From the Book:
The origins of the Kurds and their language
Taufiq Wahby (1891-1984)
7 minutes 1769 views
When I was invited to speak here today, my hosts kindly left me the choice of subject on which to speak. I decided that the best choice for this audience would be to speak on the first and most important question in Kurdology, that is, the origins of the Kurds and their language.Those Islamic historians who dealt with the origins of the Kurds did so in terms of myth and legend. Their work was without historical or intellectual value. But in recent centuries, particularly in the present one, European scholars have become concerned with the problem and begun research which continues today. Among those whose work and opinions we must take into account is Professor Vladimir Minorsky. In a paper presented to the 20 International Congress of Orientalists in Brussels in 1938. Professor Minorsky spoke on the origins of the Kurds. He said at that time: “The unity of the Kurds must be explained by a Median basis”. The arguments made by Professor Minorsky and others in favour of a Median basis of Kurds are lengthy and, for those concerned, easily available. Rather than extensively repeat them here, it seems to me more important and also better suited to this occasion to deal with some of the objections raised against connecting the Kurds with the Medes.If we find that such objections are based on faulty evidence, we, in effect, strengthen the theory which I, too, support, that the Kurds of today are descendants of the Medes.The most important objections to such a belief are found in an article by Dr. D. N. MacKenzie, published in the Transactions of the Philological Society for 1961.In this article, ‘The Origins of Kurdish’, Dr. MacKenzie makes comparisons between Kurdish and various other Iranian languages, including Persian, based on P Tedesco’s “Dialektologie Der Westiranischen Turfantexte”. From these comparisons, he deduces that Kurdish should be considered as influenced by Middle Persian, which belongs to the Iranian South-West. He doubts the view taken by Professor Minorsky and other scholars; the Kurdish belongs to the Iranian North-West, the area which includes the historical home of the Medes. Dr. MacKenzie dismisses the idea that the Medes are ancestors of today’s Kurds.Dr. MacKenzie does not insist on his conclusions. He offers a hypothesis, not a proven theory. In my opinion, this is just as well. Dr. MacKenzie, who is a lecturer in Kurdish at the London School of African and Oriental Studies, is a linguist of repute. But I fear I must question the validity of the evidence he has collected in support of his hypothesis.The possible identification of today’s Kurds with the Medes obviously touches vitally on the Kurds sense of their historical identity and for those who believe in this connection Dr. MacKenzie’s words sometimes fall harshly. He writes: “The modern Kurds approach to history is also refreshingly simple. Feeling a need for heroic ancestors, and finding the imperial Medes, so to speak, unemployed, they make no bones about casting them in the role. Indeed, it is now fashionable among them to use a so-called Median era, obtained by adding to our date the figure 612, the date of the conquest of Ninevah by the Medes. In the face of this blend of little fact and much fiction, the linguistic evidence gains in importance”.Well, it was not the Kurds that decided to make the fall of Ninevah the beginning of an era; it was the official Persian ‘Council of Iranology’ that decided to use 612 B.C. in this way.Dr. Mackenzie, finding the historical evidence for linking the Medes and Kurds a blend of little fact and much fiction, argues that, consequently, the linguistic evidence increases in importance for determining the possibility of this link.Certainly, there are problems in establishing a proven historical connection. But before passing on to Dr. MacKenzie’s linguistic arguments, we should consider one puzzle of history for which I wish to suggest a possible solution. The puzzle is, what happened to the Medes?The Northern Iraq of today to the eastern shores of the Tigris River was, in the end of the fifth Century B C., a part of the homeland of the Medes (see Xenophon, Anabasis).By the end of the seventh century, the name of a nation called the Mâd (Medes) was no longer known in Iran. There exist; however, historical records showing that by the end of the Sassanian period, the name ‘Mâd’ (Mede) continued in the developed forms of ‘Mây’ and ‘Mâs’. In the early Islamic period, the name survived as ‘Mah’. All these forms were names of areas. In addition, the Christian Aramaic records kept the name in its original form ‘Mâdây’ up to the end of the Sassanian period; ‘Mâdâyâ’ in Aramaic meant the Mede (Median). What then were the events that erased from memory this once imperial people? We do not know of any catastrophe in the Sassanian period which could have caused the annihilation of the Medes. I would suggest that if the name Mad disappeared the Medes themselves have certainly survived. The present sedentary Kurds are in my opinion, the descendants of the Medes. The strong Indo-Iranian Kurdish tribes together with other kindred nomads, with whom they afterwards mixed, threatened Media from early times. The Greek historian Polybius (c. 205-125 B.C.), describing Media in his General History, says that all boundaries of the Median country were covered with Greek towns built, after Alexander’s conquest, to check the neighbouring barbarians. In the reign of Seleucus II Callinicus (246-226 B.C.) the mountaineer tribes who had strongholds were beyond the control of the Greek government, as Hasan Pir Niya, the Iranian historian, tells us.