The land of the Kurds
Although Kurds are to be found in Syria, Soviet Armenia, Khorasan (in eastern Iran), and in Lebanon, the main concentration lives today where the Kurdish people have always lived, in the mountains where Iraq, Iran and Turkey meet (see map). The heart of this area consists of extremely rugged mountains of the Zagros range, running in ridges north-west to south-cast. In the west these mountain folds give way to rolling bills, thence to the Mesopotamian plain. To the north the mountains slowly turn to steppe-like plateau and highlands of what used to be known as Armenian Anatolia.
Although the population is not exclusively Kurdish in much of this area, the dominant culture is Kurdish. Since the early 13th Century much of' this area has been called Kurdistan, although it was not until the 16:th Century after the Kurds had moved north and west onto the Anatolian plateau by a series of tribal migrations that the term Kurdistan came into common usage to denote a system of Kurdish fiefs Since then, although the term Kurdistan appears on few maps, it is clearly more than a geographical term since it refers also to a human culture which exists in that land. To this extent Kurdistan is a social and political concept.
Nevertheless no map of Kurdistan can he drawn without contention, and for this reason the demographic map included is not a political statement, but a statement of where large numbers of Kurds are found, Turkey for all practical purposes denies Kurdistan's existence, whilst Iran and Iraq are reluctant to acknowledge that it is as extensive as many Kurds would have them accept. Nowhere is this dispute more sharply demonstrated than in the quarrel over Kirkuk, on account of its vast oilfield. Is it Kurd or is it Arab? The Kurds claim it as Kurdish. The Iraqi government would reply that it is Iraqi. At the turn of the century however Kirkuk was predominantly Turkornan, though Turkish, Arabic, and Kurdish were spoken by those resident in Kirkuk. To its south and west were nomad Arabs, and to its cast the country of' the Hamavand Kurds. The Turkomans, yet another regional minority, were, and remain, long-resident descendants of Turkic tribes which moved into the area some centuries ago.
The more extravagant Kurdish claims include both Luristan (the southern part of the Zagros range) and the Syrian-Turkish border area across to the north-cast corner of the Mediterranean (thereby giving the putative Kurdish state a convenient sea outlet).' One of the prime difficulties of' the claim to any delineable limits, of' course, lies in the extensive intermediate zones around the Kurdish heartlands, where Arab, Turk, Azeri, and Farsi co-exist with Kurds. In the villages around Arbil, an almost exclusively Kurdish city east of' Mosul, for example, Arabs are in a considerable majority (see map). Within the mountain heartlands, the northern Zagros range, and the eastern Taurus there have lived other
communities over the centuries: sizeable Christian communities, not only Armenian but also Assyrian (both Nestorian and Chaldean), Jewish communities, and Turks. At times these have also been viewed by outsiders as Kurdish, and certainly they (with the partial exception of the Armenians) belonged to a Kurdish mountain culture in the broader sense of the word. From Kermanshah southwards live the Lurs and Bakhtiars, tribespeople similar to the Kurds, and whom some Kurds claim to belong to the Kurdish nation, but who mostly do not claim this identity themselves. To the cast and north-cast Kurdish populated areas give way to Azeri Turk populated plains of Azerbaijan. To the west Kurdish villages overlap with Arab and Turkish ones towards the Tigris, and here many Kurds belong as much or more to the culture of the plain as they do to that of the mountain. In the north Kurds and Turks merge together with a less easily discernible divide between the two, and perhaps here it is not possible to talk of two different geographic cultures.
In the delightfully understated words of a Foreign Office Handbook written in 1919 'the climate of these mountains is bracing all the year round'.' In the higher and more remote areas the climate is intolerably hot and and in summer and bitterly cold in winter. During the winter, from December to February, many mountain villages are entirely isolated. These remote areas are sparsely populated by semi-nomads who spend the summer months in search of upland pastures, and pass the winters in the valley. Permanent settlement is confined to the riverine valleys. where the climate is less severe, and where water-borne silt allows cultivation. Even on the Anatolian plateau temperatures can be punishing. At the northern extremity of the Kurdish populated area the mean January temperature is - 13 , whilst even in Diyarbekir to the south-west, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, the mean January temperature is -0.5 C, yet by mid -August the people live with a mean temperature of 30 C Even spring and autumn are subject to sudden alternation of hot and cold spells. There can be snowfalls as late as May.
A century ago Kurdistan provided the great oak beams for many houses in Mosul. and some were also floated downstream for the houses of Baghdad and Basra. Today one will look in vain for sufficient trees for such a trade. Oak galls, still used, sustained a trade for ink and for leather tanning. Apart from the few trees still standing, the majority are little more than scrub oak, and other stunted trees. The old forests have gone, partly to increased demand for wood from the plain, partly by defoliation in modern war, but more devastatingly for firewood, and to goats which kill shrubs and saplings. Reforestation is highly desirable not only to replenish wood stocks, but to halt serious erosion, and allow for greater moisture retention by the soil.
All Kurdish communities are assiduous stockbreeders mainly of sheep, goats and some cattle, and on the Anatolian plateau there are a few areas where the Kurds still pursue semi-nomadic pastoralism. In all parts of Kurdistan the cultivation of cereals is important, accounting for roughly 15% of the total in Turkey, and 35% and 30% respectively in Iran and Iraq, although in the mountain valleys of the Zagros range it is only for local consumption. Elsewhere it is an income earner. The principal cash crop of the Kurdish foothills is tobacco, but it is of moderate quality and cannot compete in outside markets. Cotton is also grown, particularly in Anatolia. In the mountains fruit and vegetables are the main crops for local consumption. Not more than a third of Kurdistan's arable land is actually cultivated, of which one third is always fallow. The potential therefore is considerable.
The major mineral in Kurdistan is oil, found in commercial quantities in Kirkuk and Khanaqin (Iraq), Batman in Turkey and at Rumeylan in Syria. The exploitation of these oilfields by the respective governments heightens both the Kurdish sense of injustice and also governmental determination to allow no separatism to threaten these important resources. Other minerals in significant quantities include chrome, copper, iron, coal and lignite.