In the collapse of the last great Caliphate, the Abbasids, in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion of the Middle-East, small political entities began to emerge in the former realms of the Empire. Already in the waning days of the Caliphate there had been a lot of power conceded to kingdoms on the ‘periphery’, to the point that they were more or less independent from Baghdad, only acknowledging the authority of the Caliph in religious matters. In the twilight of the Caliphate, Saladin made his mark on Middle-Eastern history after being sent to Egypt and ultimately overthrowing the Shi’a Fatimid Caliphate there, forming a concentrated polity that united Egypt with much of the Levant. Saladin’s family originated from the same roots that many other Kurdish dynasties came out of- tribal confederations that existed in border regions. Saladin’s family was believed to have come from Rawadid tribe, part of the larger Hadhabani confederation, which had existed in what is now the Caucasus. Saladin’s father had moved the family for what was then the Kingdom of Armenia to Tikrit, where they fast involved themselves with intrigues in the area.
Like other families with aspirations, Saladin offered his services to those who held power in the area. Kurdish nationalists, though referring to Saladin due to probably being the most well known (if not the only well-known Kurd, though unintentionally), they acknowledge that Saladin was more motivated by his Islamic faith and his aspirations for power. This resulted in Saladin’s family being more or less assimilated into Arab society, and his cooperation with the Zengeid of Mosul to advance his personal ambitions. Saladin had definitely made use of his fellow tribesman and other Kurds in his conquests later on, as they were more likely to be loyal to him than the locals he would encounter in Egypt and the Levant. His descendents would form the Ayyubid Dynasty for a short time, before being absorbed by other kingdoms, and became wholly assimilated into Arab society themselves. Remnants of Kurdish migration behind Saladin’s conquests can be seen by locations and people still bearing ‘al-Akrad’ in areas well outside the traditional Kurdish region.
In the early years of the Ottoman Empire and the zenith of the Safavids of Iran, Kurdish principalities thrived on the border regions between the two. Originally most, if not all, of the Kurdish principalities were aligned with the Safavids- this changed in the many wars between the young Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire over the latter’s control of Eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The first of these wars took place in 1514 and concluded with the Battle of Chaldiran, which saw many of the Kurdish principalities and tribal confederations in the border areas switch allegiance from Iran to the Ottomans.
Some of these principalities were achieved significant gains for their time. The city of Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan of Iraq was founded and constructed by the Baban Princes,which had long been in competition with their rivals in Iran, Ardalan, as well as their neighbors in Soran and Badhinan. These principalities also allowed for the creation of early Kurdish cultural works, such as Ahmad Khani and his most well-known work Mem û Zîn, which was possible under the patronage of the Bayazid principality. Likewise, Sharaf Khan Bidlisi (From the Bitlis Emirate, as the name would imply) was able to produce the first real historical and cultural study of the Kurds, the Sharafnama.
Other sources paint a different picture of Kurdish principalities as nothing more than lawless frontier areas where the rulers engaged in extortion of trade routes if not outright brigandry, as well as persecution of Christians and other minorities, often manipulated by the Ottoman authorities in the later (which would become tragedy in WWI). Often this aspect is highlighted more in discussions of history of Kurds which have used Turkish, Iranian, and Arab sources, as well as missionaries and European travelers naturally sympathetic to the plight of the Christians, leaving little in the way of Kurdish culture, political structure, etc. in western histories.
Kurdish principalities existed right into the 19th century, when then from the centralizing drives of both the Ottomans and the Qajars of Iran led to their gradual absorption entirely into those kingdoms. Wikipedia has a good image of important Kurdish principalities in the early 1800s, their twilight years before their collapse.
As an aside, I would like to mention that I will avoid use of Wikipedia from here on forward. Wikipedia is a good starting point for information, but its open editing is a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to nationalist contests and mythology formation. Kurdish-related articles are in a poor state due to successive feuds between Kurdish nationalists against those of Turkish and Assyrian background in particular, who choose to highlight the ‘barbarity’ of Kurds, all the while losing much discussion on where
Their location on the frontiers of the Ottoman and Iranian Empires allowed for their initial benefits in autonomy from authority in the capital, which the rulers consented to since they saw Kurds as useful buffer zones from their rivals elsewhere. Centralization was undertaken once these empires began to go through (or went through) periods of decline as Europe industrialized and eclipsed these states in power, moving them to try and centralize and modernize their realms, which resulted in the eventual collapse of these principalities. Some principalities resisted these drives, notably the Badir Khans of Bohtan (Bokhti in the above map) and Mir Muhammad (Mir Kore/ Pasha Kore, “Blind King”) of Soran, and later ‘reactions’ from figures like Sheikh Ubeydullah in Hakkari.
I will try to discuss some of the more important figures in these areas in detail later. Sources on these principalities are scarce in English, though McDowall’s “A Modern History of the Kurds” and the essays in “A People with out a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan” help to provide an accessible history to English speakers, or at least their twilight years in the 1800s.