Tribes and Dialects
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The Kurdish name for themselves is kurmandzh.
Habitat. In Transcaucasia the Kurds live in enclaves among the main population: in Armenia mainly in Aparan, the Talin and Echmiadzin regions and in settlements in eight other regions; in Azerbaijan mainly in the west, in the regions of Lyaki, Kelbadjar, Kubatly and Zangelan; in Georgia the Kurds have mainly settled in towns or live scattered in the eastern part. Some Kurds live in the republics of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Their oldest habitat is in the south of Turkmenia along the Iranian border, many of them live also in Ashkhabad, in the town and region of Mary.
Population. In 1939 the number of Kurds registered in the Soviet Union was 76,000, according to the 1959 census this number had decreased to 59,000 (26,000 in Armenia, 16,000 in Georgia and more than 14,000 in Central Asia and Kazakhstan). At the time of the 1979 census there were 51,000 Kurds in Armenia, 26,000 in Georgia, but no data for Azerbaijan. In 1983 the number of Kurds in the Soviet Union was 130,000.
Kurdish is an Indo-European language which belongs to the northwestern Iranian branch and is divided into several dialects. The Kurds of Caucasia and Central Asia speak the kurmandzh dialect, but the language of the Central-Asian Kurds, especially those of Turkmenia, is somewhat different. Bilingualism is wide-spread. Usually the second language is that of the host country but younger people, especially in towns, speak also Russian. The Caucasian Kurds have their own script.
Anthropologically the Kurds belong to the Balkano-Caucasian Caspian type of the European race akin to the Azerbaijanis, Tats, Talysh etc. The anthropological type of the Central-Asian Kurds has not been thoroughly studied but they are related to the Iranian Europeans (Iranian Kurds).
Religion. In the main, the Kurds are followers of Islam. The Armenian Kurds are Sunnites, the Central-Asian and Azerbaijani, Shiite. Kurds-Yezidis in Armenia and Georgia are a distinctive ethnic group. Their religion is based on Mazdeism, the dualistic religion of ancient Persians, which incorporates also elements of Judaism and Christianity. Yezidis have been called the worshippers of the Devil. Because of their religious rites the Yezidis were despised by the rest of Kurds and lived in isolation. Sometimes they have been considered to be a separate people, at least for the census of 1926 when the number of Yezidis in the Soviet Union was recorded as 15,000. Their base is in Iraq.
History. It is not known when the Kurds first appeared in Caucasia but single tribes were there from time to time, possibly on the look-out for better pastures. From the 10th to the 12th century the area between the rivers Kura and Araks was ruled by a Shaddadid dynasty of Kurdish ancestry.
A more extensive resettlement of Kurds, from Kurdistan into Transcaucasia, started only at the beginning of the 19th century, after the incorporation of Transcaucasia into Russia. Relations between the Kurds and the Persian and Turkish authorities had always been extremely bad, the Kurds were cruelly persecuted and exterminated by the thousand (a situation that has not improved even by the end of the 20th century), a situation which led some Kurdish tribes and smaller groups to try and find refuge in Russia. They were allocated land and villages which, for one reason or another, had become uninhabited. For example, 600 families settled in Karabakh in 1807. The number of migrants increased steadily until the first decades of the 20th century. The Armenians and Kurds were granted certain resettlement privileges after the Russian-Persian wars (1804--1813 and 1826--1828), especially after the Turkmanchai Treaty of 1828. The majority of Kurds settled in Armenia after the Crimean War of 1853--1855 and after the Russian-Turkish War of 1877--1878. The influx of Yezidi Kurds from Turkey into East-Armenia, i.e. present-day Armenia, was especially large. They came to escape religious persecution. The Yezidis also fled to Armenia during World War I, to escape mass extermination (together with the Western Armenians who had stayed on in Turkey), and to a lesser extent to Georgia from 1917 to 1918. As to the Central-Asian Kurds, it is known that a big group of them settled there at the end of the 19th century arriving from the Horassan Province of East-Persia, however, they had been preceded by smaller groups. The Kurds came to Turkmenia to find unclaimed land but sometimes also to escape starvation.
Demarcated by origin, faith and habitat, there are three big Kurdish communities: the Kurds of Azerbaijan (mostly settling from Persia at the beginning of the 19th century), the Kurds of Armenia (mostly from Turkey but partly from Persia after the beginning of the 18th century) and the Kurds of Georgia (mostly from Turkey and Armenia).
Until the 20th century livestock breeding was of primary importance in the socio-economic life of the Transcaucasian Kurds. It shaped the whole life and culture of the community.
A nomadic or semi-nomadic life was the norm until the establishment of Soviet power in 1920. Each tribe had its own herding routes -- in spring up to the mountain pastures, in autumn down again. The Kurds were famous as herdsmen in Caucasia and in the whole Near East (sheep, cattle, horses). Land was cultivated in valleys and on the lowlands; more popularly among the Mountain Kurds of Azerbaijan. Occasionally some Kurds gave up their nomadic life and settled in villages as farmers. Usually the pastureland was state-owned and the Kurds had to pay rent. Often, the lands were on long-term private lease, for example in the hands of Russian generals, who also pocketed the land tax. The archaic tribal system and way of life was preserved longest by the nomadic herders who fervently maintained the old customs. The Yezidis were especially conservative. The nomadic herders for a long time retained the black-cover Kurdish tent. In winter and in permanent settlements the farmers lived, just like other ethnic groups, in traditional earth dwellings or even caves dug into the mountain sides. Low clay and stone houses used to be built, in which the living quarters were under the same roof with the cowshed and stable. It was a feature peculiar to the Kurds to have no walled-in courtyard. Neither had they any gardens as the Yezidi faith banned vegetable growing. The most noticeable external change of sovietization had taken place in the type of dwelling. Now the Kurds live in standardized. Some distinctive features still remain; in the Ararat Valley Kurdish houses differ from those of the locals by the absence of a terrace and a wine-press room. A distinctive feature of today's Kurdish women is their exceptional attachment to the national costume in Caucasia as well as in Central Asia. The clothes of Muslims and Yezidis are somewhat different. The Kurdish women like bright contrasting colours while a white shirt is trademark of the Yezidi. The men gave up traditional dress in the middle of the 20th century.
The establishment of Soviet power and the creation of socialist republics in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan caused upheaval in the life of the Kurds. In the 1920s an attempt was made to settle the Kurds and collectivization was introduced to ensure this. As a result, farming became more important. The Kurds took up vine and vegetable growing. The latter had been so far unknown to the Kurds, indeed, it had been a forbidden activity for the Yezidis. Many Kurds in Georgian towns became workers, -- also a new phenomenon.
The status of Kurds varies from place to place. The nationalist movement is the strongest in Armenia where the Kurds have always been better treated than elsewhere. The Kurdish position was discussed there as early as the 1920s and in 1925 Armenia hosted the First Congress of the Transcaucasian Kurds. The problems of the Kurds have been topical in Georgia too and cultural activities have been aimed at ending the Yezidi isolation. A Yezidi cultural-educational society opened in Batumi in 1926. In Azerbaijan the nationalists succeeded in establishing the Kurdistan District in 1920 and in 1930 the Kurdistan Region embracing five Kurdish herding areas.
At that time the Kurds were one of the most backward and ill-educated people. In 1921 the male literacy-rate in Kurdistan District was 1.44 % and the female 0.04 %. Consequently, it was important to create a written form. The Kurdish script, based on the Armenian, was created in 1921, at the insistence of the Armenian education authorities. In 1929, the Latin alphabet started to be used. An All-Union conference of Kurdish studies took place in Yerevan in 1934 which discussed the problems of the Kurdish script. A third Kurdish alphabet was created in 1944, this time based on the Russian, in accordance with 'the wish' of the Armenian Ministry of Education. It has remained in use until today. Several textbooks, dictionaries and collections of fiction, both in Latin and Russian script, have been compiled by Kurdish intellectuals. A Kurdish Teacher Training College opened in Armenia in 1928 and a similar one in Azerbaijan in 1933. A Kurdish newspaper Риа тазе began publishing in Yerevan (it exists to this day), and Kurdish radio began broadcasting. The Kurdish language is mainly taught in the Aparam and Talin Regions of Armenia where Kurdish population is large. It is not taught in Azerbaijan any more. The situation is similar in Turkmenia where children learn either in Turkmenian or Russian. Kurdish art and crafts have developed and received most support again in Armenia. The Kurdish National Theatre, established in 1937, performs in all the three republics. Kurdish amateur groups of singers and dancers exist in Armenia, and, in Georgia as well. A number of scholars and writers are of Caucasian Kurdish descent. A special group of researchers of the Armenian Academy of Sciences are engaged in the study of Caucasian Kurds. There is also a Kurdish section at the Institute of Asian People of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.
Kurdish identity is most endangered in Azerbaijan. In recent decades the Azerbaijani authorities have been attempting to assimilate all ethnic minorities. In the absence of religious differences they have succeeded. The Kurdish language is not officially used and during censuses the Kurds have been recorded as Azerbaijanis.