The term Kurdish refers to an ethno-linguistic group of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. The majority of Kurdish people today inhabit a geographic region known as Kurdistan, which extends into Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; a sizeable community of Kurds inhabit the Near East, and to a lesser extent in Russia and Armenia; a global diasporic community exists as well.
It is difﬁcult to say with precision, but it is esti-mated that there are approximately between 20 million and 36 million Kurds today. The term “Kurd” is thought to be a derivative of “Carduchii,” an ancient peo-ple who are recorded in the writings of Xenophon and Strabo; it is clear that in the medieval period, the meaning of the term “Kurd” was somewhat ambiguous, perhaps referring to a people with a nomadic lifestyle.
The Ayyubid dynasty (1169–1260, mainly in Egypt and Syria) was of Kurdish descent; prominent Kurd-ish leaders include the 12th-century sultan Salah al-Din (Saladdin), and, in the 20th century, ‘Abdullah O¨ calan, founder of the PKK (Parti Karkeren Kurdistan or Kurdis-tan Workers Party).
As noted above, the Kurdish people are thought to be descended from the Cardu-chii (perhaps the Kardoukhi) described by Xenopohon and the Kardakes described by Strabo; Strabo states that “Karda” means “warlike” or “manly”—this is per-haps paralleled by the Assyrian term qardu or “strong.” An Iranian people by lan-guage, the Kurdish people are ethnically diverse due to intermarriage with other ethnic groups with which they have come into close contact; given the vast territory that Kurdistan covers, this would suggest intermarriage with such peoples as Arabs, Armenians, Persians, and Turks.
The Kurdish language is divided into three main groups: Kurmanji (northern); Sorani (southern); and such southeastern dialects as Sine’i, Kermanshahi, and Leki.While Kurdistan was initially ruled as a series of independent Kurdish princedoms in the classical and early medieval eras, those princedoms were later reduced to feudal vassals of the Ummayad Khalifahs (661–750); this was reinforced later by the Ottoman Empire (1281–1924).
Kurdish lifestyle is difﬁcult to general-ize, as the Kurds are not conﬁned to a sin-gle political state. The Kurdish economy is in part based on agriculture, and Kurdis-tan is partially arable; peasant farming and pastoral nomadism have been widely prac-ticed in the past, with such major crops being wheat and other grains, and vegeta-bles; fruit and nut trees are widely found in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In recent years as the nomadic tribes have been encouraged to settle, pastoral nomadism has greatly declined in favor of sedentary types of economy.
While the Kurdish towns used to produce crafts and goods, international trade has made this increas-ingly difﬁcult, as foreign products are often cheaper and more readily available than those of traditional make. Kurdish life is very much structured by a depen-dence upon land, family, and clan; mar-riage within the clan system is preferred, and the agha (chief) of the clan has con-siderable authority over the lives of those within the clan.
In general, Kurdish soci-ety encourages the celebration of festivals marked by traditional song and dance, without gender segregation; however, some of the Kurds along the Iran-Iraq bor-der practice extreme forms of gender seg-regation. Further, both traditional and modern outdoor ﬁeld sports are commonly practiced by Kurdish youth, both boys and girls.
The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim of the Shaﬁ‘i school of jurisprudence; this distinguishes them from the Turks and some Arabs of neighboring territories, who are of the Hanaﬁ school. The Kurds in Iran, however, are mostly Shi‘ite. A minority of Kurds also belong to such religious move-mentsasthe Ahl-i-Haqq (People of the Truth) and the Yezidi, which began as a Sunni sect but has diverged to the point that it is no longer considered to be Muslim.
Likewise, a very small minority of Kurds practice Judaism and Christianity. Suﬁsm, especially the Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders are especially popular in Kurdistan, and the shaykhs of these orders wield con-siderable social and political inﬂuence. Religion (especially Islam) has played an important role in deﬁning Kurdish identity, especially in terms of differentiating them from Turkish and Arab neighbors.
Unlike other ethnic groups in neighbor-ing regions such as Turkey and Iran, the Kurds have never had a political state of their own, but rather, Kurdistan overlaps several countries. This, coupled with the strategic importance of the area, has made Kurdistan coveted by its neighbors, and yet its rugged mountain terrain has served to shield it from invasion.
Given the vast size of Kurdistan and the fact that the Kurds inhabit different countries, there has been no real idea of Kurdish unity or independence until the 19th century, when several tribal chieftains and Muslim shaykhs began to rebel against Ottoman authority. In the mid-to-late 20th century, Iraq and Turkey had especially tense rela-tionships with the Kurds, as both nations were reluctant to recognize the Kurds as a separate ethnic group.
In Iraq, the Kurds faced violent opposition in their struggle for recognition and independence, and Iraq was strongly condemned internation-ally in 1987–1989 for its use of chemical weapons against Kurdish settlements. In Turkey, Mustapha Kemal Atatu¨rk tried to appeal to the Kurds during the early stages of the republic, but later abandoned this approach in favor of hard-line Turkish nationalism.
In response, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) arose in the mid-20th century, under the leadership of ‘Abdullah ¨Ocalan. In the 1970s and 1980s, the movement became an armed conﬂict, causing some international unrest as Syria supported the PKK, which greatly strained relations between Turkey and Syria. The armed insurgence of the PKK ceased only in 1999 with the recent arrest of O¨ calan; since then, ¨Ocalan has openly renounced violence and called for a peace-ful political solution to the issue of Kur-distani sovereignty.
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