Mir Muhammad is one of those figures who later got catapulted into Kurdish folklore due to his reputation of standing against the Ottoman Empire. The 19th century would prove to be the swan song of the Kurdish emirates as the imperial government moved towards centralization and reform to overcome its woes.
In 1809, the first sign of trouble emerged in the Baban Emirate. The death of the previous prince, Ibrahim Pasha (Those of you who read the last post on Iraqi Kurdish principalities may recall this figure as the founder of Sulayamaniyah) in 1803 provoked a succession battle. Ottoman authorities, weary of the strength of Baban, attempted to favor a rival tribe to ascend the throne over Ibrahim Pasha’s nephew, Abdurrahman Pasha. After stabbing a Ottoman functionary in Koi Sanjaq, Abdurrahman Pasha entered into hostilities with the Empire (including a march against the governor of Baghdad) until his defeat at the hands of the Imperial Army and allied Kurdish tribes, which caused him to go into exile in Iran (dates vary on this wildly, some put it early as 1808, others later in 1810 with low level hostility until 1813. Further revolts would break out during the Ottoman-Russian Wars in the 1800s, mostly in the 1828–1829 conflict, along with Armenian uprisings which indicated the Empire’s issues with local notables.
Mir Muhammad (sometimes popularly known as Pasha Kor, Mir Kor, (Kor is sometimes rendered as Kore) etc., essentially ‘Blind King’ kor=blind in Kurdish) was the ruler of the Soran Emirate, which again I point to the previous post on Iraqi Kurdish principalities for a deeper overview. Soran was one of the more powerful emirates and the capital of Rawanduz was at the time one of the most powerful as far as Kurdish nobility goes. Mir Muhammad, like his predecessors, had rivalries with many of this neighbors but entertained grander notions of possibly being declared a ‘King’ of a Kurdish client state.
Mir Muhammad assumed control in 1825 as the ruler of the Soran Emirate, being at least 40 years old at the time after succeeding his father as the head of the family in 1815. In the 10 years between 1815 and 1825, Mir Muhammad deeply involved himself in court intrigue, eliminating rivals as needed to secure his final ascent to the throne in 1825. The force he employed at this stage would later become familiar in his conquest of tribes later on. Mir Muhammad, like other Kurdish notables, was aware of the difficulties the Imperial Army showed in suppressing the Baban revolt and later in Anatolia during wars with the Russian Empire. The final push Mir Muhammad needed was the moves by Muhammad Ali, Pasha of Egypt, in asserting the de-facto independence of Egypt from the Ottoman Empire (though still nominally a ‘province’ of the Ottoman Empire) beginning in 1831. This was motivated by the anger of Muhammad Ali in not being granted territory in modern day Syria after coming to the aid of the Sultan during the Greek War of Independence.
As the Ottoman Empire was preoccupied with the revolt of Muhammad Ali, Mir Muhammad moved to eliminate his rivals in the surrounding provinces. The first conflicts began with his forcible pacification of rival tribes in Soran to his rule, such as the Khusnaw, Mamash, Surchi, Shirwan, and Baradost. The next stage was the Baban Emirate when he seized control of Harir, a contested city between Baban and Soran which had been controlled by Baban for some 500 years. He followed this up with the capture of Erbil/ Hawler, Koi Sanjaq (Koya), and Raniya before 1830. The capture of Raniya, overlooking Dukan Lake, brought Mir Muhammad close to Suleymaniyah itself and eventually secured the recognition of power by Baban. The rapid ascent of Mir Muhammad in disturbing the power balance in Iraq, especially as the Ottoman Empire began to face a considerable threat from Muhammad Ali in Egypt, prompted an attempt to pacify Mir Muhamamd by declaring him Mirenmiran, essentially the ‘high prince’ of all the princes in Iraq. This did not stop him as they would later find out.
In 1833, citing the weakness of the Badhinan Emir, Mir Said, in facing the Yezidi ‘threat’ after the murder of a Mizuri chief by a Yezidi chief, Mir Muhammad invaded the principality. Mir Muhammad was well aware of Mir Said’s difficulties in Badinan, and knew that the ruler was weak and his kingdom ripe for conquest. Soran forces captured Akre and besieged the capital at Amedi shortly afterwards, forcing out Mir Said and replacing him with a Soran-friendly ruler. The fall of Bahdinan also meant that Mir Muhammad gained control of both Zakho and Dahuk, important towns on the trade route between Cizre and Mosul, and by extension the heartlands of the Empire with Baghdad. In the process Mir Muhammad also took the opportunity to extract brutality on Yezidi and Christian settlements, knowing they would toss in with the Ottoman Empire rather than him if faced with the possibility of relinquishing their local lands. By the end of 1833, the Soran army reportedly numbered 10,000 cavalry and 20,000 trained infantry, with much Southern Kurdistan (roughly what is Northern Iraq now) under his control, and now reached the borders of Bohtan, the domain of the Bedirkhans. From Rawanduz Mir Muhammad began to produce advanced equipment such as cannons to use in his army, along with rifles, many of which were until then unheard of in Kurdish provinces outside of Imperial-backed forces. Some of these cannons still remain to this day, including in Rawanduz and in Baghdad’s museum.
For probably the first time in the region, some form of centralized government was established by Mir Muhammad, being able to overshadow the uncontested power of tribes and going so far as to mint his own coins. Indeed despite his brutality Mir Muhammad had been able to do what Ottoman administrators had long sought for the troublesome Kurdish tribal areas, with the ability to keep trade routes secure from brigandry problems and excessive taxes levied by local notables. Where emirates were overshadowed by tribes, Mir Muhammad seems to have been able to create a real and genuine administration, bringing law and order to the Kurdish lands. It is argued by McDowall that had Mir Muhammad offered by this point some ‘peace’ with the Ottomans and joined with them against Egypt, they would have accepted his offer as the ruler of his new domains. Mir Muhammad also sent offers to tribes and emirs in Iran to join him in the revolt.
Ottoman leaders now feared that Mir Muhammad was in league with Muhammad Ali by way of Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, who was one of the leaders of Egyptian forces in the Levant. This threat was taken seriously by the court in Istanbul who feared that a successful Egyptian conquest of Syria coupled with a collapse of authority in Mesoptamia from Mir Muhammad’s conquests could spell disaster for their Empire. As such by this point the Ottoman Empire began to view the insurrection by Mir Muhammad as a significant threat that the Great Powers might capitalize on as they had done with Egypt.
What happened with the Bedirkhans is unsure, with one source (David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds) saying that Mir Muhammad entered into indecisive hostilities with Bohtan, while another (Kendal Nezan’s essays in A People without a Country: the Kurds and Kurdistan) states that Mir Muhammad had instead offered alliance to the Bedirkhans, which ended up becoming more of a non-aggression agreement. At any rate, Mir Muhammad appeared to not advance beyond Mardin and Nusaybin in his inroads towards Anatolia.
Likewise, what occurred following 1834 seems to diverge depending on the sources. Kendal includes a significant episode wherein after repulsing initial Ottoman advances on Rawanduz, turned his attention to Iran where he invaded and partially liberated areas in northwest Iran starting in October 1835, which prompted Russian intervention on the part of the Qajars of Iran. In the summer of 1836, Mir Muhammad retreated from Iran and returned back to Rawanduz to face a significant force led by Raschid Pasha. McDowall’s account leaves out this campaign in Iran, and rather focuses on instead a protracted conflict between Ottoman and Kurdish forces in Rawanduz. The two accounts converge again with reports of Mir Muhammad seeking parley with Qajar forces, offering himself as a vassal if they would aid him against the Ottomans (it may be recalled that some centuries before, the Safavid dynasty in Iran lost all of their holdings in Mesopotamia), and securing safe passage to enter into exile in Iran if he loses. He also includes an account by Richard Wood, a British agent within the Ottoman Empire, who was sent to Rawanduz with the blessings of the governor of Baghdad, Ali Ridha Pasha to reason with Mir Muhammad. By this point the advances on Rawanduz by way of the Gali Ali Bec Canyon proved to be troublesome for Imperial forces, and Wood recognized that a power vacuum created by either side incurring significant losses could create room for the Qajar and their Russian allies to advance into the region. With that in mind, he departed for Rawanduz.
Wood saw a Qajar agent in the court of Mir Muhammad offering the aforementioned terms to him, and bringing it to Mir Muhammad’s attention that the Qajar were also making negotiations with the Ottoman Empire and could leave him out to dry. Playing on his fears and the real danger of a disastrous siege on Rawanduz, McDowall goes on to attribute Wood’s arguments in being important in finally securing the surrender of Mir Muhammad and his departure to Istanbul in the company of Raschid Pasha to secure terms as a king of a more unified ‘Kurdish’ vassal state.
Kendal likewise includes the negotiations by Mir Muhammad with the Qajars while simultaneously describing a confrontation in the summer of 1836 between a 40,000 strong Soran force led by Mir Muhammad’s brother, Ahmed Bey, and the Ottoman contingent which had swelled with contributions from Mosul and Baghdad leaders along with rival Kurdish tribes and deposed emirs. This battle ended in Soran’s favor, leading the Ottomans to favor an approach through religious clerics who held sway in many courts in the empire. By convincing one “Mullah Khati” to issue a fatwa stating that “He who fights against the troops of the Caliph is an infidel”, it contributed to a collapse of moral among Soran forces coupled with the ongoing siege. Seeing that the only path would be his final destruction, Mir Muhammad surrendered to Raschid Pasha’s forces and was escorted back to Istanbul.
Here accounts converge once more, acknowledging that at some point in 1836 (presumably after the summer), Mir Muhammad was in the custody of Raschid Pasha who took him to the court of Sultan Mahmoud II, where he was under the impression he could negotiate with the Ottomans in exchange for being loyal to them against the Qajars, Egypt, and the Great Powers. During this period the Ottoman armies continued the pacification of Kurdish towns. In early 1837, Mir Muhammad was killed during his voyage by sea between Istanbul and Trabzon. Considering the circumstances of the death as well as the Ottoman Empire’s desire to have more manageable ‘new’ nobility in their holdings, it has been suggested by some, including Kendal, that he was eliminated on the Empire’s orders.
By this point the Soran Emirate was pacified by the imperial forces, and its semi-autonomy revoked. Despite their victory, the Ottoman Empire could not effectively administrate over the region and resorted to appointing one of Mir Muhammad’s brothers, a Rasul Beg, as leader who would later attempt to re-establish Soran’s previous standing but was defeated by Najib Pasha of Baghdad in 1847, effectively bringing an end to the storied history of the Soran principality and the grandeur of Rawanduz. Kendal also includes a further episode with Ahmed Bey, the brother of Mir Muhammad who led Soran forces in 1836, in a small revolt in the spring of 1837 as Imperial forces began to pacify the whole of Kurdistan in the Empire under the command of Hafiz Pasha.
Of interest during this period is the accounts of a young von Moltke, regarded as an instrumental figure in the modernization and reforms of the Prussian military which would play a role in the unification of Germany. At the time the young von Moltke was attached as an observer on behalf of Prussia within the Ottoman military during their campaign against the Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt. He was attached to Raschid Pasha’s campaign against Muhammad Ali and noted,
The battles were very bloody: the Kurds put up a heroic resistance. The ottoman soldiers had to fight for thirty or forty days to take possession of every insignificant hillock. Letters on the East, Von Moltke, through Kendal
In a collection of von Moltke’s works, he also recalls some characteristics of Kurds that might be of interest during his time attached to Hafiz Pasha (who, as said earlier, was involved the 1837 campaign to pacify the Kurds), who participated in the second war against the Egyptians that saw the reconquest of Syria.
Small revolutions will arise among the mountaineers and in the big cities. Then a war will be waged, just as the Reschid Pashas and Hafis Pashas fought against the unfortunate Kurds, when they slew women and children, and burned down the beautiful villages in order to rule a short time over an exhausted and desolated country which, however, they could not retain for a long time.
If any nation is bound to the soil, it is the Kurds. Heirs of an ancient agriculture, they live in the valleys of the Armenian table-land, shunning the plains where the brooks of their native mountains are dried up, and though the winters are severe, they enjoy long and beautiful summers. Among them are a few wandering shepherds, but for the most part they are an essentially agricultural people, to this extent nomadic that when the heat in the valleys becomes oppressive and the rays of the sun free the mountain pastures from the snow, they drive their herds a step higher, for a time exchanging their houses for tents of black goat-hair.
The Kurdish villages afford a pleasant prospect. As the traveller approaches them, he beholds, while still far off, groups of walnut-trees, under whose shade the houses lie hidden. Near the spring or brook, which is never absent, there stands, as a rule, a plantation of poplars, which are indispensable for the building of the cottages. As they are well watered, and exposed to the life-giving heat of the sun, these trees reach an extraordinary height in an incredibly short time ; they grow as thickly as the blades in a corn-field, and the trunks are slim and straight like reeds. The villages are surrounded by vineyards, olive plantations, gardens, or cornfields, according to the altitude, but only very few of them can boast of a minaret, which the smallest Turkish villages possess. The outer walls of their dwelling-houses are built of a kind of air-dried brick, which is made of clay and crushed straw without any wood ; instead of windows, there are only a few narrow openings, which are placed rather high, and are not closed, as neither glass nor paper is known in these districts. The entrance is guarded by a strong oaken door. The ceiling is made of a layer of poplars placed at intervals of nine inches; over these branches are laid, and the whole is covered with clay and gravel to a thickness of about one or one and a half feet. This platform is used by the family as a sleeping-place during the summer, and is often surrounded by a parapet about four feet high. The houses of the wealthier people have two storeys, and are sometimes built of stone ; they are generally provided on one side with a square tower. Everything is arranged with a view to defence in their intestine feuds.
All Kurds have a certain national likeness. Their skin is not any darker than that of their neighbours the Turkomans and Armenians ; they are generally tall and stalwart, their noses are aquiline, but their eyes are set very close together, which sometimes gives them the appearance of squinting.
They show great dexterity and practical knowledge in the works they construct for purposes of irrigation. Without the use of any levelling instruments they conduct the water from the springs and streams for leagues along the mountain sides to the point where they are in need of the element which is here indispensable for all vegetation. The mountain slopes are often cut into terraces up to an astonishing height, just as in our best cultivated vine districts, in order to gain a few feet of productive soil. Plantations, fields, and aqueducts are the principal features of Kurdish agriculture.
Such is the home and the climate to which this race is so deeply attached. When, in the year 1838, Hafiz Pasha had driven the inhabitants of Karsann-Dagh with fire and sword into their highest and most inaccessible hiding-places, and when, now that they were surrounded on all sides, food began to be scarce, a deputation of their elders appeared before the tent of the conqueror to implore his pity. The Pasha knew of no better means of transforming these people into faithful subjects of the Porte than that of transplanting them from their inaccessible mountains into the plain.
There he promised them ten times the property they possessed at their homes (on such occasions his generosity knew no bounds), freedom from all taxes and military service for three years, and pointed out to them in bright colours the riches which they would be able to gain by the cultivation of the’ silkworm and by horse-breeding, instead of mulberry-picking and sheep rearing. But one might as well offer to build a nest for a fish. Mournfully the old men looked up to heaven, promising everything they were asked ; they then returned to their families, loaded with presents, and reported how they had been received. Thereupon women and children took up arms, the skirmishes were renewed, and did not end till the insurgents were entirely defeated ; but the project of a colonization in the plain had to be abandoned.
Kurdistan is an aggregate of single communities without any bond of union. Sometimes, but very rarely, an old castle may be seen, perched on a lofty and inaccessible mountain-top, or hedged in between perpendicular walls of rock. These castles are used by some of the Beys, not as residences, but as places of refuge in times of danger. None of these small princes exercise permanent authority over any great part of the country, and it is only in times of danger and distress that men like Revandus Bey, Vedehan Bey, and Sayd Bey have been able to gather any consider- able body of their countrymen round their standards. But, even then, these armies melted away in a very short time, and each soldier refused to defend more than his own hearth. This is where the weakness of the people lies. They would be unconquerable if they were united, but none of them have ever attempted to lend a helping hand to tlieir neighbours, and while Reshid and Hafiz Pasha were invading one district, the others rejoiced in their temporary safety till it was their turn.
The nature of the soil seldom permits the Kurds to fight on horseback. Their cavalry, who ride excellent horses, are generally armed with bows and arrows, or with long lances of bamboo, the upper ends of which are ornamented with thick pads of ostrich feathers ; for defence they still carry their little round shells of wicker- work covered with skins. But the long gun which the foot soldiers carry, with its Persian barrels of damaskeened iron, still often provided with a matchlock, is a terrible weapon in so perilous and difficult a country. All this shows that there is a strong defensive element in the Kurdish nation, and one must not imagine for a moment that the Russians would not meet with an extremely obstinate resistance, if they ever attempted the conquest of this country. Here they would find the same fanaticism and the same difficult mountain warfare, so uncongenial to the Russian soldier, that they have been compelled to face in the Caucasus, where, spite of the sea and the nearness of the country to their own, their efforts have hitherto been in vain.
Persia would be the most dangerous enemy of the Kurds on account of her nearness, if she had not sunk into total impotence. They did succumb to the Pashas of Bagdad and Diarbekir, but principally because at that time a large army of 50,000 men could be employed against them, which the Padishah was obliged to maintain in that remote region for quite a different purpose, that is, to keep a watch on Ibrahim. The Porte herself knows best what sacrifices of men, money, and material are required in order to occupy Kurdistan for the space of a few years. She was, however, compelled to make these sacrifices, as without the help of Kurdistan it would have been impossible for her to bear the burden of the ” status quo ” for seven years. Her artillery, which was conveyed into these mountain valleys with immense exertion by camels or by human labour, provided her with a weapon far superior to anything which the Kurds could bring against it, and yet castles with garrisons of from forty to eighty men resisted all their attempts for thirty-two and even forty days.
Meanwhile famine and disease made dreadful havoc among the besiegers, and if Hafiz Pasha’s last expedition came speedily to an end, it was principally owing to the fact that Kurds were fighting against Kurds. The same men who had fought so badly in the plain, under the Turkish flag, were now seen storming intrenched caverns, villages, and strongholds, or defending them with the utmost daring. The love of plunder and the love of home were powerful motives on one of these occasions, but on the other they were absent.
Mir Muhamamd heralded the beginning of instability in the Kurdish emirates as well as the end of Kurdish semi-autonomy, as subsequent revolts with the Bedirkhans of Bohtan and Sheikh Ubeydullah would prove. It is interesting that despite Mir Muhammad’s conquests and suppression of tribes, that he remains a well-known figure in Kurdish folklore, often simply referred to as Mir Kor or Pasha Kor. Indeed I myself had only known of him first through my father’s recollections of Mir Kor and his achievements, which had to be tempered with what he really did historically. Regardless, it appears that in spite of this brutality, Mir Muhammad’s ability to seemingly create the first genuine Kurdish ‘Kingdom’ catapulted him into immortality as Kurdish nationalists would later discover in finding stories of Mir Kor in folklore that would be passed down generations. The history of Rawanduz itself is intricately tied with its final years under Mir Kor, and by extension the ‘golden age’ he presumably heralded, though bittersweet in that it could have been something that lasted had Mir Kor played his cards right. The inability for Kurds to unite due to tribal conflicts also reared its head here, allowing themselves to be played against one another, and indeed would continue to do so in future revolts well into the 20th century.
The other emirates that Mir Muhammad displaced- Badinan and Baban- eventually returned to their thrones after cooperation with the Ottoman Empire. They too, however, would eventually be absorbed into the growing Mosul administrative unit, which would later become the Mosul Vilayet.
-David McDowell, “A Modern History of the Kurds”
-Kendal Nezan’s essays in “A People without a Country: the Kurds and Kurdistan”, compiled by Gérard Chaliand