The History and Culture of the Kurds

Qobhana Madrasa in Amedi, Kurdistan / Photo by Levi Clancy, Wikimedia Commons


Kurdish history is deeply intertwined with the geography and the politics of the modern Kurdish regions.

Historic Ethnicities of Kurdistan

The contiguous Kurdish regions of IranIraqTurkey, and Syria sit in the north central area of the Middle East. Over the millennia, numerous ethnicities have migrated, settled or natively inhabited the area including Turks, Persians, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Chechens, Azeris and others.

From the beginning of recorded history until the present day, all of these ethnic groups have strived politically and violently both offensively and defensively for a secure homeland. As one of the crossroads of the Middle East, Kurdistan has been home to both ethnic battlegrounds, as well as peaceful ethnic coexistence.

Conquerors in the Kurdish Region

The Kurdish region has seen a long list of invaders and conquerors: Ancient Persians from the east, Alexander the Great from the west, Muslim Arabs in the 7th Century from the south, Seljuk Turks in the 11th Century from the east, the Mongols in the 13th Century from the east, medieval Persians from the east and the Ottoman Turks from the north in the 16th Century and most recently, the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“No Friends but the Mountains”

Fortunately for the Kurds, they have been able to retreat into the mountains for sanctuary. This protection is what saved the Kurds from destruction and allowed them to survive as a distinct ethnic group. Their traditional nomadic lifestyle and the inhospitable mountain homeland provide a natural means to evade marauding armies that would subject indigenous people to rape, murder and genocide.

Because the Kurds have remained a separate ethnic group, they’ve always sought autonomy and independence. These aspirations have resulted in almost continuous conflict and a history of repression, resiliency and reinvention in the face of existential threats by the Turks, Arabs and Iranians and their forebears.

Islamic Conquest of the Kurdish Region

The Kurds reinvented themselves as Muslims after the Arab invasion and conquest, as Sunni Muslims after the Ottoman Turks conquest, as Shiite Muslims after the Persian conquest, as Kurdish Nationalists in the aftermath of World War I and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, as political revolutionaries (Kurdish Workers Party – PKK) in Turkey and Iraq (Kurdistan Democratic Party – KDP) in the 1970’s, as freedom fighters (Peshmerga) in the 1990’s and as a unified secular, democratic Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that provides all basic civil rights to its citizens including equal rights to women, all ethnic groups and religions.

Kurdish History in the 20th Century

With the advent of the Twentieth Century, nationalist movements gained traction in the Middle East. The Turks, Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Armenians and Azeris were all advocating and fighting for national homelands after being subjugated by the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years.

During WWI, the British and French formed a secret agreement called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which concluded in May 1916. The agreement consisted of plans to carve up the Near and Middle East into nation-states and spheres of control to support their own colonial interest. The former provinces of Syria and Mesopotamia under the Ottoman Empire would be divided into five nation-states: Lebanon and Syria which would be under French control and Palestine, Jordan and Iraq including Mosul Province which would be under British control.

At the end of the War, the Treaty of Sevres was drafted to deal with the dissolution and partition of the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty bolstered Kurdish nationalists’ aspirations by providing for a referendum to decide the issue of the Kurdistan homeland.

The Treaty of Sevres was rejected by the new Turkish Republic, and a new treaty (The Treaty of Lausanne) was negotiated and signed in 1923. The Treaty of Lausanne annulled the Treaty of Sevres, giving control of the entire Anatolian peninsula to the new Turkish Republic including the Kurdistan homeland in Turkey. There was no provision in the new treaty for a referendum for Kurdish independence or autonomy. Kurdistan’s hopes for an autonomous region and independent state were dashed.

From the end of World War I to the Gulf War in 1990, the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria fought separate guerrilla campaigns to achieve autonomy. All of the campaigns were forcibly put down and the Kurdish people suffered greater repression each time.

Kurdistan after the Gulf War

After the Gulf War in 1990-1991 and the enforcement by the Americans of a no-fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan region, the Iraqi Kurds had autonomy. However, supply routes were blockaded by the Iraqis and the Kurds suffered great hardship.

In 1992, an alliance of political parties, the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, held parliamentary and presidential elections. As a result, the Iraqi Kurdistan Front established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a new autonomous Government of Kurdistan in Iraq.

The KRG is a secular government modeled along the lines of modern independent nation-state in a federation with the rest of Iraq. They have their own parliament, military (the “Peshmerga”), borders and foreign policy.

In 1994, a power-sharing arrangement between thePatriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) collapsed. This decay lead to civil war and two separate administrations. The first organization was formed in Erbil and the second in Suleimaniah. The Civil War continued for four years until 1998 when the PUK and KDP signed the Washington Agreement, concluding the war.

In 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq and the Peshmerga (the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan) joined in the fight to overthrow Saddam Hussein. After Hussein was driven from office, the Iraqis, in a national referendum, approved a new constitution. The new constitution recognized the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdistan Parliament.

In 2006, the PUK and KDP arranged to unify administrations under Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

What has proven to be the key in establishing independence for Kurdistan, but has been missing in Kurdistan’s quest for autonomy, is the support of a superpower. Other minority nation-states who have established their own nation-state in the region have done so with the support of a superpower: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan had the Soviet Union; Israel had Great Britain and the U.S.

Kurdistan Today

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest existential threat, now controls a large swath of land straddling the Iraq and Syrian borders. ISIS is attacking Kurdish cities in both Syria and Iraq. The Peshmerga is defending and attempting to retake cities which were previously under the control of the Kurds. The Peshmerga, which also includes women, has shown to be an effective fighting force, but have few resources against what appears to be a well-financed and growing ISIS army.

America supports Iraqi Kurdish autonomy and provides continuous direct military support in training and equipping Peshmerga as well as providing air strikes to destroy ISIS.

Kurdistan is a land-locked country dependent on its neighbors for access to markets for both supplies and to export oil – Kurdistan’s main economic resource. Given the history of the region and the geographic significance of Kurdistan as one of the crossroads of the Middle East, the potential for continued conflict is extremely high. If Kurdistan hopes to survive as an independent nation-state, it must prove to be strong enough to defend itself against the inevitable existential threats that will present itself and establish peaceful relationships with its neighbors despite a history of conflict, distrust and grievances.


The Kurdish people are a heterogeneous ethnic group whose ethnic background comes from many regions including Iraqi Kurdistan, and parts of IranTurkey, and Syria. The Kurdish ethnic group includes many ancient ethnicities that have been absorbed into modern cultures including Iranian, Azerbaijani, Turkic and Arabic cultures. In this sense, the Kurdish culture shares commonalities with many other regional cultures, and celebrates a unique level of cultural equality and tolerance.

The Struggle for Kurdish Cultural Survival

In addition to political repression, the Kurds have also experienced cultural repression. In Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, there were extensive campaigns at forced assimilation. Kurds were forbidden to speak Kurdish in public, they had to change their names to local ethnic names if they wanted a job or to enroll their children in school. Their books, music and clothing were considered contraband and they had to hide them in their homes. If authorities searched their homes and found anything Kurdish, they could be imprisoned, and many were. In recent years, both Iran and Turkey have relaxed their systemic cultural repression, while Iraqi Kurds have achieved autonomy.

Kurdish Poetry and Song

Kurdish culture has a rich oral tradition. Most popular are epic poems called lawj, and they 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.

Dengbej refers to a musician who performs traditional Kurdish folk songs. The word ‘deng’ means voice and ‘bej’ means ‘to sing.’ Dengbej are best known for their “stran,” or song of mourning.

Traditional Kurdish instruments include the 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.

Kurdish Craft

Carpet-weaving is by far the most significant Kurdish folk art. Kurdish rugs and carpets use medallion patterns; however, far more popular are the all-over floral, Mina Khani motifs and the “jaff” geometric patterns. The beauty of Kurdish designs are enriched by high-chroma blues, greens, saffrons as well as terracotta and burnt orange hues made richer still by the lustrous wool used.

The traditional Kurdish rug uses Kurdish symbols. It is possible to read the dreams, wishes and hopes of the rug maker from the sequence of symbols used. It is this signification and communication both individually and grouped into Kurdish rug making Kurdish people study how meaning is constructed and understood by talking with the rug maker.

Other crafts are embroidery, leather-working, and metal ornamentation. Kurds are especially known for copper-working.

Kurdish Sports

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.

Originally published by The Kurdish Project under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.