In the years that followed the defeats of Badrkhan and Yezdan Sher, the Kurdish regions of the Ottoman Empire experienced a profound change in their social structures. The tribes, while previously already powerful, were checked by the presence of the Mirs of the various Emirates in the kingdom. Badrkhan’s defeat marked the beginning of the end of the Kurdish emirates, the last holdout being Baban’s which quietly ended in 1850. As such, the tribes now began to occupy an increasingly more important position in Kurdish culture, some being swelled by the remnants of the regional Mir’s families taking prominence in their circles.
The most prominent feature of many of the tribes was their religiosity. Many tribes were part of Naqshbandi circles, Sufi orders, in which the tribal chieftains were both spiritual and political leaders in their localities. One such figure was Sheikh Ubeydullah of Nehri, sometimes spelled as Obeidullah or erroneously as Sheikh Abdullah, hailing from the eponymous Nehri (renamed Baglar by the Turkish state) in Şemdinli, Hakkari province of Turkey. Ubeydullah’s family were, like other tribes and notables in the Ottoman Empire, large landowners who had often held strong relations with the Sultan- so long as their economic interests were maintained of course. The Nehri cheiftans for their part were known for their tobacco, but their Naqshbandi circle also was fairly strong with adherents not just from their local region but from tribes in Mesopotamia and even Iran.
The Kurdish regions in the Ottoman Empire also suffered, like the other parts of the Empire, from warfare and large scale famines which killed thousands of people. The most notable disorders occurred in the 1870s where rather strong famines led Kurds and other citizens to resort to banditry to survive from bad crop failures. Indeed such disorders were rampant enough to even reach the attention of western papers, though true to fashion they were once again only worried with the fate of Armenians, Assyrians, and other Christian groups in the Empire.
The most notable event during this time was yet another war between the Ottoman and Russian Empire from 1877 to 1878. It may be recalled that earlier, Yezdan Sher took advantage of an earlier Russo-Turkish conflict (the Crimean War) during his uprising in 1855. The war would also provide Sheikh Ubeydullah with his own opening, but unlike Badirkhan and Yezdan Sher before him, he would do it in the aftermath of such a conflict rather than in the middle of it.
Painting by the Russian artist Lev Lagorio depicting Russian soldiers defending against an Ottoman counterattack on occupied Beyazid
The war had a profound effect on the Ottoman Empire. The devastation the Russian army did on the Ottoman military killed many conscripts which left a void in many villages. Russian assaults from the Caucasus targeted the Ottoman territories around Kars and Beyazid (Bazîd in Kurdish, was also the site of a Bazîd Emirate) wreaked havoc on the people living there. Russia, under pressure from the British, accepted a peace treaty from the Ottoman Empire, which while spared the Ottomans from a more devastating defeat, was humiliating nonetheless.
The Ottoman influence in the Balkans was virtually eliminated as it had to recognize the independence of Bulgaria and Romania as part of its peace agreements with the Russian Empire. The city of Kars and its vicinity was ceded to the Russian Empire, and would remain under occupation by the Russians until after World War I in the treaty of friendship between the young Turkish republic and the Soviet Union. The war’s devastation on the local economy, which was already on top of an ongoing famine, certainly did not help things.
Sheikh Ubeydullah used his considerable tribal connections and religious influence to form a core of rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. The widespread famine and instability as local officials took extreme measures to exploit local villagers. It is into this climate that Sheikh Ubeydullah emerged and exploited to raise the call for rebellion.
A foreign events section of the New York Times from September of 1879, detailing a Kurdish insurrection which the Ottoman Empire falsely reported as taken care of. From ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database
As the selection from the newspaper above indicates, Ubeydullah was already beginning to cause problems in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, not willing to show a further sign of weakness after its defeat, announced that there was no problem and that they had taken care of the insurrection. Once again the Ottomans can not hide the insurrection for too long, and a month later in the New York Times this sensational account appears:
New York Times foreign events from October 1879 issue. ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
And yet again, the Ottomans extol their false victory some days later.
See a pattern? From the same source as above.
Meanwhile, the famine continued in Kurdish regions, apparently will into 1880.
New York Times newspaper from June of 1880, describing the famine in Kurdish regions of the empire. From ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
One thing that distinguished Ubeydullah from previous uprisings was, besides his religious background, his understanding that Kurds constituted a distinct group of people in the Ottoman Empire. In his correspondence with a missionary, Sheikh Ubeydullah explicitly mentions the Kurdish people:
“The Kurdish nation, consisting of more than 500,000 families is a people apart. Their religion is different, and their laws and customs distinct…. We are also a nation apart. We want our affairs to be in our hands, so that in the punishment of our own offenders we may be strong and independent, and have privileges like other nations…. This is our objective…. Otherwise, the whole of Kurdistan will take matter into their own hands, as they are unable to put up with these continual evil deeds and the oppression, which they suffer at the hands of the Persian and Ottoman governments.”
Sheikh Ubeydullah (sitting) with an American missionary, Joseph Cochran
Interestingly, unlike what was seen with Mir Kor, Badirkhan, or Yezdan Sher, international press did not seem to be up in arms over harm directed against Christians, which as I’ve shown on previous occasions were often sensationalized for full effect in western press. Ubeydullah appears to have not targeted Christians as heavily, if at all, like his predecessors and indeed it seems some may have been friendly with him. At any rate, this did not seem to improve his image with westerners, unsurprisingly.
Ubeydullah hoped for a Kurdish state, one under his rule of course, which would be independent of both Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Like the Kurdish revolters before him, he wanted to replicate the success of Egypt in breaking away from Ottoman control, and felt that an outside European power would be the answer to this. To this end the United Kingdom looked into ways to support Ubeydullah’s revolt, more to destabilize the empire than to genuinely help Kurds though.
Ubeydullah was first supported by enemies of the Ottoman Empire, like the British, as he focused on the immediate vicinity of his land holdings. However, this ended once Ubeydullah’s raids turned east into the Persian Empire. The reasons for this essentially come down to the relative weakness of Iran and Ubeydullah’s own tit for tat with the Ottoman Empire. He had possibly hoped for the Sultan’s approval of attacking Iran, a long time regional rival. And in a way, it could once again kill two birds with one stone- the Iranians would get some instability, and the inevitable help it would receive from the Russians and other European powers would weaken the Iranians. The invasion of Iran began in the spring of 1880 and would take the world by surprise. Much as they had done in previous occasions, world powers called on the Ottoman Empire to act and reign in their “rebellious” Kurdish elements.
Short article from the New York Times foreign events section in early October of 1880. The Kurdish Chieftain from Turkey is of course either Ubeydullah or someone allied to him. This is the beginning of Ubeydullah’s invasion of Iran. ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.
Ubeydullah’s invasion of Persia consisted of his followers, including close relatives like his son Abdul Qadir. The first invasion seemingly took the Iranian defenders by surprise, quickly overrunning settlements across the Zagros mountain in Kurdish populated areas, ultimately reaching both Urmia and Mahabad (Saublaq). So powerful was Ubeydullah’s support among the locals and from his own recruits that the Iranians had to muster all the strength they could get, including from foreign support through the British, to repulse Ubeydullah’s attack at Urmia.
A few weeks into October, and the New York Times carries this piece with the wonderful title of “THE INSURGENT KURDS”. The coverage grows, but Ubeydullah is not mentioned yet. Source same as above.
And only five days later “THE INSURGENT KURDS” gets a significantly larger coverage. “Sheikh Abdullah” is Ubeydullah, and the paper carries what readers of this blog should be familiar with by now, with all the sensational accounts of carnage and death.
We have gone from the “KURD INVASION OF PERSIA” to simply the “INVASION OF PERSIA” in this November 1880 article on Ubeydullah’s invasion of Iran. Note that this was on page one, which was rare for Kurdish related events, even to this day. Must have been a slow day, I guess.
Here Ubeydullah’s final attack on Urmia is unsuccessful, and marks the beginning of the end of Ubeydullah’s Iranian campaign. Of interest too is the piece at the end which mentions Ubeydullah punished Kurds for “excesses”.
In this snippet from the New York Times on November 14th, 1880, it covers a battle outside of Sāūjbulāgh (So-Uj-Bolak as the newspaper tried to spell it). Interestingly, it appears that Ubeydullah’s band of Kurds managed to cause the death of the Iranian commander-in-chief in this battle.
In this November 25th article, Ubeydullah is reported to have retreated back into the Ottoman Empire. The Persians draw punishment from Kurds they have captured.
Ubeydullah returned across the frontier to the Ottoman Empire, where he planned for yet another invasion of Iran to take place in the spring. Once word of this plotting reached foreign powers, they called on the Ottomans once again to take care of the problem. This time the Ottomans were more than willing- Ubeydullah had shown he had grown well beyond a nuisance they could redirect against Iran, and instead into one that could be just as problematic on its vulnerable eastern holdings too.
Ubeydullah’s second invasion of Iran in was planned for either the spring or summer of 1881, but never started. When he returned across the border, he set out immediately to instigate Kurds once more. The Ottomans, however, were not willing to stand by with a second invasion taking place that could excite their own Kurdish populations into rebellion Taking up an offer from the Sultan, Ubeydullah departed for the capital in the summer of 1881. Much like previous Kurdish leaders though, what he faced was not a treaty but his arrest. Ubeydullah was exiled to the Ottoman outpost in Mecca the same year, and his followers evaporated away. Collaborators in Iran were put to the sword and killed, while his own family’s holdings were unsurprisingly reduced and their power limited.
In this New York Times piece from April of 1881, Ubeydullah is reported to be causing problems. This is part of his attempt to launch a second assault on Iran. Also note the mention of plague, yet another problem in the region.
This article from April 10th, 1881, is more specific. Here it mentions that Ubeydullah is meeting with other chieftains to organize an assault on Iran.
Woo, Anarchy! By May of 1881, there is yet to be an invasion as the previous article stated, but it’s falling apart over in the eastern realms of the Ottoman Empire, and while Ubeydullah is not mentioned it is in part due to his own actions.
In this piece from May 20th, 1881 in the New York Times, Ubeydullah is mentioned by name again as beginning to organize another invasion of Iran, with the Iranians pleading to the Ottomans to reign in the Kurds.
This New York Times article from June 4th states that Iran executed one of Ubeydullah’s collaborators from the last invasion, one Agha Mukri (a tribe around Mahabad). This is presumably timed to try and dissuade Kurds from joining Ubeydullah again, along with all the other executions.
This New York Times piece from June 10th mentions that Ubeydullah surrendered to the Ottomans before launching his invasion.
And here, in the New York Times of 1881, the Kurds get more executions from the last invasion. Ubeydullah is still not heard from.
From the New York Times, November of 1881. This is a significantly larger piece covering what was going on with the Kurds at the time. The Iranians are displeased with the Ottomans refusal to turn over a Kurdish chieftain who allied with Ubeydullah, as well as Ubeydullah himself. However, Kurdish followers of Ubeydullah are realizing that he was betrayed and that he was not going for negotiations, but has seemingly been imprisoned.
For the Ottomans, the long-term lesson from Ubeydullah’s revolt was that it was clear that the dissolution of the Emirates had resulted in many problems. At the height of Ubeydullah’s urpising, he commanded the loyality of tribes and people encompassing roughly the mountains areas of northern Iraq, Southeastern Turkey up to Diyarbakir in the west and Van in the north, and the Iranian settlements along the border. The Ottomans could not find an alternative to this structure to keep the loyalty of Kurdish chieftains who were still just as detached from the capital, if not more, since the beginning of centralization. A different patronage system would have to be developed, and it is here that the roots of the Hamidyie cavalry were started, which I will mention in depth later.
As for Ubeydullah, he did not live long in exile. Unlike Yezdan Sher whose final date of death I could not find, Ubeydullah is known to have died in exile in 1883 at Mecca. There are some newspapers, one of which I’ve attached below, that show that he died of typhus in November of 1883. With all the fanfare about his atrocities, there is surprisingly little said for Ubeydullah.
Ubeydullah’s Obituary in the New York Times. Via Proquest Historical Newspapers.
Ubeydullah’s legacy would live on as Kurds began to develop an understanding of their own cultural identity and their marginalized position in Ottoman society, continuing to act in the interests of all Kurds. Ubeydullah’s son, Abdulqadir, recognizing the importance of organizing all Kurds, participated in the reform-oriented Committee of Union and Progress with other Kurdish notables and was involved in the establishment what could be seen as the first Kurdish political party, Kürt Teavün ve Terakki Cemiyeti (translated both as the Society for the Mutual Aid and Progress of Kurdistan and Kurdish Society for Cooperation and Progress), initially as an interest group in Ottoman courts fighting for an autonomous Kurdistan. Abdulqadir himself participated in the Sheikh Said Uprising in Turkey in 1925, but died with the rest of the leaders of the revolt on the gallows.
In these days, Ubeydullah is not as well known among Kurds as he should be, but the name is familiar. His influence had enough of an effect for Mustafa Barzani to name his first born son after him, which was certainly the case among other Kurds too (though unfortunately Ubeydullah Barzani ended up staying with the Ba’ath after the 1975 uprising, and died under mysterious circumstances in Baghdad some years later).