Armenian Kurdish Relations in the Era of Kurdish National Movements (1830-1930)

Kurdish Mir ("e"mir) 1880 Orienten, Lerchenfeld 1881, Germany




Kurdistan has always been a problem for European powers that have colonial zed and then instituted their mandates in the Middle East. Although constituting the 4th major ethnicity in the Middle East after the Arabs, Turks, and Iranians (Persians) the Kurds were always denied their rightfully owned independent country. With the American invasion in Iraq in 2003 and the major geopolitical shifts that the invasion brought to the area, an autonomous Kurdistan is now a reality. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and the Iraqi central government vehemently defy the idea of the creation of an independent Kurdistan. They are even against the creation of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in a federative Iraq.


Forcibly settled in some select communities in Western Turkey and several Middle Eastern countries, and partially concentrated in the eastern districts of Anatolia, there lives an atypical ethnic group whom Turks label as “Mountain Turks”. Yet this unique ethnic group is totally unrelated to the Turks and possesses a distinct culture, history, and social background. Historical data collected during the last 2 centuries indicates that these people are the original inhabitants of southeastern Anatolia. History names them the Kurds and their homeland, Kurdistan.

The modern day Turkish Republic was built on the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. During their expansion, the Ottomans conquered and occupied the lands of many peoples. They built a large, yet diverse empire, whose borders extended from southeastern Europe (the Balkans) to the Caucasus including the Middle EastArabia, and North AfricaAsia Minor and Anatolia became the nexus of this vast state.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, unprecedented luxury, opulence, and indolence corrupted the Ottoman imperial power. Weakness and incapacity in the face of European powers became a permanent feature of the power elite. By the nineteenth century, the whole empire was reduced to “the sick man of Europe.”

During these two centuries of weakness, the Ottomans encountered an increasing number of nationalistic and freedom movements. An already strong Europe interfered in the internal politics of the empire. However, European powers were never able to reach a compromising agreement or a final decision on how to divide the Ottoman Empire between them. Thus, Ottoman territorial integrity became a permanent element of the European peace process. The totality of the empire was restored for almost a century, until the outbreak of World War I.

Most of the nationalistic movements that the Ottomans encountered during the nineteenth century were staged in their European territories. These were backed by different European powers, especially Russia, which for political reasons regarded the Slavic freedom fighting peoples of the Balkans a continuation of its own people. Moreover, Russia used the Slavic population of the Balkans to implement its strategic plans of “descending to the hot waters” that is, the Mediterranean. Unable to suppress all these freedom movements at the same time, the Ottomans retreated. Consequently, most of the Balkans regained its freedom.

At about the same time (i.e. the middle of the 19th century), peoples in the eastern parts of Anatolia, namely the Kurds and the Armenians, awoke from their centuries long torpor and embarked in nationalistic movements seeking freedom and equality. Yet the remoteness of those peoples and their lands from Europe brought them a fate that was totally different from their European counterparts. Armenian and Kurdish national liberation struggles were handled with an iron fist. All that Ottoman Sultans were deprived of achieving in their European territories they forced in the eastern parts of their empire. Later, under the cover of the first global war, The Ittihadist Turkish government exceeded even its predecessors when it staged and executed THE FIRST GENOCIDE OF MODERN HISTORY [G.M.] by massacring the Armenian population of Ottoman, i.e. Western Armenia.

After the war, in 1918, Armenians garnered their feeble forces in a tiny republic in the Caucasus. This fledgling state was unable to endure for long. After only two and one half years of independence, it was crushed under a “Blitzkrieg” between Kemalist Turkey and Communist Russia. It was eventually absorbed by the latter. Today, about one half of all Armenians live in this republic that was an integrated part of what came to be known as the Soviet Union. It regained its independence in 1990 after the demise of communism. The other half of Armenians is scattered around the world. It constitutes the communities that comprise the Armenian Diaspora.

As for the Kurds, they also were the victims of assimilating Turkish policies. Unlike Armenians, Kurds never achieved sovereignty. Today, their homeland is divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. All four governments suppress any nationalistic insurgence within their Kurdish population.

Numerically, the Kurds comprise the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. However, they are forced to accept the identity of the country in which they live. In Turkey and elsewhere, a planned policy of forced assimilation and military action is wiping out all forms of ethnicity and Kurdish national belongingness.

 The events of the last two decades in Turkish Kurdistan are valid indications of this.

This narrative strives to shed some light on the history of the Kurds. It deals with almost a century of events (1830-1930) which covers the most active chapter in the history of the Kurdish freedom movements. As an important supplement, Armenian-Kurdish relations are also studied. Noteworthy is the fact that Kurds and Armenians were close neighbors for centuries. Thus, their histories are closely interrelated. Even a cursory analysis of the relations between these two people show that a close, mutual, and trustworthy collaboration was never realized during their struggle for freedom. This, of course, eventually harmed both peoples. Nevertheless, the turbulent situation that the Middle East encounters in modern times and the numerous wars and conflicts that are staged on its soil are motivating reasons to have a better understanding of the region and its peoples. The Kurds are one such example. They are scattered in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria with ghetto type enclaves in the other Middle Eastern countries.

Iraqi Kurds seem to be the most active. During the past three or four decades, they staged more than one rebellion under the leadership of the Barzani (Barzanji) family. The Iraqi government, with the aid and the military help of the Turkish Republic, crushed those Kurdish insurrections. Some of the Kurdish rebel leaders were murdered. Others were thrown into prison after being charged as traitors to their “host” countries.

In 1945 Kurds in Iran staged an insurrection and for a period of a year established what is historically referred to as “The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad,” which was crushed by the armies of the Pahlavi Shah. More recently, Kurds in Iran grasped the opportunity offered by the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini to extract an autonomous existence for themselves. Although they failed, the Kurds remain a nagging and thorny issue for Iran.

Today, in all the countries in which they live, Kurds are considered to be in a very low socioeconomic level. This is observed especially in the Turkish parts of Kurdistan, where severe limitations on education, dissemination of ethnic culture, and economic opportunities are imposed, the Kurdish language (or languages) and literature is banned, hundreds of villages have been destroyed.

The “Mountain Turks” are yet another case of lost national identities that swim in the murky waters of the Middle Eastern swamp.


“No people are so closely related to Armenians by history and creed as the Kurds. Since legendary times, when people used cuneiform to express their magnificence and melancholy, those two neighbors have lived together. Many nations and peoples, ancient Rome, Macedonia, the Parthians, the Arabs from the south, Russians from the north, Genghis Khan and Tamer lane from the far east and Central Asia have conquered the lands of Kurds and Armenians, but they have all gone away. Like winter snow, they have sat on peoples breasts, oppressed and tortured them, but they have eventually melted away, once again giving rise to Kurdish and Armenian existence. As different in their beliefs and character – one mobile and pastoral, the other settled and agricultural – these two people have often become enemies of each other. Instead of protecting each other and living in harmony, they have fought against each other. Sometimes one had ruled over the other.”

Ruben Ter Minasian, from whom the paragraph above is quoted, was a patriot who lived for years in the Western Armenian regions of Van and Sasun. Ter Minasian was destined to become a prominent figure in the Armenian National Movement. As a leader of the Armenian gorilla fighting units in Sasun, the fedayeen, he established relations with the Kurds, and negotiated with their numerous tribal chieftains. Ter Minasian’s words are a clear illustration of the actual history and affiliation of the two contiguous peoples. If chance had played a different game by making their relationship a more positive one, then many things might have been different today for these two peoples.

It is indeed very difficult to trace the origins of the Kurdish people or to give an exact date of their “entrance” into southeastern Anatolia. A.V. Dolmayik, extracting his information from one of the few Kurdish historians, Sharaf Ul Din, in his book titled “Sasun,” states that:

  ‘Their [the Kurd’s, G.M.] origin is very dark. It is possible that these Kurds had entered the region since ancient times. It is also possible that they are the descendants of a race of people which lived in the southern mountains of Lake Van, which Armenians called Mardastan[Land of the Mards, G.M.].[1]

Whatever ambiguities shroud the origins of the Kurds, the important thing to note is that they lived in this region immediately neighboring Historical Armenia. It follows, that they lived in the southeastern districts of Anatolia; induced several conquerors; sometimes even overlapped lands inhabited by Armenians. At the end of the fifteenth century — i.e. seventy five years before the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Selim  I— Armenian and Kurds were still living close to each other. In the mountainous regions, they were governed by their princes who defended their lands against all outside enemies. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Ottomans, after conquering most of southern Europe (Greece and the Balkans), ventured east towards Asia Minor and Eastern Anatolia in an attempt to unite the scattered Turkish and Turcoman tribes and principalities under the banners of their fledgling state.

One of the most important historical developments of those times was the federation of 1459 that was signed by the Muslim and Christian rulers of the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia. It was formed with the purpose of blocking Ottoman expansion, Key figures such as 1) Uzun Hassan, leader of the Ak-Koyunlu Turcoman tribes of Diarbekir, 2) David, the emperor of Trepizond, the last remnant of the Byzantines,

3) Kevork Pakratian, Prince of Georgia, and 4) Armenian princes of Sasun participated in this federation.

Conscious of the danger of lightning Ottoman expansion, the federation sent envoys to Europe and tried to harness Western attention. However, Europe was not supportive, and this was to be expected, since after the last and disastrous Crusade to liberate Constantinople, it had encountered numerous internal conflicts, which were the result of the fermenting process of its new nation-states. in fact, internal European clashes were the reason behind the momentum of Ottoman armies and their success on the European battlefronts.

The federation had to face the oncoming Ottoman armies. Soon, Sultan Mehmed II started his offensive towards Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. Ottoman forces gave decisive blows to the federation’s armies. Eastern Anatolia was now open for them.

Meanwhile, another force was fermenting in the East. This was the Shiite state of Shah Ismail in Persia (Iran). This Safavid state was in turn interested in Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasian provinces. It also tried to bring them under its rule.

The Ottomans expanded rapidly. Muslim and Christian principalities of the “federation” fell under Ottoman rule. Safavid Iran also sent its armies there. This was a dangerous game, especially because the two rivals fanned the centuries old Sunni vs. Shiite enmity of Islam.

War was inevitable. Sultan Selim’s armies crushed the forces of Shah Ismail. In 1514 the Sultan placed Armenian and Kurdistan under Ottoman rule.

By the religious principles of Islam, Christians were rendered second degree citizens entitled to pay costly taxes to their Muslim rulers. Selim burdened Armenians with heavy taxes, yet was more lenient and friendly towards Kurds. He even signed a treaty of friendship with their princes, according to which.-

a- All participating princes were to reclaim their sovereignty over their realms.

b- The rule in these Kurdish principalities will continue based on the primo-geniture system of the past, on condition that the appointment of new princes be confirmed by a Ferman (Imperial order) from the Ottoman Sultan.

c- During wars, Kurdish princes and their tribes must help the Sultan with sipahi (feudal) forces and supplies.

d- The Ottoman Sultan promises to protect these principalities against outside aggression.

e- The Kurdish feudal lords are obliged to pay tribute to the Sultan in the form of yearly presents. [2]

With this treaty most of Armenia came under direct Ottoman rule. However, there remained some regions, like Hazzo in Kharazan, and Sasun, which kept their ancient sovereign status and did not even pay the yearly tribute demanded by the Ottoman rulers.[3]

The freedom of those remote pockets was not something Ottomans willingly tolerated. Military campaigns and expeditions were sent with the objective of oppressing these Kurdish and Armenian mountain dwellings. Unable to accomplish their primary objective, the Ottoman regiments diverted their attention to the Kezelbash Kurdish tribes of Sepastia (Sivaz) and Kharpert (Kharput). Ottomans regarded Kezelbash Kurds as heretics –Devil worshippers was and still is a misleading denunciation that Kezelbash Kurds encounter. — who, “according to Ottoman policy, coveted the spread of Shiism within the Ottoman Empire.” Armed with this religious intolerance, the Ottoman armies massacred thousands of Kezelbash Kurds during these campaigns.

In Western Armenia, except for the mountainous areas like Sasun, Armenians came under direct Ottomans rule. Since Ottomans were lenient towards the Kurds, the previously existing balance of power changed. As a result, all former Armenian-Kurdish links were severed. Kurdistan was internally divided between several princes who all wanted to be the first in the eyes of the sultans. Eventually, they all became tools in the hands of the Ottoman rulers, who often used on Kurdish prince or tribe against another, thus keeping them in perfect chaos. Ottomans played this “divide and rule” game for a very specific reason. Until 1683 they were busy with their campaigns in southeastern Europe. This consumed a great percentage of their military and economic resources. Therefore, they had to create a policy of divide and rule in Kurdistan in order to secure their posterior. It was not easy to reach the gates of Vienna and return empty-handed. When those soldiers fighting in the European front returned to Istanbul, they were immediately sent eastward to rob the people. This policy was quite successful. It submerged Armenians and Kurds in the quagmire of fighting marauding Ottoman Yenicheris. From the Ottoman point of view, this kept their [Armenians’, Kurds’] subjugation permanently confirmed.

Against this background of continuous campaigns and pillage Kurds and Armenians continued to live until the end of the eighteenth century. Things started to change only at the beginning of the new century. The year 1806 is a turning point in the history of the Kurdish people. From this date on, several freedom movements and rebellions echoed in different parts of Kurdistan. Some of those movements remained within the confines of the Kurdish noble houses. They did not possess the popular tribal basis so vital for such ventures. The insurrections were put down by canny Ottoman policies which aimed first at belittling the princes in the eyes of the Kurdish tribes and then at suppressing the headless tribes and strangling their desires for freedom.

One must admit however, that some of these movements were able to consolidate several Kurdish tribes and motivate them towards the cause of freedom. This was a hardship for the Ottomans, because those movements had the covert blessing of Tsarist Russia and/or Shiite Iran. This obliged Ottomans to take strict measured to crush rebel Kurds and quell their movements in their initial stages.

Armenian participation was minimal in those Kurdish Movements. Cooperation occurred only in such principalities where some Armenian villages were under the rule of a Kurdish prince. As his menials, Armenians were obliged to aid the Amir (prince) in his quest for freedom. Sasuni states that:-

“This historical era demanded heroism, united forces, and united endeavors for the sake of freedom. The two neighbors had to realize the importance of depending on each other during their common struggle. If one of them broke this rule, the other was to carry the consequences. The wheels of history were to turn in such a way as to crush the first and then the other. Past history is rich with such instances. This also indicates that if Armenian-Kurdish unity was accomplished, the two neighbors would have had established their freedom long ago.” [4]

A comprehensive Armenian-Kurdish unification never materialized in those important days. Later, when some measure of mutual understanding and cooperation did transpire, it was already too late to be of any significance.

Events that followed 1830 proved that Armenian-Kurdish unity was impossibility.

[1]Karo, Sasuni, “Kurteru Ev  Hayeru Azatagrakan Sharzhman Pulere Ev Anonts’ Pokh Haraberutiunnere,” Hayrenik, 1929, # 1, p. According to more recent research concerning the origins of Indo-European peoples, the British linguist-archeologist, Robert Renfrew [The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins] as well as the Russian and Georgian historians, Ivanof and Komgralitse respectively, attest that the Kurds too are of Indo-European stock. Therefore, they can be considered as the original inhabitants of the region under discussion.

[2] Ibid,  It is important to note here that Sasuni cites the terms of the treaty from a Hoyboun (Kurdish National Organization, or Committee for Kurdish Independence)  publication.

[3] Leo,Hayotz Patmutiun, Vol. III, Erevan, 1946, p. 178. Here, the famous Armenian Historian analyzes why the Ottoman Sultan was showing a friendly attitude toward the Kurdish princes. It was through such policies that the sultan was able to bring the popular Kurdish Mulla Idris of Bitlis to his camp. Mulla Idris worked ardently for the Ottoman cause; accepted bribes; with his furious religious speeches motivated thousands of Kurds to come and live in the northern areas of Lake Van (thus overlapping land which were historically Armenian); thus securing the border against any Persian intervention. In a similar fashion, a Kurdish author, Makhmutov, adds that the Kurds who were living in Erzerum and Van were actually from Diarbekir. They had migrated to those areas because of Mulla Idris’s motivational tactics. According to Makhmutov, “Mulla Idris did accomplish Turkish policies even at the expense of his own people, the Kurds.” N. Makhmutov Kh., Kurt Zhoghovurte, Haybed Hrad Press, Erevan, 1959, p. 110.[4] Sasuni, “Kurderu Eva Hayeru Azatagrakan,” p. 45

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