Kurdish Culture Essay From Princeton

"Kurd" redirects here. For other uses, see Kurd (disambiguation).

Total population
30 million[1]
(The World Factbook, 2015 estimate)
36.4–45.6 million[2]
(Kurdish Institute of Paris, 2017 estimate)
Regions with significant populations
 Turkeyestimates from 14.3 to 20 million
 Iranestimates from 8.2 million to 12 million
 Iraqestimates from 5.6 to 8.5 million
 Syriaestimates from 2 to 3.6 million,
Diaspora (outside Greater Kurdistan)2 million
 United Kingdom50,000[9]
 United States15,400[17]
Kurdish and Zaza–Gorani, Turkish (in Turkey), Persian (in Iran), Arabic (in Syria and Iraq)
In their different forms: Sorani, Kurmanji, Pehlewani, Zaza, Gorani
majority Islam
(Sunni Muslim, but also Shia Muslim and Sufism)
with minorities of deism, agnosticism, Yazdânism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity
Related ethnic groups
other Iranian peoples

The Kurds (Kurdish: کورد‎) or the Kurdish people (Kurdish: گەلی کورد‎), are an ethnic group[24] in the Middle East, mostly inhabiting a contiguous area spanning adjacent parts of southeastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northwestern Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), and northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).[25] The Kurds are culturally, historically and linguistically classified as belonging to the Iranian peoples.[26][27][28]

Globally, the Kurds are estimated to number anywhere from a low of 30 million, to possibly as high as 45 million,[29][2] with the majority living in the region they regard as Greater Kurdistan. However, there are significant Kurdish diaspora communities in the cities of western Turkey, in particular Istanbul. A recent Kurdish diaspora has also developed in Western countries, primarily in Germany. The Kurds are the majority population in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and are a significant minority group in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Iran, and Syria, where Kurdish nationalist movements continue to pursue greater autonomy and cultural rights.


Main article: Kurdish languages

Kurdish (Kurdish: Kurdî or کوردی) is a collection of related dialects spoken by the Kurds.[30] It is mainly spoken in those parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey which comprise Kurdistan.[31] Kurdish holds official status in Iraq as a national language alongside Arabic, is recognized in Iran as a regional language, and in Armenia as a minority language.

The Kurdish languages belong to the northwestern sub‑group of the Iranian languages, which in turn belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family.

Most Kurds are either bilingual or multilingual, speaking the language of their respective nation of origin, such as Arabic, Persian, and Turkish as a second language alongside their native Kurdish, while those in diaspora communities often speak three or more languages.

According to Mackenzie, there are few linguistic features that all Kurdish dialects have in common and that are not at the same time found in other Iranian languages.[32]

The Kurdish dialects according to Mackenzie are classified as:[33]

  • Northern group (the Kurmanji dialect group)
  • Central group (part of the Sorani dialect group)
  • Southern group (part of the Sorani dialect group) including Kermanshahi, Ardalani and Laki

The Zaza and Gorani are ethnic Kurds,[34] but the Zaza–Gorani languages are not classified as Kurdish.[35]

Commenting on the differences between the dialects of Kurdish, Kreyenbroek clarifies that in some ways, Kurmanji and Sorani are as different from each other as is English from German, giving the example that Kurmanji has grammatical gender and case endings, but Sorani does not, and observing that referring to Sorani and Kurmanji as "dialects" of one language is supported only by "their common origin ... and the fact that this usage reflects the sense of ethnic identity and unity of the Kurds."[36]


Main article: Kurdish population

The number of Kurds living in Southwest Asia is estimated at close to 30 million, with another one or two million living in diaspora. Kurds comprise anywhere from 18% to 20% of the population in Turkey,[1] possibly as high as 25%;[37] 15 to 20% in Iraq;[1] 10% in Iran;[1] and 9% in Syria.[1][38] Kurds form regional majorities in all four of these countries, viz. in Turkish Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iranian Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan. The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in West Asia after the Arabs, Persians, and Turks.

The total number of Kurds in 1991 was placed at 22.5 million, with 48% of this number living in Turkey, 18% in Iraq, 24% in Iran, and 4% in Syria.[39]

Recent emigration accounts for a population of close to 1.5 million in Western countries, about half of them in Germany.

A special case are the Kurdish populations in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, displaced there mostly in the time of the Russian Empire, who underwent independent developments for more than a century and have developed an ethnic identity in their own right.[40] This groups' population was estimated at close to 0.4 million in 1990.[41]


Main article: History of the Kurdish people


Main article: Origin of the Kurds

"The land of Karda" is mentioned on a Sumerian clay-tablet dated to the 3rd millennium B.C. This land was inhabited by "the people of Su" who dwelt in the southern regions of Lake Van; The philological connection between "Kurd" and "Karda" is uncertain but the relationship is considered possible.[42] Other Sumerian clay-tables referred to the people, who lived in the land of Karda, as the Qarduchi and the Qurti.[43]

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people,[44] and even use a calendar dating from 612 B.C., when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes.[45] The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: "We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow."[46] However, MacKenzie and Asatrian challenge the relation of the Median language to Kurdish[47][48] The Kurdish languages, on the other hand, form a subgroup of the Northwestern Iranian languages like Median.[30][49] Some researchers consider the independent Kardouchoi as the ancestors of the Kurds,[50] while others prefer Cyrtians.[51] The term "Kurd," however, is first encountered in Arabic sources of the seventh century.[52] Books from the early Islamic era, including those containing legends such as the Shahnameh and the Middle PersianKar-Namag i Ardashir i Pabagan, and other early Islamic sources provide early attestation of the name Kurd.[53] The Kurds have ethnically diverse origins.[54][55]

During the Sassanid era, in Kar-Namag i Ardashir i Pabagan, a short prose work written in Middle Persian, Ardashir I is depicted as having battled the Kurds and their leader, Madig. After initially sustaining a heavy defeat, Ardashir I was successful in subjugating the Kurds.[56] In a letter Ardashir I received from his foe, Ardavan V, which is also featured in the same work, he is referred to as being a Kurd himself.

You've bitten off more than you can chew
and you have brought death to yourself.
O son of a Kurd, raised in the tents of the Kurds,
who gave you permission to put a crown on your head?[57]

The usage of the term Kurd during this time period most likely was a social term, designating Northwestern Iranian nomads, rather than a concrete ethnic group.[57][58]

Similarly, in AD 360, the Sassanid king Shapur II marched into the Roman province Zabdicene, to conquer its chief city, Bezabde, present-day Cizre. He found it heavily fortified, and guarded by three legions and a large body of Kurdish archers.[59] After a long and hard-fought siege, Shapur II breached the walls, conquered the city and massacred all its defenders. Thereafter he had the strategically located city repaired, provisioned and garrisoned with his best troops.[59]

There is also a 7th-century text by an unidentified author, written about the legendary Christian martyrMar Qardagh. He lived in the 4th century, during the reign of Shapur II, and during his travels is said to have encountered Mar Abdisho, a deacon and martyr, who, after having been questioned of his origins by Mar Qardagh and his Marzobans, stated that his parents were originally from an Assyrian village called Hazza, but were driven out and subsequently settled in Tamanon, a village in the land of the Kurds, identified as being in the region of Mount Judi.[60]

Medieval period

Early Syriac sources use the terms Hurdanaye, Kurdanaye, Kurdaye to refer to the Kurds. According to Michael the Syrian, Hurdanaye separated from Tayaye Arabs and sought refuge with the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus. He also mentions the Persian troops who fought against Musa chief of Hurdanaye in the region of Qardu in 841. According to Barhebreaus, a king appeared to the Kurdanaye and they rebelled against the Arabs in 829. Michael the Syrian considered them as pagan, followers of mahdi and adepts of Magianism. Their mahdi called himself Christ and the Holy Ghost.[61]

In the early Middle Ages, the Kurds sporadically appear in Arabic sources, though the term was still not being used for a specific people; instead it referred to an amalgam of nomadic western Iranic tribes, who were distinct from Persians. However, in the High Middle Ages, the Kurdish ethnic identity gradually materialized, as one can find clear evidence of the Kurdish ethnic identity and solidarity in texts of the 12th and 13th century,[62] though, the term was also still being used in the social sense.[63] From 11th century onward, the term Kurd is explicitly defined as an ethnonym and this does not suggest synonymity with the ethnographic category nomad.[64]Al-Tabari wrote that in 639, Hormuzan, a Sasanian general originating from a noble family, battled against the Islamic invaders in Khuzestan, and called upon the Kurds to aid him in battle.[65] However, they were defeated and brought under Islamic rule.

In 838, a Kurdish leader based in Mosul, named Mir Jafar, revolted against the Caliph Al-Mu'tasim who sent the commander Itakh to combat him. Itakh won this war and executed many of the Kurds.[66][67] Eventually Arabs conquered the Kurdish regions and gradually converted the majority of Kurds to Islam, often incorporating them into the military, such as the Hamdanids whose dynastic family members also frequently intermarried with Kurds.[68][69]

In 934 the DaylamiteBuyid dynasty was founded, and subsequently conquered most of present-day Iran and Iraq. During the time of rule of this dynasty, Kurdish chief and ruler, Badr ibn Hasanwaih, established himself as one of the most important emirs of the time.[70]

In the 10th-12th centuries, a number of Kurdish principalities and dynasties were founded, ruling Kurdistan and neighbouring areas:

Due to the Turkic invasion of Anatolia, the 11th century Kurdish dynasties crumbled and became incorporated into the Seljuk Dynasty. Kurds would hereafter be used in great numbers in the armies of the Zengids.[78] Succeeding the Zengids, the Kurdish Ayyubids established themselves in 1171, first under the leadership of Saladin. Saladin led the Muslims to recapture the city of Jerusalem from the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin; also frequently clashing with the Hashashins. The Ayyubid dynasty lasted until 1341 when the Ayyubid sultanate fell to Mongolian invasions.

Safavid period

Further information: Safavid dynasty

The Safavid Dynasty, established in 1501, also established its rule over Kurdish-inhabited territories. The paternal line of this family actually had Kurdish roots, tracing back to Firuz-Shah Zarrin-Kolah, a dignitary who moved from Kurdistan to Ardabil in the 11th century.[79][80] The Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 that culminated in what is nowadays Iran's West Azerbaijan Province, marked the start of the Ottoman-Persian Wars between the Iranian Safavids (and successive Iranian dynasties) and the Ottomans. For the next 300 years, many of the Kurds found themselves living in territories that frequently changed hands between Ottoman Turkey and Iran during the protracted series of Ottoman-Persian Wars.

The Safavid king Ismail I (r. 1501-1524) put down a Yezidi rebellion which went on from 1506-1510. A century later, the year-long Battle of Dimdim took place, wherein the Safavid king Abbas I (r. 1588-1629) succeeded in putting down the rebellion led by the Kurdish ruler Amir Khan Lepzerin. Thereafter, a large number of Kurds were deported to Khorasan, not only to weaken the Kurds, but also to protect the eastern border from invading Afghan and Turkmen tribes.[81] Other forced movements and deportations of other groups were also implimented by Abbas I and his successors, most notably of the Armenians, the Georgians, and the Circassians, who were moved en masse to and from other districts within the Persian empire.

The Kurds of Khorasan, numbering around 700,000, still use the Kurmanji Kurdish dialect.[87][88] Several Kurdish noblemen served the Safavids and rose to prominence, such as Shaykh Ali Khan Zanganeh, who served as the grand vizier of the Safavid shahSuleiman I (r. 1666–1694) from 1669 to 1689. Due to his efforts in reforming the declining Iranian economy, he has been called the "Safavid Amir Kabir" in modern historiography. His son, Shahqoli Khan Zanganeh, also served as a grand vizier from 1707 to 1716. Another Kurdish statesman, Ganj Ali Khan, was close friends with Abbas I, and served as governor in various provinces and was known for his loyal service.

Zand Period

Further information: Zand dynasty

After the fall of the Safavids, Iran fell under the control of the Afsharid Empire ruled by Nader Shah at its peak. After Nader's death, Iran fell into civil war, with multiple leaders trying to gain control over the country. Ultimately, it was Karim Khan, a Laki general of the Zand tribe who would come to power.[90] The country would flourish during Karim Khan’s reign; a strong resurgence of the arts would take place, and international ties were strengthened.[91] Karim Khan was portrayed as being a ruler who truly cared about his subjects, thereby gaining the title Vakil e-Ra’aayaa (meaning Representative of the People in Persian).[91] Though not as powerful in its geo-political and military reach as the preceding Safavids and Afsharids or even the early Qajars, he managed to reassert Iranian hegemony over its integral territories in the Caucasus, and presided over an era of relative peace, prosperity, and tranquility. In Ottoman Iraq, following the Ottoman–Persian War (1775–76), Karim Khan managed to seize Basra for several years.[92][93]

After Karim Khan's death, the dynasty would decline in favour of the rival Qajars due to infighting between the Khan’s incompetent offspring. It wasn't until Lotf Ali Khan, 10 years later, that the dynasty would once again be led by an adept ruler. By this time however, the Qajars had already progressed greatly, having taken a number of Zand territories. Lotf Ali Khan made multiple successes before ultimately succumbing to the rivaling faction. Iran and all its Kurdish territories would hereby be incorporated in the Qajar Dynasty.

The Kurdish tribes present in Baluchistan and some of those in Fars are believed to be remnants of those that assisted and accompanied Lotf Ali Khan and Karim Khan, respectively.[94]

Ottoman period

Further information: Ottoman Empire and Sheik Ubeydullah

When Sultan Selim I, after defeating Shah Ismail I in 1514, annexed Western Armenia and Kurdistan, he entrusted the organisation of the conquered territories to Idris, the historian, who was a Kurd of Bitlis. 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 Erzerum and Erivan, which had lain in waste since the passage of Timur, with Kurds from the Hakkari and Bohtan districts. For the next centuries, from the Peace of Amasya until the first half of the 19th century, several regions of the wide Kurdish homelands would be contested as well between the Ottomans and the neighbouring rival successive Iranian dynasties (Safavids, Afsharids, Qajars) in the frequent Ottoman-Persian Wars.

The Ottoman centralist policies in the beginning of the 19th century aimed to remove power from the principalities and localities, which directly affected the Kurdish emirs. Bedirhan Bey was the last emir of the Cizre BohtanEmirate after initiating an uprising in 1847 against the Ottomans to protect the current structures of the Kurdish principalities. Although his uprising is not classified as a nationalist one, his children played significant roles in the emergence and the development of Kurdish nationalism through the next century.[95]

The first modern Kurdish nationalist movement emerged in 1880 with an uprising led by a Kurdish landowner and head of the powerful Shemdinan family, Sheik Ubeydullah, who demanded political autonomy or outright independence for Kurds as well as the recognition of a Kurdistan state without interference from Turkish or Persian authorities.[96] The uprising against Qajar Persia and the Ottoman Empire was ultimately suppressed by the Ottomans and Ubeydullah, along with other notables, were exiled to Istanbul.

Kurdish nationalism of the 20th century

Further information: Kurdish nationalism, Rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire, and Iraqi Kurdistan

Kurdish nationalism emerged after World War I with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire which had historically successfully integrated (but not assimilated) the Kurds, through use of forced repression of Kurdish movements to gain independence. Revolts did occur sporadically but only in 1880 with the uprising led by Sheik Ubeydullah did the Kurds as an ethnic group or nation make demands. Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid responded with a campaign of integration by co-opting prominent Kurdish opponents to strengthen Ottoman power with offers of prestigious positions in his government. This strategy appears to have been successful given the loyalty displayed by the Kurdish Hamidiye regiments during World War I.[97]

The Kurdish ethno-nationalist movement that emerged following World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire was largely a reaction to the changes taking place in mainstream Turkey, primarily to the radical secularization, which the strongly Muslim Kurds abhorred, to the centralization of authority, which threatened the power of local chieftains and Kurdish autonomy, and to rampant Turkish nationalism in the new Turkish Republic, which obviously threatened to marginalize them.[98]

Jakob Künzler, head of a missionary hospital in Urfa, has documented the large scale ethnic cleansing of both Armenians and Kurds by the Young Turks.[99] He has given a detailed account of the deportation of Kurds from Erzurum and Bitlis in the winter of 1916. The Kurds were perceived to be subversive elements that would take the Russian side in the war. In order to eliminate this threat, Young Turks embarked on a large scale deportation of Kurds from the regions of Djabachdjur, Palu, Musch, Erzurum and Bitlis. Around 300,000 Kurds were forced to move southwards to Urfa and then westwards to Aintab and Marasch. In the summer of 1917, Kurds were moved to Konya in central Anatolia. Through these measures, the Young Turk leaders aimed at weakening the political influence of the Kurds by deporting them from their ancestral lands and by dispersing them in small pockets of exiled communities. By the end of World War I, up to 700,000 Kurds had been forcibly deported and almost half of the displaced perished.[100]

Some of the Kurdish groups sought self-determination and the confirmation of Kurdish autonomy in the Treaty of Sèvres, but in the aftermath of World War I, Kemal Atatürk prevented such a result. Kurds backed by the United Kingdom declared independence in 1927 and established the Republic of Ararat. Turkey suppressed Kurdist revolts in 1925, 1930, and 1937–1938, while Iran in the 1920s suppressed Simko Shikak at Lake Urmia and Jaafar Sultan of the Hewraman region, who controlled the region between Marivan and north of Halabja. A short-lived Soviet-sponsored Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iran did not long outlast World War II.

From 1922–1924 in Iraq a Kingdom of Kurdistan existed. When Ba'athist administrators thwarted Kurdish nationalist ambitions in Iraq, war broke out in the 1960s. In 1970 the Kurds rejected limited territorial self-rule within Iraq, demanding larger areas including the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

During the 1920s and 1930s, several large scale Kurdish revolts took place in Kurdistan. Following these rebellions, the area of Turkish Kurdistan was put under martial law and a large number of the Kurds were displaced. The Turkish government also encouraged resettlement of Albanians from Kosovo and Assyrians in the region to change the make-up of the population. These events and measures led to a long-lasting mutual distrust between Ankara and the Kurds .[101] During the relatively open government of the 1950s, Kurds gained political office and started working within the framework of the Turkish Republic to further their interests, but this move towards integration was halted with the 1960 Turkish coup d'état.[97] The 1970s saw an evolution in Kurdish nationalism as Marxist political thought influenced some in the new generation of Kurdish nationalists opposed to the local feudal authorities who had been a traditional source of opposition to authority; eventually they would form the militant separatist organization PKK, also known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party in English. The Kurdistan Workers' Party later abandoned Marxism-Leninism.[102]

Kurds are often regarded as "the largest ethnic group without a state."[103][104][105][106][107][108] A similar claim regarding the Rohinga of Myanmar has also been made, however while the level of persecution of the Rohinga is certainly greater than that of the Kurds, there are only approximately 2 million Rohinga, as compared to over 30 million Kurds.[109] The Kurdish claim of "statelessness" is rejected by some researchers such as Martin van Bruinessen[110] and some other scholars who seem to agree with the official Turkish position. They argue that while some level of Kurdish cultural, social, political and ideological heterogeneity may exist, the Kurdish community has long thrived over the centuries as a generally peaceful and well integrated part of Turkish society, with hostilities erupting only in recent years.[111][112][113]Michael Radu who had worked for the United States's Pennsylvania Foreign Policy Research Institute argued that the claim of Kurdish "statelessness" comes primarily from Kurdish nationalists, Western human rights activists, and European leftists.[111]


Kurdish Warriors By Frank Feller
Kurdish Cavalry in the passes of the Caucasus mountains (The New York Times, January 24, 1915).
Kurdish-inhabited areas of the Middle East and the Soviet Union in 1986.

© Michelle May

The Kurdish people are a heterogeneous ethnic group whose ethnic background comes from many regions including Iraqi Kurdistan, and parts of Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurdish ethnic group includes many ancient ethnicities that have been absorbed into modern cultures including Iranian, Azerbaijani, Turkic and Arabic cultures. In this sense, the Kurdish culture shares commonalities with many other regional cultures, and celebrates a unique level of cultural equality and tolerance.

The Struggle for Kurdish Cultural Survival

In addition to political repression, the Kurds have also experienced cultural repression.  In Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, there were extensive campaigns at forced assimilation.  Kurds were forbidden to speak Kurdish in public, they had to change their names to local ethnic names if they wanted a job or to enroll their children in school. Their books, music and clothing were considered contraband and they had to hide them in their homes. If authorities searched their homes and found anything Kurdish, they could be imprisoned, and many were. In recent years, both Iran and Turkey have relaxed their systemic cultural repression, while Iraqi Kurds have achieved autonomy.

Kurdish Poetry and Song

Kurdish culture has a rich oral tradition. Most popular are epic poems called lawj, and they often tell of adventure in love or battle.

Kurdish literature first appeared in the seventh century AD.  In 1596, Sharaf Khan, Emir of Bitlis, composed a history of the Kurds in Persian called the Sharafnama. Almost one hundred years later, in 1695, a great national epic called the Memozin was written in Kurdish by Ahmed Khani.

Dengbej refers to a musician who performs traditional Kurdish folk songs. The word ‘deng’ means voice and ‘bej’ means ‘to sing.’ Dengbej are best known for their “stran,” or song of mourning.

Traditional Kurdish instruments include the flute, drums, and the ut-ut (similar to a guitar). The music of Sivan Perwar, a Kurdish pop music performer, was banned in Turkey and Iraq in the 1980s, so he left the region to live and work in Sweden.

Kurdish Craft

Carpet-weaving is by far the most significant Kurdish folk art. Kurdish rugs and carpets use medallion patterns; however, far more popular are the all-over floral, Mina Khani motifs and the “jaff” geometric patterns. The beauty of Kurdish designs are enriched by high-chroma blues, greens, saffrons as well as terracotta and burnt orange hues made richer still by the lustrous wool used.

The traditional Kurdish rug uses Kurdish symbols. It is possible to read the dreams, wishes and hopes of the rug maker from the sequence of symbols used. It is this signification and communication both individually and grouped into Kurdish rug making Kurdish people study how meaning is constructed and understood by talking with the rug maker.

Other crafts are embroidery, leather-working, and metal ornamentation. Kurds are especially known for copper-working.

Kurdish Sports

Popular sports include soccer, wrestling, hunting and shooting, and cirit, a traditional sport that involves throwing a javelin while mounted on horseback. Camel-and horse-racing are popular in rural areas.


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