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Who are the Kurds, and where do they live?

The Kurds are an ethnically distinct group of people inhabiting the geographic region known as Kurdistan. The Kurdish people have no nation or acknowledged statehood of their own. Their homeland is situated at the intersection of four different Middle Eastern countries, all of which have historically used and abused their Kurdish population, and regard their presence as a nuisance: northern Iraq, western Iran, northern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. The Kurds are native to the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges; they have lived in the harsh mountains for as long as four millennia, and are markedly different from their Persian, Arab, and Turkish neighbors in the surrounding plains linguistically, ethnically, and culturally. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation.


The term Kurd has many speculative origins, just like their ethnic background. One of the first recorded used of the name was in the third century BC, when the Sassanid dynasty was founded. Ardeshir, the Persian king, listed Kurdan Shahi Madrig (Madrig, King of the Kurds) as one of the rivals he had to subjugate.

Another myth suggests that Melik Kurdim, of the tribe of Noah, invented a new language called Kurdim when Noah’s ark landed atop Mount Cudi in Iraq.

In any case, the word ‘Kurd’ has historically denoted not a group of people with a colorful and unique identity, but a ‘problem’ for the despotic regimes that look down and disregard them. In Turkey, they are called ‘Mountain Turks’; in Iran, they are considered to be Iranian with no deserved acknowledgment as a separate people. In Iraq, the word ‘Kurd’ has oft been used as a slur for an uncivilized and uneducated nomad.


Today, there are between 30 and 40 million Kurds living not only in Kurdistan but also in significant Kurdish communities throughout the world, especially eastern Europe. There is a sizeable Kurdish diaspora, growing in tandem with increasing violence in the Middle East. Because of the efforts to ban and wipe out Kurdish culture through State repression of their language and customs, a more accurate estimate of their numbers are shrouded in mystery.

Industry & Agriculture

The Kurdish people, who have wrongly been promoted as nomadic by their host states, have been settled in the mountains for centuries. There, the primary mode of subsistence is pastoralism—mainly sheep and goats. Kurdish shepherds come down from their communities to buy and sell animals and their products at the market.

More recently, oil and gas has become a Kurdish export, though prior to the 20th century there were little resources for other nations to exploit but tobacco—States used the Kurds themselves as pawns and mercenaries in their geopolitical games instead.


The origins of the Kurds are the subject of much speculation amongst historians and ethnographers. Because of state suppression of Kurdish culture and forced assimilation by neighboring powers, little research has been conducted on their exact lineage. It is generally accepted that the Kurds descended from the Iranian Medes who settled in the Zagros mountains in the twelfth century BC. Based on the linguistic similarities between Persian, Baluchi, and the Kurdish dialects, the theory of a relationship between Kurds and Iranians is even more plausible. However, modern anthropological studies have hypothesized that the Kurds are of indigenous decent, stemming from the Aryan Guti tribe (which would explain the fair complexion, hair, and blue and green eyes prevalent in many Kurds) and later Indo-European tribes that flocked to the region, such as the Scythians who established a kingdom in Iranian Kurdistan in the eighth century BC. Although it is clear that the Kurds are of mixed origins, racial purity does not an identity make; the Kurdish people have a long and rich history, cultural customs, their own language, and a unique racial mix that separate them as a people from Persians, Arabs, and Turks.


There are many myths and legends that seek to explain the origins of the Kurds. The story that the Kurds themselves prefer is one of the many ancient threads of Newruz, their new year’s celebration coinciding with the Spring Equinox that marks the anniversary of the overthrow of the tyrant Zahhāk in the year of the Kurdish calendar 2603, 1000 years before the coming of Islam. According the Kurdish tale (as told by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris in No Friends But The Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds),

the tyrant had snakes growing from his shoulders, a deformity which the court physicians were unable to cure. Satan came to the tyrant and told him that he would be cured if he fed the snakes each day with the brains of two young people. The executioner appointed to the task of providing the brains took pity on his victims, and each day spared one of them and substituted the brains of a sheep. The survivors were smuggled to the safety of the mountains, where they became the founders of a new people, the forefathers of the Kurds. Zahhāk himself was overthrown when one of the tyrant’s intended victims rebelled against his fate and killed him. (50)

Less savory legends have been proliferated by the various enemies of the Kurds to demonize them, which include accusations of mass rape and the Kurdish people being direct descendants of the devil.


The Kurds have their own unique language, known as Kurdish. Kurdish is related to Persian and belongs to a group of northwestern Iranian languages along with those of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Tajikistan. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Kurdish and Persian were once mutually intelligible. Kurdish is also related to many European languages, including English, and Sanskrit. Many English words are closely related to Kurdish, such as new (‘new’), erd (‘earth’), dlop (‘drop’), bru (‘eyebrow’), and ruber (‘river’).

There are several Kurdish dialects that are varied in vocabulary and grammar, and are as closely related as Portuguese and Spanish. The two main dialects are Kurmanji (spoken in northwestern Iraq, Turkey, and northwestern Iran), and Sorani (spoken in southwestern Iranian Kurdistan and southern Iraqi Kurdistan). Kurmanji uses a Latin alphabet known as Hawar, and Sorani is written in a variation of the Arabic alphabet.

Two less-spoken Kurdish dialects are Zaza (spoken alongside Kurmanji in Turkey) and Gurani, which is mainly used by the Shia minority in southern Iran. Gurani is closer to Persian than the other Kurdish dialects.

The diversity of distinct dialects spoken by the Kurds has been used to deny their identity as a unified ethnic group, much like their mixed racial origins; however, the Kurdish dialects are more closely related than the many different languages spoken in China.


About three-quarters of Kurds today are Sunni Muslims of the Shafite school, which is a more liberal sect of Islam than the Hanafite school, practiced by the majority of their Turkish and Arab neighbors. The southernmost region of Iranian Kurdistan practices Shia Islam. However, before the rise of Islam in Kurdistan, Zoroastrianism dominated the region. Many customs still exist in Kurdish culture from their Zoroastrian roots, such as the celebration of Newruz. The spread of Islam among the Kurdish people may be attributed to the tax imposed on non-Muslims by the Islamic Arabs; the Kurdish people resisted the invasion of Arabic culture more vehemently than most, and succumbed to their domination eventually after several uprisings. Nonetheless, Islam gained a foothold in Kurdistan, and pan-Islamism was a binding factor in the Kurdish identity until the European idea of nationalism was instilled in the Kurdish consciousness. The Kurdish converts became the most vigorous devotees of Islam, although even in the realm of faith the Kurdish people were put down by their neighbors; there is a Turkish proverb that states, ‘Compared to an infidel, the Kurd is a good Muslim’. Another legend from Kurdish folklore elaborates on the Islamic Kurd’s explanation for their age-old oppression:

It tells how, when the Prophet called on the princes of the world to embrace the new religion, all hurried to submit to him. Oguz Khan, the prince of Turkestan, sent a Kurd, Zemin, to represent him. The Prophet was said to have been so impressed by this giant of a man with piercing eyes that he asked about his origins. On learning that Zemin was a Kurd, Mohamed prayed to God that such a terrifying people should never unite as a single nation. (Bulloch & Morris, p 60)

The Yezidis, whom are closely related to the Kurds but are in fact a separate Kurdish-speaking people, practice the highly misunderstood religion of Yezidism, which purports the dualism of God and Malak Taus, or Satan, and reject the binary of good and evil. The Yezidi people, who are indigenous to northern Iraq, have been doubly persecuted for their mistaken identity as ‘Kurds’ and devil-worshippers.

There are also a small minority of Christian and Jewish Kurds throughout Kurdistan.

Works Cited

Bulloch, John, and Harvey Morris. No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

Chaliand, Gérard. A People without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan. New York: Olive Branch, 1993. Print.

Kashi, Ed, and Christopher Hitchens. When the Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds. New York: Pantheon, 1994. Print.

McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I.B. Tauris, 1996. Print.

McKiernan, Kevin. The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland. New York: St. Martin's, 2006. Print.

Wagner, Heather Lehr. The Kurds. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2003. Print.

History of Kurdistan

Following the end of World War I, the Allied powers convened over a number of years to not only to establish the criteria for war reparations from the former Central powers’ states, but the division and establishment of new borders from the defeated states. The Treaty of Sèvres, drawn up in 1920, marked the initial plans for the division of the former Ottoman Empire. For the Kurds, this outlined a truncated Kurdish state out of part of modern-day Turkey, but did not include the Kurdish territories within Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Following the uprising of Turkish nationalists, known as the Young Turks, and the rejection of the treaty by the new Ankara government, the Treaty of Sèvres was annulled, and the new 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was adopted in response. Under the circumstances of this treaty, the Kurds were left with no state or recognized territory - the initial Kurdish gains made in Sèvres were suddenly left to Turkey in Lausanne.

Through the tumultuous years that formed the Turkish silhouette over Kurdistan, secularization, centralization of power, and renewed Turkish nationalism became clear threats to the Kurdish ways of life. This bolstered a renewed interest in a Kurdish identity that started to take shape between 1908 to 1920. Following this in 1925, an uprising against the new Turkish republic, known as the Sheikh Said rebellion, contained a few Kurdish elements, specifically Zaza and Kurmanji speakers. This movement relied on Kurdish national identity and sought to revive the caliphate system. The rebellion was repelled by Turkish forces. Defeated, many Kurds fled to Syria.

Following increasing Turkification of ethnic and religious minorities inside of its own borders, largely by forced relocation and homogenization of minorities, the Dersim rebellion of 1937-38 led to genocide, further cultural suppression of Kurds, and heightened use of Turkish martial law on the region.

Meanwhile, following the 1941 invasion of Iran by the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, the Soviet government tried to annex northwestern Iran for itself. Part of its strategy involved backing Kurdish nationalist interests. Thus was established the Republic of Mahabad, which sought autonomy and self-government for the Kurdish people in Iran within the limits of the Iranian state. Although not officially declared until 1945, the Soviets primarily wanted to absorb the territory into the Azerbaijani Soviet state. Despite this, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan that headed the Mahabad government remained a staunch advocate for autonomy. Bowing to pressure from western powers, Soviet forces withdrew from Iran in 1946, leading to Iranian takeover of the region and harsh cultural repression of the Kurds.

Remnants of the Iranian Kurdish nationalists went on to form the Kurdistan Democratic Party, continuing their struggles for Kurdish identity in northern Iraq. The KDP led a lengthy revolt in Iraq, until peace agreements were signed in 1970, giving Iraqi Kurds nominal autonomy and offered an uneasy peace until the KDP’s next struggle with Iraq in 1974-75 over cultural Arabization of the oil-rich Kurdish provinces of Kirkuk and Khanaqin.

Following the KDP defeat in this revolt and internal disputes within the KDP, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan formed as a splinter party off of the KDP, focused within the scope of leftist politics, it sought complete autonomy of Kurdish people rather than compliance with the Baghdad government.

In parallel, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party formed in Turkey and Iraq in 1974 by Abdullah Öcalan as a Marxist-Leninist and Kurdish nationalist movement. By 1984, it adopted armed struggle as a means to prevent Turkish development in southeastern Anatolia. Öcalan was deported from Syria and shortly after, was captured and by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency. To this day, he remains a prisoner under the Turkish state. During his custody, Öcalan read and was inspired by the works of American anarchist theorist and writer, Murray Bookchin.. Although imprisoned, Öcalan remains a figurehead of the PKK and in 2005, he proposed a border-free confederation between the four major Kurdish regions known as “democratic confederalism”.

In 2012, the upheaval and power vacuum created by the Syrian Civil War acted as a catalyst for Syrian Kurdish territories (known collectively as Rojava) to gain some autonomy and continue to bolster democratic confederalism, albeit within wartime conditions. The Rojavan movement has since faced a series of struggles against the Islamic State, Turkey, and internal sectarian tensions with their uneasy alliances within the region. Born from a collective struggle that has spanned millennia, the Rojavan independence has inspired minds and hearts across the world through a bold and liberating endeavor.

Ancient History

The stateless Kurds have a long, tragic history as pawns and scapegoats for the powerful regimes of the Middle East and round the globe. From their first recorded descent from the mountains to today, the Kurdish people have been oppressed, manipulated, murdered, and exiled for their ethnic identity as a people without a nation. But, despite their perpetual misfortune, the people of Kurdistan also have a parallel legacy of fierce resistance.

The origins of the Kurds are the subject of much speculation amongst historians and ethnographers. Their exact lineage seems to be an enigma; but it is generally accepted that the Kurds descended from Iranians, based on the linguistic similarities between Persian, Baluchi, and the Kurdish dialects. However, modern anthropological studies have hypothesized that the Kurds are of indigenous decent, the Neolithic Northern Fertile Crescent aborigines, specifically. Whatever their ancestry, they are certainly not of homogenous origins; their unique lineage is most likely the result of ethnic mixing between ancient Aryan tribes and the Indo-European peoples that migrated there sometime before the arrival of Islam in the 10th century AD.

The first reference in history to the forefathers of the Kurds, the ancient Carduchi (or Karduoukhoi), is made by the Greek Xenophon in Anabasis, and tells the story of the bloody journey of the Greeks as they fled the Persian empire in 401 BC after the defeat of Cyrus. Although it is still disputed—like so many other facets of the Kurd’s history, genealogy, and nationhood—the description of these ancient Mesopotamian barbarians bears a very strong resemblance to the Kurds in their name, location, and fierce spirit of resistance. Xenophon recalls, “These people lived in the mountains and were very war-like and not subject to the [Persian] king. Indeed a royal army of 120,000 had once invaded their country, and not a man of them had got back, because of the terrible conditions on the ground they had to go through.” (Bulloch & Morris, 55)

Prior to the coming of Islam in the 7th century AD, the mountain tribes of Kurdistan mainly followed the Persian Zoroastrian tradition, and some pagan beliefs still lingered from ancient times. With the invasion of the Arabs and their establishment of Islamic rule came the conception of many Islamic Kurdish dynasties that would rise and fall well into the time of Ottoman rule. The Kurds were especially resistant to the new religion, and fought in many uprisings against Arab domination. Eventually, the force of the new religion and the powerful rulers responsible for its spread turned the Kurdish population into devout Muslims, and Kurdish dynasties such as the Chaddadites and Merwanids flourished, further crystallizing the Kurd’s reputation as fearless warriors—now, in the name of Islam.

The Kurds experienced an era of prosperity and glory under these various dynasties, but it did not last. In 1055 the Turkomen Seljuks dismantled the power of the Islamic caliphate, and exerted their power over the Kurdish dynasties. The name Kurdistan was first used by the Seljuks to describe the provinces (sanjak) of Kurds that were incorporated from these various dynasties under their rule. The Turks feigned an interest in Kurdish autonomy, here for the first time, by installing Kurdish chieftans to power in these various provinces, to act as semi-independent vassals in the interest of the Seljuks. This practice of manipulating the Kurdish people with strategic games of geopolitical power-play would continue into the Kurds’ modern history, and is not limited in use by the Turks.

Kurdistan would again become a bloody battleground for rivaling forces during the Crusades. Kurdistan would not see another era of glory until the Kurdish Sunni Muslim An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known in the west as Saladin, defeated the Crusaders through clever strategy and put Kurdish men in many leadership positions in his army. The dynasty he established, known as the Ayyubid dynasty, was the most culturally rich and flourishing era of Kurdish antiquity. Kurdistan’s power through development and expansion under Saladin in the Middle Ages rivalled their neighbors in the Muslim world.

The Mongolian invasion of the 13th century was a gruesome era for the entire Middle East. Most Kurds took part in the defense of Mesopotamia against the hordes of Asian invaders; some, fought on their side. This was not the first time, and certainly not the last, the Kurds would either choose to fight against one another, or be bribed into doing so.

The stronghold of the Ottoman empire was established by the 13th century, beginning a long and bloody era of tension between Turks and Kurds that has worsened in modern times. For the next 500 years, the Ottoman empire dominated Kurdistan, eclipsing all other powers that have ever controlled the region. Massacres, pillaging, bribery, and manipulation reigned the Kurdish populations. Just as during the Seljuk dynasty, the Kurdish territories were annexed as vassals, and their celebrated warriors were used as mercenaries to the Ottoman cause. They were given positions of false power and status, and often fought on opposing sides willingly. The Ottoman stratagem was heavily reliant on using the Kurds as pawns in their geopolitical game, and made sure to appease their interests to keep them loyal. The Ottoman Empire began to decline by the 17th century, their sprawling expansion becoming too much for them to rule and defend. European ideas of nationalism had spread to the Arabs and the Kurds. The ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy of controlling the Kurds was no longer sufficient as these ideas of nationhood took hold of the Kurdish consciousness, even though the deliberate fracturing of Kurdish society into rivaling tribes and factions had served to weaken their unity for hundreds of years. By the end of the 1800’s, ideas of an independent Kurdish state had already begun to bloom.