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 Exploring Kurdish Origins

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Kayıt tarihi : 2010-01-13

PostSubject: Exploring Kurdish Origins   13.01.10 18:53

Exploring Kurdish Origins

by Mehrdad R. Izady (published in the Kurdish Life, Number 7, Summer 1993).

The question of Kurdish origins, i.e., who the Kurds are and where they come from, has for too long remained an enigma. Doubtless in a few words one can respond, for example, that Kurds are the end-product of numerous layers of cultural and genetic material superimposed over thousands of years of internal migrations, immigrations, cultural innovations and importations. But identifying the roots and the course of evolution of present Kurdish ethnic identity calls for greater effort. It calls for the study of each of the many layers of these human movements and cultural influences, as many and as early in time as is currently possible. Presently, at least 5 distinct layers can be identified with various degrees of certainty.



Lithograph. Naples 1818. [ "He was magnificently attired in the Koordish taste: his gown was of a rich, flowered, gold Indian stuff; he had a superb Cashmere shawl ornamented with gold fringe on his head, put on in a wild lo ose manner; his upper dress was a capot, or cloak, of crimson Venetian cloth, with rich gold fogs, or bosses, on it...I could see he was well aware of the advantages of his person.", Narative of a Residence in Koordistan by Claudius James Rich, Esq. Londa n, 1863. --- The Kurdish Museum ---]

l. The earliest evidence thus far of a unified and distinct culture shared by the people inhabiting the Kurdish mountains relates to the period of the 'Halaf Culture' which emerged about 8000) years ago. Named for the ancient mound of Tel Halaf in what is uow Syrian Kurdistan (west of the town of Qamishli), this culture is best known for its easily recognizable style of pottery which, fortunately, was produced in abundance.

Exquisitely painted, delicately designed Halaf pottery is easily distinguishable from earlier and later productions. Judging from pottery
In fact, taking Halaf pottery as a prime example, many archaeologists now point out that shared pottery style is a simple but crucial tool in helping to classify prehistoric cultures in the Middle East. Yet, while shared pottery can imply shared culture, it can no more imply shared ethnicity than identical rug designs today. For example, the Turkic Qashqai, Luric Mamasani and Arab Baseri tribes of the southern Zagros mountains all share similar rug patterns. Ethno-linguistically, however, these three peoples share virtually nothing else. This fact serves as a clear warning to those who would use shared artistic styles as an indication of shared ethnicity. More prudently, pottery styles must be taken in tandem with other evidence in order to make a case for shared culture and ethnicity. Wide-spread Halafian excavation sites have much more in common than styles of pottery. Solid evidence has now emerged indicating striking similarities in food, technology, architecture, ritual practices and ornaments, all of which suggest something more substantive.

Archaeologist Julian Reade, now a curator at the British Museum's Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities has this to say: 'While we really know little about how the inhabitants of a Halaf village thought, let alone what language or languages they used for thinking, and what levels of abstraction could be expressed verbally, it seems likely they had comparable social structures, sharing many of the same implicit values, and that even those who did not travel regularly may have met from time to time in religious or administrative centers." (Reade, 1991).

With the aid of these archaeological criteria, Reade as well as Michael Roaf (archaeologist and former director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, and now at the University of California, Berkeley) have determined the boundaries of Halaf culture. They coincide almost exactlywith the area ethnic Kurds still call home: from Kirmanshah to Adyaman, and from Afrin near the Mediterranean Sea to northern areas of Lake Van. The distribution of Halaf pottery and the distribution of ethnic Kurds today are a near-perfect match. The single exception is the Mosul-Tikrit region of the Mesopotanian lowlands which also yields Halaf pottery. James Melaart, better known for his excavation of Catal Huyuk, found many of the motifs and composite designs present on Halaf pottery and figurines still extant in the textile and decorative designs of the modern Kurds who now inhabit the same excavated Halafian sites.

It is highly unlikely that the Halafian people constituted an immigrant population. According to several demographic studies (e.g., T. Cuyler Young, 1977; P. Smith, 1971; Bridsell, 1957; and particularly, P. Smith and T. Cuyler Young, 1982) the Zagros mountains were the site of perennial population surplus and pressure from 12000 to 5000 years ago, which must have resulted in numerous episodes of emigration. This population pressure in the Zabros-Taurus folds was a consequence of successive technological advances in domestication of common crops and animals and resulted in a prosperous agricultural economy and trade; therefore high population density. The Halafian phenomenon is likely the result of a massive internal migration that succeeded in culturally unifying the population in Kurdistan.

The fact that Halaf culture spread so rapidly over such a considerable distance across the rugged Kurdish mountains is thought to have been the result of the development of a new life style and economic activity necessitating mobility, namely nomadic herding. All of the pre-requisite technologies had been developed, and essential animals, particularly the dog, had been domesticated by settled agriculturalists. Halafian figures of dogs (ca. 6000 BC) with upcurled tails unlike that of any specie of wolf, were unearthed in Jarmo in central Kurdistan. They provide the earliest definitive evidence of the development of man's "best friend" and the herder's most prized protection. Nomadic herding has since been a very mobile cornerstone of Zagros-Taurus cultures and societies.
2. The Halaf cultural period ends with the arrival, circa 5300 BC, of a new culture, and quite likely a new people: the Ubaidians. 'Ubaid Culture' expanded from the plains of Mesopotamia into the mountains. The Ubaidians, or protoEuphratians, as they are sometimes called, caused a hybrid culture to emerge in the mountains, comprised of their own cultural heritage and that of the earlier Halaf. It predominated in most of Kurdistan and Mesopotamia for the ensuing 1000 years.

Of the language or ethnic affliation of the Ubaidians we know nothing beyond conjecture. However, it is they who gave the names Tigris and Euphrates to the rivers of Kurdistan and Mesopotamia, as well as the names of almost all of the cities we now recognize as Sumerian. The cultural impact of the Ubaidians on the mountain communities could have been vast, though apparently it was not particularly deep.

3. By approximately 4300 BC, a new culture, and possibly a new people, came to dominate the mountains: the Hurrians. Of the Hurrians we know much more, and the volume of our knowledge becomes greaterwith time. We know, for example, that the Hurrians spread far and wide into the Zagros-Taurus mountain systems and intruded for a time on the neighboring plains of Mesopotamia and the Iranian Plateau. However, they never expanded far from the mountains. Their economy was surprisingly integrated and focused, alongwith their political bonds, which ran generally parallel to the Zagros-Taurus mountains rather than radiating out to the lowlands, as was the case during the preceding Ubaid cultural period. Mountainplain economic exchanges remained secondaryin importance, judging by the archaeological remains of goods and their origins.

The Hurrians spoke a language or languages of the northeastern group of the Caucasian family of languages, distantly related to modern Lezgian and, by extension, to Georgian and Laz. The direction of their expansion is not yet understood and by no means should be taken as having been north-south, in other words, as an expansion out of the Caucuses. (It may well be that it was the Hurrians who introduced Caucasian languages into the Caucasus.)

For a long time the states founded by the Hurrians remained small, until around 2500 BC when larger political-military entities evolved out of the older city-states. Four polities are of special note: Urartu, Mushku, Subaru and Guti/Qutil. The kingdom of Mushku is nowbelieved to have brought about the final downfall of the Hittites in Anatolia. Their name survives in the city of Mush/Mus in north central Kurdistan of Turkey. The Subaru, who operated from the areas north of modern Arbil in central Kurdistan, have left their name in the populous and historic Kurdish tribal confederacy of Zubari, who still inhabit the areas north of Arbil. The name of Mount Ararat is a legacy of the Urartu. The Qutils of central and southern Kurdistan, after graduallyunifying the smaller mountain principalities, became strong enough in 2250 BC to actually annex Sumeria and the rest of lowland Mesopotamia. A Qutil dynasty ruled Sumeria for 130 years until 2120 BC.

Two legendary emporia, Melidi and Aratta, served the Hurrians in their inter-regional trade with the economies outside the mountains. With much certainty, Melidi is to be identified with modern Malatya, while Aratta is probably to be identified with the rich Qutil archaeological site of Godin Teppa near Kangawar in southern Kurdistan. By the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, the culture and people of Kurdistan appear to have been unified under a Hur- rian identity. The fundamental legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is manifest in the realm of religion, mythology, martial arts, and even genetics. Nearly two-thirds of Kurdish tribal, topological and urban names are also likely of Hurrian origin: Buhtan, Talaban, Jelali, Barzan; Mardin, Ziwiya and Dinawar, to name a few. Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynastics such as the Mannaeans of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the south, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better known today by its various denominations, such as Alevism, Yezidism, and Yar- sanism (Ahl-i Haqq).
It is fascinatingto recognize the origin of manytattooingmotifs still used by traditional Kurds to decorate their bodies as replicas of those which appear on Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb motifs. In fact some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds.

By the end of the Hurrian period, Kurdistan seems to have been culturally and ethnically homogenized to form a single civilization which was identified as such by neighboring cul- tures and peoples.

4. The portrait of a culturally homogenized Kurdistan was not to last. As early as 2000 BC, the vanguards of the Indo- European speaking tribal immigrants, such as the Hittites and Mittanis, had arrived in southwestern Asia. While the Hittites only marginally affected the mountain communities in Kurdis- tan, the Mittanis settled in Kurdistan and influenced the na- tives in several fields worthy of note, in particular the introduction of knotted rug weaving. Even rug designs intro- duced by the Mittanis and recognizable in Assyrian floor carv- ings remain the hallmark of Kurdish rugs and kelims. The modern mina-khani and chwar-such styles are basically the same as those the Assyrians depicted nearly 3000 years ago.

The Mittanis seem to have been an Indic, and not an Iranic group of people. Their pantheon, which includes names like Indra, Varuna, Suriya, Nasatya, is typically Indic. The Mittanis could have introduced during this early period some of the Indic tradition that appears to be manifest in the Kurdish religion of Yazdanism.

The avalanche of Indo-European tribes, however, was to come about 1200 BC, raining havoc on the economy and settled culture in the mountains and lowlands alike. The north was settled by the Haiks, known to us as the Armenians, while the rest of the mountainsbecame targets of settlement for various Iranic peoples, such as the Medes, Persians, Scythians, Sar- mathians and Sagarthians (whose name survives in the name of the Zagros mountains).

By 850 BC, the last Hurrian states had been extinguished by the invading Aryans, whose sheer numbers of immigrants must have been considerable. They succeeded over time in chang- ing the Hurrian language(s) of the people in Kurdistan, as well as their genetic make-up. By the 3rd centuryBC, the Aryaniza- tion of the mountains was virtually complete.

When the ethnic Medes and Persians arrived on the eastern flanks of the Zagros around 1000 BC, a massive internal migra- tion from the northern and central Zagros toward the southern Zagros was in progress. By the 6th century BC, many large tribes which we now find among the Kurds were also present in the southern Zagros, in Fars and even Kirman. As early as the 3rd century BC, the 'Cyrtii' ('Kurti') are reportedby Greek, and later by Roman authors, to inhabit as much the southern (Persia or Pars/Fars) as the central and northern Zagros (Kur- distan proper). This was to continue for another millenium, when early Islamic sources also enumerate tens of Kurdish tribes in the southern Zagros. In time they were assimilated into the local populations. In fact, this has been a source of puzzlement for many modern writers who now find very few if any Kurds in the southern Zagros. Unaware of the history and extent of Kurdish historical migrations, they often draw the wrong conclusion: that the term 'Kurd' was not an ethnic name, but a designator of all nomads. This facile hypothesis is hardly worthy of refutation since no proof beyond a single, vague phrasc by a medieval writer, Hamza Isfahani, has never been produced to support it.

It is surprising to most that among the Kurds the Aryan cultural legacywas, and still remains secondary to that of the Hurrians. Culturally, Aryan nomads brought very little to add to what they found already present in the Zagros-Taurus region . As has always been the case, cultural sophistication and civilization are almost never associated with a nomadic way of life. In fact, nomads are traditionally thought to be destroyers of sedentary cultures, potential mortal adversaries in the struggle for pos- session of land and political dominance.

The Aryan influence on the local Hurrian Kurdish people must have been very similar to what transpired in Anatolia two thousand years later when Turkic nomads broke in after the battle of Manzikert. In time the Turkic nomads imparted their language to all the millions of civilized, sophisticated Anatolians whom they converted from Christianity to their own religion of Hanafi Sunni Islam. Almost everyone in Anatolia gradually assumed a new Turkish identity along with Islam. This did not mean that the old legacy ceased to exist. On the contrary, the rich and ancient Anatolian cultures and peoples continued their traditional existence under the new Turkish identity, albeit with the addition of some genetic and cultural material brought over by the nomads.

Architecture, domestic and monumental, farming techniques, herding practices, decorative arts and religion remained much the same in Hurrian Kurdistan following Aryan settlernent, while progressively the people came to speak an Iranic lan- guage and to admit new deities into their earlier pantheons. No abrupt changeis encountered inthe culture of Kurdistanwhile, under Aryan pressure, this linguistic and genetic shift was taking place. Nearly every aspect of contemporary Kurdish culture can be traced to this massive Hurrian substructure, with the Aryan superstructure generally quite superficial. Even the Kurdish tactic of guerrilla warfare finds its roots among the Qutils and was later used by the Median Cyzxares in his Assyrian campaigns in 612 BC. In the Bisitun inscription, Darius I also makes note of this battle tactic used by the Kurdish mountaineers against his forces. He called the guerrillas the kara (a cognate of guerrilla). 800 years later, King Ardashir, founder of the Persian Sasanian dynasty, faced the same defensive tactics by the Kurds. The term he used for them is jan-spar which has a meaning almost identical with the modern term,peshmerga.

While many hypotheses have been advanced to connect the ethnic name 'Kurd' to that of the ancient Hurrian Qutils (Hallo, 1971) or the Khardukhoi (Carduchoi) of the Greek historian Xenophon (Cawkell, 1979), none have much merit. Whatever the roots, there is evidence to push the origin of the word 'Kurd' back at least to the early4th millennium BC, if not earlier. Even though I have not personally seen the term used by the old Mesopotamian sources, I was assured by my colleague Piotr Steinkeller, professor of Akkadian and Sumerian languages at Harvard University, of the accuracy of reports of such usage dating back 3800 years. The Akkadian term 'Kurtei' denoted an indeterminate portion or groups of inhabitants of the Zagros (and eastern Taurus) mountains. On the other hand, to their end in the 6th century BC, the Babylonians loosely (and apparently pejoratively) referred to almost everyone who lived in the Zagros-Taurus system a "Qutil," including the Medes! But Babylonian records also attest to many more specific subdivisional names such as the Mardi, Lullubi, Kardaka and Qardu, the last two of which have all been used frequently in the needless controversy over the roots and antiquity of the ethnic term 'Kurd' and the question of the presence of a general ethnic designator.

By the 3rd century BC, the very term 'Kurd' (or rather Kurt) was conclusively established. Polybius (d. ca. 133 BC) in his history reporting the events of 221-220 BC (History, V. 52), and Strabo (d. ca AD 48) in his geography (Geography, V. xi.13.2-3; VII. xv. 15.1), are the earliest Western sources of which I am aware as having made mention of the Kurds with their present ethnic name, albeit in Latinized form, Cyrtii the Kurti. Historians Livy, Pliny, Tacitus and much later, Procopius, also mention this ethnic name for the native population of Media and parts of Anatolia in classical times. Ptolemy inadvertently provides us with an array of Kurdish tribal names when he records them as they appear as toponyms designating their locations. For example, Bagraoandene for the Bagrawands or Bakrans of Diyarbakir, Belcanea for the Belikans of Antep, Tigranoandene for the Tirigans of Hakkar, Sophene for the Subhans of Elazig, Dersene for the Darsimis and Bokhtanoi for the Bohtans (Bokhtans), etc. These tribes are still with us today.

The northern Zagros and Anatolia once teamed with a variety of related groups who spoke Iranic tongues. About 2000 years ago, many, such as the Iranic Pontians, Commagenes, Cappadocians, Western Medes and Indic Mitannis (like the earlier Hurrian Mannas, Lullubis, Saubarus, Kardakas and Qutils) had been totally absorbed into a new Kurdish ethnic pool. They are among the many mountain inhabiting peoples whose assimilation genetically, culturally, socially and linguistically formed the contemporary Kurds. Kurdish diversity of race, tradition and spoken dialects encountered today point in the direction of this compound identitv.

Reflecting on the gradual assimilation of one of these groups into the larger Kurdish ethnic pool, Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) tries to reconcile what appeared to him to be a name change for a familiar people. Enumerating the nations of the known world, he states, "Joining on to Adiabene (central Kurdistan centered on Arbil) are the people formerly called the Carduchi and now the Cordueni, past whom flows the river Tigris..." (Natural Histor VI. wiii. 46).

These Carduchi mentioned by Pliny are the same people whom Xenophon and his ten thousand Greek troops encountered nearly three centuries earlier when retreating through Kurdistan in 401 BC. Xenophon called them the Kardukhoi. The name is the same as that of Kardaka (the people who provided a portion of the Babylonian royal guards before 530 BC), and the ,Qarduim mentioned frequently in the Talmud.
From the time the Kurds are Aryanized until the 16th century of our era Kurdish culture remained basically unchanged despite the introduction of new empires, religions and immigrants. The Kurds remained essentially the followers of the ancient Hurrian religion of Yazdanism and spoke an Iranic language that medieval Islamic sources termed Pahlawani. Pahlawani survives today in the dialects of Gurani and Dimili (Zaza) on the peripheries of Kurdistan. Only the loss of the southern Zagros, via metamorphosis of Kurds into Lurs, and the expansion of Kurds into the Alburz, Caucasus and Pontus mountains are noteworthy events.
5. After the Aryan settlement, Kurdistan continued to receive new peoples and cultural influences, none however stronger than the Aryan influence in altering Kurdish cultural and ethnicidentity. Large numbers of Aramaic-speakingpeople never seem to have settled in Kurdistan, although through the introduction of Judaism, and later Christianity, many Kurds of central and northern Kurdistan relinquished Kurdish and spoke Aramaic instead. It is fascinating to note in examining contemporary Kurdish culture that Judaism appears to have exercised a much deeper and more lasting influence on indigenous Kurdish culture and religion than Christianity, despite the fact that most ethnic neighbors of the Kurds between the 5th and 12th centuries were Christians.

The role of the Arabs and the impact of Islam on Kurdish society and culture is less difficult to survey. The Arabian peninsula was experiencing a runaway population explosion when the advent of Islam translated that pressure into a massive outburst of Arabian nomads and brought about their settlement of foreign lands. In Kurdistan Arab tribes settled near almost every major town and agricultural center. By the 10th century, the Islamic historians and geographers report Arabian populations living among the Kurds from the northern shores of Lake Vanto Dinawar andfrom HamadantoMalatya. These eventually assimilated, leaving behind only their genetic imprint (as the darker-complexioned city Kurds) and little else. The same was true of the Turkic settlement of Kurdistan and its cultural influence . Several centuries of Turkic nomadic passage through Kurdistan, beginning with the 12th century, rained havoc on the settled Kurds and their economy, as Aryan migrations had done some 2000 years earlier. The Turkic cultural legacywas in itself nil, but the forces of internal change it unleashed within Kurdish society turned out to be nearly as decisive as the Aryan invasion and settlement. Kurdistan would surely have been Turkified under this tremendous nomadic pressure and destructiveness, had it not been for the Kurdish nomads, the Kurmanj, who switfly came out of the Hakkari highlands to fill nearly every niche left vacant by the agriculturist Kurds and less energetic nomads. The Turkic nomads were primarily steppe nomads, and proved less of a match for the Kurmanj mountain nomads in the rough terrain of Kurdistan. Some Kurds were Turkified to be sure; e.g., the tribes of Dumbuli, Barani, Shaqaqi and Jewanshir. Conversely, many Kurdish tribes with Turkic names (e.g., Karachul, Chol, Oghaz, Devalu, Karaqich, Chichak) are in fact assimilated Turkish and Turkmen tribes who left behind only their names and were in every other respect Kurdified.
This massive tribal dislocation that could have subsided over time took a new and more destructive turn by the advent of a century-long holocaust in Kurdish and Armenian territories in eastern Anatolia in the 16th century. The decisive turn for massive nomadization of the Kurds was made by the long Perso-Ottoman wars and particularly the Safavids"'scorchedearth" policy. More important still was the deadly economic blow brought about by the shift to sea transport of East-West commerce which also commenced at the turn of the 16th century. Together they heralded the beginning of the end for much of the social fabric and sophisticated culture of Kurdistan as it had existed since the time of the Medes. The agriculturalist, urban based Kurdish culture and society was to shift to a nomadic economy under a newly assumed identity. The nomadized Kurdish farmers eventually accepted Shafiite SunniIslam from the Kurmanj nomads andbegan speakingthe vernacular of Kurmanji a close kin to the old Pahlawani. In time the older Kurdish society - religion and language notwithstanding -was marginalized and physically pushed to the peripheries of Kurdistan. At present, nearly three quarters of the Kurds speak various dialects of Kurmanji and similar numbers practice Shafute Sunni Islam. In a sense, the "Kurmanj" assimilated the "Kurds" and in the process they assumed the old ethnic name and inherited all that was left of the older culture .

There is, as should be expected, a strong correlation between the practice of the ancient Yazdani religion and the speaking of Pahlawani, as there is also a close connection betweenbeing a Muslim and speaking Kurmanji. The shift from the former to the latter identity in Kurdistan is accelerating and seems very likely to totally submerge the residual Pahlawani-Yazdani identity of the older Kurdistan. Only a shrinking number of Kurds still speak Pahlawani in the form of the dialects of Dimili (pejoratively known as Zaza) in far northwestern Kurdistan in llurkey, and as Gurani, Laki and Awramani in southern Kurdistan in Iran and Iraq. The old religion of Yazdanism too is still practiced as Alevism, Yezidism and Yarsanism (Ahl-i-Haqq). but these too are shrinking in number.
With the introduction of modern communication systems into Kurdish society, the process of cultural and ethnic homogenization of the Kurds has inevitably accelerated. The last step in the evolution of Kurdish cultural and ethnic identity is near completion today. Kurdish ethnic identity is thus destined to comprise Kurmanji-speaking, Shafiite Muslim people, the last layer to be added to the many former layers which, in combination, render the Kurds what and who they are today: heirs to millenia of cultural and genetic evolution of the native inhabitants of the Zagros-Taurus systems.

Mehrdad Izady

Lecture, Haryard University, 10 March 1993.
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