Kurdistan is a cultural region that encompasses over 200,000 square miles of territory in several southwest Asian countries, including Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, and parts of the former Soviet Union. Kurds in Kurdistan are distributed across this transnational region in the following nation-states and in these proportions: Turkey (43%), Iran (31%), Iraq (18%), Syria (6%), and the former Soviet Union (2%). What defines Kurdistan instead of recognized national boundries is the concentration of Kurds in the area. Their ethnic neighbors include Arabs to the south, Persians to the east, and Turks to the west. Other small ethnic enclaves are nearby as well, including those of the Azeris, Lurs, and Georgians.

Early settlement

Evidence of some of humankind's first experiments with animal domestication and agriculture can be found in Kurdistan. The area seems to have been consistently settled for over 7,000 years, primarily by Caucasians. About 4,000 years ago successive waves of Indo-European invaders including the Hittites settled in the region. Archeological evidence supports the assertion that this was an area of high migration from pre-literate through modern times. Racially, Kurds are the product of all these incursions. Rather than being racially distinct, they claim ancestry from a wide variety of peoples.

The Romans made their mark on the western part of the region around the first century B.C., whereas the eastern part was confederated into the Parthian Federation. While the west was dominated by Rome, most major Kurdish principalites remained autonomous until about 380 A.D. Smaller Kurdish principalites persisted until the 7th century and the advent of Islam. The decline of the Byzantine Empire and Muslim caliphate allowed for a revival of Kurdish medeval states in later centuries.

Medieval Kurdistan

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the more prominent Kurdish states succumbed to the conquering Turks. Again, some smaller principalities avoided this and maintained a degree of autonomy until the 17th century. The period between the 16th and 18th centuries was a defining period for the Kurds.

This was because the Ottomans and Persians so thoroughly decimated Kurdistan with artillery and deportation. Resentment from this brought forth the spread of Kurdish nationalism, and along with it, the desire for a unified Kurdistan. In 1597, Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi wrote the first pan-Kurd history, and in 1695, Ahmad Khani composed an epic poem, Mem-o-Zin, that called for a Kurdish state. These works, and others, inflamed the desire for an independent, sovereign Kurdistan among the Kurdish diaspora. However, statehood, other than one or two brief experiments, remained elusive for the Kurds.

Modern struggles

After the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, the Treaty of Sevres (1921) provided fresh hope for an independent Kurdistan. However, due to constant bloody nationalist uprisings, France and Great Britain withdrew their support for the idea and divided Kurdistan up between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Persian Kurds fared no better and remained within the borders of Persia.

There were frequent attempts to assert Kurdish nationalism and establish a Kurdish state throughout the rest of the 20th century, but none were successful. Between the 1970s and the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed a degree of freedom in the northern part of that country, but in an uprising following the war, they were decimated by the remnants of the Iraqi military. Kurds in Turkey persist in a civil war with the hope of one day having an independent state carved out of that country. Armenian Kurds were victims of ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s, and that community is virtually nonexistent today.

The land

Kurdistan is primarily mountainous and rough. The areas composing Kurdistan were once densely forested, but in the last two centuries, most of these areas have been cleared. Adding to the problem, nearly constant civil unrest, military bombardment and the use of land mines has made vast regions unusable. While erosion and pollution are serious problems in many areas, other areas support good pastures and basic agriculture. Despite the poverty and devistation of the region, Kurdistan is regarded to have rich natural resources. This might partially explain the unwillingness of established powers to cede the land to the Kurdish people.


Kurdistan is also a term used by people of the region, especially Kurdish Turks and Iranis, to describe the portion of the northern Iraq which was under UN protection between the two Gulf Wars and is now overseen by the American occupation force.

During the latter portion of the ten years between the Gulf Wars, the Kurds of northern Iraq enjoyed de facto autonomy. They assembled a government, circulated their own currency and printed their own passports. The government also sought (and in some cases recieved) foreign aid and investment.

Given their high level of autonomy, it is not surprising that the Kurds are not entirely thrilled with the notion of a unified post-Saddam Iraq. Iran and Turkey, on the other hand, see such as imperative for fear that a Kurdish state could re-ignite the Kurdish nationalist violence that both countries recently subdued.

Only time will tell how it is resolved and what fallout that resolution brings.

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