I’m sure for those of you who’ve looked at the web address might wonder who (or what) Lepzerin is. I chose Lepzerin intentionally for my site because he is an interesting figure in Kurdish folklore, one that ties intimately with our political experience in the last century.
To those who have long oppressed the Kurds, figures like Lepzerin were written off as fanciful inventions by nationalists to create a ‘legend’ among Kurds where there had never been none. This is most notable within the Turkish state which also holds the same position towards Newroz as being manipulated for political purposes, with the stories often portrayed as a struggle of Kurds against a more powerful force, typically the predecessor of those governments that exist now.
Was Lepzerin a real person? History would at least indicate that there was indeed an Amir Khan Lepzêrîn who rebelled against Iran, during the reign of Shah Abbas I. This revolt lasted from November of 1609 to the summer of 1610, the entirety of which consisted of the siege of the DimDim fortress. The revolt was put down, the leaders killed, thousands of people massacred, and the survivors forced from their homes to distant corners of the empire.
Amir Khan Lepzeirn (Emîr Xan Lepzerin in latinized Kurdish) was a ruler of the Baradust in northwest Iran, in the Kurdish regions around what is now Urmia. “Lepzerin” was a popular title affixed to his name, which is typically translated as “Gold-handed” (‘Lep’ being ‘hand’, ‘zerin’ being ‘golden’, derived from ‘zer’ or yellow’). This period in Iran was a troublesome one, with the Iranians coming off a series of defeats against the Ottoman Empire which saw their territories in modern day Iraq and Turkey ceded to the Ottoman Empire, and much of what is modern-day northwest Iran occupied by Ottoman forces, including Tabriz. Shah Abbas I took power in October 1587, following a coup against his weak father Shah Mohammed I after disastrous defeats from the Ottomans and Uzbeks that saw losses of territory. Abbas I proved to be much more strong and capable than his father, setting out to fight back against the numerous invaders of the old empire and regaining some conquered territories of Iran, bringing it to its modern-day territories.
Kurdish tribes were looked upon with suspicion due to the defections of those in the empire’s former Mesopotamian and Anatolian provinces after the Battle of Chaldiran in in 1514, which I mentioned in the post about Kurdish principalities. Amir Khan was the rightful, hereditary ruler acknowledged by the Shah, though the entire region at the time was not solidly in either the Ottoman or Iranian control. Both contested for control here, and in a way the imperial court in Iran hoped to secure the loyalties of local rulers in order to strengthen their position against the Ottomans. In this way they tolerated the moves of some Kurdish notables to expand their powers hoping they would stay loyal to the Iranians rather than defect to the Ottomans.
Lepzerin controlled a swath of territory to the in the regions south of Urmia, between that city and Saujbulagh (present day Mahabad). On the nearby mountains there existed an old fortification that was believed to have been there from before Islamic conquest, and it was this mountaintop fortification that Lepzerin took and re-purposed. The current day location of DimDim is south of Urmia along the road to Oshnavieh near the village of Balanj. I have attached a (crude) screenshot I made from Google Earth showing the location.
If you want to look at them yourself, the coordinates of the marker are 37°21’37.91″N, 45°11’11.89″E. You can also look at the same location on Google Maps. As you can see, the region is mountainous and is bounded on the west by the Zagros Mountains, and on the east Lake Urmia. Lepzerin picked this location presumably due to its location near a pass on the road between Urmia and Oshnavieh, two cities in the region. Lepzerin wanted to assert his power and independence, against both Ottoman and Iranian authorities as it appeared that both could not effectively administrate the region directly.
Lepzerin’s moves to fortify the citadel were seen as a sign of treachery by Shah Abbas, who moved against him and his supporters, who were drawn from Kurds in the Urmia region as well as those from the Mokri tribe who swore allegiance to him. The siege was an especially protracted one, going through the winter of 1609 and lasting until the summer of 1610, at which point the defenders were exhausted and overrun. This struggle was lopsided, with the Kurdish defenders far out numbered by imperial forces, their only advantage being the mountaintop fortification. After putting up a valiant resistance, the fall of the castle the following summer saw all of its defenders massacred, along with peasants that supported them. Lepzerin is believed to have perished during this struggle. The rulers of Baradust continued to hold their positions and lands, though with less and less power, with low-level revolts taking place around the castle once again.
The last of these battles would come to an end not with the Baradust struggles, but rather the confrontation between Iran and the Ottomans over the Urmia region, in which the fortress was utilized by Ottoman forces attempting to seize control of the Urmia region over 100 years later in the early 1700s, with Iranian forces led by the future Nader Shah. By this point the local Kurdish princes were a shadow of themselves, having taken no significant role in the battle. After this confrontation the castle was destroyed, and as such today little to no traces remain of DimDim.
The most evident and lasting legacy of this struggle was not the castle itself; again, little to nothing exists of the fortress. Rather, it was the deportations of Kurds undertaken by Shah Abbas I to break the power-base of the Baradust rulers and lessen the likelihood of a future revolt in a sensitive border area with the Ottomans. Many of these Kurds were settled on the northeast frontier of the empire to serve as a buffer against raids from Central Asia, in what is now the border with Turkmenistan. To this day nearly 2 million Kurds live there, having been able to preserve their language and customs for over 400 years now. More notably they speak mostly speak the Kurmanji dialects, which was the dialect of the Kurdish villagers in what was Baradust of Iran, rather than the mostly Sorani speakers in the rest of Iran. You can see this population of Kurds in many maps showing major population centers:
The other lasting legacy was from the folklore that emerged from the battle. The first was from one of the great figures of Kurdish poetry, Faqi Teyran, who collected the story of DimDim along with other legends and folklore in his “Qewlê Hespê Reş”, or the “Words (sometimes songs) of the Black Horse”, which would persist well into the modern-time. Teyran also lived during the time of the revolt, though as a young child, and his poetry could be considered a contemporary account of the events in DimDim. In the Soviet Union, there was the Kurdish author Arab Shamilov who in the 1960s published a historical epic-style book covering the events of DimDim. Kurdish movements from the 50s and onwards revived widespread knowledge of figures like Lepzerin and DimDim, and considering their own struggle against regimes in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, stories of those past leaders who stood against the conquests of regional powers provides a strong parallel between struggles of today and those in the past. It is for that reason that governments in the area despised the story of DimDim and Lepzerin, not because they were ‘invented’, but because of how the stories of heroic resistance against tyrants by Kurds served as a powerful rallying tool and raising awareness of one’s Kurdish heritage.