The first documented resettlement of Kurds

The First Documented Resettlement
of Kurds into Western and Southwestern Anatolia
circa 181 BC

By: M. R. Izady, July 1998

During the Seleucid/Macedonian period that followed the conquest of the Persian Achaemenian Empire by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, at least one major episode of resettlement of Kurds into western and southwestern Anatolia can be historically evidenced. This is for the period circa 181 BC.

A fairly long rock inscription at Telmessus (modern Fethiye) on the southwestern coast of Anatolia by the Pergamese king Eumenes II (r. 197-154 BC) provides a glimpse into the life and history of the resettled Kurds. The inscription is in Greek and is commonly known as the “Cardaces Inscription.”1 This single inscription constitutes the primary historical document for the episode. But despite its terseness, the inscription also contains some detail of the harrowing impact the resettlement had on the affected populace, who turn out to be of the historic and populous clan of Kardakan (Greek Kardakoi, Latinized into Cardaces). Fortuitously, the clan is still with us today.

Life among the deportees.

The ‘Cardaces Inscription’ is the verbatim copy of a letter sent by the Pergamese king Eumenes to Artemidorus, the prince/governor of Telmessus (or perhaps, all of Lycia), in response to a petition for relief filed by the affected Kurds. The reason for the oddity of having the royal letter subsequently engraved into the face of a mountain for all to see, may have been Artemidorus’ attempt to force king Eumenes to keep his commitment of relief for the beleaguered populace. It reads:

“King Eumenes to Artemidorus. I have read the comments you appended to the petition submitted by the settlers in the settlement of the Cardaces. Since after investigating, you find that their private affairs are in a weak condition, as their trees are not yielding much fruit and their land is of poor quality, give instruction that they may keep the piece of land they bought from Ptolemy and the price they did not pay because most of them have no resources left, and give instructions not to exact the money: and since they must pay for each adult person a poll-tax of four Rhodian drachmas and an obol, but the weak condition of their private affairs makes this a burden to them, have them exempted from the arrears of this tax for the sixteenth year [of Eumenes’ reign], and of one Rhodian drachma and one obol from the seventeenth year, and for all those whom the [Cardaces] introduced from the outside, have it that they be granted exemption from all taxes for three years, and for those who have previously left the area but now wish to return, exemption for two years; and have it that they may repair the fort they previously had, so as to have a stronghold, so long as they provide themselves the rest of the expenditure, while I myself pay for a skilled craftsman. Year 17, the fourth day from the end of Dius [181 BC].” 2 (emphasis added)

What is clear is that upon arrival in Telmessus/Fethiye region, the Kardakan build an eponymous colony/settlement and a fortress as their headquarters. They purchased farmlands and planted orchards. This undertaking, however, did not flourish, either because of the poor soil and/or growing condition, or due to lack of sufficient manpower, as the Kardakan men were frequently called upon to serve under arm and on various battle fields. The military conditions at the time was fluid everywhere, and the Kurdish settlers must have been hard-pressed to find the time needed for developing their newly settled mountainous land in Lycia in between their military duties.

The colony’s poverty, therefore, may have been as much due to excessive military conscription as to the poor agricultural land and their strangeness in their new settlement. As indirectly pointed out in the Inscription, some of the Kardakan had in fact escaped the poor condition of the colony, but later returned, possibly attracted to the tax exemptions they had been promised and duly recorded in the Inscription.

What is most fascinating is that these fighting men were joined later by their kin and possibly, more clan folks joining them in the Lycian colony–a fact also recorded in the Inscription. This phenomenon is encountered, and far better documented, in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries Persia, where hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to resettle on the far eastern borders of the that empire in Khurasan, and defend it against the steppe nomads and foreign armies. This latter episode involved by the Persian administration first sending the elite Kurdish warriors into Khurasan, where they fought and cleared swats of defensible and productive lands in that strategic region. They followed this by occupying or building fortresses. Only then the Kurds brought their families, clan kin folks and livestock to settle their new homes. How different could the Cardacian/Kardakan colony of Lycia have been from this Khurasani episode of 16-17th century (which, oddly, included some of the same Kardakan clansmen)?

Historical background of the affected group:

The first mention of the affected clan’s group name–the Kardakan–appears in the early Akkadian records, particularly those found among the Amarna archives in Egypt of 14th century BC. The later Babylonian sources make mention of the “Kardaka” in various contexts in the 7th century BC. 3 There is, e.g., a mention of the Kardaka who provided mercenaries and guards for the Babylonian royal house. 4 From one Neo-Babylonian business record dated to 515 BC, one learns of a trader named “Lukshu the Kardaka” 5 Lukshu the Kardaka is clearly a single man who belonged to the Kardaka ‘clan.’ Flavius Arrian, meanwhile, notes that in the army of the last Persian Achaemenid king, Darius III (in 332 BC), were 60,000 ‘Persian’ heavy infantry, who he adds were “known as Cardaces.” 6 Sekunda and Chew rightly surmise that the Cardaces/Kardakan “though non-Greek, were not Persians either, and [were] a separate body from the Persian National Army.” 7

The resettlement episode discussed herein is also the last mention of the Kardakan in any detail until their reappearance in late medieval, early-modern times when the Kurdish historian, Prince Sharafaddin Bitlisi in 1597 provides a relatively detailed history for them in his Sharafnâma. Although not mentioned in the inscription, the original home of the Cardaces/Kardakans can therefore be surmised with good accuracy by using that source. The Kardakan is presented in the Sharafnâma as a clan and a princely house ruling from an area west-southwest of Bitlis (ancient Baris/Balis), in the western Lake Van region of Kurdistan. 8

At present, the Kardakans can be found in pockets in various corners of Kurdistan (such as the Mount Ararat region), 9 but also among a yet another populous community of Kurds resettled as frontier guardsmen, this time, in the aforementioned, 450-year-old Khurasani Kurdish exclave in northeastern Iran and southern Turkmenistan. Somehow, resettlement for military services and the Kardakans seem to have entered into a dangerous historical marriage.

The resettlement history.

The episode unfold sometimes before 181 BC when a large number of Kardakans are brought to settle in the strategic region of Lycia as a reservoir for military conscript and frontier guardsmen. As to who brought these Kurds into Lycia, when and how, two possibilities present themselves.

The most likely is that it was the Seleucids who settled these Kurds in Lycia for the stated military purposes, possibly in the last decades of the 3rd century BC. Lycia possessed an acute strategic importance within the elongated territories of the Seleucid Empire in Anatolia. It formed the land bridge joining the Seleucids’ rich Aegean possessions in the west to the rest of that empire in the east. Lycia cut off would have translated into an immediate loss of all Seleucid lands on the Aegean, including their winter capital of Ephesus. (see the map below)

Being aware of this, during the decisive campaigns between Rome and her allies against the Seleucids at the Battle of Magnesia (190 BC. Modern Manisa in western Anatolia), Romans accordingly landed their seaborne troops at Telmessus in Lycia, placing the Seleucids with a fait accompli regarding their Aegean territories. The Peace of Apamea two year later in 188 led to the loss of all Seleucids Anatolian provinces west  of modern Antalya. The Kurdish military presence in the region could have been to prevent this exact same faith. The Seleucids–most likely Antiochus III, could have thus transplant an entire community of Kurds into the region whose warriors had earlier proven valuable in many documented wars waged by the Seleucids. They may have been instrumental in keeping Lycia under guard against the native Lycians as well as outside threats until the aftermath of Magnesia.

Antiochus III per se was no stranger to the military value of the Kurdish troops. Kurds routinely played an important role in the Seleucid east, from Media 10 to Palestine to Anatolia. For the year 190 BC—only nine short years before the Cardacian Inscription was executed in Lycia, the Roman historian Livy records the presence of several thousand Kurdish soldiers fighting in the army of Antiochus at the same historic Battle of Magnesia against the Romans and the Pergamese. Describing the makeup of Antiochus’s army, he records that:

“The extremity of the [right] flank consisted of 4000 mixed Kurdish slingers and Elymaean archers (mixti Cyrtii funditores et Elymaei sagittarii)… [On the left flank were] four thousand targeteers: these were Pisidians and Pamphylians and Lycians; then auxiliaries of the Kurdish and Elymaean [peoples] equal to those stationed on the right flank (tum Cyrtiorum et Elymæorum paria in dextro cornu locatis auxilia11 …”

Arraying of various ethnic troops together in the Seleucid army normally implied linguistic affinity between them. This was for the practical reasons to facilitate communication and cooperation; hence the grouping of the Pisidians, Pamphylians and Lycians who shared the same Luvian language. Likewise, the placing together of the Kurti and the Elymaeans (Lurs-Bakhtiyaris)12   may be interpreted to imply linguistic affinity between them–one that still largely exist today! But, can this not lead us to seek the source of these Kurdish troops in southeastern Kurdistan in the neighborhood of Luristan and Bakhtiyari, instead of the Kardakan/Cardacian colony in Lycia? Not necessarily.

If we were to believe these Kurds/Cyrtii at the Battle of Magnesia were the neighboring population to the Elymaeans in their origin (hence their employment next to one another in that army) then these Kurds should have come from southern or central Zagros from the neighborhood of Elymaeis (Luristan and the Bakhtiyari mountains), nearly 1000 miles away. If this was a viable option, then what would have been the reason behind the massive (and inevitably, costly) transplantation of the Kardakan Kurds into Lycia by the Seleucids at about this same time? The reservoir of Kurdish troops could have been tapped into much closer to these battle zones of western Anatolia than drawing them from such long distances in central and southern Zagros. Further, placing the Kurti/Cyrtii immediately next to the Lycians by Livy may be a clue that we are dealing with Kurdish troops drawn from the same transplanted Kardakan/Cardacian colony in Telmessus, Lycia.

The name “Cardaces” or “Cardacian” is encountered for sometime during the Seleucid times before and after the Cardacian Inscription. There are in fact some circumstantial evidence to point to the possibility of a Kardakan presence in that general area of central and southwestern Anatolia decades before the writing of the Cardacian Inscription. At the Battle of Rhaphia in Palestine in spring of 217 BC between the Seleucid king Antiochus the Great (r. 223-187 BC) and king Ptolemy of Egypt

This arraying of the Cardacian and Lydian javelin-throwers under a Gaul commander (from Galatia, central Anatolia) in the army of Antiochus III might imply the drawing of the Cardacian troops from that western Anatolian source as well.

“At the beginning of the following spring, having all preparations for war completed, Antiochus and Ptolemy determined to bring their claims to Coele-Syria to the decision of a battle… Being informed of his approach, Antiochus drew his forces together. These consisted of Daae, Carmani, and Cilicians, equipped as light-armed troops to the number of about five thousand… In addition to these there were Agrianes and Persians, who were either bowmen or slingers, to the number of two thousands… There were also a mixed force of Medes, Cissians, Cadusians, and Carmanians, amounting to five thousand men, who were assigned to the chief command of Aspasianus the Mede… Antiochus had also fifteen hundred Cretans commanded by Zelys of Gortyna. With these were five hundred Lydian javelineers and a thousand Cardaces (Kavrdake”) under Lysimachus the Gaul.” 13

But there is a second, albeit less likely possibility. It may have been the Pergamese king Eumenes II who established the Cardacian presence in Lycia. By the articles of the peace treaty of Apamea in 188 BC, Seleucids ceded Lycia to Rome which immediately handed it over to its ally, Pergamum. Lycia became the easternmost frontier province of the Pergamese kingdom, bordering on the Seleucid Empire to the east which still stretched all the way to modern Antalya. The Pergamese could have been the ones who established the Kardakan Kurdish community in Lycia after their annexation of it in 188 BC, for exactly the same purpose as noted above for the possible Seleucid origin of the colony. This time, however, the resettled Kurds were expected to defend Lycia for the Pergamese against their former masters–the Seleucids–stationed at Antalya. The colony continued to be a source of conscripts to King Eumenes II at the times of war, in addition to providing permanent frontier guardsmanship.

In 171 BC—exactly 10 years after the date for the Cardacian Inscription—Kurdish troops are found in the army of the same Eumenes II fighting in Europe. Eumenes was assisting the Roman Republican army under Licinius Crassus and Quintus Mucius in their attempt to conquer Greece for Rome from the Macedonian king, Perseus. The battle took place on River Peneüs (modern Piniós) in Thessaly, central Greece. Describing the composition of the allied troops, Livy writes:

“Before the standards of the center were arrayed two hundred Gallic [Galatian] cavalry, and three hundred of Eumenes’ auxiliaries from the Kurdish people (Cyrtiorum gentis).” 14

These must have been largely, if not totally, drawn from the Lycian Kurdish military colony of the Kardakans. What is of paramount importance to note here is that while the Cardacian Inscription records the settlers by their clan name Cardacian/Kardakans, the Roman historian Livy simply calls them “the Kurdish people” (Cyrtiorum gentis).

But, where could Eumenes have gotten all these Kurds to settle in Lycia in the first place, if he were indeed the founder of the colony? Pergamum near the Aegean Sea coast is far from Kurdish inhabited lands, even at the time of these events. These Kurds could have been partly those captured after the Battle of Magnesia from the ragtag retreating army of the Seleucid king Antiochus III. These Kurdish troops were later joined by their kin and family who moved into Lycia, as is remarked in the Inscription.

Upon the death of Eumenes in 159 BC, Lycia regained its independence for a short time, before being regained by the Pergamese to eventually pass into the Roman orbit in 133 BC. 15 Strabo records the process in brief:

“Eumenes received this place [Lycia] from the Romans in the Antiochian War, but when his kingdom was dissolved, the Lycians got it back again.”  16


Although it is not possible to definitively state which of the two—the Seleucids or the Pergamese—were responsible for the creation of the Kurdish colony in Lycia, the evidence weighs far more heavier towards the Seleucids. Several other circumstantial evidence point to an earlier, Seleucid origin for the colony, including the Inscription itself. In there the Pergamese king Eumenes declares that the Cardacians “may repair the fort they previously had…” One can read much into the word “previous” in here. At the time of the writing of the Inscription, Pergamum had ruled Lycia only for a short 7 years. Although not impossible, it is improbable that the Kardakans had time to build a settlement and a fort, desert them, and then return to revitalize them with their kin and folks—all in a short few year. Only further investigation, however, may provide an answer this question.

Whatever the origins, the Kardakan/Cardacian resettlement in Lycia falls into a larger pattern that is witnessed for the following two millennia: Kurdish warriors (along with their families and kin) being transplanted by central state governments to serve as largely unpaid permanent frontier guardsmen. These transplanted communities faced and defend their own household against outside enemies trying to cross their new home territories. It was rightly calculated that by extension they would also provide security for state’s territory to their rear.

What happened to the Kardakan community of Lycia after this, is unknown to me at this time, but they do not seem to have survived very long. The eponymous town that was built the Kardakans/Cardacians, finds no mention two centuries later in the monumental historical geography of Strabo, who being a native of Amasea/Amasya, provides an exact historical geography for all of Anatolia. The settlement and its fortress could hardly have escaped Strabo’s notice if it still existed as a place of any consequence in AD 17 when he finished his work.


  1. Or “Cardaches Inscription.”
  2. F.G. Maier, Griechische Mauer-bauinschriften I (1959), no. 76.
  3. A. Leo Oppenheim, Letters from Mesopotamia (1967), 192 no. 143; A.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire(Chicago, 1948), 193.
  4. A.T. Clay, ed., Babylonian Records in the Library of the J. Pierpont Morgan (New York, 1932), i.71
  5. Ibidem.
  6. Arrian, Anabasis. II.viii.6.
  7. Nick Sekunda and Simon Chew, The Persian Army, 560-330 BC (London: Osprey, 1992), 51-53. Sekunda (the author) is uncertain as to considering the Kardaka an ethnic group or a professional group. He is lead in this by Stephen Hirsch’s belief that the Kardaka and Qardu were one and the same name and stood for the professional, “mercenary” troops hired into the Persian Achaemenian Army. But Hirsch commits the common mistake in assuming an etymological connection between Qardu, Kardaka and the Old Persian word gard, meaning “house,” or “household”, following by its borrowing into Neo-Akkadian, where it is presumably transferred into “Kardaka.” Based on this erroneous assumption, Hirsch suggests the meaning of Kardaka to be “those (troops) of the (Royal) Household.” Others have tried to derive the etymology from the Old Persian word korta/gord, “manly, warlike” but they have not been able to account for its very early existence in Akkadian. Strabo, in fact has a fascinating account to give regarding the Kardaka and the “meaning” of it, which has thus far escaped the notice of all who could have spared themselves the task. Describing the boot camps in which young Persian noble boys were trained, he observes that such trainees “are called Cardaces, since they live on thievery, for “carda” kavrda means the manly and warlike spirit.” (Geography, XV.iii.18) This fascinating—and erroneous—2,100-year old folk etymology by Strabo indicates that he (and his probable Persian informant) were obviously trying to derive the word carda from korda/gord—which is an etymological impossibility.
  8. Sharafnâma, III.vii.4
  9. In modern literature on Kurds the name Kardakan is often intentionally corrupted into “Kurdakan.” This is purely aetiological. Those authors who do, presume the need for the name to conform with the element “Kurd.” This is thoroughly wrong, and should not be attempted, as the two names are etymologically unrelated. The modern form, Kardakan, is correct and preserves the historic name in its pristine, ancient form with its original vowels still intact.
  10. Polybius places a special status for the Kurdish warriors in the army of Molon, the Macedonian satrap of Media who rebelled and lost his life opposing the Seleucid king Antiochus in 220 BC. He notes that Molon was hopeful of his success “…because he had great confidence in his corps of slingers called Kurds.” (“…to; pisteuvein tw’/ plhvfei tw’n sfendonhtw’n tw’n prosagoreuomevnwn Kurtivwn.”) (History, V.lii.7)
  11. Livy, History, XXXVII.xl.9-10.
  12. The Elymaeans should not be confused with the ancient Elamites. Classical Elymaeis corresponds directly to modern Luristan and Bakhtiyari territories, neighboring southeastern Kurdistan. Modern Iranian province of Ilam (southeastern Kurdistan) still preserved this historic name.
  13. Polybius, History, V.lxxix.7-11. I have not been able to find support for the assertion made by Bar Kochova (1989) and cited by Susan Sherwin-White and Amélie Kuhrt, that: ”the ‘Cardacians’ used to provide 1,000 light infantry for that Hellenistic [i.e., Seleucid] royal army (From Samarkhand [sic] to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 54. Polybius’ statement cited above is only for this single occasion, and I am not aware of any other classical citation.
  14. Livy, Hist., XLII.lviii.14. This is a doubly valuable information, because it may imply the knowledge of Livy of the ethno-national quality of the term Kurd/Kurti, under which the Kardakans/Cardacians and others could be placed.
  15. Strabo provide a very useful and succinct account of the life of Eumenes and what followed immediately in the region: “Eumenes fought on the side of the Romans against Antiochus the Great and against Perseus, and he received from the Romans all the country this side of the Taurus that had been subject to Antiochus… After a reign of 49 years [actually, 38 years, 197-159 BC] Eumenes left his empire to Attalus, his son by Stratonice, the daughter of Ariarathes, king of the Cappadocians. He appointed his brother Attalus [Philadelphus] as guardian both of his son , who was extremely young, and of the empire. After a reign of twenty-one years [159-138 BC], his brother died an old man, having won success in many undertakings; for example, he helped Alexander, the son of Antiochus, to defeat in war Demetrius, the son of Seleucus, and he fought on the side of the Romans against the Pseudo-Philip, and in an expedition against Thrace he defeated Diegylis the king of the Caeni, and he slew Prusias [of Bithynia] having incited his son Nicomedes against him, and he left his empire, under a guardian, to Attalus. Attalus, surnamed Philometor, reigned five years [138-133 BC], died of disease, and left the Romans his heirs. The Romans proclaimed the country a province, calling it Asia, by the same name as the continent [133 BC]. ” (Geo., XIII.iv.1-2)
  16. Strabo, Geo, XIV.iii.4.

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