Internal Subdivisions

Kurdistan divisions map

By Prof. M.R. Izady

Kurdistan can be divided historically, and on a socio-economic, cultural, and political basis, into five major subdivisions: southern Kurdistan centered historically on the city of Kirmanshâh, central Kurdistan centered on Arbil, eastern Kurdistan centered on Mahabad, northern Kurdistan centered on Bâyazid, and western Kurdistan centered on Diyârbakir. The two large, detached Kurdish enclaves in Khurdsân and central Anatolia merit separate treatment.

There exist “fossilized” records of two major historical subdivisions of Kurdistan, each following an epoch of ethnic homogenization. They have left their marks in the dialects spoken by the Kurds, their material culture, the elements of their religious beliefs, and their world outlook. Detailed analyses of the elements causing and/or fortifying the contemporary internal subdivisions, as well as the earlier ones, are found in the sections on Language, Religion, Historical Migrations, and Deportations & Forced Resettlements.

A long episode of southeast-to-northwest migration of the Kurds culturally homogenized Kurdish society by the end of 3rd century AD. This homogeneity was subsequently diluted by a four-centuries-long separation of northern and western Kurdistan in Anatolia, which had come under the jurisdiction and/or influence of the Byzantines, from the rest of Kurdistan in the Muslim domains (see Medieval History). This ultimately resulted in the modern north-south split between the Kurmânji dialect groups, with the Greater Zab river in Iraq marking the current linguistic and old cultural boundaries.

The boundaries drawn between Persian and Ottoman territories in the course of the 16th century proved to be as lasting-and divisive to the Kurds as the older ones between the Byzantines and Muslims. The result is now a very perceptible east-west divide, which runs from Lake Urmiâ, intersecting the older north-south division, south along the present Iran-Iraq border.

Southern Kurdistan.

Southern Kurdistan is now the last domain of the Gurâni~Laki language, and the center of the Yârsân religion. Here, South Kurmânji is the language of a rather small minority, and it may in fact be less common than Persian, a non-native language. The area is urbanized and its people cosmopolitan. Its inhabitants have a strong sense of history, informed primarily by its dose contact with Persian culture over the past five centuries.

Eastern Kurdistan.

Large portions of eastern Kurdistan, particularly south from the Bijâr-Marivân axis, were culturally part of southern Kurdistan until recently. South Kurmânji is now almost the only language there, and Sunni Islam the religion of a vast majority. The country folk, with their nomadic background, are markedly alien to the city people, creating a double-personality. While cities like Sanandaj, Bijâr, and Marivân have the feel and open culture of southern Kurdistan, the countryside is conservative and stark. The failure of many Kurdish political parties formed in this area is attributable to their difficulty in gaining allegiance from both sectors of their local society. The point of cultural inspiration for the area is surely Iran, but the links are not as strong as in southern Kurdistan, particularly with respect to the country people.

Central Kurdistan.

Central Kurdistan has always tilted towards Mesopotamia, and its history is connected to that region. Like southern Kurdistan, it has an urban-oriented past, but the climate and terrain are not very much like southern Kurdistan. Central Kurdistan is the least mountainous, and on average, the warmest part of Kurdistan. In fact, the area is often referred to as garmasir, or “warm country.” Culturally, however, central and southern Kurdistan are in many respects extensions of one another, despite five centuries of Persian political rule over southern Kurdistan. (Prior to the Persian Ottoman division, and since the beginning of recorded history, southern Kurdistan also showed a cultural tilt towards Mesopotamia.).

While Sunni Islam is the religion of the majority in central Kurdistan, Shi’ite Islam, Yârsânism, Alevism, Yezidism, Christianity, and Judaism are all present. In addition, every major dialect of Kurdish is spoken there, rendering it the one area linking together, culturally as well as geographically, all the subdivisions of Kurdistan.

Western Kurdistan.

Western Kurdistan is Mediterranean in outlook, although geographically it ranges from the Mediterranean coast near Alexandretta to mountain elevations of over 1 1,000 feet just north of Darsim. Throughout, the climate is benign, agriculture bountiful, and woodlands plentiful. Historically, it has been urban-centered, and its many large cities have always been populous and worldly, looking toward the West and the Mediterranean for inspiration, whether from Antioch, Rome, Byzantium, or Istanbul.

There are about as many followers of Alevism in this subdivision as there are Sunni Muslims. Linguistically, the area is divided between Dimili and North Kurmânjî speakers, but since there is presently only a weak correlation between language and religion, the internal differences have not manifested themselves as clear-cut social or cultural divisions.

Western Kurdistan is physically isolated from the rest of Kurdistan, despite its long borders with northern Kurdistan. This is due to the desolate character of northern Kurdistan and the mountains that separate the two regions.

Northern Kurdistan.

Northern Kurdistan has the harshest, most inhospitable land and climate of contiguous Kurdistan. Large portions of this subdivision, particularly the shores of Lake Vân and the area north of it, are historical Armenia. They have gotten their almost exclusively Kurdish character only since the end of World War I. The area once had a strong agricultural sector and an urban-based, trade-oriented economy, which was devastated by the past five centuries of wars, deportations, and massacres, as well as through environmental abuse. The inhabitants are inward looking, strongly tribal, and the least developed economically and technologically in Kurdistan.

Although the town of Vân is the largest in the area, it is a bit n-tisleading to point to a city as the center or hub of northern Kurdistan. There are no cities of note in the region, but there are numerous city ruins. Northern Kurdistan is the land of many great past cultural centers. Even a smaller town like Bftyazid (modern Dogu Bâyazit) was once a major city and cultural center, to which was born Ahmad Khani, perhaps the greatest Kurdish poet and the versifier of the national epic Mem o Zin (see Literature).


Of the two large detached enclaves of Kurds, the one in northeastern Iran in the province of Khurâsân owes its existence to the deportations from mainly northern and western Kurdistan of the 16th to 18th centuries by the Safavid monarches. This enclave spills over the Iranian borders into the Republic of Turkmenistan, onto the heights overlooking the Turkmen capital of Ashkhabâd. This enclave is as large in area as eastern Kurdistan, with half its population. The area is milder, and environmentally less abused, than northern Kurdistan, has a respectable number of cities for its size (including Quchan, Shirvân, and Bujnurd), and rich agriculture. It has also had a far less tumultuous history in the past few centuries than the northern Kurdistan most of its inhabitants left behind. The Khurâsani Kurdish community preserves a tradition now lost to its original home, as their deportations coincided with the beginning of a sustained cataclysmic military ravaging of northern Kurdistan by the Persian and Ottoman empires. The milder customs and intricate costumes of these Kurds preserve for posterity a glance at what northern Kurdistan might have been, had it been spared this devastation.

Almost all the Kurdish population in Khurasân therefore speaks North Kurmânji, but centuries of exposure to the Shi’ite Persian community of Khurâsân and the proximity to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad have rendered the community a mixture of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, with a peppering of Alevi adherents.

The Khurâsani enclave also is home to some smaller communities of Laki-speaking Yârsân Kurds. These were deported here from southern Kurdistan during the reign of the Afshârid monarchs of Persia in the middle of the 18th century. Indeed, Karim Khftn, the founder of the Zand dynasty of Persia that succeeded the Afshârids, was himself born to a family of these Lak deportees (of the Zand tribe). After ascending the Peacock Throne, Karim brought most of his people back to their original home. Those who chose to stay behind are the ancestors of the modern Laks of the Khurâsani endave and Birjand in Qohistan.

Central Anatolia

The endave in central and north central Anatolia in Turkey is a two lobed entity with two personalities. The southern lobe is on the arid and inhospitable lands to the west of Lake Tuz Gblii (south of Ankara), with the impoverished towns of Cihanbeyli, Yunak, and Haymana being its major urban settlements. The northern lobe is by contrast on the agriculturally rich and populous highlands in a quadrangle between the towns of Tokat, Yozgat, Corum, and Amâsya. The cities of Yozgat and Tokat, although not yet having a Kurdish majority, are the focal points of the northern lobe.

The southern lobe owes its existence to the same 16th-18th-century deportations that created the Kurdish community in Khurasân, while the northern lobe is more the result of a natural and steady n-dgration of Kurds into the region from contiguous Kurdistan. The northern lobe is bustling and dynamic, with the highest overall living standards among Kurds. It is fast expanding today.

The overwhelming majority of the Kurds in the central Anatohan enclave speak North Kurmânji, but Dirriili is also spoken by perhaps 10% of the coununity. Sunni Islam may be the religion of the majority of these Kurds, with Alevism retaining a sizable minority.

Each of the major internal subdivisions delineated above is further subdivided and informally administered by an array of large and small tribal organizations with deep historical roots. In the absence of a sovereign Kurdish government, the traditional internal subdivisions and large tribal domains may be properly perceived to serve as the national Kurdish substitute for administrative units, similar to the ordinary provincial entities devised for modern state administration. After all, these units have come into existence on the basis of historical and cultural realities, some thousands of years old.

Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilazation Harvard University, USA, 1992

General Bibliography
H.V. Handel-Mazzetti. “Zur Georgraphie von Kurdistan,” Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen 58 (1912); Walter Harris, “A Journey in Persian Kurdistan,” Geographical Journal 6-5 (1895); Major Kenneth Mason, “Central Kurdistan,” Geographical Journal 154-6 (1919); E. Smith, “Contribution to the Geography of Central Koordistan,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 11 (1851); J.G. Taylor, “Travels in Kurdistan, with Notices of the Sources of the Eastern and Western Tigris, and Ancient Ruins in their Neighbourhood,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 35 (1865); Jacques de Morgan, Relation sommaire d’un voyage en perse et dans le kurdistan (Paris, 1895).

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