By Prof. Mehrdad A. Izady
Being the native inhabitants of their land. there are no “beginnings” for Kurdish history and people. Kurds and their history are the end products of thousands of years of continuous internal evolution and assimilation of new peoples and ideas introduced sporadically into their land. Genetically, Kurds are the descendants of all those who ever came to settle in Kurdistan, and not any one of them. A people such as the Guti, Kurti. Mede, Mard, Carduchi, Gordyene, Adianbene, Zila and Khaldi signify not the ancestor of the Kurds but only an ancestor.
Archaeological finds continue to document that some of mankind’s earliest steps towards development of agriculture. domestication of many common farm animals (sheep, goats, hogs and dogs), record keeping (the token system), development of domestic technologies (weaving, fired pottery making and glazing), metallurgy and urbanization took place in Kurdistan, dating back between 12,000 and 8.000 years ago.
The earliest evidence so far of a unified and distinct culture (and possibly, ethnicity) by people inhabiting the Kurdish mountains dates back to the Halaf culture of 8,000-7,400 years ago. This was followed by the spread of the Ubaidian culture, which was a foreign introduction from Mesopotamia. After about a millennium, its dominance was replaced by the Hurrian culture, which may or may not have been the Halafian people reasserting their dominance over their mountainous homeland. The Hurrian period lasted from 6,300 to about 2,600 years ago.
Much more is known of the Hurrians. They spoke a language of the Northeast Caucasian family of languages (or Alarodian), kin to modern Chechen and Lezgian. The Hurrians spread far and wide, dominating much territory outside their Zagros-Taurus mountain base. Their settlement of Anatolia was complete-all the way to the Aegean coasts. Like their Kurdish descendents, they however did not expand too far from the mountains. Their intrusions into the neighboring plains of Mesopotamia and the Iranian Pteau, therefore, were primarily military annexations with little population settlement. Their economy was surprisingly integrated and focused, along with their political bonds, mainly running parallel within the Zagros- Taurus mountains, rather than radiating out to the lowlands, as was the case during the preceding (foreign) Ubaid cultural period. The mountain-plain economic exchanges remained secondary in importance, judging by the archaeological remains of goods and their origin.
The Hurrians-whose name survives now most prominently in the dialect and district of Hawraman/Awraman in Kurdistan- divided into many clans and subgroups, who set up city-states, kingdoms and empires known today after their respective clan names. These included the Gutis, Kurti, Khadi, Mards, Mushku, Manna, Hatti, Mitanni, Urartu, and the Kassitis1es, to name just a few. All these were Hurrians, and together form the Hurrian phase of Kurdish history.
By about 4.000 years ago, the first vanguard of the Indo-European-speaking peoples were trickling into Kurdistan in limited numbers and settling there. These formed the aristocracy of the Mitani, Kassite, and Hittite kingdoms, while the common peoples there remained solidly Hurrian. By about 3,000 years ago, the trickle had turned into a flood, and Hurrian Kurdistan was fast becoming Indo-European Kurdistan. Far from having been wiped out, the Hurrian legacy, despite its linguistic eclipse, remains the single most important element of the Kurdish culture until today. It forms the substructure for every aspects of Kurdish existence, from their native religion to their art, their social organization, women’s status, and even the form of their militia warfare.
Medes, Scythians and Sagarthians are just the better-known clans of the Indo- European-speaking Aryans who settled in Kurdistan. By about 2,600 years ago, the Medes had already set up an empire that included all Kurdistan and vast territories far beyond. Medeans were followed by scores of other kingdoms and city-states–all dominated by Aryan aristocracies and a populace that was becoming Indo-European, Kurdish speakers if not so already.
By the advent of the classical era in 300 BC. Kurds were already experiencing massive population movements that resulted in settlement and domination of many neighboring regions. Important Kurdish polities of this time were all by-products of these movements. The Zelan Kurdish clan of Commagene (Adyaman area), for example, spread to establish in addition to the Zelanid dynasty of Commagene, the Zelanid kingdom of Cappadocia and the Zelanid empire of Pontus-all in Anatolia. These became Roman vassals by the end of the Ist century BC. In the east the Kurdish kingdoms of Gordyene, Cortea, Media, Kirm, and Adiabene had, by the 1st century BC, become confederate members of the Parthian Federation.
While all larger Kurdish Kingdoms of the west gradually lost their existence to the Romans, in the east they survived into the 3rd century AD and the advent of the Sasanian Persian empire. The last major Kurdish dynasty, the Kayosids, fell in AD 380. Smaller Kurdish principalities (called the Kohyar, “mountain administrators”) however, preserved their autonomous existence into the 7th century and the coming of Islam.
Several socio-economic revolutions in the garb of religious movements emerged in Kurdistan at this time, many due to the exploitation by central governments, some due to natural disasters. These continued as underground movement into the Islamic era, bursting forth periodically to demand social reforms. The Mazdakite and Khurramite movements are best-known among these.
The eclipse of the Sasanian and Byzantine power by the Muslim caliphate, and its own subsequent weakening, permitted the Kurdish principalities and “mountain administrators” to set up new, independent states. The Shaddadids of the Caucasus and Armenia, the Rawadids/Rawandids of Azerbaijan, the Marwandis of eastern Anatolia; the Hasanwayhids, Fadhilwayhids, and Ayyarids of the central Zagros and the Shabankara of Fars and Kirman are some of the medieval Kurdish dynasties.
The Ayyubids stand out from these by the vastness of their domain. From their capital at Cairo they ruled territories of eastern Libya, Egypt, Yemen, western Arabia, Syria, the Holy Lands, Armenia and much of Kurdistan. As the custodians of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, the Ayyubids were instrumental in the defeat and expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land.
With the 12th and 13th centuries the Turkic nomads arrived in the area who in time politically dominated vast segments of the Middle East. Most independent Kurdish states succumbed to various Turkic kingdoms and empires. Kurdish principalities, however, survived and continued with their autonomous existence until the 17th century. Intermittently, these would rule independently when local empires weakened or collapsed.
The advent of the Safavid and Ottoman empires in the area and their division of Kurdistan into two uneven imperial dependencies was on a par with the practice of the preceding few centuries. Their introduction of artillery and scorched-earth policy into Kurdistan, however, was a new, and devastating development.
In the course of the 16th to 18th centuries, vast portions of Kurdistan were systematically devastated and large numbers of Kurds were deported to far corners of the Safavid and Ottoman empires. The magnitude of death and destruction wrought on Kurdistan unified its people in their call to rid the land of these foreign vandals. The lasting mutual suffenng awakened in Kurds a community feeling–nationalism, that called for a unified Kurdish state and fostering of Kurdish culture and language. Thus the historian Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi wrote the first pan-Kurdish history the Sharafnama in 1597, as Ahmad Khani composed the national epic of Mem-o-Zin in 1695, which called for a Kurdish state to fend for its people. Kurdish nationalism was born.
For one last time a large Kurdish kingdom–the Zand, was born in 1750. Like the medieval Ayyubids, however, the Zands set up their capital and kingdom outside Kurdistan, and pursued no policies aimed at unification of the Kurdish nation. By 1867, the very last autonomous Kurdish principalities were being systematically eradicated by the Ottoman and Persian governments that ruled Kurdistan. They now ruled directly, via governors, all Kurdish provinces. The situation further deteriorated after the end of the WWI and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
The Treaty of Sèvres (signed August 10, 1921) anticipated an independent Kurdish state to cover large portions of the former Ottoman Kurdistan. Unimpressed by the Kurds’ many bloody uprisings for independence, France and Britain divided up Ottoman Kurdistan between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The Treaty of Lausanne (signed June 24, 1923) formalized this division. Kurds of Persia/Iran, meanwhile, were kept where they were by Tehran.
Drawing of well-guarded state boundaries dividing Kurdistan has, since 1921, a Micted Kurdish society with such a degree of fragmentation, that its impact is tearing apart the Kurds’ unity as a nation. The 1920s saw the setting up of Kurdish Autonomous Province (the “Red Kurdistan”) in Soviet Azerbaijan. It was disbanded in 1929. In 1945, Kurds set up a Kurdish republic at Mahabad in the Soviet, occupied zone in Iran. It lasted one year, until it was reoccupied by the Iranian army.
Since 1970s, the Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed an official autonomous status in a portion of that state’s Kurdistan. By the end of 1991, they had become all but independent from Iraq. By 1995, however, the Kurdish government in Arbil was at the verge of political suicide due to the outbreak of factional fighting between various Kurdish warlords.
Since 1987 the Kurds in Turkey by themselves constituting a majority of all Kurds have waged a war of national liberation against Ankara’s 70 years of heavy handed suppression of any vestige of the Kurdish identity and its rich and ancient culture. The massive uprising had by 1995 propelled Turkey into a state of civil war. The burgeoning and youthful Kurdish population in Turkey, is now demanding absolute equality with the Turkish component in that state, and failing that, full independence.
In the Caucasus, the fledgling Armenian Republic, in the course of 1992-94 wiped out the entire Kurdish community of the former “Red Kurdistan.” Having ethnically “cleansed” it, Armenia has effectively annexed Red Kurdistan’s territory that forms the land bridge between the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia proper.