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).
Shivan Perwer’s song “Yezdan Sher Beg”
Yezdan Sher (sometimes rendered as Yezdansher, Yezdin Ser, Ezdin Ser, Ezdin Ser Beg, etc.), led what could be seen as a swan song of revolts initiated from Kurdish princes. In my last post about Bedrkhan, the Botan Emirate fought against the Ottoman Empire under the leadership of Bedrkhan, and were beaten by the brutal Ottoman expedition sent against him.
After the fall of Badrkhan in the late 1840s, Yezdan Sher had reign over the remains of the Botan Emirate. Yezdan Sher would enter into direct conflict with the Ottoman Empire in the 1850s, when yet another war with the Russian Empire began.
There are a number of wars that occurred between the Ottoman and Russian Empires in the 19th century, and these wars often had such an effect on the Ottoman Empire to cause instability and provide an opening for attempts to assert greater independence from Istanbul. Like his uncle had down with Ottoman disarray with the revolt of Muhammad Ali (which Mir Kor had also taken advantage of), Yezdan Sher also took advantage of this weakness from the Ottoman Empire. (Un)fortunately for Yezdan Sher, the particular conflict he would rise up was one that would involve powers beyond Russia and Turkey- the year of 1855 was also in the middle of the Crimean War.
The Crimean War saw the conflict between the Ottoman and Russian Empires escalate into one that resulted in the intervention of the British, French, and various other European powers on the side of the Ottomans in order to check Russian expansion and growing strength of the Tsar. In the west, the study of the Crimean War highlights the importance of logistics and tactics, as well as the introduction of various technological advancements. More importantly, it was one of the first wars that received extensive coverage in international press, as well as some of the subject of early photographs. Unfortunately for those interested in what Kurds were doing such treatment was not applied in the events of Yezdan Sher or the front between Russia and Turkey in the Caucasus.
At any rate, the demands the war took on the Ottoman Empire was enough to cause the military to move many garrisons in the area to the frontlines. The vacuum this created resulted in Yezdan Sher to rise up and rally some 2,000 men to his side, where he ejected the Ottoman-appointed governor of Bitlis. As I discussed before, Bitlis was the home of one of the great Kurdish principalities which had sided with Badrkhan in his revolt, only to be destroyed as the Ottomans crushed the old polity. The defeat of an Ottoman garrison rallied Kurdish people to Yezdan Sher’s banner. He marched on garrisons in Siirt, where the Ottoman garrison in the Kurdish region was based; the fall of the garrison (defended by forces from both Siirt and the Baghdad Wali) saw Yezdan Sher come into the possession of arms which enabled him to further his campaign. The size of Yezdan Sher’s forces swelled to 100,000 strong according to some estimates, and had even begun to threaten the major cities of Mosul and Baghdad. Jazira too, the same city he had abandoned before, now was under his control. Much of Ottoman Kurdistan had become unstable and Yezdan Sher was proving to be trouble some for the Ottoman authorities.
For his part Yezdan Sher is believed to have attempted to move himself in league with the Russian Empire, which was fighting in the north in the Bayazid province (which also was home to a good number of Kurds who were in turn fighting the Russians for the Ottoman Empire). Due to the distance and separation between Yezdan Sher in essentially what is the modern-day border region of Turkey and Iraq, such requests was not recognized by the Russian Empire. To the European powers who intervened on the side of the Ottoman Empire, Yezdan Sher could prove to be troublesome. The Russian Empire’s interests in Eastern Anatolia, more specifically Armenia and Kurdistan, could be advanced by a pro-Russian kingdom under the control of Yezdan Sher. With Ottoman armies fighting a pitched war against the Russians along its Caucasus frontier, it threatened to cause further problems for the Ottoman Empire which would not be beneficial to their difficult struggle against Russia in the Crimea and elsewhere.
A response to Yezdan Sher’s rebellion could not be dealt with by the Ottomans beyond a few inconclusive battles, which they had presented as major victories to the press. In reality Yezdan Sher’s strength was such that he had controlled the plains north of Baghdad right up to Lake Van and even Diyarbakir/Amed, and the Ottoman Empire was unable to breakthrough this due to much of their forces tied up in other fronts with the Russian Empire. It was only until the winter of 1855 when Ottoman forces had a reprieve when the fighting entered a lull. Now, the Ottoman Empire and its allies could focus its attention on removing an internal problem in the Ottoman Empire. A direct intervention was decided against, and rather a more ‘diplomatic’, if not deceitful, approach was decided upon. The British Emissary to the Ottomans, Nimrod Rassam, a Christian based out of Mosul, was dispatched with resources to neutralize allies of Yezdan Sher. For Yezdan Sher himself, Rassam promised an audience with the Imperial Court in Istanbul to negotiate a Kurdish state. Yezdan Sher could be seen as naive for seeing such an offer seriously and at face value. For his part, Yezdan Sher had not received any responses from the Russians, and seeing how the Greeks and Egyptians relied on European support against the Ottomans, had thought this was the next approach.
And so Yezdan Sher went with Rassam to Istanbul. Instead of the conference he thought he would get, he was promptly apprehended and imprisoned, where he would die later. Kurdish forces who were told to lay down arms by Rassam did so and ended their revolt. Those who continued ended up as brigands until they too did not become a threat.
Yezdan Sher was indeed the last of the Kurdish ‘princes’ to launch an insurrection. From this point forward, Kurdish culture had returned back to the tribal level which meant a greater influence of religion in their viewpoints, rather than the more accepting and larger worldview of the princes.
Source: A People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan– The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire Yezdan Sher. Nizam Kendal, Gérard Chaliand.
With Newroz over, we are now back in the realm of history. My next area following the Kurdish emirates in modern day Iraq was to move onto those in Anatolia. The emirates here also contributed their own share of culture and revolts against the Ottoman Empire as it embarked on administrative reforms and centralization. As a reminder, here’s the map of Kurdish emirates once again.
Like the ones in Iraq, the Emirates often existed in such a way that the actual, recognized ‘Emir’ held real little power, with tribal chiefs holding more of the actual power in the sense of land holdings and fighters. This was no the case in all of the Emirates, and certain emirates went through periods of strength and power where Kurdish culture was able to flourish, if only briefly. These all existed in what is present day Eastern Turkey, on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire’s boundary with the Iranian and Russian states. It was more or less contiguous with the areas considered to be Northern Kurdistan.
The Emirate of Bitlis produced some fine works of art, the notable example coming from Sharaf Khan Bidlisi and his seminal work on Kurdish folkore and history Sharafnama. Sharaf Khan was the ruler of the Bitlis Emirate as his name indicates, and during his reign eh produced a great deal of poetry and writings, including Sharafnama, which gave an insight into Kurdish history and political forces at that time. Sharafkhan wrote his works in Farsi, which was considered to be among the languages more appropriate for ‘high culture’ in the region, owing to Iran’s former control of eastern Anatolia. It may be recalled that about this time in the 16th century Iran was engaged in many wars with the Ottomans, and this impacted the allegiances of Kurdish chiefs who chose to switch to the Ottomans. Indeed Sharaf Khan’s father himself had been exiled to Iran and served in their court, only to later return during the reign of another Ottoman sultan who was more favorable to them.
The Bitlis Emirate was renown for its patronage of the arts, a rarity among the Kurdish groups at the time. With the reputation set up by Sharaf Khan himself, his successors would continue to requisition poetry and arts in the royal circles at Bitlis.
The other important emirate was that of Botan, the domain of the eminent Badr Khan family. The principality was based in what is now Cizre, then known as Jazira ibn Umar. The Botan Emirate, among other things, occupied an important position along the Ottoman Empire’s routes into its Mesoptamian provinces. The Bedr Khans are a well known family in Kurdish history, whose impacts even lasted into the early part of the 20th century. Like in Bitlis, they were renown for their administration and culture, and had wielded strength unheard of among the Kurdish emirs. The esteemed Kurdish poet, Ahmad Xani, was from Botan and wrote his famous “Mem u Zin” while living there. Badr Khan’s war with the Ottomans was essentially the ‘last stand’ of the Kurdish Emirs after the centralization began in earnest following the end of Mir Kor’s revolt. I will discuss more about Badr Khan in the future, information on whom is scarce (on Wikipedia for instance, a larger article is devoted to Badr Khan’s ‘massacres’ against Christians than the actual page about Badr Khan).
As with most of Kurdish history in the area, many remnants and artifacts of these emirates were lost to time, either due to the government’s aggressive policies in nation-building to solidify Turkish identity or due to the decay of the groups there. Even Sharafnama was not entirely reclaimed until well into the late 1800s and 1900s. One such example is that of the Badr Khan’s residence in Botan, their castle on the banks of the Euphrates often rendered as “Birca Belek”, or the White Castle. Few of it remains today.
It is readily apparent that the castle is no longer that- a castle. What happened? This was one of the examples of the victims of Turkey’s aggressive policies in the early 1900s in its foundation to remove traces of Kurdish identity, particularly those that indicated ‘civilization’ and sophistication. Birca Belek was more or less pulverized, with its remains in fact being used as a Turkish military garrison (which can be seen from the fencing, targets, and the large Turkish flag) to add insult to injury. In 1905 more of the castle’s remains could be seen:
That is vastly different from the modern day photo, where much of the structure had disappeared and been reclaimed by the wilderness or had been destroyed to make way for the garrison. Such is the difficulty with Kurdish history, with much of its artifacts and historical structures having been destroyed by its conquerors or forgotten over time. As another side note, Cizre was also the birthplace of Mohamad Arif, the well-known folk singer.
What about the other Emirates that the map has? Truth be told, there is not much on them. Bayazid was near the Russian border and accordingly served as a buffer of sorts near the Ararat mountains to harry invasions from the Caucasus. These Emirates often got the brunt of the Russian invasion force during the various Ottoman-Russian wars of the time, some of which even reached as far as Rawanduz.
Dozhik is disjointed from the rest of the emirates, but is located where Dersim is, now known as Tunceli, which was formerly Mameki or Kalan depending on the time period. The people living in this province were mostly Alevi Shi’a, belonging to Zaza Kurds. This different population afforded the local leaders a degree of autonomy from the capital.
Hakkari still lives on as a province name much like Bitlis, though its relative standing compared to other emirates was lower, with the Mir wielding less power than his neighbors. Hakkari’s politics was a complex web of tribal networks, Christian and Muslim, which impeded the formation of a central authority. Instability in this province in the 1830s promoted the beginning of Badr Khan’s demise.
I’m not sure what ‘Milan’ was, but its indicated capital of Wiranshehir (transliterated from Kurdish) is more commonly known as Viranşehir in Turkey, rendered as Wêranşar in Kurdish, in the Şanlıurfa Province or Urfa.
As I referred to in earlier posts, the regions of the Ottoman Empire where modern day Iraqi Kurdistan would lie were divided up between three major principalities. These principalities often consisted of a noble who was recognized by the Sultan and was responsible for maintaining the loyalty of the tribes within the principality. These relationships between the tribes were often volatile and prone to fighting, which was exploited both by the principality’s rivals as well as the Ottoman’s themselves in vying for political influence.
It was during this time that the tribal structure, at least in its form recognizable to modern Kurds, was solidified. Tribal chieftains controlled swathes of land on which peasants worked on and were expected to give some share of to their chieftain at harvest; the chieftain would take these harvests and sell them at market. This was of course a feudal system which meant that the tribal chieftains often ended up much more powerful and lived more comfortably than their peasants, and enjoyed close relationships with the local clergy.
The leaders of the emirates in Iraq were often from a tribal group, though had been elevated by recognition from the Ottoman Sultan as to their ranks and privileges. Kurdish emirates were semi-autonomous in the respect that they were not sending as much taxes and tributes back to the Sultan and were allowed to raise taxes of their own. Most of these princes often sent their families to Istanbul for education, and it was not uncommon for the children of these nobles to enter into the Imperial Army or civil service of the Ottoman Empire. The principalities were also able to host all manner of artists to create commissioned works, which would provide some cultural artifacts for Kurds to rediscover later on.
Kurds were not alone in the region of course, and true to typical imperial administration, it was not uncommon for the Sultan to utilize minority groups in the region, such as the Christians and Yezidi, to further their own aims against the local princes. This would unfortunately lead to one-sided battles where the Kurdish princes would overrun and massacre these groups in periods of chaos, particularly in the early 1800s as the days of the emirates began to dawn.
The Emirate of Badinian occupied roughly what is the Duhok Governorate in Iraq, with its capital at Amedi. Like other Emirates, Badinan relied on trade caravans traveling through their region, and often took the opportunity to levy their own taxes on those caravans. Badinan would also lend its name to an alternate term for the Kurmanji dialect, often among Kurds in modern-day Iraq, since, as opposed to the other emirates in the region, the nobles used Kurmanji in their administration. This emirate also held control of Zakho, Duhok, and possibly what is now Akre (as Akre as a formal city was not founded until the 1870s). Of all teh Emirates in Iraq, Badinian was probably the smallest.
The Soran Emirate occupied what is now the Arbil Governorate, and held its capital in Rawanduz, north of Arbil. I have placed the correct location of Rawanduz on the map link- the city marked as Rawanduz in Google Maps and elsewhere is actually Diana, Iraq. Rawanduz itself was located on a hill overlooking the valley where Diana was located, near the Gali Ali Bec canyon. Of all the ‘noble’ cities, Rawanduz was probably the most well-known and developed during much of the medieval period. The Soran Emirate also produced two of the better known Kurdish historical figures, the female ruler Khanzad and Mir Muhammad, the latter I will get into in the next post. Rawanduz was a defensible position much like Amedi, but was bolstered by the presence of the canyon which created a bottleneck for any potential threats. The Soran Emirate did not control Arbil/ Hawler, which was rather more directly under the control of the Ottomans.
The third of the emirates was Baban, whose borders lie within what is now the Sulaymaniyah Governorate of Iraq. Besides the usual scuffles with neighboring principalities, the Baban Princes had a notably strong rivalry with the Ardalan Principality within Iran, one of the few if not only Kurdish kingdoms remaining in Iran. The predecessors to the Baban princes ruled over a region called Qalachwalan (maybe around here) which had been a major area of conflict between Ottoman and Iranian forces during their wars in the 16th century. As a reward for their siding with the Ottomans, the Baban princes secured recognition of nobility and were awarded the land. The most notable contribution of the Baban princes would be during the rule of Ibrahim Pasha when construction on the city of Sulaymaniyah began, meant to be a demonstration of the Baban prince’s power and wealth. Sulaymaniyah would be completed by his successors, growing to become a powerful city. Owing to its nature as a genuinely ‘Kurdish’ city, Sulaymaniyah would be the site of Kurdish intellectuals and nationalism for many decades afterwards. The Baban Emirate also controlled Kirkuk, Koi Sanjaq,
The end of the Kurdish principalities in Iraq, as with those in Turkey, began in the 1800s as reforms in the empire began a centralization drive. This meant the end of semi-autonomous arrangements such as those with Kurdish tribal leaders, and it was during this time major Kurdish resistance to the Ottomans began. By 1850 with the surrender of the Baban Prince to Imperial forces, the major Kurdish principlaities in Iraq ceased to exist, and were later rolled into the Mosul Vilayet that was created in 1878 from the reorganization of the Empire from administrative reforms beginning in the 1860s.