Michael Izady

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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Michael Izady’s Amazingly Detailed Map of Ethnicity in Syria (and the Syrian Armenians)

Syria Simple Ethnicity MapMost maps that show the distribution of ethnic groups within particular countries are relatively simple, depicting a few discrete populations within large, contiguous blocks of territory. The distinguishing characteristics of such groups are rarely specified. A good example of such a useful yet overly simplified map is the Washington Post’s portrayal of Syria posted here. This map reduces the complex mosaic of Syria to three groups, two based on religion (Sunni and Alawite) and the other primarily on language (Kurd). But as most Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the portrayal is somewhat misleading. A better key would have labeled the tan color as indicating the distribution of Sunni Arabs, although in actuality many non-Arab (as well as non-Muslim) communities are scattered across this large swath of Syrian territory.

Syria Ethnicity Summary MapBut an internet image search of “Syria ethnicity map” returns a sizable number of far better maps that depict vastly more intricate patterns. As it turns out, most of these maps were either made by, or based on the work of, Michael Izady, the word’s most accomplished cartographer of cultural matters. On the Gulf 2000 website that features Izady’s work, one can find several superb maps of ethnicity in Syria Large Ethnicity MapSyria (and in many other countries as well). A small-format summary map shows the basic patterns, breaking down the population of Syria into thirteen groups, with demographic data provided in an accompanying chart and table. Izady’s large map of Syria’s ethnic composition provides far more information. Although impossible to tell from my reproduction here, the map is gargantuan. As a result, one can focus in on particular areas without losing resolution, as can be seen in the map details posted here. The map’s key, moreover, points to the complex blending of language and religion that form the foundation of ethnic identity in this part of the world. On the actual map itself, a brief essay on ethnicity provides a sophisticated conceptual framework as well as a bit of historical background.

Syria Ethnicity Map Detail 1A close inspection of the map shows that much of western and northern Syria are characterized by staggering ethnic complexity. That Izady has been able to accurately depict such intricacy is Syria Ethncity Map Detail 2remarkable. Small but non-negligible groups that are almost always ignored, such as Syria’s Ismailis and Twelver Shias, are mapped with precision. Separate groups that are habitually conflated, such as the Alawites and the Nusairis, are distinguished and mapped accordingly.

At first glance, Izady’s separation of the Alawites and the Nusairis left me puzzled. I had been under the impression that “Nusairi” was merely a pejorative term used by Sunni Muslims to disparage the highly heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam that is more properly known as the Alawite sect, which also happens to be the faith of the ruling core of the Syrian government. But the Nusairi group proper is indeed distinct from the Alawites, although the faiths of both groups, as Izady indicates, are partly rooted in ancient Gnosticism. The limited amount of research that I was able to conduct did not allow me to determine what specific features differentiate these two groups. Unfortunately, most of the readily accessible internet sources come from hostile Sunni Islamist website that disparage both groups and tend to lump them together. Intriguingly, the Nusairis are shown in Izady’s map as inhabiting the higher reaches of the Coastal, or Nusayriyah, Mountains, whereas the Alawites proper are concentrated in lower-elevation areas. (The term “Nusayriyah Mountains,” derives, according to the Wikipedia, from “an antiquated label for the [Alawite] community that is now considered insulting,” again conflating the two groups. )

Syria Ethnity Map Detail 4As Izady’s maps show, Armenian communities are scattered through several parts of Syria. One of the largest Armenian communities is found in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zur (alternatively Deir ez-Zor, Deir Ezzor, Deir Al-Zor, Dayr Al-Zawr, Der Ezzor), a settlement of more than 200,000 inhabitants that is noted for its oil-refineries and other industries. Deir al-Zur is particularly important in Armenian history, as it was one of the main destinations of Armenians expelled by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, a deadly process regarded by most historians of the issue as genocidal in nature. Deir al-Zur is also located near the core power-base of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS). As a result, the Armenian communities of the region are highly threatened.

ISIS Control mapOver the past two months, I have been periodically trying to determine the situation of the Armenians of Syria and especially eastern Syria, but with little luck. Some sources indicate that half of the Armenian population has fled the country. Many maps that show the current military situation depict the key city of Deir al-Zur as an island of Syrian governmental control in an ISIS sea (such a pattern is even found on maps that maximize the ISIS zone, such as the Wikipedia map posted here, which inaccurately portrays Kobane was having fallen to Islamic State forces). Other sources indicate that intensive fighting has recently occurred in the vicinity, and that much or perhaps all of the city has been taken by Islamic State fighters, but information remains thin. The most recent information that I have found dates from October 21 and comes from a Columbian newspaper. If my translation is correct, the paper reports that, “The group Islamic State today took part of the industrial area of ​​the city of Deir al-Zur in eastern Syria, after facing the forces of Bashar al-Assad regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” The sardonic humorist Ambrose Bierce once quipped that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” But if so, help by the media is still needed in this educational initiative, and I am not convinced that they are doing an adequate job.

The city of Deir al-Zur did gain brief attention in late September after ISIS militants destroyed a prominent Armenian Church as well as an Armenian Memorial to the ethnic expulsions of the early twentieth century, prompting widespread international condemnation. Armenian sources, however, expressed disappointment that the official response from the United States “failed to either mention the very reason for this holy site’s existence, the Armenian Genocide…”

Gathering information on Deir al-Zur is complicated by the fact that its name also denotes the Syrian governorate (province) in which the city is located. Most news searches for Deir al-Zur (regardless of which spelling is used) thus return information that pertains to the larger province, not the city per se. One of the more unusual and intriguing recent articles on the province examines, “rules for journalists” that have been put forward by ISIS in the regions that it controls. As can be seen from this excerpt of an official ISIS proclamation, the groups does not hold the Qatari media giant Al Jazeera in high regard:

3 – Journalists can work directly with international news agencies (such as Reuters, AFP and AP), but they are to avoid all international and local satellite TV channels. They are forbidden to provide any exclusive material or have any contact (sound or image) with them in any capacity.

4 – Journalists are forbidden to work in any way with the TV channels placed on the blacklist of channels that fight against Islamic countries (such as Al-Arabiya, Al Jazeera and Orient). Violators will be held accountable.

 

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The Extraordinary Cultural Cartography of Michael Izady, Part I

Middle East Oil Religion MapTo understand the political situation of the Middle East today, it is necessary to examine the geographical relationships pertaining to political borders, the distributions of religious and linguistic groups, and the patterning of oil and gas deposits. Of particular significance is the fact that many of the largest fossil fuel deposits are found in areas that are not primarily inhabited by Sunni Arabs. Many of the major oil and gas fields are rather found in Shia (and to a lesser extent, Ibadi) regions, and in Kurdish territory. This pattern is especially significant in regard to the oilfields of eastern Saudi Arabia, which are located in a mostly Shia region of a state noted for its hostility to Shia Islam. Just last week, Saudi Arabia sentenced a prominent Shia cleric to death for supporting non-violent protests.

Several years ago, I made my own amateurish map of this issue, focused on Saudi Arabia. I later discovered an extraordinarily detailed and accurate map of the same issue covering a much larger swath of territory. This map made was made by Dr. Michael Izady, a scholar of the Middle East and a cartographer extraordinaire. Izady’s maps can be found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, a site that I cannot recommend highly enough. To my mind, Izady is the world’s best cultural/historical cartographer. He has brought cultural mapmaking to a level never before seen, far surpassing all rivals. His map collection is substantial, he continues to produce new maps on new topics, and he continually revises his old maps. Many of his maps simultaneously show cultural and demographic patterns, mapping densely populated areas in darker shades from sparsely settled areas and leaving virtually uninhabited zones blank. Such a cartographic strategy is highly useful—and very difficult to pull off.

For the next week or so, GeoCurrents will be showcasing Izady’s maps. Today’s post is brief, but more detailed essays will follow.

Religion Arabian Peninsula MapWhenever I study one of Izady’s maps, I find patterns that I had not previously been aware of, making me want to learn more. I also use his maps extensively in preparation for teaching. This afternoon, for example, my undergraduate seminar on the history and geography of current global events will be examining the position of Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia (among other topics), and here Izady’s maps prove crucial. Most important, they show that Shi’ism in the country is by no means limited to the oil-region along the Gulf, although that is the way that the situation is generally portrayed in the media. Note, for example, the large Shia area in southwestern Saudi Arabia adjacent to the Shia portion of Yemen, which in turn has been at the core of the recent turmoil in that country. But despite the obvious importance of this issue in Yemen, the situation of the followers of Zaidi Shi’ism in adjacent areas of Saudi Arabia is almost never mentioned in the media.

Southwest Arabia Religion MapBut it gets much more complicated than that. The detail of Izady’s global map of Shia Islam posted to the left shows that the Zaidi sect is not the only branch of the Shia faith found in southwestern Saudi Arabia, as the Ismaili sect is represented as well. Izady’s map of Yemen Religion Mapreligion in Yemen shows the Ismaili areas of that country in extraordinary detail. Ismaili Islam is itself a complex branch of the faith, with numerous divisions of its own and a fascinating history (and one in which Yemen plays a major role.) If I had the time, I would now be delving into the persecuted Ismaili faith in Saudi Arabia’s Najran province. As Wikipedia notes, “In Najran city, the Khushaiwa compound, with its Mansura mosque complex, is the spiritual capital of the Sulaymani branch of the Ismaili sect…” But as it is, I must turn away from such matters and prepare for class! More later…

 

 

 

 

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