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Kurds (kûrds, ko͝ords), 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 2010s, there were estimated to be more than 30 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 and about one quarter of all Kurds, live principally in Azerbaijan and Khorasan, with some in Fars. The Iraqi Kurds, about 15–20% of its population and about 20–25% of all Kurds, live mostly in the vicinity of Dahuk (Dohuk), Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaimaniyah. Syrian and Armenian Kurdish populations are a small portion of the total Kurdish population, but in Syria Kurds are as much as 10% of the national population.

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, but in Iraq there is a significant Yazidi minority. 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 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 and formal autonomous region was established in May, 2006.

Subsequent Kurdish 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). Kurdish forces, at times supported by U.S. and other nations' air forces, subsequently were engaged in combat with IS, and further expanded the area under their control. In a nonbinding 2017 referendum, declared illegal by Iraq, Kurds voted for independence; subsequently Iraqi forces seized Kirkuk and Kurdish-held areas outside the Kurdish region and took other measures against the Kurdish government. Relations between the region and Baghdad improved in 2018.

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.

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 2007 parliamentary elections 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 IS. In 2015 the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic party (HDP) won support from left-wing voters and won 80 seats in parliament. In July, 2015, after months of increasing tensions, the PKK and other Kurdish militias ended the cease-fire, leading to a surge in violence between government and Kurdish forces and a major government offensive in SE Turkey. The conflict, which involved the worst Turkish-Kurdish fighting since the 1990s, continued into 2016 and at time involved Turkish air strikes against N Iraq. Many HDP politicians, especially mayors, were arrested by the government, and government moves against the HDP escalated in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, as President Erdoğan appeared to use the coup in an attempt to solidify his power. Subsequently, sporadic Kurdish attacks and Turkish operations, at times in N Iraq, continued. In the early elections of 2018 the HDP won 67 seats in parliament. Some 40,000 people are thought to have died in Kurdish-Turkish fighting since the mid-1980s.

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 IS in Syria and Iraq in 2014 the Kurds found themselves engaged in intense fighting with IS, notably at Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). U.S.-supported Kurdish forces subsequently made significant advances against IS in both Syria and Iraq. Syrian Kurds at times found themselves attacked by Turkey (which denounced them as a PKK offshoot) as they moved against IS and other militant Islamic groups in N Syria, and in early 2018 Turkish forces and their Syrian Arab allies seized the Afrin enclave, a part of NW Syria that Kurds had controlled since 2012. Nonetheless, by early 2019 Syrian Kurdish forces had ousted IS forces from the territory it had held E of the Euphrates, which represented roughly a quarter of Syria; dispersed IS fighters, however, continued to mount attacks. In Oct., 2019, Turkish forces mounted attacks on Kurdish positions along the E Syria-Turkey border after the United States withdrew its forces stationed there with the Kurds; a Russian-Turkish agreement then called for Kurdish forces to be withdrawn from with 18 mi (30 km) of Turkey's border. There also was renewed fighting between Kurdish rebels and Iranian government forces in 2016.


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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(self-designation, Kurd, Kurmanj), one of the ancient peoples of Southwest Asia. Their ethnic origin and history have been inadequately studied. They live mainly in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, in the area known as Kurdistan, as well as in several other countries. According to various estimates, they numbered between 7.5 and 12 million persons in 1971. They speak Kurdish. Most are Sunni Muslims, with a smaller number adhering to Shi’ism. Others belong to various sects, such as the Yezidis and Ali-Illahis, or Ahl-i Haqq.

The Kurdish tribal unions and feudal principalities that existed in Kurdistan were nominally subject to the dynasties ruling in Iran and the Ottoman state. The efforts of the ruling circles of these states and, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, of Turkey and Iran to deprive the Kurds of all rights and assimilate them, caused numerous rebellions. The Kurds’ struggle intensified after World War II. In Iraq their right to national autonomy was recognized in 1970.

The Kurds’ social system is marked by the dissolution of feudal ties and the development of capitalist relationships. A working class is arising in the oil, transport, and other industries, as well as a bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, certain groups of Kurds retain vestiges of the tribal social system. The Kurds’ chief occupations are agriculture (cereal crops, fruit, and tobacco) and seminomadic herding. Crafts are well developed. The Kurds have a rich and unique culture in folklore, literature, and art.

In the 19th century, in accordance with the Gulistan Treaty of 1813, the Turkmanchai Treaty of 1828, and the Berlin Congress of 1878, some Kurds became Russian subjects. In the USSR the Kurds live primarily in Transcaucasia and to a lesser extent in Middle Asia and Kazakhstan (89,000 persons, 1970 census). They have had an opportunity to develop all aspects of their national culture, and, together with the other peoples of the USSR, they participate actively in communist construction. They are employed chiefly in agriculture, although some work in industry. A national intelligentsia has emerged. Various publications are issued in Kurdish, including the newspaper Ria Taza in Armenia, and radio programs are broadcast in Kurdish. There are centers for the study of Kurdish history and culture in Leningrad, Yerevan, and other cities.

Literature. The history of Kurdish literature has received inadequate attention, and many works have not been studied. The works of some medieval poets have not yet been dated precisely. Medieval literature (11th through 18th centuries) developed in the Kirmanji dialect in the Kurdish feudal principalities of Bohtan, Hakari, Bahdinan, and Bitlis (Turkish Kurdistan). Kurdish folklore is rich, varied in genre, and poetic. Written literature continually drew upon the treasury of folklore.

One of the earliest Kurdish poets was Ali Hariri (c. 11th century), who composed a divan of lyric poems written in colorful vernacular. The narrative poems A Single Word, Sons of the Fatherland, In Truth, Life Is a Dream, and The Ruby Necklace are ascribed to Ali Termuki, or Teremahi (10th-11th centuries). The 12th-century Sufi poet Mala-i-Jizri left a large divan of lyric poetry combining the meters of aruz with the forms of Kurdish folk poetry. Of the urban literature that appeared in the 15th century only the narrative poem The Basket Seller, attributed to Mala Bata (1417–94), has survived. The poem, based on a legend, contains elements of protest against social oppression.

The name of the folk singer, poet-philosopher, and lyric poet Faqih Teiran (14th or 16th century) has become legendary. The cycle Faqie Teira, which at first included only his verses, was later encrusted with imitations and verses about the poet, regarded as a defender of the people and champion of their welfare. The 16th-century poet Selim Sleman wrote the Kurdish version of the epic Yusuf and Zulayka. The 17th-century poet Ahmad-e Khani introduced ideas of the Enlightenment and strove to portray reality. He wrote the narrative poem Mem and Zin and the poetic Arabic-Kurdish dictionary Neu behar. The folk epic Dimdim Fortress treats the theme of the common people as the champions of independence.

By the early 17th century another literary center arose in Iranian Kurdistan at the court of the rulers of the Kurdish principality of Ardelan. The most outstanding poets of this group were Sheik Ahmad Tahti (1640-?), Mustafa Besarani (1641–1702), Mala Tahir Avromani, and Muhammad Kuli Sleman. Their works are written in the Gorani dialect and show the influence of Sufism.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the decline of Kurdish literature. It abandoned folk traditions and became the property of a narrow circle of Sufi court poets. The literary center shifted to northern Iraq, and the southern dialects of Sorani and Murki became the literary language. In the literature of this period religious-mystical, lyrical, and patriotic trends coexist. Patriotic themes were further developed in modern democratic poetry in the work of Nali (1797–1855), Kurdi (1809–49), Selim (1800–66) and Haji Qadir of Koi (1815–92), fighter and bard of Kurdish uprisings and the founder of Kurdish democratic poetry. His verses resound with an appeal for national consciousness, unity, and the national-liberation struggle.

In the early 1920’s a modern Kurdish literature began to develop under the influence of the national-liberation struggle. An appeal for resistance to national oppression animates the poetry of Ahmad Mukhtar Jaf beg (1897–1935), Tahir beg (1875–1917), Ahmad Hamdi beg (1876–1936), Ziwar (1875–1948), Piramerd (1867–1950), and Faik Bekas (1905–48).

The Great October Socialist Revolution and Soviet poetry had a great impact on modern Kurdish literature. Among modern poets who champion civil and national rights, peace, and democracy, the best known are Sexmus Jagarkhun (born 1903), Abdullah Sleman Goran (1904–62), Osman Sabri (born 1906), Hadrijan Hazhar (born 1920), and Dilzar (born 1928). Prose developed between the 1940’s and 1960’s, represented by the realists Shakir Fattah, Ibrahim Ahmad (born 1912), Muhammad Amin (born 1921), and Marouf Barzinji (born 1921).

In the USSR Kurdish literature arose after the October Revolution of 1917, chiefly in the Armenian SSR. In 1931 the autobiographical novella of Arab Shamilov (born 1897), Kurdish Shepherd, was published in Russian (the Kurdish version appeared in 1935). Shamilov’s other works include the novels Dawn (1958) and A Happy Life (1959).

In the 1930’s the anthologies First Works (1932), Kurdish Writers (1934), and The Third Book (1935) were published. Many books by Kurdish writers appeared in 1935, including Spring, a book of verse by Amine Avdal (1906–64), Nubar by Vazire Nadri (1911–46), and Otare Sharo’s First Radiance. Among noteworthy short story writers of the prewar years were Adzhie Dzhindi (born 1908) and Dzhardoe Gendzho (1904–45).

The works of Kurdish writers written during the Great Patriotic War (1941–45) are imbued with Soviet patriotism and faith in victory over the enemy, for example, the narrative poems Nado and Gulizar by Nadri, Bako by Avdal, and Taiiar by Kachakhe Murad (born 1914).

In the postwar years Soviet Kurdish poetry gained prominence. Important collections include Kurdish Poems (1955), The Native Source (1957), and My Days (1960) by Dzhasme Dzhalila (born 1908); Poems (1957) and Two Worlds (1963) by Sharo; Lyric and Narrative Poems (1963) by Avdal; and Rainbow (1961) and My Dream (1963) by Usve Bako (born 1909).

An integral part of Soviet literature as a whole, Soviet Kurdish literature portrays contemporary reality. Soviet Kurdish writers also create works about the life of Kurds outside the Soviet Union and their national-liberation struggle, for example, Bako’s narrative poem Said (1954) and the novellas of Ali Avdlrakhman (born 1919).

Architecture and decorative and applied art. The summer dwelling of the Kurdish nomads is a tent made with several rows of poles covered by woolen material. In the mountainous regions of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (and in former times, Transcaucasia), the winter dwelling is a dugout, sometimes in the side of a mountain, or a semidugout with a domed stepped roof having a hole in the center to admit light and let out smoke. The roofbeams rest on posts, and the bolsters are often shaped and sometimes decorated with carving. Cave dwellings are found in some areas.

The houses of farmers in the plains regions and of urban Kurds are made of pisé, stone, unfired brick, or adobe, depending on the location. They are rectangular, one or two stories high, and usually flat-roofed. In rural settlements a shed, stable, storehouse, and other buildings are usually attached to the dwelling.

Several Kurdish religious monuments have been preserved, notably the 12th-century mosque in Laleash, near Mosul (Iraq)—a rectangular building with a hall divided by columns into two naves—and the square domed tombs of sheikhs. Distinctive tombstones in the form of stylized figures of horses, rams, lions, and other animals are found every where. Ruins of ancient fortifications have survived in Piruz and Shiwa, near Baneh (Iran).

In the Soviet Union the Kurds live in comfortable settlements with schools, hospitals, and other amenities. Urban-type houses, often two-storied, are being built of hewn rock, tuff, or, more rarely, sun-dried bricks.

Over the centuries the Kurds have developed various forms of decorative applied folk art: rug weaving, pottery, jewelry-making, engraving on copper utensils, and carving in wood and stone. The brightly colored Kurdish rugs with geometric or floral designs are especially famous. Frequently the rug patterns contain pictures of peacocks (religious symbol of the Yezidis), horns (symbol of herding), or spiders (symbol of rug weaving and the sun). The rugs, both pile and napless, usually have a pattern of repeated large medallions on the central field and an ornamental border. Striped palas rugs are also common. Other handicrafts include the production of felt material with geometric designs, patterned knitted stockings and socks, and woven woolen articles such as women’s belts and handbags.

Kurdish artisans in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and elsewhere produce engraved copper ware, gold-inlaid weapons, silver jewelry decorated with niello for women, and buckles and ornaments for belts and harnesses. Pipes, cigarette cases, chess pieces, and small benches are fashioned from wood. Embroidered silk wall hangings are produced in several areas. Glazed and unglazed ceramics are being developed around Van (Turkey) and Sanandaj (Iran) and in northern Iraq.


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