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ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: Kurd, Kurmandz


Identification, Location, and Demography. According to Statistical data for 1989, the total population of Kurds in the USSR was 152,717. Of these, 56,127 were in Armenia; 33,331 in Georgia; 25,425 in Kazakhstan; 12,226 in Azerbaijan; 14,262 in Kirgizia; 4,387 in Turkmenia; 1,839 in Uzbekistan; and 56 in Tajikistan. The areas of dense settlement are in Transcaucasia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia). According to the 1979 census, the Kurds of Azerbaijan are not included among the major (more numerous) nationalities of the Azerbaijan Republic, because of natural and artificial assimilation. In Kazakhstan and Central Asia live the descendants of Kurds from the former Kurdistan District. The population figures are somewhat low, since in Kazakhstan many Kurdish inhabitants are registered as Turks or Azerbaijanis. Kurds live scattered in Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova. At the present time a significant part of the Kurdish population has left Central Asia, Transcaucasia, and Kazakhstan for the Krasnodar region. Kurds staunchly retain a national self-consciousness. The majority of Kurds are Muslimsmostly Sunnis, some Shiites. A number of Kurds (called "Yezidis") are adherents of the syncretistic religion known as Yezidism. The religious distinctions have tended to separate the communities into separate Yezidi and Muslim settlements.

Linguistic Affiliation. Soviet Kurds speak the northern dialect (Kurmandz) of the Kurdish language, which belongs (along with Talysh and some other languages) to the Northwestern Subgroup of the Iranian Group of the Indo-European Family.

History and Cultural Relations

The appearance of Kurdish kin-tribal confederations in Transcaucasia dates from the tenth century, and in the eleventh century the famous Kurdish dynasty of the Seddadis ruled over an enormous territory from the city of Elisavetpol (modern Kirovabad in Azerbaijan) to the city of Ani (in modern Turkey). Toward the end of the nineteenth century the Kurdish population in Transcaucasia was concentrated in the Aleksandropol, Novobayazet, Surmalin, Sharuro-Daralagez, and Erevan districts of Erevan Province (Armenia); the Aresh, Jebrail, Javanshir, and Zangezur districts of Elisavetpol Province (Azerbaijan); and the Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, and Borchalin districts of Tiflis Province (Georgia). Individual clans appeared in Transcaucasia after the Russo-Persian wars of 1804-1813 and 1826-1828. These were either the inhabitants of those villages that, in accordance with the conditions of the Gyulistan and Turkmanchay agreements, came under Russian authority, or they were nomadic Kurds in Transcaucasian territory. At the beginning of the nineteenth century several Kurdish tribes presented the Russian authorities in Caucasia with a request to allow them to settle in Russia and accept Russian citizenship.

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, as a result of the genocide of the Yezidi Kurds and the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Kurds' search for better pasturage for their cattle, the Yezidi Kurds fled with the Armenians to Armenia and the Muslim Kurds migrated to Azerbaijan, where the majority population professed Islam. Thus the Kurdish population in Transcaucasia split along confessional lines. Subsequently, in the 1920s, many Kurds left Azerbaijan for Armenia (where some villages of Muslim Kurds were created in the Basargechar, Dilizhan, and other regions); at the same time some went from Armenia into Georgia. In Georgia the Yezidi Kurds are mostly an urban population, living in Tbilisi, where they came in search of work. The Muslim Kurdish population settled primarily in Azerbaijan, in the Kelbajar, Lachin, Kubatlin, and Zangelan regions. In the 1920s these regions, with their center in the city of Lachin, became the Kurdistan District of Soviet Azerbaijan. At the beginning of the 1930s the Kurdistan District was transformed into the Kurdish National Autonomous Region, but in connection with the new administrative division of Azerbaijan the region was abolished. In 1937 there was a forced deportation of the Kurdish population from Azerbaijan and Armenia and, in 1944, from Georgia.

Language and Literacy

In the past most of the Kurds of Transcaucasia were illiterate. In the Russian Empire the Kurds had no national schools. In 1921, according to the first agricultural census, 1 out of every 100 adult Kurds was literate (1.44 percent of male Kurds in the Kurdistan District and a mere 0.04 percent of female Kurds). From the 1920s various measures for popular education among the Kurds were implemented. The most important problem was the creation of a written language, textbooks, grammars, and dictionaries in the Kurdish language, despite the fact that the Kurdish language was not studied until comparatively late in Europe (the first Kurdish grammar was published in 1787). In 1921 a Kurdish alphabet was devised in Armenia on the basis of the Armenian alphabet. A Kurdish alphabet using Latin letters was created in Armenia in 1929. In 1944, also in Armenia, a Kurdish alphabet using Cyrillic characters (with the addition of seven signs for the rendering of specific phonemes) was promulgated, although this led to some isolation of the Soviet Kurdish readership. (All Kurdish literature abroad is published in the Latin and Arabic alphabets.) A major role in the creation of the Kurdish alphabet, textbooks, grammars, dictionaries, and artistic literature was played by Kurdish pedagogues, writers, and scholars (Arab Shamilov, Amine Avdal, Ajie Jindi, Jasme Jalil, Museib Akhundov, Bakhchoe Slo, K. K. Kurdoev, Ch. Kh. Bakaev, and many others).

Government programs led to the reduction of illiteracy among adults. In the 1922-1923 school year in Armenia there were five Kurdish elementary schools with more than 260 pupils. At the end of the 1930s Kurdish schools were reorganized, and the Kurds were allowed the option of studying their native language. In 1925 more than fifty schools were opened for the Kurds of Armenia and Azerbaijan (and in Tbilisi an evening school), at which both men and women studied. Kurdish teacjers received training in technical schools and institutions of higher education. A Kurdish technical school was opened in Armenia in 1928, another in Azerbaijan in 1933. A group of young Kurds studied at the workers' high school of the Leningrad Institute of Oriental Languages under the guidance of academician I. A. Orbeli. At the present time the Kurds generally have a command their native language, but their knowledge of other languages depends on the language of the surrounding people, the language in which they have been educated, and other factors; they may be familiar with Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Russian, or other languages. According to statistical data for 1989, out of the general population of 152,717 Kurds, 123,006 considered Kurdish their native language, 6,817 Russian, and 2,289 another language; 43,889 were fluent in Russian and 61,683 in other languages.


Their difficult historical fortunes notwithstanding, the Kurds of the former Soviet Union have staunchly preserved their traditional customs, a material and intellectual culture having common roots with that of the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This is manifested in economic and cultural forms, the typology of settlements and habitations, national costume, carpet making, cuisine, the observance of religious rituals, and folklore.

Among the Kurds of Armenia, patronymic and kin-tribal settlements existed up to the 1930s and 1940s, which attests to the long retention of traditional family structures. The majority of Azerbaijani Kurds seem not to have retained a memory of their clan and tribal backgrounds; this is reflected in the settlement patterns of Kurdish villages in Azerbaijan. A village was usually founded near a spring. Public buildings did not exist in the villages. Some Muslim villages had a religious school (mekteb ); among the Yezidis, the children of well-off parents studied at the homes of the sheikhs. Kurdish villages had no mosques for Muslim Kurds or prayer houses for Yezidi Kurds. In Azerbaijan the Kurds prayed in the Azerbaijani mosques; in Armenia, where Yezidi Kurds predominated, the religious functions of the village were celebrated in the house of the sheikh. The villages had no markets or market squares; Kurds went to Armenian or Azerbaijani villages to buy or sell produce and the products of home industry. Kurdish graveyards were located near the village. Kurds in Armenia had patronymic graveyards; those in Azerbaijan had nonpatronymic graveyards alongside Azerbaijano-Kurdish graveyards. In the 1920s to the 1930s the Kurdish village gradually changed. In the republics of Transcaucasia new villages began to be created for those who had adopted a sedentary form of life. The Soviet state rendered material assistance to Kurdish peasants in the construction of new settlements. In the major Kurdish towns, particularly in Armenia, new dwellings, farms, and mills were erected. The new towns had sociocultural and economic centers with village soviets, schools, and reading rooms. The results of this process were especially evident in the Kurdish villages of Armenia in the 1950s to the 1980s.

The change in the external appearance of the Transcaucasian Kurdish villages is connected with a change in the way of life and the dwelling place. Until the beginning of the twentieth century the basic types of habitation were the tent (kon, chadïr, reshmal ) for the nomadic and seminomadic population, and the winter dwelling (mal, khani ), an underground or half-underground mud hut for the seminomadic and sedentary population. The Kurdish homestead was a single, horizontally oriented complex consisting of an underground or half-underground hut, stable, sheepfold, and storeroom (in some parts of Azerbaijan, the oreintation was vertical). The main construction material was unfinished brick, unpolished stone, or sometimes tufa (in Armenia). Houses in the plains had flat roofs, those in the mountains cupola-shaped roofs with an aperture (kolek ) in the ceiling for light and smoke. The ceiling beams rested on wooden columns (stun ). A hearth (tandur ) in the earthen floor was used to heat the home, bake bread, prepare food, and enact ritual ceremonies. The hearth has a sacred place in the life of the Kurds.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The primary occupation of the Kurds of Transcaucasia in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was the vertical transhumance of livestock. Before departing for the pastures in the spring, the Kurds would form into obas, temporary and voluntary unions of several large families that lasted until their return to winter quarters in late fall. The fundamental objective in the creation of the oba was the assurance of adequate care and maintenance for the cattle. Obas were either of the jol type, in which members contributed equally toward the upkeep of the cattle, or the type in which one of the more prosperous flock owners accepted the sheep of the other members of the oba into his flock. The number of families forming an oba depended on the number of sheep and goats owned by each family. In addition to nomadic cattle rearing there was also cattle rearing in pastures. A number of tribes combined pasturing of livestock with dry-land agriculture (grains, tobacco).

Clothing. Older women still wear the national costume. It consists of a shirt (kras ), baggy pantaloons (khevalkras ), vest (elek ), skirt (navdere, tuman ), apron (salek ), armlets (davzang ), woolen belt (bene peste ), hat (kofi, fino ) or silk head shawl, woolen stockings (gore ), and shoes. Ancient and modern decorations of all types (beads, rings, earrings, bracelets) and gold and silver coins on the kofi headgear are an obligatory component of female dress. In the past, Kurdish women wore nose ornaments (kerefil ) and foot ornaments (kherkhal ). The men's folk costume as a whole has gone out of use, but individual elements were worn until the first half of the twentieth century in Azerbaijan. The traditional national costume of the Kurds of Transcaucasia consisted of a shirt, wide trousers, a vest, a woolen belt, woolen socks, and shoes. A dagger thrust in the belt was formerly regarded as an inseparable element of the masculine costume.

Food. The Kurds have a distinctive national cuisine. From the beginning of spring the women stock up on produce (dairy products, meat, cereal, flour, vegetables) for the fall and winter. Semiprocessed dairy products are frequently used in many dishes, for example the refreshing beverage dau, from which various soups and curds are prepared. Curds can be fashioned into small balls (kyashk ) that are dried under the burning sun. In winter, when the cows' milk yield drops and it is impossible to get dau, Kurds crumble a ball of kyashk, soak it overnight in warm water, and consume the thick liquid the following day. They also make various sorts of cheese (e.g., panire sari and a stringy cheese called panire reshi ) Meat dishes include grilled mutton and Caucasian shashlik. Among the more common cereal dishes are porridges and soups prepared from processed grains (wheat, barley, and rice). Noodles (reshte ) made from flour are prepared for storage.

Industrial Arts. Domestic crafts, particulary those directly associated with the processing of wool, were important in the economy of the Kurds. Kurdish women have long been famous for the manufacture of carpets (with and without nap) and felt and woolen items for clothing and daily life. The carpets are adorned with depictions deriving from folk legends, tales, and religious beliefsparticularly those of the Yezidis. At the end of the nineteenth century Erevan and Elisavetpol provinces, as well as Akhaltsikhe District in Tiflis Provincethat is, areas with a large Kurdish populationspecialized in the production of woolen handicraft articles. The Kurds were also noted for the production of brass and unglazed ceramic utensils. Jugs with a broad, steady base were used for keeping meat, milk, and butter. The Kurds made bags for the storage of butter and cheese, as well as churns, out of hides with the hair turned outside and specially processed. In the rich forests of the Kelbajar and Lachin districts of Azerbaijan, the peasants manufactured wooden beehives. In some regions of Transcaucasia the men were involved in working stone; carving gravestones in the shape of a sheep, horse, or lion; and making mortars and vessels for water.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Islam spread among the Kurds in the seventh and eighth centuries. Many Muslim rites and beliefs coexisted with pre-Islamic cults associated with lakes, stones, graves, trees, fire, and an ancestor cult. Among the Muslim Kurds reverance toward pirs (holy places) was widespread. Three types of these were distinguished. The firststone mounds, formed by the casting of stones at places considered sacredwere revered primarily by the nomadic Kurds. Part of the mound was frequently covered by pieces of fabric hung on bushes or saplings by women. The Kurds believed that these pirs would save them from misfortune. The second type, created by sedentary Kurds, was associated with the graves of saints and the cult of the ancestors. On certain days the villagers brought offerings, usually baked bread and sweets, to these graves. The third kind reflected the cults of trees, stones, and water; these cults had devotees among both the sedentary and nomadic population.

The beliefs and rites of the Yezidi Kurds are strictly clandestine; no one who is not born a Yezidi can have access to them. The Yezidis recognize the existence of two principlesa good one, embodied in God, and an evil one, embodied in Malek-Tauz (represented as a peacock). They have cults associated with fire, the moon, trees, water, stones, and the sun. Malek-Tauz is depicted in the form of a bird standing on a high bronze or brass pedestal (senjag or sanjaq ). The founder of the sect of the Yezidis was Sheikh Adi, who lived in northern Mesopotamia (Iraq) in the twelfth century. His temple is located 70 kilometers from the city of Mosul. The Yezidis have their own sacred books, written in the thirteenth century: the Kitabe Jilva (Book of the Revelation) contains the essence of Yezidi dogma, and the Maskhafe Resh (Black Book) sets forth the legend of Yezid, son of Moawiya, and the various rites and customs.

Arts. The Kurdish nation is justifiably proud of its extremely rich oral literaturepoems, tales, songs, proverbs, and legends, many of which have achieved popularity among other peoples (Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Persians, Turks, Arabs, and Assyrians). Kurdish folklore extols the moral beliefs of the people: reverence for elders (particularly women), hospitality, courage, valor, and the love of freedom. Among the most widespread Kurdish epics are "Mam i Zin," "Dïmdïm," and "Zambilfrosh." The creation of Kurdish alphabets led to the flowering of a written literature. Soviet Kurdish literature draws on the progressive traditions of an extremely rich folklore. Literature arose among the Soviet Kurds in the 1930s, particularly among the Kurds of Armenia. Kurdish writers (Vazire Nadri, Otare Sharo, Jardoe Genjo, and others) gave their people numerous creations (in verse and prose) telling of the tragic fate of the Kurdish nomads before the Soviet Revolution, of their life and traditions, and of popular education (especially among women). In the war years Kurdish literature focused on patriotic subjects, such as the destiny of the Kurds in the struggle with fascism. Soviet Kurdish literature continued to thrive in the postwar period. The works of poets and prose writers are permeated with themes about the homeland and the struggle of nations for peace (Jardoe Asad, Usve Bako, Kachakhe Murad, Miroe Asad, Mikaele Rashid, Karlene Chachan, Ferike Usv, etc.). Soviet Kurdish writers have been particularly concerned about the lives of their kin in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; about their courageous struggle for an independent Kurdistan ("the land of the Kurds"); and about the national-territorial rights of the many millions of Kurdish people.

Kurdish writers, forming a section of the Armenian writers' union, are giving their people a large number of literary works on national themes: family life, hospitality, courage, fortitude, and so on. In addition to literature in their language, the Kurds have a newspaper, Pia Taxe (The New Road), that first appeared in Erevan in 1928. Kurdish scholars are active in many areas, especially the study of Kurdish language, literature, and history within the Armenian Academy of Sciences. The Kurdish Cultural Center was formed in Moscow in 1989 for the further development of the culture of the Kurds. The center first published the newspaper Golos Kurda (The Kurdish Voice) in Russian and is also preparing publications on the language, literature, history, and ethnography of the Kurdish people.

See also Yezidis


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of The Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 208-215. London: KPI.

Aristova, T. F. (1966). Kurdy Zakavkaz'ia (The Transcaucasian Kurds). Moscow.

Aristova, T. F. (1980). Otrazhenie ètnicheskikh protsessov v traditsionno-bytovoi kul'ture kurdov Azerbaijana i Turkmenii" (The expression of ethnic processes in the traditional culture of the Kurds of Azerbaijan and Turkmenia). In Enicheskie protsessy u natsional'nykh grupp Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana (Ethnic processes among the national groups of Central Asia and Kazakhstan). Moscow.

Aristova, T. F. (1990). Material'naia kul'tura kurdov XIX-pervaia polovina XX v (The material culture of the Kurds in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries). Moscow.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, 209-213. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Musaelian, Z. S., ed. (1963). Bibliografiia po kurdovedeniiu (Bibliography of Kurdish studies). Moscow.

Ordikhane Jalil, and Jalile Jalil, eds. (1972). Kurdskie poslovitsy i pogovorki (Kurdish proverbs and sayings). Moscow.

Rudenko, M. (1974). "Novogodnie obriadovye prazdnestva u kurdov" (Traditional New Year's festivals among the Kurds). In Fol'klor i etnografiia: Obriady i obriadovyi fol'klor (Folklore and ethnography: Rites and ritual folklore). Leningrad.

T. F. ARISTOVA (Translated by David Testen)

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The Kurds have inhabited an area of rugged mountains and high plains at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for over two thousand years. They are believed to be descended from the Medes who overthrew Nineveh in 612 b.c. Their traditional mode of subsistence is pastoralism and agriculture.

The territory Kurds conceive of as Kurdistan ("the land of the Kurds") is distributed across the present borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. There are other pockets of Kurds living in these countries, but outside of Kurdistan. A large group of Kurds can also be found in contiguous parts of the former Soviet Union. The terrain of Kurdistan is formed by the Eastern Taurus and the Zagros mountains and includes the steppelike plateaus to the north and the foothills of the Mesopotamian plains to the southwest. The climate is prone to extreme temperature fluctuations, from -30° C in the winter, to 45° C during the summer. Some mountain villages are completely isolated by heavy snows for up to six months of the year.

Kurdish, an Indo-European language, is most closely related to Persian. It consists of four main dialects (northern, middle, and southern Kurmanji, and Gorani), which in turn include several local dialects.

Estimates of the number of Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the former USSR are unreliable owing to the census policies of the various countries. Estimates of the Kurdish population in the mid-1970s for all these countries combined ranged from 13.5 to 21 million.

History and Cultural Relations

The Kurds have a long and eventful history. The Greek historian Xenophon recounted his encounters with the "Karduchi" as early as 375 b.c. The Arabs who brought Islam to the area in the seventh century a.d. were the first to refer to "Kurds." Many important figures in the history of the Ottoman and Persian empires were Kurds, and the remote area inhabited by Kurds served as a buffer between empires. The Kurds have long fought for autonomy, either as self-governing provinces or as an independent nation-state.

This history has profoundly affected almost every aspect of Kurdish life and culture. Rapid social change has been occurring in the countries that divide Kurdistan, which affects the Kurds as well. The policies of the various governments have also had quite different kinds of impact on the Kurds. Whereas the Turkish government outlaws the use of the Kurdish language in public and the publication or possession of Kurdish writings or audio recordings, the Iraqi government allowed the use of Kurdish as the language of instruction for Kurdish schoolchildren during the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, the development of Kurdish literature prospered in Iraq but was severely hampered in Turkey. In addition to dialectal differences, written communication is further complicated by the use of the Latin, Arabic, and Cyrillic alphabets in the different countries. These examples illustrate the complexity of the situation and serve as a caution against overgeneralization.


Traditionally, Kurds were either nomads who lived in tent camps and moved their herds between summer and winter pasturage, or settled agriculturists who lived in villages on the plains or in mountain valleys. Today most Kurds have settled. Those who have not live in heavy, black woolen tents, which remain standing at the winter pasturage, and use lighter tents when traveling to and from summer pastures higher in the mountains. Camps may consist of an entire clan or of a group of families who join to herd their flocks together.

Kurdish villages consist of low clay or stone houses with flat roofs. They are often built up the sides of a slope such that the roof of one house serves as a terrace for the house above it. Some villages correspond to lineages, others contain members of several lineages or of both tribal and nontribal groups; many are not organized along any kind of kinship tie. Villages often own communal pasture land, and, in some villages, private property may be sold only to fellow villagers. Kurdistan also contains several urban centers where large landowners, professionals, government workers, and laborers reside.


The nomadic pastoralists raise sheep and goats and trade wool, meat, and dairy products for grain, tea, sugar, and other consumer products available through the local markets. Other domesticated animals include cattle, donkeys, mules, and horses.

In the agricultural villages, wheat, barley, and lentils are the staple crops. Tobacco is raised as a cash crop, and walnuts, fruits, and vegetables are cultivated according to local conditions. Most agriculturists also have livestock.

Domestic industry consists of spinning, weaving, plaiting ropes, and the production of unglazed clay storage vessels.

The distribution of labor is based on the distinction between male and female tasks and that between peasants and aristocratic landowners. Women are responsible for milking and the processing of butter and cultured milk. In addition to preparing food, housekeeping, and child care, they collect firewood and manure for use as fuel, fetch water, clean grain, spin, weave, make cigarettes, harvest tobacco, carry the harvest to the threshing floor, and may help with plowing. Aristocratic women perform tasks within the home but have servants to do the work away from home, such as milking and fetching fuel.

Men plow, sow, and harvest, transport surplus grain to the town market, and make whatever purchases are needed at the market. Usually one shepard is employed to herd the flocks for the entire village. Traditionally, the agha (lineage, clan, or village leader), was responsible for the upkeep of a guest house in which visitors to the village were lodged and entertained and where village men met to discuss recent events. In return for this service, the agha was paid a tribute of approximately 10 percent of the villagers' harvest. Village guest houses are no longer as important as they once were. As the village leaders have moved away to the larger towns, the village guest houses have begun to disappear, and the men socialize instead at local tea houses.


Kurdish kin groups are based on patrilineal descent. Several generations of one man's descendants through the male line constitute a lineage. Several such lineages compose a clan. It is assumed that all members of a clan are related through a common male ancestor, but outside groups may attach themselves to a powerful tribe and, after several generations, be incorporated as full members into a clan and tribe. A tribe consists of several clans.

Kurdish kinship terminology does not distinguish between maternal and paternal grandparents. It does distinguish between father's and mother's brothers, and between their children. Father's sisters and mother's sisters, however, are categorized together, as are their children.

Marriage and Family

Kurdish marriages are arranged between the families of the bride and groom. Ideally, a man will marry his father's brother's daughter, to whom he has "first rights." The majority of Kurdish marriages in the 1960s were reported to be between the children of two brothers. This lineage endogamy "keeps the family together" but also weakens the ties between lineages, thus increasing the likelihood of conflict. If marriage to father's brother's child is not possible, the next best choice is one of the other cousins.

Marriage negotiations are first carried out between the women of the two families, and then finalized by the men when a marriage settlement is drawn up. It states the size of the bride-wealth and how it will be used. If the groom does not pay the agreed-upon bride-wealth or does not support and clothe her according to the standards of her own family, the bride has grounds for divorce. The only other way she may obtain divorce is by repayment in full of the bride-wealth, unless otherwise stipulated in the marriage settlement. The man may divorce his wife merely by renouncing her three times.

According to the Quran, a man may have up to four wives provided he can support them all and spends equal time with each; however, few men can afford even two wives. A childless marriage is the most common grounds for divorce or the taking of a second wife.

The wedding entails the fetching of the bride to the groom's home, where the new couple will live until they establish their own home. A Kurdish household thus consists of a man, his wife (or wives), children, and eventually daughters-in-law and grandchildren. In the case of polygyny, each wife may have her own section of the house, which she runs independently.

Inheritance from the father is divided equally between the sons. Daughters do not inherit.

Sociopolitical Organization

Tribal organization based on patrilineal descent is typical of Kurdish nomadic pastoralists. Pasturage is collectively held by the clan within the tribe's territory, and migrations are coordinated at the tribal level. Among the seminomads and in the sedentary villages, clans and lineages come into play only in response to conflict, often in the form of blood feuds; however, not all sedentary agriculturists are organized along kinship lines. A traditional distinction was made between tribal agriculturists, who owned the land they worked, and nontribal peasants, who were subservient to the landowning tribals. These peasants did not own the landthey were bound to it and "belonged" to the tribal leader who controlled it. They owed him their labor and/or a percentage of their crops. Thus, Kurdish society includes both tribal and feudal systems, with clan, lineage, or village leaders serving as feudal lords.

As most Kurds have settled and become agriculturists, and because of the impact of government policies such as land reforms, changes have occured in Kurdish social organization. Through his contacts with government authorities, the agha was able to register communal lands in his own name. Thus, whereas in some areas village membership includes the right to a plot of land, in others entire villages are owned by a single absentee landlord, for whom the villagers work as sharecroppers or wage laborers. The mechanization of agriculture has reduced the need for village labor, and villagers have sought wage employment in urban centers both within and outside Kurdistan. The following recent events have clearly also had a major impact on Kurdish social organization: the Iran-Iraq War, the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds, Iraq's gas-bombing of Kurdish towns and villages, the Gulf War and the resultant flight of Kurds to Iran and Turkey, and the establishement of a U.N.-enforced safe haven; however, the long-term consequences of these events remain to be determined.

Because of its rugged terrain, Kurdistan acted as a buffer area between a series of competing empires. Kurdish political organization is therefore best understood as a response to the state. Kurdish tribal leaders were able to increase their power vis-à-vis one another by leading warriors in the service of the various empires. Their loyalty to the state was rewarded with titles and the backing of the central government in local disputes. Other tribal chiefs could submit to this paramount chieftain or establish relations with the competing states. Eventually, confederations of tribes arose that were ruled by a single mir. These emirates encompassed large territories and were granted considerable autonomy. In the 1500s many of the Kurdish emirates were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. The mirs maintained local autonomy but were under the administration of regional governors who reported directly to the sultan. The emirates were abolished in the 1800s, and local rule reverted to several paramount chieftains.

In the 1900s government control penetrated further into the local level, and administrators dealt directly with the leaders of individual tribes and villages. Thus, Kurdish leaders are now found at the local level, and their influence is derived from personal attributes such as generosity, honor, and the ability to persuade and to deal with government officials. Tribal and lineage leadership is inherited, although there may be several contenders within the family, and other families may challenge and take over the position. Larger tribes generally choose their leader from a royal lineage, but different branches of the lineage may compete for the title. The shaykh (pl. shuyukh ) also plays an important role (see "Religion and Expressive Culture").

The Kurds have been much affected by the different national policies and are now engaged in a long-term effort to gain some form of self-rule. Demands range from local autonomy to the formation of a Kurdish nation-state. Political parties and demands, guerrilla forces, and support from foreign governments are all part of modern Kurdish politics.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Kurds converted to Islam in the seventh century a.d. Most Kurds are orthodox Sunni Muslims of the Shaft school; however, in southeastern and southern Kurdistan, some tribes are Shiite. Also found in southeastern Kurdistan is the Ahl-e Haqq sect, which, although based on Ismaili Shiism, is considered heretical by other Muslims. The Alawites (Alevis) of northwestern Kurdistan also practice an unorthodox form of Shiism. The majority of Alawites are Turks, but many are Kurds, some of whom speak the Zaza dialect. A syncretistic form of religion found only among the Kurds is the Yezidi sect. It is believed to be derived from Zorastrianism but influenced by Ismaili Shiism. Its practitioners have been referred to as devil worshipers and are subject to severe persecution. In addition to Muslims, groups of Jews and Christians (Armenians, Assyrians, and Syriacs) have lived among the Kurds.

Sharia (Islamic law) was enforced in religious courts throughout the Ottoman Empire. With its fall and the secularization of the Turkish state, the only clerics left are the mullahs. They continue to provide religious instruction and lead religious ceremonies at the village level. Their prestige and influence are no longer guaranteed, however, but is based upon their personal integrity and wisdom.

In addition to the clerics and the shuyukh, there are those who maintain that they are descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. Many of them are poor, living on a claim to financial support on the basis of their descent; some serve as itinerate peddlers of religious amulets and as soothsayers. They are accorded little respect unless they are also wealthy or powerful; in this case, their descent increases the prestige they have obtained through other channels.

The shuyukh obtain prestige and power as holy men and leaders of religious brotherhoods (Sufi or Dervish orders). After receiving instruction in the religious order, a man may be declared a shaykh by an already established shaykh. A shaykh's ability to perform miracles serves as proof that he is indeed a "favorite of God." This ability is believed to continue after death, giving rise to pilgrimages to the tombs of powerful shuyukh. Before the emergence of modern political parties, Dervish orders in Kurdistanthe Qadiri and the Nagshibandi brotherhoodsprovided a basis for a level of organization wider than the tribe but independent of the state (van Bruinessen 1992, 210). For this reason, shuyukh performed an important function as mediators after the destruction of the emirates. They have thus been able to gain substantial power as leaders, especially in areas where tribal organization dominated and blood feuds prevailed.

In addition to the observances of the Islamic calendar, Kurds celebrate events of the pastoral seasons, which provide occasions for the strengthening of social bonds and negotiation of marriages. The Kurdish new-year celebration, Newroz, takes place on 21 March and commemorates the people's rebellion against a cruel and unjust king, and the return of light. Fires are lit on mountaintops and in villages, and a feast is held, followed by a ceremony mourning the dead. The Kurds consider Newroz their "national holiday," which they claim to have celebrated for over 2,500 years.

The Kurds are renowned for the rich colors and intricate designs of their wool rugs. These continue to fetch high prices on the international market but are sold by traders in urban centers far from Kurdistan.

The Kurds also have a rich oral tradition. Professional troubadours traveled from place to place recounting legends and singing ballads and epic tales. The art of storytelling was much appreciated until the radio and increased literacy began to compete. Kurds have therefore begun to write down their oral legends and songs in an effort to preserve them. Kurdish written literature consists predominately of classical poetry dating from as far back as a.d. 1200. After the division of the Ottoman Empire, the new nation-states restricted or forbade the publication of Kurdish literature. Only in Iraq could it continue to develop freely. Kurdish exiles in Europe are now attempting to further the analysis and development of their literature.

The Kurds maintain that to be a Kurd is "to look Death in the eye" because expressing and passing on their culture has often entailed breaking laws and engaging in armed resistance. As agonizing as was the plight of Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the Gulf War, it was merely another chapter in the ongoing Kurdish struggle for self-rule in the face of the repression and violence employed by the various national governments to assimilate and/or control them. Men speak of having many children to ensure that some Kurds survive the violence to carry on the culture.

Kurdish funerals occur immediately after death. The corpse is washed by a member of the same sex, wrapped in white cotton, and covered with a prayer rug. It is carried to the mosque, where a blessing is given, according to the Shafi rite. It is then buried, facing Mecca, stones marking the head and feet. Following a death, friends and relatives visit the family of the deceased, to pay their respects. While in mourning, a person will not make visits outside the home unless there is a death in the family.


Barth, Fredrik (1953). Principles of Social Organization in Southern Kurdistan. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Busby, Annette (1994). "Kurds: A Culture Straddling International Borders." In Portraits of Culture: Ethnographic Originals, edited by Melvin Ember, Carol Ember, and David Levinson. The Source One Custom Publishing Program. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Chaliand, Gerard (1980). People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan. London: Zed Press.

Entessar, Nader (1992). Kurdish Ethnonationalism. Boulder, Colo., and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Hansen, Henny Harald (1961). The Kurdish Woman's Life. Copenhagen: Nationalmuseets Skrifter.

Leach, Edmund R. (1940). Social and Economic Organization of the Rowanduz Kurds. Monographs in Social Anthropology, no.
3. London: School of Economies and Political Science.

McDowall, David (1992). The Kurds: A Nation Denied. London: Minority Rights Publications.

Olson, Robert (1989). The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism, 1880-1925. Austin: University of Texas Press.

van Bruinessen, Martin M. (1992). Agha, Shaikh, and State: The Political Structures of Kurdistan. London and Atlantic Heights, N.J.: Zed Press.


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LOCATION: Turkey; Iraq; Syria; Iran; Lebanon; Armenia; Azerbaijan; Germany

POPULATION: 522 million




Kurds have almost never had a country of their own. "Kurdistan" is the mountainous area where the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey meet. The average altitude is 6,000 feet (1,950 meters) and much of the land is inaccessible (difficult to reach). For most of their history Kurds have been a part of the Persian and Ottoman empires. (The Persian Empire became modern Iran. The Ottoman Empire became modern Turkey.)

From 1920 to 1923, an independent Kurdistan existed. In 1923, Kurdistan was divided between the two countries that are Iraq and Turkey today. Since then, the Kurds have been divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They have struggled to build an independent nation. Guerrilla fighters called peshmerga (one who faces death) fight to win territory for Kurdistan. The long years of war and hostility between Iran and Iraq have put the Kurds in a very difficult position. They have large communities in both countries and are constantly caught in the fighting between the two countries. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a radical group that campaigns for Kurdish independence. The PKK is a terrorist organization. Sometimes they resort to killing of civilians to further their cause. Because of this, many Kurds oppose them.


Population estimates for the Kurds range from 5 million to 22 million. More Kurds live in Turkey than anywhere else. They are the second-largest ethnic group in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. They are the third-largest group (after Azerbaijanis) in Iran. Kurds also live in Lebanon, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany, and other places across Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Although they live among them, Kurds are ethnically unrelated to Turks, Arabs, and Iranians.


The Kurdish language is related to Persian (or Farsi), the language spoken in Iran. Kurdish, like Persian, has also borrowed many words from the Arabic language. Until 1991, it was illegal to speak Kurdish in Turkey except at home. The skillful use of language is highly valued by Kurds. Cleverness and a command of poetry are considered important skills.

English Kurdish Pronunciation
bread nan NAHN
you tu TOO
friend yar YAHR
child zar ZAHR
water av AHV

Modern Kurdish names are mostly Arabic or Persian. The mother usually names her child. Kurds did not traditionally use surnames (last names), so most modern surnames are tribal designations or geographic locations.


Modern-day Kurds are descendants of ancient Indo-European peoples known as the Medes. They moved into the Middle East 4,000 years ago. The Muslim hero Saladin (Salah Ad-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, ad 113793) was a Kurd, as were many of his soldiers. Saladin became the sultan (king) of Egypt and Syria in 1174.

A well-known folktale, "Kawe the Blacksmith and Zohak," explains the origin of Nawruz, the Persian New Year celebration. According to the story, Zohak was an evil king who enslaved the Kurds. One year, on the first day of spring, Kawe the Blacksmith led the Kurds in a revolt against Zohak. They surrounded Zohak's palace, and Kawe charged past the guards. He grabbed Zohak by the neck with a powerful blacksmith's hand, and struck Zohak on the head with his hammer. The Kurds set bonfires on the mountaintops to announce their freedom from Zohak. The event is said to have taken place around 700 bc.


The Kurds at first resisted the Islamic invasion during the seventh century ad. They gave in after the Islamic victory near the modern-day Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya in ad 643. Most Kurds are now Sunni Muslims (a branch of Islam). About one-fifth are Shi'ite Muslims, most of whom live in Iran.

Many Kurds belong to Sufi (Islam mystic) brotherhoods. They meet to chant and dance together to worship Allah. The Sufi brotherhoods are very important in Kurdish village life. There are about 1 million Kurdish 'Alawis (a secretive faith based on and distinct from Islam) in Turkey, and 40,000 to 70,000 Yazidis mostly in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yazidism is a small religion that combines aspects of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. A very few Kurds are Christian.


The most important Kurdish holiday is the Nawruz, or Persian New Year. It is celebrated at the time of the spring equinox, or first day of spring (March 21). There are special foods, fireworks, dancing, singing, and poetry recitations. Spring flowers (such as tulips, hyacinths, and pussy willows) are cut, new clothes are worn, and pottery is smashed for good luck. Families spend the day in the country, enjoying nature and the fresh growth of spring. During the thirteen days after Nawruz, families visit each other and visit the graves of dead relatives. Everyone tries to resolve any conflicts or misunderstandings that may be carried from the year before.

Even though most Kurds are longer nomads, they continue to celebrate important dates associated with that way of life. These include lambing time, celebration before moving the herds to summer pastures, shearing time, and the time of return to the village in the fall. Islamic holidays vary in importance among individual Kurds.


The greatest occasion for celebration in a Kurd's life is marriage. Kurds marry young, at about seventeen or eighteen. The bride is dressed in gold bracelets, earrings and necklaces, and a new dress and shoes. The highlight of the wedding is the public procession from the home of the bride to the home of the groom.

After they reach the groom's home, the veiled bride enters the house and sits quietly in a corner of the room while the guests feast and dance outside. In some areas, there are horse-riding displays.

Parents and relatives hold a feast for the birth of a child, especially the birth of a first son. Most boys are circumcised during the first week after birth. In some more traditional Kurdish communities, boys are circumcised at age ten, followed by a huge party.


The Kurds are very family oriented. Family lines are patriarhcaltraced along the father's ancestry. Marriage between first cousins is common. A man often marries the daughter of one of his father's brothers. This practice is common among many cultures.

Tribal leadership among the Kurds is inherited. However, local leaders are chosen for their personal qualities, including integrity, generosity, and skill at dealing with government officials.


Most Kurds live in small villages in remote mountain regions. A typical Kurdish house is made of mud-brick with a wooden roof. In the summer, Kurds sleep on the roof where it is cooler. Some homes have under-ground rooms to use in the winter to escape the cold. There is rarely indoor plumbing. Water is carried into the house in jars and cans from a central village well. There is no central heating.

The few remaining nomadic Kurds live in tents made of blackened hides. Extended family members cluster their tents together in small communities.

There are only a few Kurdish towns: Diyarbakir (a sort of capital for Kurds) and Van in Turkey; Erbil and Kirkuk in Iraq; and Mahabad in Iran.


Few Kurds marry non-Kurds. Couples may live with one or the other's family after marrying, but they have rooms of their own and separate housekeeping arrangements. Men and women both work in the fields, and boys and girls start helping at an early age.

Kurdish women were traditionally not veiled except during parts of the marriage ceremony. They freely associated with men in most gatherings. If there was no qualified male heir, a woman could become a tribal leader. Even today, living in countries with conservative Islamic governments, many Kurdish women fight alongside the men as peshmerga (guerilla fighters). More than 1,000 peshmerga are women. The radical Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) encourages freedom for women.


Traditionally, Kurdish women wore colorful skirts and blouses. Men wore baggy, colorful pants with a plain shirt having very full sleeves, which were tied at the elbow. Bright-colored vests and sashes (often red) were worn over the shirt. A man wore a blue silk turban on his head, and often completed his costume with a dagger worn at the waist. Traditionally, nomadic Kurdish men shaved their heads and wore long moustaches. Women wore bright, colorful, heavily embroidered clothing.

Traditional dress is becoming rare. Kurds generally dress like the people of the countries where they live. In Iran, women must wear a cloth covering their hair and clothes. In Turkey, on the other hand, the government has banned women from covering their hair in universities and public jobs. Women there are required to wear more Western-style clothing. In Iraq, men wear woolen coats and vests, checkered head-scarves, and baggy pants. Women wear the Muslim-style dress, often with baggy trousers underneath. The traditional Kurdish shoe, the klash, is a soft crocheted mocassin with a flexible sole.


Bulghur (cracked wheat) used to be the staple food for Kurds. Rice is becoming more popular. The Kurdish diet includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Cucumbers are especially common. In the valleys where grapes are grown, raisins and grape jam are common. Meat is only eaten on special occasions. The usual beverage is tea. Kurdish specialties include a type of wafer bread eaten for breakfast, and any kind of grain cooked in whey.

A recipe for a flatbread appears on the next page.


Nane Casoki
(Bulghur Bread)


  • 2 cups bulghur (cracked wheat)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 2 cups unbleached white flour


  1. Combine the bulghur, salt, and onion.
  2. Pour the boiling water over the mixture and let stand for 30 minutes.
  3. Put in a food processor and process for about 20 seconds.
  4. Add 1 cup of flour and process again until it is a smooth texture.
    (You can also work the flour in by hand, if you do not have a food processor.)
  5. Turn the mixture out onto a well-floured surface and knead it, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking, for about 3 to 4 minutes.
  6. Cover the dough and let it rest for at least 15 minutes, or up to 3 hours.
  7. Place a large baking sheet (or two small ones) on the bottom rack of the oven, leaving an inch of space between the sheet and the walls of the oven. Preheat the oven to 450°f.
  8. After the dough has rested, divide it into 8 pieces and flatten each piece on the well-floured surface.
  9. With a rolling pin, roll each piece of dough to a very thin round about 8 to 10 inches in diameter.
  10. Place the bread on the baking sheet and bake for 1½ to 2 minutes. Turn the bread over and bake for another minute, or until the bread begins to brown around the edges.

Note: For crispier bread, increase baking time until the bread is spotted with brown all over.

Wrap the baked bread in a clean kitchen towel to keep warm while rolling out and baking the rest of the dough. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 loaves.

Adapted from Alford, Jeffrey, and Naomi Duguid. Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker's Atlas. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995, p. 17576.


Schools are not widely available. When they are, classes are not taught in Kurdish, and so many children find school too difficult and drop out. The Kurdish literacy (the ability to read and write) rate is very low. Girls often do not attend school at all. Tradition holds that they are needed at home.


Kurdish culture has a rich oral tradition. Most popular are epic poems called lawj. These often tell of adventure in love or battle.

Kurdish literature first appeared in the seventh century ad. In 1596, Sharaf Khan, Emir of Bitlis, composed a history of the Kurds in Persian called the Sharafnama. Almost one hundred years later, in 1695, a great national epic called the Memozin was written in Kurdish by Ahmed Khani.

Traditional music is played on flute, drums, and the ut-ut (similar to a guitar). The music of Sivan Perwar, a Kurdish pop music performer, was banned in Turkey and Iraq in the 1980s, so he left the region to live and work in Sweden.


Most Kurds are farmers and sheep-and goat-herders. They sell products from their flocks such as leather, goat cheese, and wool. Women make carpets and cloth to sell at market. Some Kurds grow tobacco. Turkish Kurds grow cotton. A few mountain Kurds are still nomadic herders.

In towns, Kurds work as shopkeepers, plumbers, teachers, bankers, and so on. Kurds work as unskilled laborers in large Turkish cities, as well as in Baghdad and Mosul in Iraq, and Tehran in Iran. Some urban Kurds work as bricklayers, butchers, cattle dealers, and small traders. The oil fields in Turkey and Iraq have attracted many Kurdish workers in recent times. Those Kurds who are able to go abroad find a variety of jobs and send the money back home.


Popular sports include soccer, wrestling, hunting and shooting, and cirit, a traditional sport that involves throwing a javelin while mounted on horseback. Camel-and horse-racing are popular in rural areas.


Only men go out at night. They often sit at tea houses and cafes and play backgammon or dominoes. A favorite pastime is to listen to tapes or live singers at cafes. Singers have only recently been allowed to sing publicly in Kurdish.


Carpet-weaving is by far the most significant Kurdish folk art. Other crafts are embroidery, leather-working, and metal ornamentation. Kurds are especially known for copper-working.


The greatest problem for the Kurds is the unwillingness of the nations in which they live to give them cultural independence. Kurds do not currently want an independent state. They only wish to be allowed to maintain their own language and culture.

During the IranIraq War (198088), the government of Iraq engaged in genocide to stop the Kurds from fighting for Iran. Thousands of villages were destroyed and tens of thousands of Kurds were murdered and buried in mass graves. The Iraqi government also used nerve gas (purchased from European governments) against Kurdish civilians and Iranian troops. These horrible attacks killed thousands of civilians.

One of the worst massacres occurred in the Iraqi Kurd town of Halabja. The entire population of the town was killed. After the Persian Gulf War (1991), thousands more Kurds were forced into refugee camps. Some of these areas are now protected by the United Nations (UN).

Since 1991, the government of Turkey has attacked Kurdish civilian centers inside the UN-protected areas. Many thousands of Kurds have now fled to Iran. The government there is less hostile, but it has trouble supporting millions of refugees. To make matters worse, there is fighting even among Kurds. Two rival Kurdish groups have fought small wars over who truly represents the Kurdish people. Meanwhile, the Kurdish civilians continue to suffer.


Alford, Jeffrey, and Naomi Duguid. Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker's Atlas. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995.

Bulloch, John, and Harvey Morris. No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds. New York: Viking, 1992.

King, John. Kurds. New York: Thomson Learning, 1994.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: The Middle East and North Africa, 1st ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.


Embassy of Turkey, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Human Rights. The Kurds. [Online] Available, 1998.

Kurds. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Turkey. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Kurds (kûrds, kŏŏrds), a non-Arab Middle Eastern minority population that inhabits the region known as Kurdistan, an extensive plateau and mountain area, c.74,000 sq mi (191,660 sq km), in SW Asia, including parts of E Turkey, NE Iraq, and NW Iran and smaller sections of NE Syria and Armenia. The region lies astride the Zagros Mts. (Iran) and the eastern extension of the Taurus Mts. (Turkey) and extends in the south across the Mesopotamian plain and includes the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

As of the late 1990s, there were estimated to be more than 20 million Kurds, about half of them in Turkey, where, making up more than 20% of the population, they dwell mainly near the Iranian frontier around Lake Van and in the vicinity of Diyarbakir and Erzurum. The Kurds in Iran, who constitute some 10% of its people, live principally in Azerbaijan and Khorasan, with some in Fars. The Iraqi Kurds, about 23% of its population, live mostly in the vicinity of Dahuk (Dohuk), Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaimaniyah.

Ethnically close to the Iranians, the Kurds were traditionally nomadic herders but are now mostly seminomadic or sedentary. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Kurdish dialects belong to the northwestern branch of the Iranian languages. The Kurds have traditionally resisted subjugation by other nations. Despite their lack of political unity throughout history, the Kurds, as individuals and in small groups, have had a lasting impact on developments in SW Asia. Saladin, who gained fame during the Crusades, is perhaps the most famous of all Kurds.


Commonly identified with the ancient Corduene, which was inhabited by the Carduchi (mentioned in Xenophon), the Kurds were conquered by the Arabs in the 7th cent. The region was held by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th cent., by the Mongols from the 13th to 15th cent., and then by the Safavid and Ottoman Empires. Having been decimated by the Turks in the years between 1915 and 1918 and having struggled bitterly to free themselves from Ottoman rule, the Kurds were encouraged by the Turkish defeat in World War I and by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's plea for self-determination for non-Turkish nationalities in the empire. The Kurds brought their claims for independence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

The Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which liquidated the Ottoman Empire, provided for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state. Because of Turkey's military revival under Kemal Atatürk, however, the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which superseded Sèvres, failed to mention the creation of a Kurdish nation. Revolts by the Kurds of Turkey in 1925 and 1930 were forcibly quelled. In the late 1930s aerial bombardment, poison gas, and artillery shelling of Kurdish strongholds by the government resulted in the slaughter of many thousands of Turkey's Kurds. In the British mandate of Iraq, there were unsuccessful uprisings in 1919, 1923, and 1932. The Kurds in Iran also rebelled during the 1920s, and at the end of World War II a Soviet-backed Kurdish "republic" existed briefly.

With the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, the Kurds hoped for greater administration and development projects, which the new Ba'athist government failed to grant. Agitation among Iraq's Kurds for a unified and autonomous Kurdistan led in the 1960s to prolonged warfare between Iraqi troops and the Kurds under Mustafa al-Barzani. In 1970, Iraq finally promised local self-rule to the Kurds, with the city of Erbil as the capital of the Kurdish area. The Kurds refused to accept the terms of the agreement, however, contending that the president of Iraq would retain real authority and demanding that Kirkuk, an important oil center, be included in the autonomous Kurdish region.

In 1974 the Iraqi government sought to impose its plan for limited autonomy in Kurdistan. It was rejected by the Kurds, and heavy fighting erupted. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran (1979), the government there launched a murderous campaign against its Kurdish inhabitants as well as a program to assassinate Kurdish leaders. Iraqi attacks on the Kurds continued throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), culminating (1988) in poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages to quash resistance and in the rounding up and execution of male Kurds, all of which resulted in the killing of some 200,000 in that year alone.

With the end of the Persian Gulf War (1991), yet another Kurdish uprising against Iraqi rule was crushed by Iraqi forces; nearly 500,000 Kurds fled to the Iraq-Turkey border, and more than one million fled to Iran. Thousands of Kurds subsequently returned to their homes under UN protection. In 1992 the Kurds established an "autonomous region" in N Iraq and held a general election. However, the Kurds were split into two opposed groups, the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which engaged in sporadic warfare.

In 1999 the two groups agreed to end hostilities; control of the region was divided between them. Kurdish forces aided the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, joining with U.S. and British forces to seize the traditionally Kurdish cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Turkish fears of any attempt by Iraqi Kurds to proclaim their independence from Iraq—and thus revive the longstanding hopes of Turkish Kurds for independence (see below)—led Turkey to threaten to intervene in N Iraq. Although Kurds were given a limited veto over constitutional changes in the subsequent interim Iraqi constitution (2004), many Iraqi Shiites found this unacceptable. Kurdish leaders were wary, as a result, of political developments as the United States ceded sovereignty to a new Iraqi government. In 2004 the two main Iraqi Kurdish groups agreed to unify the administration of Iraq's Kurdish region, but that had not been achieved by Jan., 2006, when an additional unification agreement was signed; a single regional government was established in May, 2006. Subsequently, Kurds' attempts to establish control over Kirkuk and Kurdish areas outside the Kurdish region and to control oil resources in the Kurdish region have led to tensions with the central Iraqi government and with other Iraqi ethnic groups, but in late 2014 an agreement was reached with the Iraqi government to share revenue from oil under Kurdish control. In 2014 Kurdish forces took control of Kirkuk and some areas neighboring the Kurdish region when the army fled in the face of an offensive by the Sunni militant Islamic State (IS), and Kurdish forces, at times supported by U.S. and other nation's air forces, subsequently were engaged in difficult fighting with the IS.

In Turkey, where the government has long attempted to suppress Kurdish culture, fighting erupted in the mid-1980s, mainly in SE Turkey, between government forces and guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was established in 1984. The PKK has also engaged in terrorist attacks. In 1992 the Turkish government again mounted a concerted attack on its Kurdish minority, killing more than 20,000 and creating about two million refugees. In 1995 and 1997, Turkey waged military campaigns against PKK base camps in northern Iraq, and in 1999 it captured the guerrillas' leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who was subsequently condemned to death (later commuted to life imprisonment). The PKK announced in Feb., 2000, that they would end their attacks, but the arrest the same month of the Kurdish mayors of Diyarbakir and other towns on charges of aiding the rebels threatened to revive the unrest.

Reforms passed in 2002 and 2003 to facilitate Turkish entrance in the European Union included ending bans on private education in Kurdish and on giving children Kurdish names; also, emergency rule in SE Turkey was ended. However, in 2004, following Turkish actions against it, the PKK announced that it would end the cease-fire and resumed its attacks. In 2006 there was renewed fighting with Kurdish rebels and outbreaks of civil unrest involving Kurds; an offshoot of the PKK also mounted bomb attacks in a number of Turkish cities.

In 2006, and again in 2007 and 2009, the PKK unilaterally declared cease-fires, but Turkey rejected them, and fighting continued, at times spilling over into Iraq and threatening to become a wider war involving Iraqi Kurds. Beginning in Oct., 2007, Turkey launched a series of attacks into N Iraq, including a significant ground incursion in Feb., 2008. Some 40,000 people are thought to have died in Kurdish-Turkish fighting since the mid-1980s.

The legal Democratic Society party, which called for expanded rights for Kurds and autonomy for largely Kurdish SE Turkey, was the principal civilian Kurdish voice in Turkey, and in the most recent parliamentary elections (2007), it won 20 seats. In 2009, however, the party was banned by Turkey's constitutional court for allegedly having links with the PKK and some prominent members of the party were arrested, leading to increased tensions. The party's lawmakers regrouped as the Peace and Democracy party (BDP) in 2010, and candidates associated with the party won 36 seats in 2011.

Beginning in the latter half of 2011, however, there were increasing clashes with the PKK and the arrests of many BDP members and other Turkish Kurds, and in Oct., 2011, Turkey mounted its largest attack into N Iraq since 2008. The Turkish government and Ocalan held talks beginning in late 2012, which led to a PKK cease-fire in Mar., 2013. In May, Kurdish fighters began withdrawing to Iraq, but that halted in Sept., 2013, and Kurds complained about a lack of progress in adopting reforms. New reforms announced by Turkey's government later in September were criticized by Kurds as inadequate. Tensions increased in 2014 over the degree to which Turkey should support Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria that were under attack by the IS. In 2015 pro-Kurdish People's Democratic party won support from left-wing voters and won 80 seats in parliament.

There were also clashes between the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq in the 1990s and Kurdish unrest in Syria in 2004 and Syria and Iran in 2005. In 2007, Iran shelled Kurdish positions in Iraq in retaliation for Kurdish rebel operations in Iran. In the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, the Kurds there were not clearly aligned with the government or the rebels, seeking mainly instead to establish some sort of autonomy, but after the rise of the IS in Syria and Iraq in 2014 the Kurds found themselves engaged in intense fighting with the IS, notably at Kobani (Ayn al-Arab).


See G. Chaliand, ed., People without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (1980); R. Olson, The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion (1989); D. McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (1996).

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People of Aryan origin who live in an area that embraces the highlands of eastern Anatolia and the northwest Zagros Mountains.

Kurds have been living for millennia in the region they call Kurdistan, which is divided today among five countries: Turkey (15 million), Iraq (5 million), Iran (8 million), Syria (1.5 million), and the Caucasus of the former Soviet Armenia (500,000).


Scholars debate whether the Kurds originally belonged to a group of Iranian (Indo-Europeanspeaking) populations living around Lake Urmia who migrated westward during the seventh century b.c.e.; others emphasize the indigenous character of the Kurds living in the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges since antiquity. Clearly, they have always been seen by their neighbors as a people apart, as documented by the medieval geographer Abu Ishaq al-Farsi some thousand years ago.

Their history becomes clear after the conquest of Tikrit by Islam, when Caliph Omar's troops prevailed in 637 c.e. Arab chronicles detail Kurdish revolts against their successive masters; they also tell of the rise of Kurdish dynastiesthe Shahdids, the Hasanwayhids, and the Merwanids.

Playing upon the rivalry between the Ottoman Turks and the Iranians, the Kurds managed a measure of autonomy in the nineteenth century, and Amir Bedir Khan (18051870) ruled as the "un-crowned king of Kurdistan" over a large portion of Ottoman Kurdistan in the 1840s. After World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Kurdistan was apportioned to Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey (the Caucasus region had been within Russia since the beginning of the early 1800s). There were numerous Kurdish revolts led by religious or tribal leaders including Simko in Iran, Shaykh Mahmud Barzinji in Iraq, and Shaykh Said Piran in Turkey.

Kurdish Culture

Despite the influence of the neighboring cultures and the displacements of populations, and despite the campaigns of open or covert assimilation, Kurdish identity asserted itself by use of the Kurdish language, although the majority of the population is illiterate. Kurdish is not a dialect of Persian as some writers have claimed, but an Indo-European language of the western Indo-Iranian branch. Kurdish (or Kurdi) is characterized by a distinct grammar and syntax and by its own rich vocabulary.

Linguists working in France at the Paris-based Institut Kurde have been editing a dictionary of 50,000 words. There are three main Kurdish dialects: the Kurmandji, spoken in Turkey and in the northern part of Iraqi Kurdistan; the Sorani, used in Iran and in southern Iraqi Kurdistan; and the Zaza, also spoken in Turkey. Since the Kurdish people are subjected to national borders, the Kurdish language is written in three different types of characters: the Latin, or Roman, alphabet in Turkey and Syria; the Arabic alphabet in Iraq and Persia; and the Cyrillic alphabet in the former Soviet Union. Although, or because, Kurds are forbidden by many governments of the region to study their own language at school, they demonstrate a passion for their own idiom. There is a Kurdish proverb or saying for every situation, and daily life inspires popular songs (often about love and death, but also about war and hunting). Stirred by the feats of their leaders, poets have written epics that are memorized and transmitted from generation to generation; one of these is Ahmad Khani's Mem o Zin, the Kurdish Romeo and Juliet.


Most of the Kurds adhere to Sunni Islam, save for some districts of Turkey where they are Alevis and the southern part of Iranian Kurdistan where they are Shiʿa and Ahl-e Haqq (which, both in Turkey and in Iran, negatively affects their relationship to the Kurdish national movement). Sufism is traditionally very strong in Kurdistan. After the demise of the principal Kurdish feudal leaders, the Kurdish revolts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were led by religious shaykhs belonging to one or another of the great dervish orders, particularly the Qadiriyya order or the Naqshbandi.

Observing a tolerant Islam that is marked by holdovers from Zoroastrianism such as the celebration of the new year (Nowruz) on 21 March, Sunni Kurds have coexisted for centuries with a number of Kurdish minorities, including Yazidis, who live around Jabal Sinjar; Ahl-e Haqq in the region straddling the border between Iraq and Iran; Shiʿa in the Kermanshah region of Iran; Jews in Badinan, Iraq (until the 1950s) and Kermanshah Iran; and NestoriansChristian Assyrians, by far the largest group. This coexistence is mostly peaceful, but it has been marred by some conflicts that contributed to a negative opinion of the Kurds in the West. In 1846, Amir Badr Khan invaded the Nestorian districts, provoking a violent reaction in Europe and a punitive Ottoman expedition that led to his capture. At the end of the nineteenth century and during World War I, the Kurds participated in the Turks' mass killing of Armenians. In February 1918 Simko, the leader of the Kurdish revolt in Iran, assassinated the Mar Shamʿun, the Nestorian patriarchan act that was condemned by other Kurdish leaders such as the Barzani family.

Anthropology, Ethnography, Sociology

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Kurdish society was not very different from the Kurdistan depicted in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century European travelers' narratives: Feudal chiefs were living in castles in relative luxury while peasants lived in natural caves or in mud huts, cultivating wheat and barley, tobacco and rice; most Kurds were nomads or seminomads, spending the summers with their herds of sheep and goats in the mountains and migrating back with them to the lowlands in the winters. The big tribesthe Herki, the Jaf, and the Shikakwere known by their number of tents (1,600 tents for such a tribe, and so many guns for one tent). The Kurds lived outside the towns, which were inhabited mainly by Turkish soldiers, officials, and merchants, as well as by Jews, Armenians, and other Christian minorities.

There were a few historical cities that served as trade centers for many centuries. These included Diyarbakir, Sulaymaniyya, and Bitlis in Ottoman Kurdistan, and Kermanshah and Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan. In Kurdish villages land tenure was conservative, with aghas owning the landsometimes several villageson which the poor peasants were working and paying a rent of as much as half their annual crop. Traditional Kurdish society has been seriously eroded by the exploitation of petroleum in Kirkuk and by Saddam Hussein's wars in Iraqi Kurdistan; by the policy of systematic destruction of the tribal system by the Pahlavi shahs of Iran; and by Turkey's policy of repression and assimilation, in particular during the fifteen-year-long war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (19841999). Most Kurds live now in the villages and in the big cities of Kurdistan, although a number of them have looked for refuge in Istanbul, Tehran, Baghdad, or Western Europe, where the Kurdish diaspora (over half a million Kurds in Germany alone) has prompted calls for a political solution to the Kurdish issue.

see also alevi; diyarbakir; kurdish revolts; kurdistan; naqshbandi; qadiriyya order; shiʿism; sufism and the sufi orders; sulaymaniya; sunni islam; zoroastrianism.


Ghassemlou, Abdul Rahman. Kurdistan and the Kurds. Prague: Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, 1965.

McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds, 2d revised and updated edition. New York and London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

Olson, Robert. The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 18801925. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Van Bruinessen, Martin. Aghas, Shaikhs, and State. London: Zed Books, 1992.

chris kutschera

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The Kurds (or kurmandzh, as they call themselves) are a people of Indo-European origin who claim as their homeland (Kurdistan) the region encompassing the intersection of the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The name "Kurd" has been officially used only in the Soviet Union; the Turks call them Turkish Highlanders, while Iranians call them Persian Highlanders. Although the Kurdish diaspora throughout the world numbers 30 to 40 million, most Kurds live in the mountains and uplands of the above mentioned countries and number between 10 and 12 million.

The Kurds have never had their own sovereign country, but for a short period in the early 1920s a Kurdish autonomous region existed in Azerbaijan. Although most Kurds live in Turkey, Iran, Iraq,

and Syria, two types of Kurdish peoples lived in the Soviet Union before its collapse: the Balkano-Caucasian Caspian type of the European race akin to the Azerbaijanis, Tats, and Talysh (living in Transcaucasia), and the Central-Asian Kurds such as the Baluchis (living in Tajikistan). Most Muslims of the former Soviet Union resided in Central Asia, but some also lived on the USSR's western borders, as well as in Siberia and near the Chinese border. Ethnically Soviet Muslims included Turkic, Caucasian, and Iranian people. The Kurds, along with the Tats, Talysh, and Baluchis, are Iranian people. In Transcaucasia the Kurds live in enclaves among the main population: in Azerbaijan (in Lyaki, Kelbadjar, Kubatly, and Zangelan); in Armenia (in Aparan, Talin, and Echmiadzin); and in Georgia (scattered in the eastern parts). In Central Asia they lived in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan (along the Iranian border, as well as in Ashkhabad).

The Kurds of Caucasia and Central Asia were isolated for so long from their brethren in the Middle East that their development in the Soviet Union has diverged enough that some consider the Soviet Kurds to be a separate ethnic group. Kurdish is an Indo-European language belonging to the Northwestern Iranian branch and is divided into several dialects. The Kurds of Caucasia and Central Asia speak the kurmandzh dialect. Younger generations of Soviet Kurds in larger cities grew up bilingual, speaking Russian as well. In the main, the Kurds are followers of Islam. The Armenian Kurds are Sunnites, while the Central Asian and Azerbaijani Kurds are Shiite.

In the Russian Federation in the twenty-first century, Kurds are frequently the targets of ethnic violence. Skinheads, incited by Eduard Limonov (a right-wing author and journalist) and Alexander Barkashov (former head of the Russian National Unity Party who openly espouses Nazi beliefs) have assaulted Kurds, Yezids, Meskheti Turks, and other non-Russians, particularly those from the Caucasus. Racism has prevailed even among Russian officials, who have stated that non-Russian ethnic groups such as the Kurds can only be guests in the Krasnodar territory (in the Russian southwest), but not for long.

See also: caucasus; central asia; islam


Bulloch, John, and Harvey Morris. (1992). No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chaliand, Gerard. (1993). A People without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan. New York: Olive Branch Press.

Izady, Mehrdad R. (1992). The Kurds: A Concise Handbook. Washington DC: Crane Russak.

Kreyenbroek, Philip G. (1992). The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview. London: Routledge.

Randal, Jonathan C. (1997). After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Johanna Granville

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Kurds Predominantly rural Islamic population numbering some 18 million, who live in a disputed frontier area of sw Asia that they call Kurdistan. Traditionally nomadic herdsmen, they are mainly Sunni Muslims who speak an Iranian dialect. For 3000 years, they maintained a unique cultural tradition, although internal division and constant external invasion prevented them from uniting into one nation. In recent times, their main conflicts were with Iran and Iraq. After the Iran-Iraq War (1988), Iraq destroyed many Kurdish villages and their inhabitants. The Iraqi response to a Kurdish revolt after the Gulf War caused 1.5 million Kurds to flee to Iran and Turkey. In 1996, Iraqi troops invaded the region and captured the Kurdish city of Irbil. The USA responded by launching cruise missiles at Iraqi military installations. Currently about 8 million Kurds live in e Turkey, 6 million in Iran, 4 million in n Iraq, 500,000 in Syria, and 100,000 in Azerbaijan and Armenia.

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