Prince Sharaf al-Dîn Bitlîsî

Prince Sharaf al-Dîn Bitlîsî

By Prof M.R. Izady

Although primarily a collection of dynastic histories, there is little doubt that the Sharafnâma is the single most important surviving text on Kurdish history and people.

The work is that of Prince Sharaf al-Dîn Bitlîsî (Kurdish: Mír Sheref el-Dín Bitlísí), who states he finished at least the first edition of the work on or shortly after 30 Dhu’l-hajja of the hegira year 1005 (4 August 1597).  Strong evidence suggests, as shall be seen below, that the author made further additions and alterations to the book as it was being copied for distribution in subsequent years.

Sharaf al-Dîn Bitlîsî was a prince of the Rozhiki/Rojikî/Roshakî dynasty, which had ruled for centuries from its capital of Bitlîs, intermittently as an independent emirate or as vassal to various empires that rose and fell in the region. Bitlîs or Bidlîs (the spelling which the author himself recommends, but occasionally fails to employ)  is in northwestern Kurdistan, about 15 miles to the west-southwest of Lake Van. The author, however, was born on February 25, 1543, in the town of Karahrûd (the medieval Karaj Abû-Dulaf, in the environs of modern Arâk) between Hamadan and Qum, in Persia. There, his father, Prince Shams al-Dîn, having been unseated by the Ottomans, was spending time as a refugee at the Safavid court. Bitlîsî’s mother was a Turcoman princess of the prestigious Bäyindir clan.  This is the same clan from which had recently sprung the royal house of the Aq Qoyunlu, whose greatest king, Uzun Hasan, was the maternal grandfather of Shah Ismâ·îl, the founder of the Safavid empire in Persia. From his mother’s side, therefore, Bitlîsî could claim relationship to both the illustrious Safavid and Aq Qoyunlu dynasties. But he preferred another geneology, one that derived its roots and legitimacy from the pre-Islamic Sasanian emperors of Persia. He removes all doubts about his preferred roots when, in the final dedicatory sentences to the Sharafnâma, Bitlîsî signs his work as “Sharaf son of Shams al-Dîn al-Akâsirî,”.

At present, the author’s name is commonly known to the Kurds and others simply as “Sharaf Khan.” This is, however, a later development and would have been considered inaccurate by the author at the time the Sharafnâma was written. At that time, khan was a title reserved for the princes among the Turco-Mongolian peoples (as suffixed to the names of the Ottoman and Ilkhanid sultans). Among non-Turco-Mongolians, khan was the title of tribal chiefs. Safavid monarchs, therefore—as expected—never used it. Sharaf al-Dîn Bitlîsî was neither a Turco-Mongolian monarch nor a tribal chief. He was thus formally known in his own time, and for some time after, as Mîr Sharaf, “Prince Sharaf,” which accurately emphasized his royal lineage.

After returning to Bitlîs to take up the Rozhiki throne as a suzerain to the Ottoman court, Bitlîsî gradually assumed the title khan which had been granted to him by the Ottoman Turkish sultans. The formula “Sharaf Khan” appears on building projects he commissioned in the last two decades of his life. Nowhere in the Sharafnâma, however, is the title khan affixed to the author’s name. Clearly, he did not care for the title and used it only when politically and outwardly necessary, such as in the dedicatory inscriptions affixed to public projects and buildings he commissioned. The replacement of the traditional title mîr—a contraction for emir, “prince,” with the Turkic title khan is a later development. Despite this, he remained best known as Mîr Sharaf, “Prince Sharaf” to the end of his days. Thus, Mustafâ b. Abdallâh Kâtib Chalabî, better known as Hâjî Khalîfa (Haci Halife Katip Çelebi), in his monumental biographical dictionary, the Kashf al-Dhunûn, wrote of our author and his Sharafnâma in these words:

The history of Sharaf Khân al-Bidlîsî, known as Mîr Sharaf. The book is in Persian and gives an account of the Kurdish princes and rulers in chapters. He then mentions the dynasties of the Ottomans and the Safavids, in chronological order to the [hegira] year 1005.

In view of this, nowhere in my work has the title khan been used for the author, but emir/mir “prince” which he preferred.

Bitlîsî maintains that his dynasty is ultimately connected with the Sasanian emperors of Persia. This came about, he states, through importation by the Rozhiki tribal confederacy of two princes of the Kurdish Bâdhid/Dustakid dynasty of the city-state of Akhlât (modern Ahlat), which had earlier branched off to give rise to the dynasty of the Marwânids (AD 983-1085). The Bâdhids/Dustakids, and therefore the Marwânids, did in fact claim such a Sasanian genealogy for themselves. This connection was explained as being through a certain Bahwât (<Badhwand), who was said to have been a son of Jâmâsp, a son  of the Sasanian emperor Cabades/Qubâd (r. AD 488-531). This is very interesting indeed, as a large number of other Kurdish princely houses—including the modern Ardalâns of southern and eastern Kurdistan—also claimed lineage from Cabades/Qubâd. This very important issue is discussed in detail by Bitlîsî in Book Four of the Sharafnâma.

Bitlîsî contends that his Rozhiki line of the old Dustakid/Bâdhid dynasty had ruled from Bitlîs for over 450 years prior to the writing of the Sharafnâma. This places the beginning of the Rozhiki independent rule at around AD 1145, or 60 years after the fall of the Marwânid branch of the Bâdhid/Dostakid dynasty. He then pushes the advent of the Rozhikis (as vassals?) farther back, to circa AD 1035 and the long reign of the greatest Marwânid king, Naßr al-Dawla Ahmad b. Marwân (r. 1011-1061). By claiming the Rozhikis as just an offshoot of the Marwanîds and by extension, the Dostakids/Bâdhids, Biltîsî finally gives the founding year of AD 836 and a life span of 761 years for the dynasty up to his own day. Considering many interregna such as the one that lasted for the better part of the author’s own life—this need not be an exaggeration. The Rozhikis’ rule was to continue long after our author’s life, until 1849, when the last scion of the dynasty, coincidentally also named Prince Sharaf, was deposed by the invading German-led Ottoman army and sent to exile in Istanbul. This would make for an extra-ordinary total life span of 1,013 years for the dynasty!

Intermarriages between various Kurdish dynasties were frequent, and the Sharafnâma brims with such accounts. We know from the history of Ibn Azraq al-Fâriqî that the Marwânids sent for brides to the Kurdish Shadyânids/Shaddâdids of the Caucasus and the Rewandids/Rawâdids of Azerbaijan. Thus, when the main line of a dynasty was extinguished, there was always an offshoot in one of the neighboring courts to claim its legacy of reign and bloodline.

Such claimants gained further credence if they were already in the position of ruler (as vassals, etc.) prior to the demise of the dynasty’s main line. One cannot be certain how strong a kin relationship and what extent of power sharing were present between the early Rozhikis and the Marwânids. But if we are to honor Bitlîsî’s emphatic declarations of continuity between the two dynasties (and that of the Bâdhids), we may also need to extend it to the Ardalâns. By a similar history, the Ardalân princes of southern and eastern Kurdistan likewise claimed descent from the Marwânids and ultimately the Sasanian emperors, as did the Rozhikis.

Source: The Sharafnâma or the History of the Kurdish Nation – 1597


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