Who Are The Kurds?

Ramish Kamal Syed

Editor’s note: The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed within this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints, or lack thereof, of The Attestor, nor do they necessarily represent the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Editorial team, bar the views of the article’s author.

After what appears to have been an eternity of obscurity, the Kurdish people have finally risen to a central stage in world affairs, and have, within a few long and brutal years of bitter war and savage chaos, captured international attention. Made famous by their ferocity in battle against ISIS, as well as their uniquely progressive society when critically contrasted with the plethora of repressive and deeply conservative cultures that surround them; the Kurdish ‘nation’ has firmly seated itself on a platform of global interest, and now their actions will possibly shape the future of the Middle East. However, if one wishes to be able to predict the future, they ought to begin by understanding the present and studying the past.
While their exact origins remain unknown, and historians, anthropologists and linguists debate endlessly over the precise genesis of this northwestern Iranic people, The Kurds themselves claim their ancestry from the Medians (an ancient nomadic people who carved a great empire out of the Middle East, similar to the Persians who came after them); the Kurdish national anthem boldly proclaims: ”We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”. They are quintessentially an Iranic people, speaking a close relative of the Persian language and celebrating the Persian New Year, they are quite comparable culturally and linguistically to other Iranic peoples such as the Persians, Lurs, Pushtuns, Baloch, and Tajiks, etc.
The oldest known mention of this mysterious people can perhaps be found in a 3rd Century BC clay tablet of Sumerian origins that mentions “The land of Karda”, albeit the connection between “Kurd” and “Karda” has not yet been verified. From between this period till the middle ages, there is relatively scant written information about the Kurds, bar a few Persians sources. It is not until after the Muslim conquests of the 7th century that the term ‘Kurd’ begins to appear irregularly in Arabic sources, however; it appears that ‘Kurd’ was designated as being part of a broader group of north-west Iranian nomads, defined more by their distinction from the Persians than the similarities they shared with one another, instead of an easily identifiable separate ethnolinguistic people group.
From the 12th century onwards, there is abundant evidence to showcase the development of a Kurdish ethnic identity, and the designation of ‘Kurd’ began to refer to a specific ethnic group. The most famous individual of Kurdish descent from this period of time, a titan from history who’s name stirs great emotions to this day, is Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, best known as Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and the conqueror of Jerusalem. For a brief period of time, following the Mongol conquests, Kurdistan was dotted with several independent Kurdish principalities such as Ardalan, Badinan, Baban, Soran, Hakkari, and Badlis. For much of the later medieval period up to the early modern era, the Kurds remained proxies to greater powers who determined their destiny throughout that time period.
The Sharafnama, written by Sharaf Khan Bidlisi, in Persian, and in the year of 1597, is considered to be one of the most authoritative and influential pieces of literature about Kurdish history. The work was conceived right in the midst of an intense period of rivalry over the ownership of the Kurdistan region between the Ottoman and Safavid empires. With the borders shifting constantly, much to detriment of the local Kurdish populations who often suffered forceful relocations, massacres, despoliation, and the whole destruction of their settlements as the superpowers jockeyed for control of the region, Kurdistan was at one of its weakest states since its inception.
Post 16th century, the area largely remained under Ottoman suzerainty with minor rebellions here and there, that occasionally achieved temporary success only to have hopes quickly shattered with a rapid return to Ottoman hegemony. The unimaginable brutalities inflicted upon the Kurdish people during this turbulent period of time has been forever immortalized by the founders and proponents of Kurdish nationalism as a period of immense hardship, difficulty, and suffering.
The early 20th century, post First World War, is when Kurdish nationalism truly sparked a noticeable socio-political movement; the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the war finally offered a solid opportunity to rid the shackles of foreign domination, however; much to the disappointment of Kurdish nationalists, an independent Kurdish nation-state never materialized, in its stead the lands of the Kurds were carved mostly between Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, with all three countries very determined to eradicate any resemblance of Kurdish ethnonationalism as best as they possibly could.
Despite this fierce opposition from three powerful adversaries, the Kurdish people still managed to gain some autonomy within Iraq, beginning with the short-lived Kingdom of Kurdistan in Iraq, ultimately culminating in the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan, the closest entity to an actual Kurdish nation-state. Iraqi Kurdistan is at this moment the center of international strategic concern; should Iraqi Kurdistan actually gain independent status, there is little doubt some attempt shall be made to incorporate within its territorial extent all those parts of Iran, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria, that poses a Kurdish majority, risking all-out war with the strongest military powers in the Middle East, vastly aggravating the already strenuous conditions plaguing the Middle East, and possibly forcing the region in to a state of all-out total war…

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