Where possible I have linked the source of the image. Just click on the image to be taken there.
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.
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.
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:
And yet again, the Ottomans extol their false victory some days later.
Meanwhile, the famine continued in Kurdish regions, apparently will into 1880.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
I had felt bad that I did not include any pictures from Eastern Kurdistan, or the Kurdish areas in Iran which include the Kordestan, Kermanshah, and West Azerbaijan (Urmia) provinces, as well as parts of Illam with Feyli Kurds. Kurds in Iran are usually given more leeway in the celebration, owing to the fact that it is deeply embedded in Iranian culture unlike in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq where the celebration did not have a direct parallel in the dominant cultures there. Direct cultural expression is still difficult, especially in ways that might be interpreted as ‘secessionist’ in nature. Kurds from Iran, especially in the towns along the border, will sometimes come to Southern Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan) for celebration as it can sometimes allow for greater leeway and less chance of security forces intervening in a celebration in the off-chance something supportive of Kurdish autonomy can be seen.
At any rate, I saw a thread over on a Kurdish forum which gathered some pictures from Kurds in Iran celebrating Newroz. It’s nearly two weeks late, I know, but better than nothing! These pictures are described by the original poster as being from the cities of Zardasht, Sine, Mahabad, Piranshar, Karand, Bokan, though not specified exactly where they are.
Zardasht, Sine, Mahabad, piranshar, Karand, Bokan
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.
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.