Who are the Kurds ?

Monday, 4 July, 2016 , 17:03

Where do they come from? Historians generally agree to consider them as belonging to the Iranian branch of the large family of Indo-European people. In prehistoric times, kingdoms named Mitanni, Kassites and Hurrians reigned these mountainous areas, situated between the Iranian plateau and the headwaters of the Euphrates. In the 7th century BC, the Medes, the Kurds' equivalent of the Gauls for the French, founded an empire which, in 612 BC, conquered the powerful Assyria and spread its domination throughout Iran as well as central Anatolia. This date of 612 is also considered by Kurdish nationalists as the beginning of the Kurdish era.

The political reign of the Medes was to end towards the end of the 6th century BC, but their religion and civilization were to dominate Iran until the time of Alexander the Great. From this date right until the advent of Islam, the fate of the Kurds, mentioned by the Greek geographers and historians as Carduchi, was to remain linked to that of the other populations of the empires which succeeded one another on the Iranian scene: Seleucids, Parthes and Sassanids.

Having put up fierce resistance to the Arab-Muslim invasions, the Kurds ended up joining Islam without becoming Arabized. This resistance continued for about a century. The Kurdish tribes resisted the Arab tribes for social reasons rather than religious. All means were used to coax the Kurds and convert them to Islam, even the matrimonial strategy. For example, the mother of the last Umayyad Caliph, Marwan Hakim, was Kurdish.

First Kurdish States

Due to the weakening of the caliphs' power, the Kurds, who already had a key role in the arts, history and philosophy, begin to assert, from the middle of the 9th century onwards, their own political power. In 837, a Kurdish lord, named Rozeguite, founded the town of Akhlat on the banks of Lake Van, the capital of its theoretically vassal principality of the caliph, in fact virtually independent. In the second half of the 10th century Kurdistan is shared amongst four major Kurdish principalities. In the North, the Shaddadis, (951-1174), in the East, the Hasanwaihides (959-1015) and the Banu Annaz (990-1116) and in the West the Marwanids (990-1096) of Farqin and Diyarbekir. One of these dynasties would have been able, during the decades, to impose its supremacy on the others and build a state incorporating the whole Kurdish country if the course of history hadn't been disrupted by the massive invasions of tribes surging from the steppes of Central Asia. Having conquered Iran and imposed their yoke on the caliph of Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks annexed the Kurdish principalities one by one. Around 1150, Sultan Sandjar, the last of the great Seljuk monarchs, created a province named Kurdistan.

Until then, the Kurdish country was called Media by Greek geographers, the "Djibal", which means « the mountain »for the Arabs. It's a Turkish sultan who, in homage to the distinctive personality of the Kurdish country, gives it the name of « Kurdistan ». The province of Kurdistan, formed by Sandjar, had as its capital the city of Bahar (which means spring), near ancient Ecbatana, capital of the Medes. It included the vilayets of Sinjar and Shahrazur to the west of the Zagros massif and those of Hamadan, Dinaver and Kermanshah to the east of this range. Overall this designation only recovered a southern part of ethnic Kurdistan. A brilliant native civilization developed around the town of Divaver -today ruined- 75km North-East of Kermanshah, whose radiance was than partially replaced by that of Senneh (Sanandaj), 90 km further North.

Kurdish Prince Saladin

Barely a dozen years after the disappearance of the last great Seljuk, a Kurdish dynasty, the Ayyubids (1169-1250), founded by the famous Saladin emerges and takes over the leadership of the muslim world for about a century, until the Turko-Mongolian invasions of the 13th century. The high-ranking figure of Saladin and his exploits against the crusaders are sufficiently well-known in Europe. His empire incorporated, as well as almost the whole of Kurdistan, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. It was like the holy Roman Empire claiming to consolidate peoples, kingdoms and principalities of Catholic Europe. It was the time of the Crusades of the religious hegemony over any ethnic national identity. Saladin was, thus, no more of a Kurdish patriot than Saint Louis was a French or Richard Lionheart an English nationalist.

With the emergence of Kurdistan as a recognized geographical entity, the supremacy of a Kurdish dynasty on the muslim world and the blossoming of an important written literature in the Kurdish language, the 12th century is assuredly a rich period in the events of Kurdish history. It's also during the course of this century that the Nestorian church with its metropolitan centre in Kurdistan, develops with extraordinary rapidity, its missions spreading across the whole of Asia, as far as Tibet, Xin Kiang, Mongolia and Sumatra. The most spectacular success of these missions was the conversion of the great Mongolian Khan Guyuk in 1248. Also in 1253, Saint Louis sent Guillaume de Rubrouck, who played an important role in what was called the "Mongolian crusade" to him in Baghdad. In 1258, when the Mongolian Hulagu, influenced by these missions, takes Baghdad, he puts the caliph to death but sees to it that the palace is given to the Nestorian Catholics. At the end of the 13th century, Islam gains the upper hand over the Mongols and the Nestorians are massacred. The centre of their patriarchate moves in the course of the centuries but still remains in Kurdistan.

In the second half of the 15th century the Kurdish country ends up by recovering from the effects of the Turko-Mongolian invasions and by taking the form of an autonomous entity, united by its language, culture and civilization, but politically split up into a series of principalities. However, at least amongst the educated, there's a keen awareness of belonging to a single country. A 16th century poet, Melaye Djaziri, from the principality of Bohtan, considered as the Kurdish Ronsard introduces himself in these terms:

  I am the rose of Eden of Bohtan.
  I am the torch of the nights of Kurdistan.

 The age of self principalities

At the beginning of the 16th century the Kurdish country becomes the main stake of the rivalries between the Ottoman and Persian empires. The new shah of Persia, who has imposed shi'ism as the state religion, tries to spread it across the neighbouring countries. The Ottomans, from their side, want to put a stop to the shah's expansionist aims and to assure their Iranian border in order to be able to embark on the conquest of the Arab countries. Caught in the pincer movement of the two giant powers, the Kurds, politically split, had no chance of surviving as an independent entity. In 1514, the Turkish sultan inflicted a bitter defeat on the shah of Persia. Fearing that his victory, would be short-lived, he looked for ways of assuring this difficult Iranian border permanently. At this point one of his most valued advisors, the Kurdish scholar, Idris Bitlisi, came up with the idea of recognizing all the former rights and privileges of the Kurdish princes in exchange for a commitment from the latter to guard this border themselves and to fight at the side of the Ottomans in the case of a Persan-Ottoman conflict. The Turkish sultan Selim the 1st gives his support to the plan of his Kurdish advisor, who went to see the Kurdish princes and lords one by one to convince them that it was in the interest of the Kurds and the Ottomans to conclude this alliance.

Confronted with the choice of being annexed at some point by Persia or formally accepting the supremacy of the Ottoman sultan in exchange for broad autonomy, the Kurdish leaders opted for this second option and thus Kurdistan, or more exactly its countless fiefs and principalities entered the Ottoman bosom by means of diplomacy. Idris Bitlisi's mission was facilitated by the fact that he was a well-known and respected scholar and, above all, by the immense prestige of his father, Sheikh Hussameddin who was a very influential Sufi spiritual leader. Bitlisi is also the author of the first treaty of the General History of the Ottoman Empire, entitled Hesht Behesht (Eight Paradises), retracing the reign of the first eight Ottoman sultans.

This particular status was to assure Kurdistan about three centuries of peace. The Ottomans controlled some strategic garrisons on the Kurdish territory, but the rest of the country was ruled by the Kurdish lords and princes. As well as a string of modest hereditary seigniories, Kurdistan totalled 17 principalities or hukumets possessing a wide autonomy. Some of them like those of Ardalan, Hisn Keif, Bohtan, and Rowanduz were endowed with main attributes of independence.

Despite interferences from time to time from the central power, this particular status, to the satisfaction of the Kurds and the Ottomans, functioned without any major hitch until the beginning of the XIXth century. The Ottomans, protected by the powerful Kurdish barrier against Iran, were able to concentrate their forces on other fronts. As for the Kurds, they were virtually independent in managing their affairs. They certainly lived isolated and their country was fragmented amongst a series of principalities. At the same time, Germany had about 350 autonomous states and Italy was much more fragmanted than Kurdistan. Each Kurdish court was the centre of an important literary and artistic life. Overall, despite the political fragmentation, this period in fact constitutes the golden age of Kurdish literary, musical, historical and philosophical creation. In 1596, prince Sheref Khan completes his monumental "Sherefnameh or Splendours of the Kurdish Nation". The theological schools of Jazirah and Zakho are renowned throughout Muslim world, the city of Akhlat endowed with an observatory is known for its teaching of natural sciences. Masters of Sufism as Gulsheni and Ismail Çelebi are revered even in Istanbul for their spiritual teaching and their musical genius.  Certain ambitious Kurds such as the poets Nabi, Nefi, write in Turkish to win the favour of the sultan.

A poet of 17th century calls for an unified Kurdistan

With the exception of some visionary spirits such as the great 17th century Kurdish poet, Ahmed Khani, the well-read Kurds and Kurdish princes seem to believe that their status will last forever and hardly feel the need to change it. In 1675, more than a century before the French Revolution, which spreads the idea of the nation and the state-nation in the West, the poet Khani, in his epic verse "Mem-o-Zin", called the Kurds to unite and create their own unified state. He'll hardly be listened to by neither the aristocracy nor the population. In Islamic countries and indeed in such era in Christianity, the religious consciousness generally prevails over the national consciousness. Each prince is concerned about the interests of his dynasty and family dynamics, clan or dynastic dynamics often count more than any other consideration. It was not uncommon for Kurdish dynasties reign over non-Kurdish populations. In the 11th century, for example, Farsistan, a Persian province par excellence, was ruled by a Kurdish dynasty from 1242 to 1378. Khorasan an Iranian province in the North-East also had a Kurdish dynasty from 1747 to 1859. This was the case for distant Baluchistan, which is part of Pakistan today. So the fact that a certain proportion of the Kurdish territory is governed by foreign dynasties was not seem unacceptable to the people of those centuries.

The idea of the nation-state and of nationalism is an avatar of the French Revolution. It quickly found a particularly fertile ground in two divided countries and partly subjugated Germany and Italy. It's German thinkers such as Goerres, Brentano and Grimm who laid the premise that the political, geographical and linguistic borders should coincide. They dreamt of a Germany reassembling in one state the string of its small autonomous states. Pan-Germanism was later inspired other nationalist movements such as pan-Slavism and pan-Turkism. These ideas were to find success rather later on, towards 1830, in Kurdistan where the Prince of Rowanduz, Mir Mohammed, was to fight from 1830 to 1839 for the establishment of a unified Kurdistan.

In fact, up until then, since they hadn't been threatened in their privileges, the Kurdish princes contented themselves with administrating their domain, whilst, at the same time paying homage to the distant Sultan-caliph of Constantinople. As a general rule, they weren't to rise up and attempt to create a unified Kurdistan until, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire interfered in their affairs and tried to bring an end to their autonomy.

Wars for the unification and independence of Kurdistan mark the first part of the 19th century. In 1847, the last independent Kurdish principality, that of Bohtan, collapses. Sign of the times, the Ottoman forces in their fight against the Kurds, are advised and supported by the European powers. We notice, for example, the presence of Helmut von Moltke, a young captain and military advisor who later became a glorious Marshal of the German Empire.

From 1847 to 1881, we observe new uprisings, under the leadership of the traditional chiefs, often religious, for the creation of a Kurdish state. This will be followed, up until the First World War, by a whole series of sporadic and regional revolts against the central government, all of which will be harshly quelled.

The causes of the failure of these movements are multiple: breaking up of authority, feudal dispersal quarrels of supremacy between the princes and the feudal chieftains and interference of the major powers at the Ottoman's side.

After having annexed the Kurdish principalities one by one, the Ottoman Empire applied itself to integrating the Kurdish aristocracy by distributing posts and payments fairly and generously and by setting up so-called tribal schools, intended to instill in the children of Kurdish lords the principe of faithfulness to the sultan. This Louis XIV style attempt to integrate was partly successful. But it also furthered the emergence of elite Kurdish modernists. Under their leadership a modern phase in the political movement became apparent in Constantinople whilst charitable and patriotic associations and societies multiplied, trying to introduce the notion of organization and to set up a structured movement in the Kurdish population.

It should be noted that in the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was plagued by sharp nationalist convulsions, each people aspired to create its own nation-state. After unsuccessfully attempting to keep this conglomerate alive by the ideology of pan-Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism, the Turkish elite themselves became pan-Turkic and militated in favor of the creation of a Turkish empire stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia.

Kurdish society approached the First World War divided, decapitated, without a collective plan for the future. In 1915, the Franco-British agreements known as the Sykes-Picot forecast the dismemberment of their country. However, the Kurds were in conflict over the future of their nation. Some, very permeable to "pan-Islamist" ideology of sultan-caliph, saw the salvation of the Kurdish people in the status of cultural and administrative autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Others, claiming to take inspiration from the principle of nationalities, the ideals of the French Revolution and of President Wilson of the United States, fought for the total independence of Kurdistan.

The cleavage became accentuated in the days following the Ottoman defeat by the Allied Powers, in 1918. The independentists formed a hurried delegation at the Conference of Versailles to present "the claims of the Kurdish nation".

Their action contributed to the consideration by the International Community, of the Kurdish national question. The International Treaty of Sèvres, signed August 10, 1920 between the allies: France, Great Britain and the United States, and the Ottoman Empire, actually recommended, in section 111 (art. 62-64), the creation of a Kurdish state on part of the territory of Kurdistan. This treaty, however, remain a dead letter, the balance of forces on the ground had prevented its implementation.

For its part, the traditional wing of the Kurdish movement, which was well established in Kurdish society and which was mainly dominated by religious leaders, tried to "avoid Christian peril in the East and West" and to create "a state of Turks and Kurds" in the muslim territories liberated from foreign occupation. The idea was generous and fraternal. An alliance was concluded with the Turkish nationalist leader, Mustafa Kemal, who came to Kurdistan to seek help from Kurdish leaders to liberate occupied Anatolia and the sultan-caliph, who was a virtual prisoner of the Christians. The first forces of Turkey's war of independence were in fact recruited from the Kurdish provinces.

Up until his definitive victory over the Greeks in 1922, Mustafa Kemal repeatedly promised the creation of a Muslim state of Turks and Kurds.  He was openly supported by the Soviets, and more discreetly by the French and Italians, displeased with the excessive appetites of British colonialism in the region. After the victory, the Turkish delegates were to affirm, at the peace conference at Lausanne, that they spoke in the name of the Kurdish and Turkish sister nations. On 24 July 1923, a new treaty was signed in this context between the Kemalist government in Ankara and the allied powers. It invalidated the Treaty of Sèvres and, without giving any guarantee, with regard to the respect of the Kurds' rights, gave the annexation of the major part of Kurdistan over to the new Turkish state. Beforehand, in accordance with the Franco-Turkish agreement of October 20, 192 1, France had annexed the Kurdish provinces of Jazira and Kurd-Dagh to Syria, which were placed under its mandate. Iranian Kurdistan, a large part of which was controlled by the Kurdish leader Simko, lived in near dissent state relative to the Persian central government.

The fate of the Kurdish province of Mossul, very rich in petrol remained undecided. The Turks and the British claimed it, whilst its population, during a consultation organized by the League of Nations, had pronounced a ratio of 7/8 in favor of an independent Kurdish state. Protesting that the Iraqi state wouldn't be able to survive without the agricultural and petroleum wealth of this province, Great Britain ended up obtaining the annexation of these Kurdish territories with Iraq placed under its mandate, from the League of Nations Council on December 16th, 1925. It nevertheless promised the setting up of a self rule for the Kurds, a promise kept neither by the British, nor the Iraqi regime, which succeeded the British administration in 1932.

Thus, at the end of 1925, the country of the Kurds, known since the 12th century under the name of "Kurdistan", found itself divided between four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. And for the first time in its long history, it was even to be deprived of its cultural autonomy.

The former conquerors and empires contented themselves with certain economic, political and military advantages and privileges. None of them set about preventing the population from expressing its cultural identity or hindering the free practice of its spiritual life. None of them devised a plan to destroy the Kurdish personality or to depersonalize an entire people by cutting it off from its ancient cultural roots.

This was the project of the Turkish nationalists, who wanted to make Turkey, an eminently multicultural, multiracial and multinational society and a uniform nation; this was later taken up by Iraq and Iran. We can join Nehru in his surprise "that a defensive nationalism turns into an aggressive nationalism and that a struggle for freedom becomes a struggle to dominate others". Victim of its geography, of history and also, undoubtedly of its own leaders' lack of vision, the Kurdish people have undoubtedly been the population who have paid the heaviest tribute and who have suffered the most from the remodeling of the Near-Eastern map.