Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection?

The Kurdish national myth links the origin of the ethnic group to the ancient Medes, an Iranian people who supposedly carved out a large empire that was quickly supplanted by that of the much better-known (and closely related) Persians in the 6th century BCE. As the Wikipedia article on the Kurds notes:

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and even use a calendar dating from 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: “We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”

Few if any scholars give credence to this theory. The poorly documented language of the ancient Medes does seem to have been closely related to Kurdish, with both languages placed on the Northwestern side-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language tree. But the Median language does not seem to be any more closely related to Kurdish that it is to any of the other modern languages on the same branch. More to the point, historians increasingly doubt whether the Medes ever created a coherent state, let alone a vast empire. What little is known about their political organization comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, with Assyrian cuneiform archives providing a little additional information. Herodotus certainly assigned a prominent position to the Medes, but otherwise evidence about their geopolitical role is essentially lacking.

The Kurdish emphasis on their supposed Median progenitors is not surprising. In ethno-nationalist discourse, powerful and illustrious peoples from bygone eras are often enshrined in an ancestral position to bolster feelings of national pride. Such self-serving stories usually have little historical support and are therefore regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by most impartial scholars.

But if there is no solid evidence that the Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Meads, that does not necessarily mean that they have no cultural, historical, or genetic roots in ancient ethnic formations. Scholarship on such topics is often precarious, however, as the evidence is generally murky and national ideologies tend to intrude. But as long as they are based on some reasonable evidence, such “primordialist” ideas should not be rejected out of hand. Many of them warrant further inquiry, regardless of whether they seem farfetched.

To my mind, the most intriguing thesis on ancient Kurdish roots is found in the early works of Michael Mehrdad Izadi, one of the world’s most preeminent historical and cultural cartographers (his map collection, found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, is a cartographic treasure trove). Born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother, Izadi has deep and abiding interests in the Kurdish people. Some of his early writings on this topic can be found at Kurdistanica.com. Here he expounds his thesis of partial Kurdish descent from the ancient Hurrians, a Bronze-Age people who were associated with a powerful state (or empire) called Mitanni. Although the Hurrians, unlike the Kurds, were not an Indo-European people, some of their leaders, experts in chariot warfare, evidently were; their personal names, and even some of their deities, link them to the Indic (or Indo-Aryan) branch of Indo-European language family.

If Izady’s thesis is correct, the Kurds would have originated from an amalgamation of the ancient Hurrians and more powerful, mostly male, Indo-European-speaking intruders (initially speaking an Indo-Aryan language and later speaking one or more Iranian language). In global historical terms, this scenario fits into a common pattern. The languages of more military powerful peoples often supplant those of less powerful peoples, but other cultural aspects of the original group often survive with relatively little change. This is what Izady sees when he peers into the distant Kurdish past:

The legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is fundamental. It is manifest in the realm of Kurdish religion, mythology, material and martial arts, and even the genetics. Nearly three-quarters of Kurdish clan names and roughly half of topographical and urban names are also of Hurrian origins, ….  Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynasties, such as the Mannaeans and Kassites of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the southeast, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better-known today by its various denominations as Alevism, Yezidism,and Yarisanism (Ahl-i Haqq).

Izady’s interpretation of Kurdish origins and religious beliefs, it must be noted, has been rejected by many experts in the field. The Wikipedia article on Izady includes some crudely dismissive comments, albeit made by some equally controversial scholars. In the long run, it is usually best to neither embrace nor dismiss evidence-based but non-mainstream interpretations of deep historical processes. Most of our key theories in both the natural and human sciences, after all, were once roundly rejected for contravening the established consensus.

When the language of an elite population replaces the language of a subordinated group, traces of the older language often persist in the form of vocabulary elements, sounds, and even grammatical structures. If Izady’s thesis is correct, one might expect to find such a Hurrian “substratatum” in the modern Kurdish language(s) (or, more precisely, a Hurro-Urartian substratum, as Hurrian’s only known relative was the language of the Iron Age Kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey and Armenia). As it turns out, evidence does exist for such linguistic traces. Several years ago, the blogsite Within the Lands of Kurda ran a three-part series on this topic, entitled “The Hurro-Urartian Substratum in Kurdish.” Each of these posts is worth quoting:

It has long been shown by scholars that significant portion of Kurdish toponymy originates from Hurro-Urartian; examples are ”Barzani” which was name of a Hurrian god …

Indeed, there are hardly any cases where there is not a ”native” [i.e. Hurro-Urartian] Kurdish equivalent for the superimposed Irano-Kurdish words.

As can be seen, Kurdish language appears to be a creole language formed after an amalgamation of Hurro-Urartian and Iranic languages. The Hurro-Urartian layer, showing itself as an older substratum in which Urartian is stronger, while the Iranic layer, which began undoubtedly with the Scytho-Cimmerian invasion of Urartu emerges as a superstratum. The Iranic layer was further intensified with a wave of clearly identifiable Middle Persian loanwords under the Sassanid period, during which, Iranic aristocrats played a prominent role in local affairs

The author received some harsh criticism, however, in the comments section of the blog, particularly regarding the idea that Kurdish is a creole language. Linguists have very strict rules for determining such matters, and the author probably took a step too far. All that I can conclude from my own cursory investigation is that a major Hurrian-Urartian substratum in Kurdish as an intriguing possibility that deserves further inquiry.

Perhaps the most interesting line of evidence for the Hurrian roots of the Kurdish people comes from the realm of tattooing. Tattoos are haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, but Muslim Kurds – particularly women – have nonetheless maintained this ancient practice to this day, although it does seem to be slowly disappearing. Traditional Kurdish tattoos, primarily placed on the hands and face, are called deq. They are based on an elaborate symbolic system, sometimes deemed a “secret language.” Izady sees a clear Hurrian linkage here as well:

It is fascinating to recognize the origin of many tattooing motifs still used by the traditional Kurds on their bodies as replicas of those which appear on the Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb/rain motifs. In fact, some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds, as found prominently engraved to the wall at the great shrine at Lalish.

Regardless of any connections to the ancient Hurrians, deq tattooing is a fascinating topic in its own right. Several recent articles have focused on this endangered cultural tradition. I will  conclude this post with quotations from two of these publications. First, from The Bajer:

DEQ is a secret language, mainly among women. … In some cultures, tattoos stand for religion, power, and joy; others believe the practice of DEQ has therapeutic power. According to some women I have interviewed, DEQ is a reminder of loss, a way to immortalize their loved ones. They keep essential memories constantly in mind with powerful symbols on apparent parts of the body, such as the face, feet, arms, hands, and chest.

DEQ differs from the modern tattoo with its unique ingredients and recipe, which varies across different ethnic groups. DEQ tattoo ingredients include sheet metal soot or ash, coal dust, milk from a lactating mother who has weaned a female baby, which is believed to make the tattoo stick permanently, and liquid from an animal’s gallbladder. The application of DEQ includes embroidering the mixture into the skin through one to three needles.

Second, from Daily Sabah:

Deq symbols have different connotations but most of them are believed to protect women from evil forces. They are said to bring good health, cure illnesses and be associated with fertility and tribal affiliations. The figure of an eye is said to divert the evil eye, while an image of a gazelle brings luck. The figure of the sun or the moon refers to an endless and healthy life and an illustration of a millipede is associated with good housekeeping. For beautification, the figure of the moon or a star is preferred. The common “V” symbol is a tribal identifier. Certain geometrical figures or animal images refer to fertility. “Deq” is seen as an accessory, something that elderly women in Turkey’s southeast proudly show. Jodi Hilton, an American photojournalist, visited Syrians who have been displaced by the DAESH [ISIS] siege and now live at refugee camps in Turkey. There, she documented some of the last-remaining tattooed women from the Syrian town of Kobani.

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