Origin of the Kurds

The Kurds as an ethnicity within the Northwestern Iranian group enter the historical record at the end of the seventh century. First book related to origin of the Kurds, named Ansâb al-Akrâd (Ancestry of the Kurds) was published by Kurdish scientist Abū Ḥanīfa Dīnawarī in 847.

According to some scholars, the name Kurd predates the Islamic period, as a Middle Persian word for "nomad", and may ultimately be derived from an ancient toponym or tribal name, either that of the Cyrtii or of Corduene.[1] The name Kurds (Arabic Kurd, plural Akrad) is used throughout the medieval period, from the Islamic conquests, also as a generic term for Iranian nomadic tribes by the Arabs.


The term kurd is used in the 16th century by Sherefxan Bidlisi as encompassing four tribal groups, the Kurmanj, Lur, Kalhor and Guran, each of which speak a different dialect or language variation. Paul (2008) argues that this marks an incipient ethnogenesis of the Kurds as a coherent Northwestern Iranian group, as three out of these four groups can be identified as the ancestors of groups that at least partially identify as Kurdish today, while the Lurs are not a Kurdish group, and indeed do not belong to the Northwest Iranian but to the Southwestern Iranian linguistic phylum. Paul further notes that the first texts that identifiably are written in Kurdish appear during the same period.[2]

Predecessor groups

The Kurdish people are believed to be of heterogeneous origins[3][4] combining a number of earlier tribal or ethnic groups[5] including Lullubi,[6] Guti,[6] Cyrtians,[7] Carduchi.[8]

Some of them have also absorbed some elements from Semitic,[5][9][10][11][12] Turkic[13][14][15][16] and Armenian people.[5][17][18][19][20][21]

While various predecessor groups that may have contributed to Kurdish ethnogenesis are of intractable antiquity (the Gutians being a people of the Middle Bronze Age)[22] The emergence of the Kurds as speakers of an identifiably Northwestern Iranian language (viz. Kurdish) necessarily post-dates the unity of the Northwestern branch.

Map showing kingdoms of Corduene and Adiabene in the last centuries BC. The blue line shows the expedition and then retreat of the ten thousand through Corduene in 401 BC.
Further information: Name of the Kurds

19th-century scholars, such as George Rawlinson, identified Corduene and Carduchi with the modern Kurds, considering that Carduchi was the ancient lexical equivalent of "Kurdistan".[23][24][25] This view is supported by some recent academic sources which have considered Corduene as proto-Kurdish[26] or as equivalent to modern-day Kurdistan.[27]

There were numerous forms of this name, partly due to the difficulty of representing kh in Latin. The spelling Karduchoi is itself probably borrowed from Armenian, since the termination -choi represents the Armenian language plural suffix -kh.[28] It is speculated that Carduchi spoke an Old Iranian language.[29]

Jewish sources trace origins of people of Corduene to marriage of Jinns of King Solomon with 500 beautiful Jewish women.[30][31][32][33][34] The same legend was also used by the early Islamic authorities to explain origins of Kurds.

Gershevitch and Fisher consider the independent Kardouchoi or Carduchi as the ancestors of the Kurds, or at least the original nucleus of the Iranian-speaking people in what is now Kurdistan.[8]

The Medes have often been believed to be a starting point for Kurdish (as well as Baloch) ethnogesis. This would leave about a millennium of separate development between the collapse of the Median Empire and the first historical mention of the Kurds as an identifiable ethnic group.

The Median hypothesis was advanced by Vladimir Minorsky . I. Gershevitch who provided first "a piece of linguistic confirmation" of Minorsky's identification and then another "sociolinguistic" argument. Gernot Windfuhr (1975) identified Kurdish dialects as Parthian, albeit with a Median substratum.[35]

Median descent of the Kurds has found favour as a historical narrative among Kurds in the 20th century, so that identification of Kurds as Medes is now common in Kurdish nationalist sentiment, though some experts believe it is incorrect.

The hypothesis is not without its detractors, among them Martin van Bruinessen (2004).[36] Asatrian (2009) stated that "The Central Iranian dialects, and primarily those of the Kashan area in the first place, as well as the Azari dialects (otherwise called Southern Tati) are probably the only Iranian dialects, which can pretend to be the direct offshoots of Median ... In general, the relationship between Kurdish and Median are not closer than the affinities between the latter and other North Western dialects — Baluchi, Talishi, South Caspian, Zaza, Gurani, etc."[37]

Origin legends

Depiction of Noah's ark landing on the mountain top, from the North French Hebrew Miscellany (13th century)

There are multiple legends that detail the origins of the Kurds. One details the Kurds as being the descendants of King Solomon’s angelic servants (Djinn). These were sent to Europe to bring him five-hundred beautiful maidens, for the king's harem. However, when these had done so and returned to Israel the king had already died. As such, the Djinn settled in the mountains, married the women themselves, and their offspring came to be known as the Kurds.[38]

Additionally, in the legend of Newroz, an evil Assyrian king named Zahak, who had two snakes growing out of his shoulders, had conquered Iran, and terrorized its subjects; demanding daily sacrifices in the form of young men's brains. Unknowingly to Zahak, the cooks of the palace saved one of the men, and mixed the brains of the other with those of a sheep. The men that were saved were told to flee to the mountains. Hereafter, Kaveh the Blacksmith, who had already lost several of his children to Zahak, trained the men in the mountains, and stormed Zahak’s palace, severing the heads of the snakes and killing the tyrannical king. Kaveh was instilled as the new king, and his followers formed the beginning of the Kurdish people.[39][40]

In the writings of the Ottoman Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi, there's also a legend concerning the Kurds to be found. He states to have learned of this legend from a certain Mighdisî, an Armenian historian:

According to the chronicler Mighdisî, the first town to be built after Noah's Flood was the town of Judi, followed by the fortresses of Sinjar and Mifariqin. The town of Judi was ruled by Melik Kürdim of the Prophet Noah's community, a man who lived no less than 600 years and who travelled the length and width of Kurdistan. Coming to Mifariqin he liked its climate and settled there, begetting many children and descendants. He invented a language of his own, independent of Hebrew. It is neither Hebrew nor Arabic, Persian, Dari or Pahlavi; they still call it the language of Kürdim. So the Kurdish language, which was invented in Mifariqin and is now used throughout Kurdistan, owes its name to Melik Kürdim of the community of the Prophet Noah. Because Kurdistan is an endless stony stretch of mountains, there are no less than twelve varieties of Kurdish, differing from one another in pronunciation and vocabulary, so that they often have to use interpreters to understand one another's words.[41]

See also


  1. W. Adamec, Ludwig (2009). Historical Dictionary of Islam. Scarecrow Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-8108-6161-5.
  2. Ludwig Paul "HISTORY OF THE KURDISH LANGUAGE", Encyclopedia Iranica (2008) writes about the problem of attaining a coherent definition of "Kurdish language" within the Northwestern Iranian dialect continuum. There is no unambiguous evolution of Kurdish from Middle Iranian, as "from Old and Middle Iranian times, no predecessors of the Kurdish language are yet known; the extant Kurdish texts may be traced back to no earlier than the 16th century CE." Ludwig further states: "Linguistics itself, or dialectology, does not provide any general or straightforward definition of at which point a language becomes a dialect (or vice versa). To attain a fuller understanding of the difficulties and questions that are raised by the issue of the “Kurdish language,” it is therefore necessary to consider also non-linguistic factors."
  3. Izady, Mehrdad R (1992). "The Kurds: A concise handbook": 74. ISBN 978-0-8448-1727-9.
  4. M. Van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State, 373 pp., Zed Books, 1992. p.122:"The Kurds are undoubtedly of heterogeneous origins. Many people lived in what is now Kurdistan during the past millennia and almost all of the [sic?] them have disappeared as ethnic or linguistic groups.", p.117: "It is certainly not true that all tribes in Kurdistan have a common origin."
  5. 1 2 3 Excerpt 1: Bois, Th.; Minorsky, V.; Bois, Th.; Bois, Th.; MacKenzie, D. N.; Bois, Th. "Kurds, Kurdistan." Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C. E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W. P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2009. Brill Online "The Kurds, an Iranian people of the Near East, live at the junction of more or less laicised Turkey"..Excerpt 2: "The classification of the Kurds among the Iranian nations is based mainly on linguistic and historical data and does not prejudice the fact there is a complexity of ethnical elements incorporated in them" Excerpt 3: "We thus find that about the period of the Arab conquest a single ethnic term Kurd (plur. Akrād ) was beginning to be applied to an amalgamation of Iranian or iranicised tribes. Among the latter, some were autochthonous (the Ḳardū; the Tmorik̲h̲/Ṭamurāyē in the district of which Alḳī = Elk was the capital; the Χοθα̑ίται [= al-Ḵh̲uwayt̲h̲iyya] in the canton of Ḵh̲oyt of Sāsūn, the Orṭāyē [= al-Arṭān] in the bend of the Euphrates); some were Semites (cf. the popular genealogies of the Kurd tribes) and some probably Armenian (it is said that the Mamakān tribe is of Mamikonian origin)." Excerpt 4: "In the 20th century, the existence of an Iranian non-Kurdish element among the Kurds has been definitely established (the Gūrān-Zāzā group)."
  6. 1 2 Thomas Bois, The Kurds, 159 pp., 1966. (see p.10)
  7. Encyclopedia Iranica, "Carduchi" by M. Dandamayev
  8. 1 2 Ilya Gershevitch, William Bayne Fisher, The Cambridge History of Iran: The Median and Achamenian Periods, 964 pp., Cambridge University Press, 1985, ISBN 0-521-20091-1, ISBN 978-0-521-20091-2, (see footnote of p.257) Dandamaev considers Carduchi (who were from the upper Tigris near the Assyrian and Median borders) less likely than Cyrtians as ancestors of modern Kurds. Encyclopedia Iranica, "Carduchi" by M. Dandamayev Excerpt: "It has repeatedly been argued that the Carduchi were the ancestors of the Kurds, but the Cyrtii (Kurtioi) mentioned by Polybius, Livy, and Strabo (see MacKenzie, pp. 68–69) are more likely candidates." However according to McDowall, the term Cyrtii was first applied to Seleucid or Parthian mercenary slingers from Zagros, and it is not clear if it denoted a coherent linguistic or ethnic group. David McDowall, A modern history of the Kurds, 515 pp., I.B.Tauris, 2004, ISBN 1-85043-416-6, ISBN 978-1-85043-416-0 (see p.9)
  9. P.G. Kreyenbroek, S. Sperl, The Kurds: a contemporary overview, 272 pp., Routledge Publishers, 1991. p.11:"By the time of the Arab Muslim conquests of the seventh century AD, the ethnic term Kurd was being applied to an amalgam of Iranian and Iranicized tribes, some of which may have been indigenous Kardu, but many of which were of Semetic or other ethnic origin."
  10. D. McDowall, A modern history of the Kurds, 504 pp., I.B. Taris Publishers, 2004. p.9: "The Arab Rawadid tribe, which moved into Kurdistan at the beginning of the Abbasid era (750 CE) was considered to be Kurdish within 200 years, although its Arab origin was well known."
  11. John Limbert, The Origins and Appearance of the Kurds in Pre-Islamic Iran, Iranian Studies, Vol.1, No.2, Spring 1968, pp. 41–51. p.42: "Some Kurdish tribes have given themselves Arab origins-- Arab tribes would go to the mountains, mingle with foreigners, and forget their mother tongue. These Arab genealogies may have a factual basis when we consider that the Kurds are apparently not homogeneous, but an amalgam of various ethnic elements."
  12. W. Jwaideh, The Kurdish national movement: its origins and development, 419 pp., Syracuse University Press, 2006. p.11:"Despite the fact that the Kurds speak dialects akin to Persian, they are by no means a purely Iranian people", "The development of the Kurds Iranian character was at first slow and gradual process", "The Iranization of the Zagros and the Taurus mountain ranges was brought about by the appearance of the Medes, the Persians and other Iranian peoples."
  13. M. Van Bruinessen, The Ethnic Identity of the Kurds, pp. 613–621 in Ethnic groups in Republic of Turkey, ed. by P.A. Andrews and R. Benninghaus, 664 pp., Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1989. p.619:"Karakeçili tribe located in the southwest of Diyarbakir are kurdophone, but according to local tradition they were originally Turkmen from Western Anatolia, who had been settled in this region by Sultan Selim I after the Ottoman conquest. Their process of Kurdification must have been completed before the 18th century, for the descendants of a section of this tribe who moved to Haymana (south of Ankara) around that time also continue to speak Kurdish."
  14. S. Mutlu, Ethnic Kurds in Turkey, International Journal of Middle East Studies, pp. 517–541, Vol.28, No.4, 1996. p.519:"Some Turkish tribes living among Kurds, such as Karakeçili, Türkan and Beğdili also became Kurdish speakers."
  15. D. McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 515 pp., I.B. Tauris & Co., 2004. p.9: "There can be no doubt that at a later stage certain Arab and Turkoman tribes became Kurdish by culture."
  16. M. Leezenberg, Gorani Influence on Central Kurdish, Substratum or Prestige Borrowing?, Conference on Bilingualism in the Iranian World, Germany, 1992. "The Shabak as well as Zengana tribes are in fact descendants from the partly Turcoman shia tribes that migrated in the East of Ottoman empire and in Safavid Persia until the 17th century. Zengana traditionally lived southeast of Kirkuk and Khanaqin and they seem to have largely assimilated to their Sorani-speaking neighbors."
  17. D. McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, I.B. Tauris & Co., 2004. p. 12 "In the 1940s, a shrinking Armenian but Kurdish-speaking tribe with a tenuous grasp of Christian doctrine was noticed in central Kurdistan, where it was progressively merging with a Kurdish tribe."
  18. Martin Van Bruinessen, Genocide in Kurdistan?: The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion In Turkey (1937–38) and the Chemical War Against the Iraqi Kurds (1988) in Genocide: conceptual and historical dimensions, by George J. Andreopoulos, Scholarly Book Services Inc., 2002. p. 166 "Many of the Dersim Kurds are partly of Armenian descent- Dersim used to have a large Armenian population. Even well before the Armenian massacres(1915), many local Armenians voluntarily assimilated, becoming Alevi Kurds".
  19. Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: the ghulat sects, Syracuse University Press, 1987. p. 433 "One of the Kurdish tribes in the province of Sivas is possibly of Armenian origin. The Kizilbash Kurds retain certain Christian practices and sometimes call themselves Christians. There is evidence that some of the Kizilbash Kurds of Dersim came originally from Armenia".
  20. Edwin Munsell Bliss, Turkey and the Armenian atrocities, Meshag Publishers, California, 1982, p. 89 "Many of the Kurds of that section (Kharput) were originally of Armenian origin."
  21. Abbas-Ali Madih, The Kurds of Khorasan, Iran and the Caucasus, Vol.11, 2007. p. 14 "Even the presence of a certain Armenian ethnic element in the bulk of the Khorasani Kurds can not be totally excluded. In my field works, while identifying villages in the district of Chenaran (between Quchan and Mashad), for instance, I came across people who were claiming to be of Armenian origin." p. 15 "Even in a superficial skimming of the language of the Khorasani Kurds, a number of important borrowings from Armenian become apparent. In the phonological system of the Khorasani Kurmanji, the Armenian trace is also visible. Also, after winnowing, when the work on the thrashing-floor is over, some groups of the Khorasani Kurds draw a cross-sign on the grain heaps cleaned from the husk, thus rendering homage to an old tradition"
  22. According to J.P. Mallory, the original Gutians precede the arrival of Indo-Iranian peoples (of which the Kurds are one) by some 1500 years.Mallory, J.P. (1989), In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth, London: Thames & Hudson.
  23. Rawlinson, George, The Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 7, 1871. (copy at Project Gutenberg)
  24. J. G. Th. Grässe (1909) [1861]. "Gordyene". Orbis latinus; oder, Verzeichnis der wichtigsten lateinischen orts- und ländernamen (in German) (2nd ed.). Berlin: Schmidt. OCLC 1301238 http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/Graesse/orblatg.html#Gordyene |url= missing title (help) via Columbia University.
  25. Kurds. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-07
  26. Revue des études arméniennes, vol.21, 1988-1989, p.281, By Société des études armeniennes, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Published by Imprimerie nationale, P. Geuthner, 1989.
  27. A.D. Lee, The Role of Hostages in Roman Diplomacy with Sasanian Persia, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 40, No. 3 (1991), pp. 366-374 (see p.371)
  28. M.Th. Houtsma, E.J. Brill's first encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, ISBN 90-04-08265-4, see p.1133
  29. ref>M. Chahin, Before the Greeks, p. 109, James Clarke & Co., 1996, ISBN 0-7188-2950-6
  30. Baron Patrick Balfour Kinross, Within the Taurus: a journey in Asiatic Turkey, 1970, 191 pages, see p. 89
  31. George Smith, The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 167, 1954, sp. 228
  32. Peter Schäfer, Catherine Hezser, The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, Volume 3, Mohr Siebeck, 2002 – 486 pages, s p. 80
  33. Adolf Büchler, Studies in Jewish history, Oxford University Press, 1956, 279 pages, s p. 84
  34. Israel Abrahams, Adolf Büchler, The Foundations of Jewish life: three studies, Arno Press, 1973, 512 pages, s p. 84
  35. Windfuhr, Gernot (1975), “Isoglosses: A Sketch on Persians and Parthians, Kurds and Medes”, Monumentum H.S. Nyberg II (Acta Iranica-5), Leiden: 457–471
  36. Hakan Özoğlu, Kurdish notables and the Ottoman state: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties, and Shifting Boundaries, SUNY Press, 2004, p. 25.
  37. G. Asatrian, Prolegomena to the Study of the Kurds, Iran and the Caucasus, Vol. 13, pp. 1–58, 2009. (p. 21 )
  38. Kahn, M. (1980). Children of the Jinn: in Search of the Kurds and their Country. Michigan: Seaview Books, pp. xi.
  39. Masudi. Les Prairies d’Or. Trans. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille, 9 vols. Paris: La Société Asiatique, 1861.
  40. Özoglu, H. (2004). Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties, and Shifting Boundaries. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 30.
  41. Van Bruinessen, M. (2000). Kurdistan in the 16th and 17th centuries, as reflected in Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname. The Journal of Kurdish Studies, 3.1:1-11.
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