History of the Kurds

Home | Category: Middle East Ethnic Groups / Middle East Minorities


Kurdish mastiff in an inscription from ancient Babylon

The Kurds have occupied an area of rugged mountains and high plains at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates for over 2000 years. They are believed to be descended from the Medes who overthrew Ninevah in 617 B.C. The Medes are a people associated with the Persians. The Kurds have traditionally been pastoralists and farmers.

David McDowell, author of “A Modern History of the Kurds” , argues that the Kurds are better perceived as an “ethnic community” rather than an ethnic group or nation. He says the claim of common ancestry is largely mythical, that Kurdish dialects are so different they should not be considered the same language and that Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria are often more like their fellow countrymen in each country than a common group of Kurds. He also says that whole of idea of the Kurdish identify largely was developed after World War I. Before that Kurd simply meant “nomad.”

Describing the Karduchoi , the inhabitants of Kurdistan in 401 B.C., Xenophon wrote: "Then came a seven days' march of a hundred and fifty miles through the country of Chalybes. These were the most warlike of all tribes on their way, and they fought the Greeks at close quarters. They had body armor of linen, reaching down to the groin, and instead of skirts of armor they wore thick twisted cords. They also wore greaves and helmets, and carried on their belts knives about the size of a Spartan dagger. With these knives they cut the throats of those whom they managed to overpower, and then would cut off their head and carry them as they marched, singing and dancing whenever their enemies were likely to see them."

The Arabs brought Islam to the Kurdish areas in the A.D. 7th century. They were the first to use the term “Kurds.” While in Iran, Marco Polo described the Kurds as people "who rob the merchants gladly." Many important figures in the history of the Ottoman and Persian Empires were Kurdish. The most famous Kurd is Saladin, a warrior who rallied Islamic forces and drove the crusaders out of Palestine in the 12th century

The Kurds lived under the Ottoman Turks for centuries along with scores of there nationalities. Kurdish territories traditionally served as a buffer zone between the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Kurds were sometimes persecuted, according to some estimates their population declined under Ottoman rule.

Books: “A Modern History of the Kurds” by David McDowell Sheri Laizer, “After Such Knowledge: What Forgiveness, My Encounters in Kurdistan” by Jonathan C. Randal (Farrar, Straus Giroux); “Kurdistan: In the Shadows of History” By Susan Meiselas (Random House, 1998).

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ;

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org

Saladin (c. 1138-1193)

Saladin versus Richard the Lionheart

Salah a;-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyud (1138-1193), a Kurdish warrior better known as Saladin, rallied Islamic forces and drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem and Palestine in the 12th century. The Crusaders were never able to reclaim Jerusalem after that, even after Richard the Lion Hearted and Saladin held a summit meeting.⌛♠

Saladin become so well known Dante included him with his Homer, Caesar and Plato in Limbo, the highest place non-Christians could enter. He also appeared in romances by Sir Walter Scott. In recent years his name has been invoked by people like Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad as a cry for Muslims to reclaim the Holy Land. [Source: David Van Biema, Time, Dec. 26, 1999]

Saladin was small and somewhat frail but Robert Wernick wrote in Smithsonian magazine that Saladin "was an extraordinary figure too. Wise, wily, devout, soft-spoken, a politician more than military hero.” "He had achieved the miracle of uniting of uniting most of the squabbling emirates, sultanates and kingdoms of the Muslim East. He had also fulfilled a century old Muslim dream of breaking the power of the Crusading states and reconquering the holy city of Jerusalem...He ruled by personal authority and knew how to reinforce his prestige by theatrical gestures."

David Van Biema wrote in Time, “When Dante Alighieri compiled his great medieval Who's Who of heroes and villains, the Divine Comedy, the highest a non-Christian could climb was Limbo. Ancient pagans had to be virtuous indeed to warrant inclusion: the residents included Homer, Caesar, Plato and Dante's guide, Vergil. But perhaps the most surprising entry in Dante's catalog of "great-hearted souls" was a figure "solitary, set apart." “That figure was Saladin. It is testament to his extraordinary stature in the Middle Ages that not only was Saladin the sole "modern" mentioned — he had been dead barely 100 years when Dante wrote — but also that a man who had made his name successfully battling Christianity would be lionized by the author of perhaps the most Christ-centered verse ever penned.” [Source: David Van Biema, Time, Dec. 26, 1999]

Saladin was born in 1138 in the mountain town of Takrit in a Kurdish area in what is now Iraq. During his youth the Muslim world consisted of a bunch of squabbling warlords living under the Christian shadow. The Crusaders occupied four militarily aggressive states and the Muslims were unable to unify against them. Saladin’s uncle, the one-eyed ruffian Sirkuh, was the de facto king of Egypt. When he died in 1169, Saladin took his place and after a 17 year campaign, using diplomacy and violence, with some luck, he united Muslims in Egypt, Syria and much of the Middle East. He was able to assemble an army to fight the Crusaders.

Saladin's courage, chivalry and generosity were admired by the Crusaders. According to one story, he felt sorry for his rival Richard the Lionhearted after he fell sick and ordered his messengers to bring him some snow and ice from the mountains for some relief. By the same token he once ordered his troops not to aim their catapults at a pavilion where the newlywed stepdaughter of a ruthless French Crusader was staying with her husband only to personally chop off the head of French lord when he had the chance. [Source: Robert Wernick, Smithsonian magazine, September 1986]

Kurdistan After World War I

Kurds in favor of an independent Kurdish state were encouraged by the defeat of Turkey in World War I and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s call for the self-determination of non-Turkish peoples. Kurds participated on the Turkish side in the massacre of the Armenians in 1915. They were also victims of Ottoman Turkish persecution and cruelty.

In 1919, the European allies proposed an independent Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sevres. In 1920, as part of Treaty of Sevres, Kurds were told that if they elected for independence from Turkey they would be granted it in a year’s time. A Turkish revolt to the treaty was led by Ataturk. In 1923 when a final settlement was made in the Treaty of Lausanne there was no mention of Kurdistan.

Kurdish cavalry in 1918

The division of the Kurds into different countries was primarily the work of European colonial powers, namely Britain and France. Britain annexed southern Kurdistan and affixed it to Arab Iraq. Interest in oil discovered in Mosul area in 1927 also helped screw the Kurds out of a state.

The Kurds have a long complicated history of activism beginning in the 1920s when secular and religious leaders launched various movements for independence and autonomy. Their success or failure depended largely on the ruling regime in the country where the efforts were launched and the geopolitical interests of the world powers. Revolts by Kurds in 1925 and 1930 were brutally put down.

Independent Kurdish State

The Kurds briefly had their own state after World War II. It was founded in 1946 in Iran with the help of the Soviet Union and was called the Republic of Mahabad. It only lasted for eleven months. After its collapse there was a brutal reign of terror.

During World War II, British and Soviet troops invaded Iran and forced the Shah to abdicate and name his son as his successor. The Soviets occupied northern Iran and the British occupied southern Iran, with the Kurdish territory in Iran acting as a buffer zone. The main city here was Mahabad, which gave its name to the new state.

When the war ended the Soviets continued to occupy their zone and allowed Iranian Kurds and Kurdish guerillas from Iraq to establish an independent state in January 1946. A few months later the Shah’s army marched on Mahabad and the Kurds surrendered without a fight, partly because the Kurds were mainly interested in the right to use their language and not a state and thought they could negotiate that concession.

The United States was worried that the Shah would take revenge against the Kurds. In a private audience the Shah told a U.S. representative, “Are you afraid I’m going to have them shot? If so, you can set your mind at rest. I am not.” He kept his word. He ordered the Kurdish leaders hanged.

Kingdom of Kurdistan in 1923

Kurdish Rebellion in Iraq

Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the father of the leader of the KDP, was a legendary Kurdish tribal chief and the charismatic, dagger-wielding leader of the Kurdish separatist movement for decades. He fought against the British and Turks in the 1920s and launched a Kurdish separatist uprising in 1943. He led a group of 800 followers into exile in Soviet Armenia after the collapse of the Mahabad republic. He led an armed struggle against the Iraqi government in 1961 and a CIA-backed revolt against Iraq in 1975 only to abandon it when the Shah and Iraq struck a deal.

In 1958, nationalists came to power in a military coup. They United States didn’t like the new government much and encouraged Kurdish separatist to fight against them. An unsuccesful rebellion led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, was launched in 1958.

In 1961, the Iraqi government invaded Kurdish territory. After nine years of inconclusive fighting the government of Saddam Hussein negotiated a cease-fire and promised the Kurds a fair amount of autonomy. A plan was drawn up to give the Kurds an autonomous region. It turned about just to be a sham and efforts to stall for time while Arabs moved into the area, strengthening the position of the Iraqi government.

Kurdish Rebellion Encouraged and Betrayed by the U.S. and Iran

In the early 1970s, Kurdish fighters were used by the U.S. to pressure Baghdad. Iran and the United States encouraged Kurdish separatists to rebel against Iraq. The Iranian monarchy had long standing grievances with Iran, particularly the terms of the border agreement created by the British in 1930s, which gave Iraq sovereignty over the Shattal-Arab, the river which flows into the Persian Gulf at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The Shah wanted to use the Kurds to put pressure on the Iraq government in an effort to win concessions.

Kurdish rebels in the 1920s

The United States agreed to go along with the Shah’s plan and promised to support the Kurds. The Kurds didn’t trust the Shah but they trusted the United States and also went along went the plan. Under the authorization of Nixon and Kissinger, the CIA then began to supply the Kurds under Barzani with $16 million worth of Soviet and Chinese arms and ammunition in a highly secretive operation. In the meantime the Soviets had been sending weaponry to the Iraqi government, which the Kurds refused to negotiate with because they were backed up by the United States.

In mid-April 1974, seven Iraqi divisions, employing Soviet aircraft and armor, invaded Kurdish territories. Hundred, perhaps thousands, of civilians were killed in bombing and artillery attacks on Kurdish villages. On May 1, Iraqi troops killed 63 people, mostly women and children, in a raid on the village of Zakho. Even so the Iraqis were unable to defeat the Kurds while they were being supported by the United States and Iran.

But ultimately the Kurds were betrayed by the United States as Henry Kissinger negotiated a secret deal between the Shah and the Iraqis. In March 1975, Iran and Iraq made an agreement in which Iraq made territorial concessions to Iran. After that Iran and the United States withdrew their support from the Kurds. The day after the agreement was signed, the Iraqis launched a major offensive while Iran closed its borders, denying the Kurds of their primary escape route. Trapped and outgunned, the Kurds sent the following message to the CIA: “Our people’s fate in unprecedented danger. Complete destruction hanging over our head. No explanation for all this. We appeal to you and the U.S. government intervene according to your promises.” The Iraqis crushed the Kurds, 200,000 Kurds became refugees. Mulla Barzani was forced into exile.

Collapse of the Kurdish Rebellion in the 1970s

head of the Kurdish rebel Aliser

With no support, the Kurdish rebellion collapsed in matter of weeks. Stragglers were captured or killed by the Iraqis. Kurds that escaped into Iran were interned by the Iranian secret police. Of these some were sent to the harsh deserts of Iran near the Afghanistan border. Others were forced to return to Iraq, where leaders were rounded and shot by firing squads. Some Kurds that were caught in Turkey were executed.

Afterwards a campaign of Arabization took place in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. Kurds were forcibly moved to southern Iraq and were replaced by Arabs, particularly in the oil producing areas. Kurds were denied property rights and their titles were made null and void. As for the United States, they refused to even supply humanitarian assistance to refugees in Kurdish areas they helped create. There was little international outrage on the issue because few newspapers or television crews were there to cover it.

Kurds and the Iran-Iraq War

On September 22, 1980, war broke out between Iran and Iraq. It was a horrible conflict characterized by human wave assaults, child conscription, the use of poison gas and indiscriminate killing, with the Kurds in both Iraq and Iran caught in the middle. The war largely went unnoticed by the world because it wasn’t covered much by the media. Many were happy even to see the two countries battling each other rather threatening the Middle East.

Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War has been called one of the longest, bloodiest and most pointless wars after World War II. The inconclusive war lasted seven years and resulted in 600,000 to a million deaths and hundreds of thousands of wounded. The Iraq government said 500,000 of its people died. The Iran government said at least 300,000 of its people perished. At one point the war was costing Iraq a billion dollars a month because it couldn’t moves it oil out the Persian Gulf.

More than 100,000 Kurds are believed to have been killed in assaults on Kurdish territory in 1988. Children were blinded by phosphorous bombs, men were maimed by mines and some women were still nursing wounds inflicted napalm-like explosives years later.♠

The town of Qoush Typa is known as the "village without men." During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi soldiers surrounded the town and took away all the men over the age of 12. None have been seen since. According to Muslims all laws are reversed as the end of the world nears. This is how some Kurds explain what has happened to them. [Source: John Dalton, New York Times, January 21 and 28, 1994]

Chemical Weapons Attack on Kurds in Iraq

Thousands of Kurds were killed and perhaps a lot more when the Iraqis used chemical weapons on at villages in northern Iraq during the Anfal campaign in the Iran-Iraq war in 1987 and 1988. At least 60 villages were involved and at least 6,500 people were killed. Kurds have documented 281 uses of Iraqi poison gas.

Human Rights Watch estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed and called the attacks “attempted genocide." Many more were affected: maybe 4 million Kurds, 10 percent of the population of northern Iraq. The gassing continued even after the Iran-Iraq war was over. The U.S. government was aware of the gassing but remained quiet about it at the time.

The gas attacks on the Kurds was the greatest poison gas attack ever against civilians (in World War I poison gas was used against other combatants). Christine Gosden, a medical geneticist at Liverpool University told the New Yorker, “For Saddam's scientists the Kurds were a test population. They were human guinea pigs. It was a way of identifying the most effective chemical agents for use on civilian populations, and the most effective means of delivery."

The Iraqis are believed to have used mustard gas, cyanide gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX. Biological agents may have also been used. Study: “Iraq's Crime if Genocide” by Human Rights Watch. Film: “The Winds of Death” by Gwynne Roberts.

Chemical Weapons Attack on Halabja

Iranian soldier with a gas mask

On March 16, 1988, at least 5,000 Kurds died and 20,000 were wounded in a chemical weapon attack at Halabja, a small city with 45,000 Kurds about 15 miles from the Iranian border and near the front lines in the Iran-Iraq war. The Kurds there were accused of collaborating and sympathizing with the Iranians. [Source: Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, March 25, 2002]

The attack began after a conventional artillery bombardment. It became clear something different was going on when helicopters flew over the town and threw out pieces of paper (apparently to gauge the wind speed and direction). Later planes dropped canisters on the town that produced a low muffled sound when they exploded and emitted a yellowish gas that hugged the ground as it dispersed.

One Kurdish woman named Nasreen told the New Yorker, “It wasn't so loud. It was like pieces of metal just dropping without exploding. We didn't know why it was so quiet...At first, it smelled bad, like garbage. And then it was a good smell, like sweet apples. Then like eggs." The woman looked at a cage with a partridge in her house. “The bird was dying. It was on its side. It as very quiet, but the animals were dying. The sheep and goats were dying. I told everybody there was something wrong. There was something wrong with the air."

Fleeing the Chemical Weapons Attack on Kurds

The woman and her family sought refuge in their cellar. She told the New Yorker, “My sister came close to my face and said, “Your eyes are very red." Then the children started throwing up. They kept throwing up. They were in so much pain, and crying so much. They were all crying all the time. My mother was crying. Then the old people started throwing up...They children were crying, “We can't see! My eyes are bleeding!” [Source: Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, March 25, 2002]

victims in Halabja in March 1988

“We knew there was chemicals in the air. We were getting red eyes, and some of us had liquid coming out of them. We decided to run...Our cow was lying on its side. It was breathing very fast, as if it had been running. The leaves were falling off the trees, even though it was spring. The partridge was dead. There were smoke clouds around. The gas was heavier than the air, and it was finding the wells and going down the wells."

The woman and her family fled in the direction opposite the wind direction. “The children couldn't walk, they were so sick. They were exhausted from throwing up. We carried them in our arms. We wanted to wash ourselves and find water to drink. We wanted to wash the faces of the children who were vomiting. The children were crying for water. There was powder on the ground, white. We couldn't decide whether to drink the water or not, but some people drank the water from the well because they were so thirsty."

Victims of the Chemical Weapons Attack on Kurds

Some victims broke out in horrid laughter and stripped off their clothes and then died. Others yelled and ran into walls. Most people died on the streets trying to get out of town. Some ran down to the river and jumped in. Many of those that tried to hide in their houses were killed as the heavier than air gas seeped in through broken or open windows. [Source: Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, March 25, 2002]

Nasreen told the New Yorker, “People were showing different symptoms. One person touched some of the powder, and her skin started bubbling. We saw people lying frozen on the ground. There was a small baby on the ground, away from her mother. I thought they were both sleeping. But she had dropped the baby and then died. And I think the baby tried to crawl away, but it died, too. It looked like everyone was sleeping."

Another survivor told the New Yorker, “On the road to Anab, many women and children began to die. The chemical clouds were on the ground. They were heavy. We could see them. Many children were left on the ground, by the side of the road. Old people as well. They were running, then they stopped breathing and died."

United Nations observers in checking for chemical weapons

Some survivors saved themselves by covering their face and bodies with wet towels. Others survived by making it to high ground or injecting themselves with atrophine. The Iranians captured Halabja. They took the survivors to Iranian hospitals and invited the foreign press to visit the town and take phonographs of the dead, which is how we know the story today. [Source: Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, March 25, 2002]

Many people went blind. Some for a few hours. Some several days. Some forever. Others had badly damaged lungs. Many women who survived started menstruating and it wouldn't stop. They were given drugs to stop the bleeding but the were unable to bear children after that. Those that could bear children often gave birth to children with severe birth defects.

Others, years later, developed horrible cancers, skin diseases and chronic illnesses. Some experienced spells and recurring attacks similar to those in the original gas attacks. There were also reports of increased numbers of miscarriages, cleft palates and hare lips, mental, illness, and snake bites. Many people are believed to have suffered permanent DNA damage related to the attacks.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.