Land and Ecology
The vast Kurdish homeland of about 230,000 square miles is about the areas of Germany and Britain combined, or roughly equal to France or Texas. Kurdistan consists basically of the mountainous areas of the central and northern Zagros, the eastern one-third of the Taurus and Pontus, and the northern half of the Amanus ranges. The symbiosis between the Kurds and their mountains has been so strong that they have become synonymous: Kurds home ends where the mountains end. Kurds as a distinct people have survived only when living in the mountains. The highest points in the land now are respectively Mt. Alvand of southern Kurdistan in Iran at 11,745 feet, Mt. Halgurd in central Kurdistan in Iraq at 12,249 feet, Mt. Munzur at 12,600 feet in western Kurdistan and Mt. Ararat at 16,946 feet in northern Kurdistan, both in Turkey. There are also two large Kurdish enclaves in central and north central Anatolia in Turkey and in the province of Khurasan in northeast Iran.
The mean annual precipitation is 60-80 inches per year in the central regions and 20-40 inches on the descent to the lower elevations. Most precipitation is in form of snow, which can fall for six months of the year, becoming the resource for many great rivers, such as the Tigris and the Euphrates in an otherwise arid Middle East. The overall mean annual temperature is 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit, getting cooler as one ascends the central massifs.
The land, once almost totally forested, has been massively cleared, especially in this century, with inevitable soil erosion and parched landscape. Contrary to the heavy damage sustained by the woodlands, the pasture lands remain in reasonably good condition and continue to be a productive to a nomadic herding economy alongside the basic agriculture.
Despite its mountainous nature, Kurdistan has more arable land proportionately than most Middle Eastern countries. Expansive river valleys create a fertile lattice work in Kurdistan. This may well explain the fact that the very invention of agriculture took place primarily in Kurdistan around 12,000 years ago precipitated speedy domestication of almost all basic cereals and livestock in the region(with the notable exception of cows and rice).
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Kurds are now predominantly of Mediterranean racial stock, resembling southern Europeans and the Levantines in skin, general coloring and physiology. There is yet a persistent recurrence of two racial substrata: a darker aboriginal Palaeo- Caucasian element, and more localized occurrence of blondism of the Alpine type in the heartland of Kurdistan. The "Aryanization" of the aboriginal Palaeo- Caucasian Kurds, linguistically, culturally and racially, seems to have begun by the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, with the continuous immigration and settlement of Indio-European-speaking tribes, such as the Hittites, Mitannis, Haigs, Medes, Persian, Scythians and Alans. The process was more or less complete by the beginning of the Christian era, by which time the Kurds had absorbed enough Iranic blood and culture, particularly Median and Alan, to form the basis physical typology and cultural identity.
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Kurds are speakers of Kurdish, a member of the northwestern subdivision of the Iranic branch of the Indo-Europian family of languages, which is akin to Persian, and by extension to other Europian languages. It is fundamentally different from Semetic Arabic and Altaic Turkish. Modern Kurdish divides into two major groups: 1) the Kurmanji group and, 2) the Dimili-Gurani group. These are supplemented by scores of sub-dialects as well. The most popular vernacular is that of Kurmanji(or Kirmancha), spoken by about three-quarters of the Kurds today. Kurmanji divided into North Kurmanji(also called Bahdinani, with around 15 million speakers, primarily in Turkey, Syria, and the former Soviet Union) and South Kurmanji(also called Sorani, with about 6 million speakers, primarily in Iraq and Iran).
To the far north of Kurdistan along Kizil Irmak and Murat rivers in Turkey, Dimili(less accurately but more commonly known as Zaza) dialect is spoken by about 4 million Kurds. There are small pockets of this language spoken in various croners of Anatolia, northern Iraq, northern Iran and the Caucasus as well.
In the far southern Kurdistan, both in Iraq and Iran, the Gurani dialect is spoken by about 3 million Kurds. Gurani along with its two major subdivisions: Laki and Awramani, merit special attention for its wealth of sacred and secular literature stretching over a millennium.
In Iraq and Iran a modified version of the Perso-Arabic alphabet has been adapted to South Kurmani(Sorani). The Kurds of Turkey have recently embarked on an extensive campaign of publication in the North Kurmanji dialect of Kurmaji (Bahdinani) from their publishing houses in Europe. these employed a modified form of the Latin alphabet. The Kurds of the former Soviet Union first began writing Kurdish in the Armenian alphabet in the 1920s, followed by Latin in 1927 , then Cyrillic in 1945, and now in both Cyrilic and Latin. Gurani dialects continue to employ the Persian alphabet without any change. Dimili now uses the same modified Latin alphabet as North Kurmanji for print.
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Nearly three fifths of the Kurds, almost all Kurmanji-speakers, are today at least nominally Sunni Muslims of Shafiite rite. There are also some followers of mainstream Shiitem Islam among the Kurds, particularly in and around the cities of Kirmanshah, to Hamadan and Bijar in southern and eastern Kurdistan and the Khurasan. These Siite Kurds number around half a million. The overwhelming majority of Muslim Kurds are followers of one several mystic Sufi orders, most importantly the Bektashi order of the northwest Kurdistan, the Naqshbandi order in the west and north, Qadiri orders of east and central Kurdistan, and Nurbakhshi of the south.
The rest of the Kurds are followers of several indigenous Kurdish faiths of great antiquit and originality, which are variations on and permutation of an ancient religion that can be reasonably but loosely labeled as Yardanism or the "Cult of Angels." The three surviving major divisions of this religion are Yezidism (in west and west-central Kurdistan, ca 2%of all Kurds), Yarsanism or the Ahl-i Haqq (in southern Kurdistan, ca 13% of all Kurds), and Alevism or Kizil Bash(in western Kurdistan and the Khurasan, ca 20%).
Minor communities of Kurdish Jews, Christians and Baha'is are found in various croners of Kurdistan. the ancient Jewish community has progressively emigrated to Israel, while the Christian community is merging their identity with that of the Assyrians.
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Being the native inhabitants of their land. there are no "beginnings" for Kurdish history and people. Kurds and their history are the end products of thousands of years of continuous internal evolution and assimilation of new peoples and ideas intro- duced sporadically into their land. Genetically, Kurds are the descendants of all those who ever came to settle in Kurdistan, and not any one of them. A people such as the Guti, Kurti. Mede, Mard, Carduchi, Gordyene, Adianbene, Zila and Khaldi signify not the ancestor of the Kurds but only an ancestor.
Archaeological finds continue to docu- ment that some of mankind's earliest steps towards development of agnculture. domes- tication of many common farm animals (sheep, goats, hogs and dogs). record keep- ing (the token system), development of domestic technologies (weavmg, fired pot- tery making and glazing), metallurgy and urbanization took place in Kurdistan, dating back between 12,000 and 8.000 years ago.
The earliest evidence so far of a unified and distinct culture (and possibly, ethnicity) by people inhabiting the Kurdish moun- tains dates back to the Halaf culture of 8,000-7,400 years ago. This was followed by the spread of the Ubaidian culture, which was a foreign introduction from Mesopotamia. After about a millennium, its dominance was replaced by the Hurrian culture, which may or may not have been the Halafian people reasserting their domi- nance over their mountainous homeland. The Hurrian period lasted from 6,300 to about 2,600 years ago.
Much more is known of the Hurrians. They spoke a language of the Northeast Caucasian family of languages (or Alarodian), kin to modern Chechen and Lezgian. The Hurrians spread far and wide, dominating much territory outside their Zagros-Taurus mountain base. Their settlement of Anatolia was complete-all the way to the Aegean coasts. Like their Kurdish descendents, they however did not expand too far from the mountains. Their intrusions into the neighboring plains of Mesopotamia and the Iranian Pteau, there- fore, were primarily military annexations with little population settlement. Their economy was surprisingly integrated and focused, along with their political bonds, mainly running parallel with the Zagros- Taurus mountains, rather than radiating out to the lowlands, as was the case during the preceding (foreign) Ubaid cultural period. The mountain-plain economic exchanges remained secondary in importance, judging by the archaeological remains of goods and their origin.
The Hurrians-whose name survives now most prominently in the dialect and district of Hawraman/Awraman in Kurdistan- divided into many clans and subgroups, who set up city-states, kingdoms and empires known today after their respvi hective clan names. These included the Gutis, Kurti, Khadi, Mards, Mushku, Manna, Hatti, Mittanni, Urartu, and the Kassitis1es, to name just a few. All these were Hurrians, and together form the Hurrian phase of Kurdish history.
By about 4.000 years ago, the first van- guard of the Indo-European-speaking peoples were trickling into Kurdistan in limited numbers and settling there. These formed the aristocracy of the Mittani, Kassite, and Hittite kingdoms, while the common peopies there remained solidly Hurrian. By about 3,000 years ago, the trickle had turned into a flood, and Hurrian Kurdistan was fast becoming Indo-European Kurdistan. Far from having been wiped out, the Hurrian legacy, despite its linguistic eclipse, remains the single most important element of the Kurdish culture until today. It forms the substructure for every aspects of Kurdish existence, from their native reli- gion to their art, their social organization, women's status, and even the form of their militia warfare.
Medes, Scythians and Sagarthians are just the better-known clans of the Indo- European-speaking Aryans who settled in Kurdistan. By about 2,600 years ago, the Medes had already set up an empire that included all Kurdistan and vast territories far beyond. Medeans were followed by scores of other kingdoms and city-statesQall dom- inated by Aryan aristocracies and a populace that was becoming Indo-European, Kurdish speakers if not so already.
By the advent of the classical era in 300 BC. Kurds were already experiencing massive population movements that resulted in settlement and domination of many neighboring regions. Important Kurdish polities of this time were all byproducts of these movements. The Zelan Kurdish clan of Commagene (Adyaman area), for example, spread to establish in addition to the Zelanid dynasty of Commagene, the Zelanid kingdom of Cappadocia and the Zelanid empire of PontusQall in Anatolia. These became Roman vassals by the end of the Ist century BC. In the east the Kurdish kingdoms of Gordyene, Cortea, Media, Kirm, and Adiabene had, by the I st century B C, become confederate members of the Parthian Federation.
While all larger Kurdish Kingdoms of the west gradually lost their existence to the Romans, in the east they survived into the 3rd century A D and the advent of the Sasanian Persian empire. The last major Kurdish dynasty, the Kayosids, fell in AD 380. Smaller Kurdish principalities (called the Kotyar, "mountain administrators") however, preserved their autonomous existence into the 7th century and the coming of Islam.
Several socio-economic revolutions in the garb of religious movements emerged in Kurdistan at this time, many due to the exploitation by central governments, some due to natural disasters. These continued as underground movement into the Islamic era, bursting forth periodically to demand social reforms. The Mazdakite and Khurramite movements are best-known among these.
The eclipse of the Sasanian and Byzantine power by the Muslim caliphate, and its own subsequent weakening, permitted the Kurdish principalities and "mountain administrators" to set up new, independent states. The Shaddadids of the Caucasus and Armenia, the Rawadids of Azerbaijan, the Marwandis of eastern Anatolia; the Hasanwayhids, Fadhilwayhids, and Ayyarids of the central Zagros and the Shabankara of Fars and Kirman are some of the medieval Kurdish dynasties.
The Ayyubids stand out from these by the vastness of their domain. From their capital at Cairo they ruled territories of eastern Libya, Egypt, Yemen, western Arabia, Syria, the Holy Lands, Armenia and much of Kurdistan. As the custodians of Islam's holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, the Ayyubids were instrumental in the defeat and expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land.
With the 12th and 13th centuries the Turkic nomads arrived in the area who in time politically dominated vast segments of the Middle East. Most independent Kurdish states succumbed to various Turkic kingdoms and empires. Kurdish principalities, however, survived and continued with their autonomous existence until the 17th century. Intermittently, these would rule independently when local empires weakened or collapsed.
The advent of the Safavid and Ottoman empires in the area and their division of Kurdistan into two uneven imperial dependencies was on a par with the practice of the preceding few centuries. Their introduction of artillery and scorched-earth policy into Kurdistan was a new, and devastating development.
In the course of the 16th to 18th centuries, vast portions of Kurdistan were systematically devastated and large numbers of Kurds were deported to far corners of the Safavid and Ottoman empires. The magnitude of death and destruction wrought on Kurdistan unified its people in their call to rid the land of these foreign vandals. The lasting mutual suffenng awakened in Kurds a community feelingQa nationalism, that called for a unified Kurdish state and fostering of Kurdish culture and language. Thus the historian Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi wrote the first pan-Kurdish history the Sharafnama in 1597, as Ahmad Khani composed the national epic of Mem-o-Zin in 1695, which called for a Kurdish state to fend for its people. Kurdish nationalism was born.
For one last time a large Kurdish kingdomQthe Zand, was born in 1750. Like the medieval Ayyubids, however, the Zands set up their capital and kingdom outside Kurdistan, and pursued no policies aimed at unification of the Kurdish nation. By 1867, the very last autonomous Kurdish principalities were being systematically eradicated by the Ottoman and Persian governments that ruled Kurdistan. They now ruled directly, via governors, all Kurdish provinces. The situation further deteriorated after the end of the WWI and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
The Treaty of Sevres (signed August 10, 1921) anticipated an independent Kurdish state to cover large portions of the former Ottoman Kurdistan. Unimpressed by the Kurds' many bloody uprisings for independence, France and Britain divided up Ottoman Kurdistan between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The Treaty of Lausanne (signed June 24, 1923) formalized this division. Kurds of Persia/Iran, meanwhile, were kept where they were by Teheran.
Drawing of well-guarded state boundaries dividing Kurdistan has, since 1921, aMicted Kurdish society with such a degree of fragmentation, that its impact is tearing apar the Kurds' unity as a nation. The 1920s saw the setting up of Kurdish Autonomous Province (the "Red Kurdistan") in Soviet Azerbaijan. It was disbanded in 1929. In 1945, Kurds set up a Kurdish republic at Mahabad in the Sovie, occupied zone in Iran. It lasted one year, until it was reoccupied by the Iranian army.
Since 1970s, the Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed an official autonomous status in a portion of that state's Kurdistan. By the end of 1991, they had become all but independent from Iraq. By 1995, however, the Kurdish government in Arbil was at the verge of political suicide due to the outbreak of factional fighting between various Kurdish warlords.
Since 1987 the Kurds in TurkeyQby themselves constituting a majority of all KurdsQhave waged a war of national liberation against Ankara's 70 years of heavyhanded suppression of any vestige of the Kurdish identity and its rich and ancient culture. The massive uprising had by 1995 propelled Turkey into a state of civil war. The burgeoning and youthful Kurdish population in Turkey, is now demanding absolute equality with the Turkish component in that state, and failing that, full independence.
In the Caucasus, the fledgling Armenian Republic, in the course of 1992-94 wiped out the entire Kurdish community of the former "Red Kurdistan." Having ethnically "cleansed" it, Armenia has effectively annexed Red Kurdistan's temtory that forms the land bridge between the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia proper.
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