1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kūrdistān

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KŪRDISTĀN, in its wider sense, the “country of the Kūrds” (Koords), including that part of Mount Taurus which buttresses the Armenian table-land (see Armenia), and is intersected by the Batman Su, the Bohtan Su, and other tributaries of the Tigris; and the wild mountain district, watered by the Great and Little Zab, which marks the western termination of the great Iranian plateau.

Population.—The total Kūrd population probably exceeds two and a half millions, namely, Turkish Kūrds 1,650,000, Persian 800,000, Russian 50,000, but there are no trustworthy statistics. The great mass of the population has its home in Kūrdistān. But Kūrds are scattered irregularly over the country from the river Sakarīa on the west to Lake Urmia on the east, and from Kars on the north to Jebel Sinjar on the south. There is also an isolated settlement in Khorasan. The tribes, ashiret, into which the Kūrds are divided, resemble in some respects the Highland clans of Scotland. Very few of them number more than 10,000 souls, and the average is about 3000. The sedentary and pastoral Kūrds, Yerli, who live in villages in winter and encamp on their own pasture-grounds in summer, form an increasing majority of the population. The nomad Kūrds, Kocher, who always dwell in tents, are the wealthiest and most independent. They spend the summer on the mountains and high plateaus, which they enter in May and leave in October; and pass the winter on the banks of the Tigris and on the great plain north of Jebel Sinjar, where they purchase right of pasturage from the Shammar Arabs. Each tribe has its own pasture-grounds, and trespass by other tribes is a fertile source of quarrel. During the periodical migrations Moslem and Christian alike suffer from the predatory instincts of the Kūrd, and disturbances are frequent in the districts traversed. In Turkey the sedentary Kūrds pay taxes; but the nomads only pay the sheep tax, which is collected as they cross the Tigris on their way to their summer pastures.

Character.—The Kūrd delights in the bracing air and unrestricted liberty of the mountains. He is rarely a muleteer or camel-man, and does not take kindly to handicrafts. The Kūrds generally bear a very indifferent reputation, a worse reputation perhaps, than they really deserve. Being aliens to the Turks in language and to the Persians in religion, they are everywhere treated with mistrust, and live as it were in a state of chronic warfare with the powers that be. Such a condition is not of course favourable to the development of the better qualities of human nature. The Kūrds are thus wild and lawless; they are much given to brigandage; they oppress and frequently maltreat the Christian populations with whom they are brought in contact,—these populations being the Armenians in Diarbekr, Erzerum and Van, the Jacobites and Syrians in the Jebel-Tūr, and the Nestorians and Chaldaeans in the Hakkāri country.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the Kūrdish chief is pride of ancestry. This feeling is in many cases exaggerated, for in reality the present tribal organization does not date from any great antiquity. In the list indeed of eighteen principal tribes of the nation which was drawn up by the Arabian historian Masudi, in the 10th century, only two or three names are to be recognized at the present day. A 14th-century list, however, translated by Quatremère,[1] presents a great number of identical names, and there seems no reason to doubt that certain Kūrdish families can trace their descent from the Omayyad caliphs, while only in recent years the Babān chief of Suleimania, representing the old Sohrans, and the Ardelān chief of Sinna,[2] representing an elder branch of the Gurāns, each claimed an ancestry of at least five hundred years. There was up to a recent period no more picturesque or interesting scene to be witnessed in the east than the court of one of these great Kūrdish chiefs, where, like another Saladin, the bey ruled in patriarchal state, surrounded by an hereditary nobility, regarded by his clansmen with reverence and affection, and attended by a bodyguard of young Kūrdish warriors, clad in chain armour, with flaunting silken scarfs, and bearing javelin, lance and sword as in the time of the crusades.

Though ignorant and unsophisticated the Kūrd is not wanting in natural intelligence. In recent years educated Kūrds have held high office under the sultan, including that of grand vizier, have assisted in translating the Bible into Turkish, and in editing a newspaper. The men are lithe, active and strong, but rarely of unusual stature. The women do not veil, and are allowed great freedom. The Kūrds as a race are proud, faithful and hospitable, and have rude but strict feelings of honour. They are, however, much under the influence of dervishes, and when their fanaticism is aroused their habitual lawlessness is apt to degenerate into savage barbarity. They are not deficient in martial spirit, but have an innate dislike to the restraints of military service. The country is rich in traditions and legends, and in lyric and in epic poems, which have been handed down from earlier times and are recited in a weird melancholy tone.

Antiquities.—Kūrdistān abounds in antiquities of the most varied and interesting character. But it has been very little opened up to modern research. A series of rock-cut cuneiform inscriptions extend from Malatia on the west to Miandoāb (in Persia) on the east, and from the banks of the Aras on the north to Rowanduz on the south, which record the glories of a Turanian dynasty, who ruled the country of Nairi during the 8th and 7th centuries, B.C., contemporaneously with the lower Assyrian empire. Intermingled with these are a few genuine Assyrian inscriptions of an earlier date; and in one instance, at Van, a later tablet of Xerxes brings the record down to the period of Grecian history. The most ancient monuments of this class, however, are to be found at Holwān and in the neighbourhood, where the sculptures and inscriptions belong probably to the Guti and Luli tribes, and date from the early Babylonian period.

In the northern Kūrdish districts which represent the Arzanene, Intilene, Anzitene, Zabdicene, and Moxuene of the ancients, there are many interesting remains of Roman cities, e.g. at Arzen, Miyafarikin (anc. Martyropolis), Sisauronon, and the ruins of Dunisir near Dara, which Sachau identified with the Armenian capital of Tigranocerta. Of the Macedonian and Parthian periods there are remains both sculptured and inscribed at several points in Kūrdistān; at Bisitun or Behistun (q.v.), in a cave at Amadīa, at the Mithraic temple of Kereftū, on the rocks at Sir Pūl-o-Zohab near the ruins of Holwān, and probably in some other localities, such as the Bālik country between Lahijān and Koi-Sanjāk; but the most interesting site in all Kūrdistān, perhaps in all western Asia, is the ruined fire temple of Pāī Kūlī on the southern frontier of Suleimanīa. Among the débris of this temple, which is scattered over a bare hillside, are to be found above one hundred slabs, inscribed with Parthian and Pahlavi characters, the fragments of a wall which formerly supported the eastern face of the edifice, and bore a bilingual legend of great length, dating from the Sassanian period. There are also remarkable Sassanian remains in other parts of Kūrdistān—at Salmūs to the north, and at Kermānshāh and Kasr-i-Shīrīn on the Turkish frontier to the south.

Language.—The Kūrdish language, Kermānjī, is an old Persian patois, intermixed to the north with Chaldaean words and to the south with a certain Turanian element which may not improbably have come down from Babylonian times. Several peculiar dialects are spoken in secluded districts in the mountains, but the only varieties which, from their extensive use, require to be specified are the Zaza and the Gurān. The Zaza is spoken throughout the western portion of the Dersim country, and is said to be unintelligible to the Kermānjī-speaking Kūrds. It is largely intermingled with Armenian, and may contain some trace of the old Cappadocian, but is no doubt of the same Aryan stock as the standard Kūrdish. The Gurān dialect again, which is spoken throughout Ardelān and Kermānshāh[3] chiefly differs from the northern Kūrdish in being entirely free from any Semitic intermixture. It is thus somewhat nearer to the Persian than the Kermānjī dialect, but is essentially the same language. It is a mistake to suppose that there is no Kūrdish literature. Many of the popular Persian poets have been translated into Kūrdish, and there are also books relating to the religious mysteries of the Ali-Illāhis in the hands of the Dersimlis to the north and of the Gurāns of Kermānshāh to the south. The New Testament in Kurdish was printed at Constantinople in 1857. The Rev. Samuel Rhea published a grammar and vocabulary of the Hakkāri dialect in 1872. In 1879 there appeared, under the auspices of the imperial academy of St Petersburg a French-Kūrdish dictionary compiled originally by Mons. Jaba, many years Russian consul at Erzerum, but completed by Ferdinand Justi by the help of a rich assortment of Kurdish tales and ballads, collected by Socin and Prym in Assyria.

Religion.—The great body of the nation, in Persia as well as in Turkey, are Sunnis of the Shafi’ite sect, but in the recesses of the Dersim to the north and of Zagros to the south there are large half-pagan communities, who are called indifferently Ali-Illahi and Kizjil-bāsh, and who hold tenets of some obscurity, but of considerable interest. Outwardly professing to be Shi’ites or “followers of Ali,” they observe secret ceremonies and hold esoteric doctrines which have probably descended to them from very early ages, and of which the essential condition is that there must always be upon the earth a visible manifestation of the Deity. While paying reverence to the supposed incarnations of ancient days, to Moses, David, Christ, Ali and his tutor Salmān-ul-Farisi, and several of the Shi’ite imams and saints, they have thus usually some recent local celebrity at whose shrine they worship and make vows; and there is, moreover, in every community of Ali-Illahis some living personage, not necessarily ascetic, to whom, as representing the godhead, the superstitious tribesmen pay almost idolatrous honours. Among the Gurāns of the south the shrine of Baba Yadgār, in a gorge of the hills above the old city of Holwān, is thus regarded with a supreme veneration. Similar institutions are also found in other parts of the mountains, which may be compared with the tenets of the Druses and Nosairis in Syria and the Ismailites in Persia.

History.—With regard to the origin of the Kūrds, it was formerly considered sufficient to describe them as the descendants of the Carduchi, who opposed the retreat of the Ten Thousand through the mountains, but modern research traces them far beyond the period of the Greeks. At the dawn of history the mountains overhanging Assyria were held by a people named Gūtū, a title which signified “a warrior,” and which was rendered in Assyrian by the synonym of Gardu or Kardu, the precise term quoted by Strabo to explain the name of the Cardaces (Κάρδακες). These Gūtū were a Turanian tribe of such power as to be placed in the early cuneiform records on an equality with the other nations of western Asia, that is, with the Syrians and Hittites, the Susians, Elamites, and Akkadians of Babylonia; and during the whole period of the Assyrian empire they seem to have preserved a more or less independent political position. After the fall of Nineveh they coalesced with the Medes, and, in common with all the nations inhabiting the high plateaus of Asia Minor, Armenia and Persia, became gradually Aryanized, owing to the immigration at this period of history of tribes in overwhelming numbers which, from whatever quarter they may have sprung, belonged certainly to the Aryan family.

The Gūtū or Kūrdu were reduced to subjection by Cyrus before he descended upon Babylon, and furnished a contingent of fighting men to his successors, being thus mentioned under the names of Saspirians and Alarodians in the muster roll of the army of Xerxes which was preserved by Herodotus.

In later times they passed successively under the sway of the Macedonians, the Parthians, and Sassanians, being especially befriended, if we may judge from tradition as well as from the remains still existing in the country, by the Arsacian monarchs, who were probably of a cognate race. Gotarzes indeed, whose name may perhaps be translated “chief of the Gūtū,” was traditionally believed to be the founder of the Gurāns, the principal tribe of southern Kūrdistān,[4] and his name and titles are still preserved in a Greek inscription at Behistun near the Kūrdish capital of Kermānshāh. Under the caliphs of Bagdad the Kūrds were always giving trouble in one quarter or another. In A.D. 838, and again in 905, there were formidable insurrections in northern Kūrdistān; the amir, Adod-addaula, was obliged to lead the forces of the caliphate against the southern Kūrds, capturing the famous fortress of Sermāj, of which the ruins are to be seen at the present day near Behistun, and reducing the province of Shahrizor with its capital city now marked by the great mound of Yassin Teppeh. The most flourishing period of Kūrdish power was probably during the 12th century of our era, when the great Saladin, who belonged to the Rawendi branch of the Hadabāni tribe, founded the Ayyubite dynasty of Syria, and Kūrdish chiefships were established, not only to the east and west of the Kūrdistān mountains, but as far as Khorāsān upon one side and Egypt and Yemen on the other. During the Mongol and Tatar domination of western Asia the Kūrds in the mountains remained for the most part passive, yielding a reluctant obedience to the provincial governors of the plains.

When Sultan Selim I., after defeating Shah Ismail, 1514, annexed Armenia and Kūrdistān, he entrusted the organization of the conquered territories to Idris, the historian, who was a Kūrd of Bitlis. Idris found Kūrdistān bristling with castles, held by hereditary tribal chiefs of Kūrd, Arab, and Armenian descent, who were practically independent, and passed their time in tribal warfare or in raiding the agricultural population. 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 Erzerūm and Erivan, which had lain waste since the passage of Timūr, with Kūrds from the Hakkiari and Bohtan districts. The system of administration introduced by Idris remained unchanged until the close of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29. But the Kūrds, owing to the remoteness of their country from the capital and the decline of Turkey, had greatly increased in influence and power, and had spread westwards over the country as far as Angora. After the war the Kūrds attempted to free themselves from Turkish control, and in 1834 it became necessary to reduce them to subjection. This was done by Reshid Pasha. The principal towns were strongly garrisoned, and many of the Kūrd beys were replaced by Turkish governors. A rising under Bedr Khān Bey in 1843 was firmly repressed, and after the Crimean War the Turks strengthened their hold on the country. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 was followed by the attempt of Sheikh Obaidullah, 1880–81, to found an independent Kūrd principality under the protection of Turkey. The attempt, at first encouraged by the Porte, as a reply to the projected creation of an Armenian state under the suzerainty of Russia (see Armenia), collapsed after Obaidullah’s raid into Persia, when various circumstances led the central government to reassert its supreme authority. Until the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29 there had been little hostile feeling between the Kūrds and the Armenians, and as late as 1877–1878 the mountaineers of both races had got on fairly well together. Both suffered from Turkey, both dreaded Russia. But the national movement amongst the Armenians, and its encouragement by Russia after the last war, gradually aroused race hatred and fanaticism. In 1891 the activity of the Armenian Committees induced the Porte to strengthen the position of the Kūrds by raising a body of Kūrdish irregular cavalry, which was well armed and called Hamidieh after the Sultan. The opportunities thus offered for plunder and the gratification of race hatred brought out the worst qualities of the Kūrds. Minor disturbances constantly occurred, and were soon followed by the massacre of Armenians at Sasūn and other places, 1894–96, in which the Kūrds took an active part.

Authorities.—Rich, Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan (1836); Wagner, Reise nach Persien und dem Lande der Kurden (Leipzig, 1852); Consul Taylor in R. G. S. Journal (1865); Millingen, Wild Life among the Koords (1870); Von Luschan, “Die Wandervölker Kleinasiens,” in Vn. d. G. für Anthropologie (Berlin, 1886); Clayton, “The Mountains of Kūrdistān,” in Alpine Journal (1887); Binder, Au Kūrdistan (Paris, 1887); Naumann, Vom Goldnen Horn zu den Quellen des Euphrat (Munich, 1893); Murray, Handbook to Asia Minor, &c. (1895); Lerch, Forschungen über die Kurden (St Petersburg, 1857–58); Jaba, Dict. Kurde-Français (St Petersburg, 1879); Justi, Kurdische Grammatik (1880); Prym and Socin, Kurdische Sammlungen (1890); Makas, Kurdische Studien (1901); Earl Percy, Highlands of Asiatic Turkey (1901); Lynch, Armenia (1901); A. V. Williams Jackson, Persia, Past and Present (1906).  (C. W. W.; H. C. R.) 

  1. See Notices et Extraits des MSS., xiii. 305. Of the tribes enumerated in this work of the 14th century who still retain a leading place among the Kūrds, the following names may be quoted: Guranieh of Dartang, modern Gurans; Zengeneh, in Hamadan hills, now in Kermānshāh; Hasnani of Kerkuk and Arbil, now in the Dersim mountains, having originally come from Khorāsān according to tradition; Sohrīeh of Shekelabad and Tel-Haftūn, modern Sohrān, from whom descend the Babān of Suleimanieh; Zerzari of Hinjarīn mountains, modern Zerzas of Ushnu (cuneiform pillars of Kel-i-shīn and Sidek noticed by author); Julamerkīeh, modern Julamerik, said to be descended from the caliph Merwān-ibn-Hakam; Hakkarīeh, Hakkāri inhabiting Zuzan of Arab geography; Bokhtieh, modern Bohtān. The Rowadi, to whom Saladin belonged, are probably modern Rawendi, as they held the fortress of Arbil (Arbela). Some twenty other names are mentioned, but the orthography is so doubtful that it is useless to try to identify them.
  2. The Sheref-nama, a history of the Kūrds dating from the 16th century, tells us that “towards the close of the reign of the Jenghizians, a man named Baba Ardilān, a descendant of the governors of Diarbekr, and related to the famous Ahmed-ibn-Merwān, after remaining for some time among the Gurāns, gained possession of the country of Shahrizor” and the Ardelān family history, with the gradual extension of their power over Persian Kūrdistān, is then traced down to the Saffavid period.
  3. The Gurān are mentioned in the Mesalik-el-Absār as the dominant tribe in southern Kūrdistān in the 14th century, occupying very much the same seats as at present, from the Hamadan frontier to Shahrizor. Their name probably signifies merely “the mountaineers,” being derived from gur or giri, “a mountain,” which is also found in Zagros, i.e. za-giri, “beyond the mountain,” or Pusht-i-koh, as the name is translated in Persian. They are a fine, active and hardy race, individually brave, and make excellent soldiers, though in appearance very inferior to the tribal Kūrds of the northern districts. These latter indeed delight in gay colours, while the Gurāns dress in the most homely costume, wearing coarse blue cotton vests, with felt caps and coats. In a great part of Kūrdistān the name Gurān has become synonymous with an agricultural peasantry, as opposed to the migratory shepherds.
  4. “The Kalhūr tribe are traditionally descended from Gudarz-ibn-Gīo, whose son Roham was sent by Bahman Keiāni to destroy Jerusalem and bring the Jews into captivity. This Roham is the individual usually called Bokht-i-nasser (Nebuchadrezzar) and he ultimately succeeded to the throne. The neighbouring country has ever since remained in the hands of his descendants, who are called Gurāns” (Sheref-Nama, Persian MS.). The same popular tradition still exists in the country, and ΓΩΤΑΡΖΗΟ ΓΕΟΠΟΘΡΟΣ is found on the rock at Behistun, showing that Gudarz-ibn-Gīo was really an historic personage. See Journ. Roy. Geog. Soc. ix. 114.