monarchs, created a province out of these lands and called it Kurdistan.


4. Displacement of the Kurds

Removal of the population from along their borders with the Ottomans in Kurdistan and the Caucasus was of strategic importance. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were moved to other regions in the Safavid Persian Empire, only to defend the borders, while other ethnic groups such as the Armenians, Assyrians, Georgians, Azeris, were also removed from the border regions and resettled in the interior of Persia, but mainly for socio-economic reasons.

During several periods, as the borders moved progressively eastward, with the Ottomans pushing deeper into the Persian domains, entire Kurdish regions of Anatolia were at one point or another exposed to horrific acts of despoliation and deportation.

Between 1534 and 1535, Tahmasp, using a policy of scorched earth against his Ottoman arch rivals, began the systematic destruction of the old Kurdish cities and the countryside.

While the deported Kurds became the nucleus of the modern central Anatolian Kurdish enclave, the Turkmen tribes in Kurdistan eventually assimilated.


 5.Ottoman Period

When Sultan Selim I, after defeating Shah Ismail I in 1514, annexed Armenia and Kurdistan, 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.


 6. 20th Century – Rise of Nationalism

 Kurdish nationalism emerged after World War I with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire which had historically successfully integrated 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.

The Kurdish ethno nationalist movement that emerged following World War I and the collapse 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.

Western powers (particularly the United Kingdom) fighting the Turks promised the Kurds they would act as guarantors for Kurdish freedom, a promise they subsequently broke.

It took a period of political liberalization 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.

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.

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, or Kurdistan Workers Party.


 7. Post WWI Era

 Some of the Kurdish groups sought self-determination and the championing in the Treaty of Sevres of Kurdish autonomy in the aftermath of World War I. Kurds backed by the United Kingdom declared independence in 1927 and established so-called Republic of Ararat.

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.

During the 1920s and 1930s, several large scale Kurdish revolts took place in this region: Saikh Said Rebellion in 1925, Ararat Revolt in 1930 and Dersim Revolt in 1938.

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.


8. Current Situation

From 1915 to 1918, Kurds struggled to end Ottoman rule over their region. They were encouraged by Woodrow Wilson‘s support and submitted their claim for independence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

The Treaty of Sevres stipulated the 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.

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. Additionally, education in Kurdish is now permitted though only in private institutions.

Today, about half of all Kurds live in Turkey. The rest live in Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to the CIA Factbook they account for 18 percent of the Turkish population. They are predominantly distributed in the southeastern corner of the country.

The best available estimate of the number of persons in Turkey speaking the Kurdish language is about five million, while about 3,950,000 others speak Northern Kurdish (Kurmanji). While population increase suggests that the number of speakers has grown, it is also true that the ban on the use of the language in Turkey was only lifted in 1991 and still exists in most official settings (including schools), 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.



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Ozoglu, Kurdish notables and the Ottoman State, 2004, SUNY Press

Garnik Asatrian (Yerevan University). Prolegomena to the Study of the Kurds, Iran and the Caucasus, Vol.13, pp. 1–58, 2009

Marvin Lapidus. A History of Islamic Societies, p. 233, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Bal, Ihsan. The Ideological and Historical Roots of Kurdist Movements in Turkey: Ethnicity Demography, Politics. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 10 (3): 473–504.