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Ancient Assyrian ruins in northern Iraq. Khanas, Iraqi Kurdistan

This is probably one of the most confusing issues for Kurds. There is no clear answer as to where Kurds originate from, though there are many opposing viewpoints to this question. This question has been used in different ways, on one end by nationalists to show the long, proud history of Kurds and on the others to justify discriminatory policies against Kurds claiming they are an ‘invented’ people. Even the etymology of “Kurd” is confusing, with some versions translating it out as something like a ‘warrior’ or fighter. A common Kurdish male name, “Kurdo”, essentially invokes this meaning.

The Kurdish people’s closest cultural neighbor would probably be those living in Iran- Persians, Lurs, etc. as well as the broader ‘Indo-Iranian’ category, which owes itself to the linguistic ties between Kurdish and those languages, such as Farsi. This relation was so close that originally European visitors to the Middle-East originally confused the various Kurdish dialects as sub-dialects of Farsi itself.

Where Kurdistan lies in the world, much like the rest of the Middle-East, is an old land with remnants of past civilizations still visible in the region. Many of the different ethnic groups in the Middle-East come from this experience, and the Kurds are no exception. However due to the Kurds’ neglected position in the Middle-East and history, there is no clear idea of where the Kurds come from. This is partially due to the fact that Kurds never left a significant ‘written’ history like other ethnic groups (which was unfortunately used as a means to justify discriminatory policies against Kurds as an ‘uncivilized’ peoples), as well as the active destruction of Kurdish folklore and arts (like poetry) through aggressive assimilation policies if not outright destruction.

Historically, the areas where Kurds currently inhabited had always been home to mountain folk who were looked upon as brutish by the accounts of more developed civilizations, as far back as the ancient Sumerians. This was a common position for subsequent civilizations to take, right up to the Ottomans themselves, of the ‘brigands’ who lived up in the mountains on the frontier with Iran.

Among Kurds nowadays, the popular ‘origin’ is that of the Medes, one of the Iranian tribes that entered into the region during the migration of Aryan tribes, which was eventually became a part of the ancient Iranian empires during the pre-Islamic Era. This may or may not be the case, though it is doubtful Kurds can claim a sole lineage from the Medes. Linguistically, there is no significant relation between any form of the Kurdish dialects to the Median language, which hampers any potential ‘lineage’ from those peoples. The Medes, like other ancient civilizations, left their mark on a number of different ethnic groups existing in the Middle-East- it would not be realistic to say that they had eventually become the Kurds down the road. However, they can probably be counted among the groups that contributed to the ethnogenesis of the Kurds. Other such groups that have been brought up include the Carduchi, the mountain people who fought the Greek Xenophon’s March of the Ten Thousand, who lived in a region later referred to by the Romans as “Courduene”.

As it stands, “Kurd” begins appearing in Middle-Eastern texts following Islamic conquest, referring to people living in the mountainous region where Kurds live now, as well as the plains surrounding the mountains.  Arabic maps such as The term would have enough of a ‘concrete’ meaning at least for people like Saladin to be acknowledged as a Kurd later, or for remnant of locations named after Kurds (al-Akrad) in parts of the Middle-East. For example, the famous Crusader fortress, “Krak des Chevaliers”, was originally a settlement known as Hisn al Akrad, or Castle of the Kurds. Maps created around this time also refer to a “Kurdistan” in the region roughly where it occupies today. What is not clear is whether “Kurd” in this sense referred to a concrete group of people with a common culture, or simply people who happened to live in the same place. At any rate, it existed enough to differentiate a “Kurd” from other peoples, though in those days nationality was nonexistent- the tribe and religion came first.

So it could be said that the formation of a Kurdish people arose from three sources- first from the ‘original’ inhabitants of mountainous regions such as the Hittites, Mittani, Gutians, and Hurrians, or at least the remnants of those peoples that came under the control of the Assyrian Empire. Second, the eventual conquest and assimilation of these groups into the Median peoples- or at the very least the various Aryan tribes- following the Aryan migration into the Iranian Plateau. With Islamic conquest of the old Iranian realms, the final necessary cultural influence was introduced to create the beginning of Kurds. With subsequent absorption of neighboring groups, notably Turkish, Armenian, and Arabic tribes, this would probably bring the Kurds around as we know it. Islamic conquest was probably an important factor in securing the position of Kurdish people with the rest of their neighbors in accepting the culture from Arabs through conversion to Islam, rather than the more ‘European’ position taken by groups that remained Christians, notably the Armenians. Simply put Kurds could not draw a clean line to the groups that existed before Islamic Conquest – it was rather a long process that encompassed the various peoples that came to conquer what is now Kurdistan. By 800 AD and onwards “Kurd” was used enough to indicate an acknowledgement of such a people.

As a note of interest, there is also the explanation of Kurds rooted in the old Iranian legends, as has been preserved by the Shahnameh. In the story concerning the tyrant king Zohak, the king-to-be Fereydun, and the blacksmith Kaveh, the scene is set up to establish Zohak’s brutality, notably where he demands two live sacrifices to feed the two snakes growing from each of his shoulders. Taking pity on those brought up to be sacrificed, the attendant would sneak away people to the mountains and cover their tracks with sheep mixed with other sacrifices. These people would eventually become the Kurds. This is of course a legend, but it at least drives home an important fact that Kurds had been acknowledged in various folklore that harken back to old times- and not simply an invention of the past 100 years.

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