KURDS AND KURDISTAN: FACTS AND FIGURES
Land and Ecology:
The vast Kurdish homeland of about 230,000 square miles is about the areas of
Germany and Britain combined, or roughly equal to France or Texas. Kurdistan
consists basically of the mountainous areas of the central and northern
Zagros, the eastern one-third of the Taurus and Pontus, and the northern half
of the Amanus ranges. The symbiosis between the Kurds and their mountains has
been so strong that they have become synonymous: Kurds home ends where the
mountains end. Kurds as a distinct people have survived only when living in
the mountains. The highest points in the land now are respectively Mt. Alvand
of southern Kurdistan in Iran at 11,745 feet, Mt. Halgurd in central Kurdistan
in Iraq at 12,249 feet, Mt. Munzur at 12,600 feet in western Kurdistan and Mt.
Ararat at 16,946 feet in northern Kurdistan, both in Turkey.
There are also two large Kurdish enclaves in central and north central Anatolia
in Turkey and in the province of Khurasan in northeast Iran.
The mean annual precipitation is 60-80 inches per year in the central regions
and 20-40 inches on the descent to the lower elevations. Most precipitation is
in form of snow, which can fall for six months of the year, becoming the resource
for many great rivers, such as the Tigris and the Euphrates in an otherwise arid
Middle East. The overall mean annual temperature is 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit,
getting cooler as one ascends the central massifs.
The land, once almost totally forested, has been massively cleared, especially
in this century, with inevitable soil erosion and parched landscape. Contrary
to the heavy damage sustained by the woodlands, the pasture lands remain in
reasonably good condition and continue to be a productive to a nomadic herding
economy alongside the basic agriculture.
Despite its mountainous nature, Kurdistan has more arable land proportionately
than most Middle Eastern countries. Expansive river valleys create a fertile
lattice work in Kurdistan. This may well explain the fact that the very
invention of agriculture took place primarily in Kurdistan around 12,000 years
ago percipitating speedy domestication of almost all basic cereals and livestoks
in the region (with the notable exception of cows and rice).
Kurds are now predominantly of Mediterranean racial stock, resembling southern
Europeans and the Levantines in skin, general coloring and physiology. There is
yet a persistent recurrence of two racial substrata: a darker aboriginal Palaeo-
Caucasian element, and more localized occurrence of blondism of the Alpine type
in the heartland of Kurdistan. The "Aryanization" of the aboriginal Palaeo-
Caucasian Kurds, linguistically, culturally and racially, seems to have begun
by the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, with the continuous immigration and
settlement of Indio-European-speaking tribes, such as the Hittites, Mitannis,
Haigs, Medes, Persian, Scythians and Alans. The process was more or less
complete by the beginning of the Christian era, by which time the Kurds had
absorbed enough Iranic blood and culture, particularly Median and Alan, to form
the basis physical typology and cultural identity.
Since the end of World War I, Kurdistan has been administered by five sovereign
states, with the largest portions of the land being respectively in Turkey (43%)
, Iran (31%), Iraq (18%), Syria (6%) and the former Soviet Union (2%).
The Iranian Kurds have lived under that state's jurisdiction since 1514 and the
Battle of Chaldiran. The other three quarters of the Kurds lived in the Ottoman
Empire from that date until its break-up following WWI. The French Mandate
Syria received a piece, and the British incorporated central Kurdistan or the
"Mosul Vilayet" and its oil fields at Kirkukn into their recently created
Mandate of Iraq. Northern and western Kurdistan were to be given choice of
independence by the Thearty of Sevres (August 10, 1920) which dismantled the
defunc Ottoman Empire, but instead they were awarded to the newly established
Republic of Turkey under the term of the Treaty of Lausanne (June 24, 1923).
The Russian/Soviet Kurds had passed into their sphere in the course of the 19th
century when territories were ceded by Persia/Iran.
The Kurds remained the only ethnic group in the world with indigenous
representatives in three world geopolitical blocs: the Arab World (in Iraq and
Syria), NATO (in Turkey), the South Asian-Central Asian bloc (in Iran and
Turkmenistan), and until recently the Soviet bloc (in the Caucasus, now Armenia,
Azerbaijan and Georgia). As a matter fact, until the end of the Cold War, Kurds
along with the Germans were the only people in the world with their home
territories used as a front line of fire by both NATO and the Warsaw Pact
The most important single features of Kurdistan society since the end of
medieval times has been its strong tribal organization, with independence or
autonomy being the political status of the land. The society's process of
developing the next stage of societal convergence-and the creation of a
political culture of interset in a pan-Kurdish polity-was well under way in
Kurdistan when it was decisively aborted with the parcelling out of the country
at the end of the First World War. Tribal confederacies thus remain the highest
form of social organization, while the political process and the elite remain to
large degree tribal. Today, in the absence of a national Kurdish state and
government, tribes serve as the highest native source of authority in which
people place their allegiance.
Kurdish lands, rich in natural resources, have always sustained and promoted a
large population. While registering modest gains since the laye 19th century,
but particularly in the first decade of the 20th, Kurds lost demographic ground
relative to neighboring ethnic groups. This was due as much to their less
developed economy and health care system as it was to direct massacres,
deportations, famines, etc. The total number of Kurds actually decreased in
this period, while every other major ethnic group in the area boomed. Since
the middle of the 1960s this negative demographic trend has reversed, and
Kurds are steadily regaining the demographic position of importance that they
traditionally held, representing 15% of the overall population of the Middle
East in Asia--a phenomenon common since at least the 4th millennium BC.
Today Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, after the
Arabs, Persians and Turks. Their largest concentrations are now respectively in
Turkey (approx. 52% of all Kurds), Iran (25.5%), Iraq (16%), Syria (5%) and the
CIS (1.5%). Barring a catastrophe, Kurds will become the third most populous
ethnic group in the Middle East by the year 2000, displacing the Turks.
Furthermore, if present demographic trends hold, as they are likely to, in about
fifty years Kurds will also replace the Turks as the majority ethnic group in
There is now one Kurdish city with a population of nearly a million (Kirminshah)
, two with over half a million (Diyarbekir, Kirkuk), five between a quarter and
half a million (Antep, Arbil, Hamadan, Malatya, Sulaymania), and quarter of a
million people (Adiyaman, Dersim[Tunceli], Dohuk, Elazig[Kharput], Haymana,
Khanaqin, Mardin Qamishli, Qochan, Sanandaj, Shahabad, Siirt and Urfa).
Kurds are speakers of Kurdish, a member of the northwestern subdivision of the
Iranic branch of the Indo-Europian family of languages, which is akin to
Persian, and by extension to other Europian languages. It is fundamentally
different from Semetic Arabic and Altaic Turkish. Modern Kurdish divides into
two major groups: 1) the Kurmanji group and 2) the Dimili-Gurani group. These
are supplemented by scores of sub-dialects as well. The most popular vernacular
is that of Kurmanji (or Kirmancha), spoken by about three-quarters of the Kurds
today. Kurmanji divided into North Kurmanji (also called Bahdinani, with around
15 million speakers, primarily in Turkey, Syria, and the former Soviet Union)
and South Kurmanji (also called Sorani, with about 6 million speakers,
primarily in Iraq and Iran).
To the far north of Kurdistan along Kizil Irmak and Murat rivers in Turkey,
Dimili (less accurately but more commonly known as Zaza) dialect is spoken by
about 4 million Kurds. There are small pockets of this language spoken in
various croners of Anatolia, northern Iraq, northern Iran and the Caucasus as
In the far southern Kurdistan, both in Iraq and Iran, the Gurani dialect is
spoken by about 3 million Kurds. Gurani along with its two major subdivisions:
Laki and Awramani, merit special attention for its wealth of sacred and secular
literature stretching over a millennium.
In Iraq and Iran a modified version of the Perso-Arabic alphabet has been
adapted to South Kurmani (Sorani). The Kurds of Turkey have recently
an extensive campaign of publication in the North Kurmanji dialect of Kurmaji
(Bahdinani) from their publishing houses in Europe. these employed a
form of the Latin alphabet. The Kurds of the former Soviet Union first began
writing Kurdish in the Armenian alphabet in the 1920s, followed by Latin
in 1927, then Cyrillic in 1945, and now in both Cyrilic and Latin. Gurani
dialects continue to employ the Persian alphabet without any change. Dimili
now uses the same modified Latin alphabet as North Kurmanji for print.
Nearly three fifths of the Kurds, almost all Kurmanji speakers, are today at
least nominally Sunni Muslims of Shafiite rite. There are also some followers
of mainstream Shiitem Islam among the Kurds, particularly in and around the
cities of Kirmanshah, to Hamadan and Bijar in southern and eastern Kurdistan
and the Khurasan. These Siite Kurds number around half a million. The
overwhelming majority of Muslim Kurds are followers of one of several
orders, most importantly the Bektashi order of the northwest Kurdistan, the
Naqshbandi order in the west and north, Qadiri orders of east and central
Kurdistan, and Nurbakhshi of the south.
The rest of the Kurds are followers of several indigenous Kurdish faiths of
great antiquit and originality, which are variations on and permutation of an
ancient religion that can be reasonably but loosely labeled as Yardanism or
the "Cult of Angels." The three surviving major divisions of this religion are
Yezidism (in west and west-central Kurdistan, ca 2%of all Kurds), Yarsanism or
the Ahl-i Haqq (in southern Kurdistan, ca 13% of all Kurds), and Alevism or
Kizil Nash (in western Kurdistan and the Khurasan, ca 20%).
Minor communities of Kurdish Jews, Christians and Baha'is are found in various
croners of Kurdistan. The ancient Jewish community has progressively emigrated
to Israel, while the Christian community is merging their identity with that of
the Assyrians .
PRESENT AND NEAR FUTURE DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS (in millions)
Total Kurds (in all countries): 26.3
Total Kurds (in all countries): 36.2
Total Kurds (in all countries): 63.0
Total Kurds (in all countries): 90.2
-- O --
Kurdish Studies, An International Journal
The Kurdish Library, Vol. 5, Numbers 1 & 2
Kurdish Studies published semi-annually by the Kurdish Library
Subscription rates: $30 individual, $50 institutions. Overseas add $10
for air postage.
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