Who Are the Kurds?

Some 17% of Iraq's population are Kurdish.
The Kurdish flag flies above Dohuk, northern Iraq, near Erbil. jamesdale10 on Flickr.com

The Kurds are a people of the Middle East and Central Asia who speak Kurdish, a language related to Farsi and other Iranian languages. Kurdish and the other Iranian tongues are part of the Indo-European language family, and are distinct from neighboring languages such as Arabic and Aramaic, which are part of the Semitic language family.

The Kurds Today:

Approximately 30 million Kurds live in Southwest Asia.

They make up about 20% of the population in Iraq, around 10% in Iran, approximately 9% in Syria, and about 20 to 25% in Turkey.

The Kurds have active secessionist groups at work in both Iraq and Turkey, much to the central governments' chagrin. In fact, the Kurdish people have been trying to establish an independent nation of Kurdistan for several centuries. The Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, which is a Kurdish nationalist party in Turkey that has engaged in on-again, off-again armed struggle for Kurdish independence in the eastern section of that country, is listed as a terrorist group by many other nations and the UN.

Traditionally a pastoral (nomadic herding) culture, today the Kurds control much of northern Iraq's oil production. This has made them a target for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has seized territory in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to take the profits from the lucrative oil fields there.

The Kurds have fought back against ISIS valiantly, using their militias called the peshmerga.  The peshmerga even include some all-female combat units.

Kurdish History in Brief:

The word "Kurd" first appears in Arabic books from the beginning of the Islamic era, in the seventh century CE, including the famous Persian work the Shahnameh.

Most scholars believe that these earliest references used "Kurd" to mean nomadic tribes in general, rather than referring to a specific ethnic group.

The Kurdish identity formed over time, solidifying by the 12th or 13th century. Among these early ethnic Kurds was the hero of Islam, Sal-ad-Din or Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the European Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. 

Saladin's Ayyubid Sultanate would rule Egypt, Syria, and much of the Middle East from 1171 to 1260. During that period, the Ayyubids also had to contend with the fanatical Hashshashin or Assassins of Persia. In 1341, however, the Ayyubid sultanate was conquered by the Mongols - invaders who also, incidentally, ended the Assassin threat for good.

After this period, the Kurds came under the rule of members of other ethnic groups. The Safavid dynasty of Persia, for example, ruled much of the Kurdish-occupied territories, and its rulers had some Kurdish ancestry. However, the Safavids had no compunction about putting down Kurdish uprisings in order to keep control of their lands.

The invasions by Timur (Tamerlane) in the late 1300s devastated parts of Kurdistan. Once that storm had passed, however, the Kurds had a significant amount of autonomy for most of the Ottoman era.

  The governors of Kurdish-majority regions were generally Kurds, who served with the approval of the Ottoman sultans. This was generally a peaceful arrangement, although it feel short of true independence for the Kurdish people.

In the 20th century, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, Kurdish nationalists began to call for a Kurdish ethnic homeland independent of Turkish, Persian, and Arab rule. That dream has not yet been realized.