Ferdinand Hennerbichler explores the history of the Kurds from their origins to the present day
As the Kurd conflict has currently reached a new high point in world politics, wieninternational is presenting the book “Die Kurden” written by Ferdinand Hennerbichler, a member of its staff.
Kurds were not originally Iranians, even if they speak an Iranian language today, but an ethnic group in their own right descended from original inhabitants of the Middle East. Genetically they are most closely related to Jews.
This is the basic conclusion of the book “Die Kurden”, a comprehensive history of the Kurds from their beginnings until the present day – compulsory reading for all those who seek to fully understand the background to the long conflict involving the Kurdish people and particularly the critical stage it has reached at present. For experts at the RMIB Geoscience publishing company in the Netherlands it is the “most important new publication about the Kurds”. In international expert circles the work by Ferdinand Hennerbichler is being cited as a standard reference work on the subject.
About the bookAccording to recent genetic studies, Kurds are very closely related to Jews. Despite what many people believe, they were not Iranians, even if they speak an Iranian language today. There were Kurds in the regions they inhabit long before the oldest of the Indo-Iranians who live there today. Kurds originally spoke their own pre-Indo-European language and they did not adopt Iranian until the middle of the first millennium before the Christian era. Even the Iranian they speak today has very old roots (such as full ergativity) and is unique in having links with Basque. Basque is a living pre-Indo-European language, and the oldest Kurdish could therefore be as old as Basque, dating back to 2,500 years before the Christian era. Population geneticists have also discovered that Kurds are the descendants of the oldest Stone Age farmers in Kurdistan.
Their ancestors thus co-invented modern agriculture around 10,000 years before the Christian era and helped to develop and disseminate Indo-European languages. Moreover, leading international researchers such as Ariella Oppenheim, Almut Nebel and Marina Faerman in Israel have demonstrated that the closest genetic relatives of the Kurds are the Jews. Armenians are close relatives of both. All three ethnic groups belong to the original civilisations in the Middle East and Asia Minor.
Kurdish areas rich in oil and gas (left), Kurdish parliament in Iraq (right)
Name: The name Kurd goes back to the Sumerian word for mountains “kur” and means mountain dwellers. Kurdistan means Kurd land and has been used only since the 12th century. The oldest words for the land of the Kurds (such as Karda or Kurda) were in use 3,000 years before the Christian era. In the 2nd millennium BCE one of their kings was also called “Kurdish Hammurabi”. The original homelands of the Kurds are in the partially hard to access mountain regions of the Taurus and Zagros in south-east Anatolia, northern Mesopotamia and north-west Iran.
Population: There are no verifiable data as to the number of Kurds in the world today. Estimates range from 25 to over 35 million, making the Kurds the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. More than half of the Kurds live in Turkey, several million in northern Iraq and north-west Iran, and there are some hundred thousands in Syria and the Caucasus states. In Europe there are more than a million Kurds and Austria has around 150,000, where they are regarded as being well integrated.
Religion: The Kurds are not militant religious fanatics. Most of them are Sunnite Muslims, and there is also a small minority of Shiites. For the most part they were forced to convert to Islam in the early Middle Ages. There are also various syncretic religions among the Kurds, beliefs that reconcile the contents of different religions. Some of them go back to archaic sun worshippers and Zoroastrianism, which is regarded as the precursor of monotheism. In the first century Kurdistan played an important role in the spread of Christianity in the Middle East. The oldest Christians formed their original communities and churches above all in the region around Arbil, the present-day Kurdish capital, in northern Iraq and into Iran.
Iraqi Kurdish victims of poison gas attacks in camps in Turkey in the 1980s
Kurds gassed decades ago by the British and TurksMany people might not know that when the Kurds were gassed by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s it wasn’t the first time they had suffered that fate. Shortly before the death of Mustafa Kemal (1881–1938), founder of republican Turkey, the Turkish army used poisonous gas against the Kurdish rebels in the mountain region of Dersim in eastern Anatolia in the late 1930s, despite the fact that Turkey had signed the Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons following the deaths caused by poisonous gas in the First World War. And in the 1920s in Iraq, 65 years before Saddam Hussein, the British used poisonous gas against rebels. They were acting at the time as the world custodians in present-day Iraq, then still called Mesopotamia, and had a League of Nations mandate for their acts. They promised freedom for Mesopotamia but in reality they put it under the yoke of the new state of Iraq, which was cobbled together in London from Shiite regions in the south, Sunnite regions in the centre and Kurdish regions in the north.
The guiding personality in Great Britain at that time was Winston Churchill (1874-1965), initially Minister of War and then Colonial Secretary. Literally the entire population of the new Iraq, Schiite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds alike, rebelled repeatedly in the 1920s against the British colonisation plans and were bloodily put down on several occasions, in some cases with the use of poisonous gas. It was certainly used against rebel Arabs, but whether Kurds were also victims is still in dispute today. There are witnesses that claim that it was the case. In northern Iraq the Kurds were nevertheless able to achieve limited independence, at least for a time.
A typical Kurdish village in the Zagros mountains in the border region between Iran and Iraq
Genocide in TurkeyThe Kurds were not so successful in Turkey. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the Treaty of Sèvres provided for a mini-state in south-east Turkey, which was to be united on the basis of a free referendum with the Kurdish territory in northern Mesopotamia to form a larger Kurdish state. It never came about. The Treaty of Sèvres was not ratified and never entered into force. It was the victim of the new situation that Mustafa Kemal and his republican troops created on the battlefield.
Mustafa Kemal had originally promised the Kurds equal treatment and limited independence if they helped him to free Turkey from foreign troops. The Kurds helped him, conquering cities like Urfa, but were subsequently abandoned and their rebellions were brutally quashed. Turkey prohibited a Kurdish national identity and made it a punishable offence, which it remains today. The Swiss historian Hans-Lukas Kieser speaks of Kurdish genocide in Turkey. It is only in recent times, with the prospect of Turkey’s accession to the EU, that the anti-Kurdish laws have been relaxed. After negotiations have repeatedly stalled, the Kurd conflict is escalating again in Turkey and its impact is being felt as far as Austria.