The mystery of Kurdish roots

A tangled web they weave: the mystery of Kurdish roots

Vera Beaudin Saeedpour

Kurds often complain that their ancestors, particularly the illustrious ones, are at best misidentified, at worst misappropriated. And therefore credit does not accrue where credit is due. Take for example, Karim Khan Zand (or Zend), a notable to whom more than a few Kurds refer with affection as “Karim Kurd,” and more than a few Persians prefer to call “the Father of Persia.” But consult the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (“Persia”) to find this exercise in futility. At the outset, Karim Khan is “a chief of the Zend Kurds” who for nineteen years “ruled with the title of wakil, or regent, over the whole of Persia, excepting the province of Khurasan. He made Shiraz the seat of his government, and by means of his brothers put down every attempt to subvert his authority. The rule of the great Zend chief was just and mild, and he is on the whole, considering his education and the circumstances under which he was placed, one of the more faultless characters to be met with in Persian history.” But read down a few lines only to find that “The Zend is said to be a branch of the Lak tribe.” Proceed to the accompanying footnote and return to square one: “Markham. Morier says of Karim Khan’s family, ‘it was a low branch of an obscure tribe in Kurdistan.'” (1)

If Britannica vacillated back in 1911, it has been in good company since then. In his book on Kerim Khan Zand published in 1979, John Perry, University of Chicago professor of Persian language and civilization, hovers between Kurd, Lak, and Lur. The Zand tribe he describes as “a minor pastoral people of the Zagros foothills. They are generally said to be a branch of the Lak tribes, which also include the Kalhor, Zangana, Mafi, and Bajlan, and like their neighbors have been classed by Persian and by foreign writers both as Kurds and as Lurs.” (Tell that to the Kurds who today identify themselves as Kalhors.) Perry then proceeds with this attempt to clear the cobwebs: “The reason for this confusion is evidently the position of the Zand home, at the eastern limit of the line through Kermanshah that traditionally divides Luristan from Kurdistan and where in practice Kurdish and Luri customs and dialects are intermingled. The narrative sources clearly imply, however, that the Zands regarded themselves, or at least were regarded, as quite distinct from their neighbors the Fayli Lurs on the one hand and the Kurds of Ardalan on the other. The Lak tribes, whose dialect shows characteristics of Kurdish rather than Luri, were apparently immigrants into this northernmost zone of Luristan, or were settled there by Shah ‘Abbas. In the later Safavid Period, the Zands are mentioned together with the Laks as Lurs.”

Perplexed? Perry covers his sources with a footnote leading us further into the pathless woods. As for the Zands, he writes that “Qazvini, Shirvani and Kuhmarra’i … class them as Lurs,” while “Bedlisi, Zaki and Nikitine … have them as Kurds.” And there is more. “There are (or were until recent times) various groups in Kurdistan and northern Luristan calling themselves Zands … sundry pockets of Kurdish Zands are remarked by Edmonds, Nikitine, and Zaki.” (2)

In the second example, there is no uncertainty. It is as clear as it is indefensible, attached as it is to Saladin, the most misappropriated of all Kurds. It lies in a Kurdish Library acquisition titled The Middle Ages: an Illustrated History by Barbara Hanawalt, Ohio State University professor of British history and, according to the Oxford University Press book jacket, “a renowned medievalist.” Dr. Hanawalt had this alone to impart on Saladin: “The Third Crusade took careful planning. Richard was the only enthusiastic participant, but Philip and Frederick soon followed because the Church and laity were concerned that the Turks had unified under their great leader, Saladin, and threatened to take over the entire Holy Land once again … According to myth, he fought single-handedly against Saladin. Whether or not this is true, he did in fact achieve major victories and succeeded in reaching a compromise with the Turkish leader, who agreed to give the Christians the port city of Acre and a corridor through which pilgrims could pass to worship in Jerusalem.” No oversight, the index reads, “Saladin (Turk leader), 101.”

On the one hand, the confusion is understandable. There are to date no definitive sources attesting to the origins and early history of the Kurds. Only four centuries ago Sherif Khan Bedlisi, a Kurdish provincial governor of an Ottoman vilayet, authored a history to which most Kurds refer today as a definitive source. But even Bedlisi did not write in Kurdish, he wrote in Persian; nor was history his primary employment.

Like the early Jews, the Kurds are a tribal people. Yet the Jews managed to leave voluminous records and writings for well over 2,000 years. Not so the Kurds. Generally believed to have a history of great antiquity, no Kurd to date seems to have left that imprint in print. Apparently, only in the seventh century did Arabs use the word ‘Kurt.’ Under these circumstances, the quest to discover Kurdish origins and ancestry–and Kurdish contributions to the contents and discontents of civilization as well–have been left to others. Like Kurds, they come equipped with varied expertise, perceptions, sentiments, interests and aims. This is to be as expected as the night the day. In what follows, perhaps readers will get some impressions of where that path has led.


In 1870 in a book titled “Wild Life Among the Koords,” British Maj. Frederick Millingen, had this to say in a chapter on Kurdish origins: “As for the Koords themselves, the name by which they distinguish their nationality is Kartmantchi, that is Koord. Could there be a more striking resemblance between the Kart or Kurd of the Arabs, the Kartmantchi of the Koords, and the Karduks of Xenophon? By making due allowance for the corruption to which all names or words are subject by the laws of phonetic change when passing from the mouth of one nation to another, it must be acknowledged that the Koords of our days are without any doubt the Karduks of old and that this nation still occupies the same country which it possessed twenty-three centuries previous to our epoch.” Convinced of a direct lineage, Millingen nonetheless was wise enough to acknowledge that there might be others not as certain, and noted, “That the Koords of modern times are the descendants of the Karduks is a point on which ethnologists generally agree, though some doubts have been entertained on this point.” (3)


Having determined Karduk lineage, Millingen posed the question, “Are the Koords to be regarded as the descendants of the Parthians?” And acknowledging that “This is a problem for and against which much can be said,” he proceeded to this argument in the affirmative: “It is true that Herodotus, Strabo, and Justin establish no connection between these two nations; but the fact that both the Karduks and the Parthians originate from the borders of the Caspian–the former from modern Ghilan, the latter from Khorasan (ancient Parthia)–gives weight to the opinion that the Karduks and Parthians are but one people. Besides the identity which can be traced in the warlike dispositions and other characteristics common to both, it may be observed that since the Assyrian epoch the Parthians and the Karduks are the only people who, in that part of Asia, have maintained their nationality against the encroachments of either eastern or western conquerors; that is, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. At one time they actually succeeded in asserting their independence and established the mighty empire of the Parthians, which notwithstanding the hostility of the Persians and of the Romans, lasted for the space of 500 years, till A.D. 220 … With the downfall of the Parthian empire a phenomenon almost unparalleled in history presents itself to the attention of the observer,–that is the complete disappearance within a few days of the Parthians as a nation and as a race. Where did they go? What became of them? No one knows, as history never once mentions their name again. In searching for them amongst the different nations which occupy the territory that formed their empire, the only race we find having any affinity or analogy with them is that of the Karduks or Koords, who have inherited from them the same independent spirit, and the same hatred of both Persians and Turks; for, as regards both, the Koords of to-day represent the position which the Parthians held towards the ancient Persians and Romans.” (4)

In 1912 a book by another British officer was published. The author of “To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise,” was Maj. E. B. Soane. Like Millingen, Soane had a more-than-military interest in Kurds. But he did not share Millingen’s Parthian conviction, which he dismissed in a lone footnote: “Speculation has had its day even with the origin of the Kurds, in the theory put forward by some that they are the descendents of the Parthians, a theory quite impossible to consider, now that the Parthians are known to be of Scythian race, of a type ethnologically and linguistically different from the modern Kurd, who is a pure Aryan.” (5)

In this climate of uncertainty it was customary to find Kurdish origins covered in a sentence or two in many books. A few examples: In his 1868 account of Ten Years on the Euphrates, Rev. C. H. Wheeler wrote, “The name of the Koords seems to have been derived from that of their ancestors, the Carduchi, through whose territory Xenophon led the retreat of the famous “Ten Thousand.” Much as did Rev. Isaac Adams in 1900 in Persia by a Persian wherein he stated only that “The Kurds are descendants of the ancient Carduchi, with whom Xenophon and the 10,000 had so long a struggle.” And in a book titled Daybreak in Turkey published in 1906, Rev. James I. Barton told readers: “Little is known of the origin and history of this wild and most interesting people. They probably are the direct descendants of the Karduchi, who occupied the same plateaus and commanded the same mountain passes that the Koords now hold.” (6)

And when there were introductory paragraphs, they tended to look much like this from an 1896 book on Persia by missionary Jesse Malek Yonan: “The origin and ancestry of the Kurds, like that of most Eastern nations, is still unsettled among ethnologists. They stand among the Asiatic races, like the Basques and Lapps in Europe, wrapt in obscurity. Whether they are of Iranian or Turanian origin, whether they are descendants of Medes or Parthians, or whether they are the Gardu, who at one time held the mountains north of Assyria, no one can say with certainty. It is safest to identify them with the Karduchie, with whom Zenophon and the ten thousand had so long a struggle. In regard to the Kurds, history is silent, except at certain epochs when they touched the more civilized world. It is said by some Eastern historians that the famous Saladin was a Kurd. Several governments of Western Asia have claimed them, but a people so rebellious has ever been a thorn in the side of every ruling power.” (7)

Similarly, in 1907, W. S. Monroe made this reference in Turkey and the Turks: “The forbears of the Kurds were the ancient Parthians; and their empire existed for five hundred years–to A.D. 220. While of Aryan stock and belonging to the same ethnic family as the Armenians and Persians, the Kurds have so frequently intermarried with Semitic and Mongolian races that their physical type does not possess the typical characteristics of the Indo-Eranic peoples. Mentally also they represent a more backward state of civilization than either Armenians or Persians.” (8) And in 1922 in The Cradle of Mankind, Sir Edgar T. A. Wigram would inform readers that “The Kurds are a very ancient people, no doubt identical with the ‘Carduchi’ who gave so much trouble to the Ten Thousand in the Anabasis.” (9) Alas, back to square one.


It was now past the mid-20th century. In 1963 New York Times correspondent Dana Adams Schmidt flew to northern Iraq to cover the latest Kurdish revolt against Bagdad where he was told by Kurds that “their earliest name was Guti.” (10) Their claim was not without foundation. These passages from the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (“Kurds”) strongly suggest that the Gutis had somehow been identified as their deepest root and the Karduks a later graft: “With regard to the origin of the Kurds, it was formerly considered sufficient to describe them as the descendants of the Carduchi, who opposed the retreat of the Ten Thousand through the mountains, but modern research traces them far beyond the period of the Greeks. At the dawn of history the mountains overhanging Assyria were held by a people named Gutu, a title which signified ‘a warrior,’ and which was rendered in Assyrian by the synonym of Gurdu or Kardu, Cardaces … These Gutu were a Turanian tribe of such power as to be placed in the early cuneiform records on an equality with the other nations of western Asia, that is, with the Syrians and Hittites, the Susians, Elamites, and Akkadians of Babylona; and during the whole period of the Assyrian political position. After the fall of Nineveh they coalesced with the Medes, and, in common with all the nations inhabiting the high plateaus of Asia Minor, Armenia, and Persia, became gradually Aryanized, owing to the immigration at this period of history of tribes in overwhelming numbers which, from whatever quarter they may have sprung, belonged certainly to the Aryan family. The Gutu or Kurdu were reduced to subjection by Cyrus before he descended upon Babylon, and furnished a contingent of fighting men to his successors, being thus mentioned under the names of Saspirians and Alarodians in the muster roll of the army of Xerxes which was preserved by Herodotus. In later times they passed successively under the sway of the Macedonians, the Parthians, and Sassanians, being especially befriended, if we may judge from tradition as well as from the remains still existing in the country, by the Arsacian monarchs, who were probably of a cognate race. Gotarzes indeed, whose name may perhaps be translated “chief of the Gutu,” was traditionally believed to be the founder of the Gurans, the principal tribe of southern Kurdistan, and his name and titles are still preserved in a Greek inscription at Behistun, near the Kurdish capital of Kermanshah …”

And then, to deepen the mystery is a single footnote that reads:

The Kalhor tribe are traditionally descended from Gudarz-ibn Go,

whose son Roham was sent by Bahman Keiani to destroy Jerusalem and

bring the Jews into captivity. This Roham is the individual usually

called Bokht-i-nasser (Nebuchadrezzar) and he ultimately succeeded

to the throne. The neighboring country has ever since remained in

the hands of his descendants, who are called Gurans” (Sheref-Nama,

Persian MS), The same popular tradition still exists in the

country … the rock at Behistun showing that Gudarz-ibn-Gio was

really a historic personage. (See Roy. Geog. Soc. ix, 114.) (11)

If this assertion is correct, Nebuchadrezzar, the Babylonian king who destroyed Jerusalem, was an ancestor of the Kurds. Of the Kalhur, E. B. Soane writes: “the tribe is to-day the most powerful of southern Kurdistan … All kinds of curious theories have been put forward to account for the origin of the Kalhur, none being more fantastic than that of Rawlinson, that they are the descendants of the Jews carried into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar.” As for the Guran, he has this to impart: “Of all Kurdish tribes, perhaps the Guran has been best known and has excited most interest among those who have travelled in western Persia and southern Kurdistan. If, however, ethnological research could be brought to bear upon the tribe, it is possible that the Guran would be discovered to be not Kurdish, but either Lurish or Persian … It is now thought that this country was peopled by a sedentary population called Guran, speaking the dialect … which is still spoken with variations by the Aoraman, Kanduleh, and Rizho settled tribes. The tongue was, and still is in a measure, the classical language of the Ardalan family, and is used in all the very extensive poetry that was and is written in and about Sina [modern Sanandaj]. It is now called Aorami or Shahrazuri.” (12) (Sanandaj by the way is the most important city in Iranian Kurdistan today.

The 1950 edition of Britannica, while continuing to admit that “the origin of the Kurds cannot yet be accurately defined,” strengthened the claim in these passages: “The oldest Sumerian records leave little doubt that not later than 2000 B.C. a people named Gutu or Kuti, later on called Kurtie by the Assyrians, held the region of middle Tigris from the district of Bohtan roundabout Mount Gudi (perverted into Jebel Judy by the Arabs), across Bezabda (Jezira Ibn Omar of the Arabs), to the mountains of Kuh-i-Shengar (Jebel Sinjar) in the west and the chains of Zagros in the east. Another group of kindred tribes named Kassites (Kassu) descended into Babylon from the southern hills of Zagros and governed Babylonia (Akkad) for about six centuries (1800-1200 B.C.). It appears that these original Kurdish tribes, perhaps of pure Aryan stock, were one of the oldest autochthonous people of those mountain regions. Called Kardu by later Assyrian and pre-Muslim Arabs, Gortukh by Armenians, and Carduchi, Gordse, Cyrti, etc. in the Greek and Roman classics, the history of the Kurds has consequently been very confused and illusory.” (13)

Confused are we? Look closely at both sections. Britannica 1911 states that the Guti were of Turanian stock and were “gradually” Aryanized. The 1950 edition suggests that the “original” Kurdish tribes were “perhaps of pure Aryan stock.”

In the considered opinion of Kurdish historian Mehrdad Izady, Kurds are neither rooted in the Guti nor should they wish to be. He said as much, and more, in an article published in Kurdish Life in 1995 under the title, “In Guti We Trust.” (14) Here is most of what he wrote:

“I have never known a Kurd who does not believe in the extreme antiquity of his or her nation’s history. And yet, when asked, he or she can only conjecture over this presumably long history, with the Guti the last stop on this Proustian ‘remembrance of things past.’ To Kurds, the Gutis have become the source of history, ethnicity and sentiments regarding their roots. They have even come to believe that the term ‘Kurd’ (however impossibly) derives from ‘Guti.’ In fact Guti has become synonymous with their history–the embodiment of truth and authenticity; almost deified. But ask a Kurd, ‘Who were the Gutis?’ and none can tell you. No surprise this; in fact no one knows precisely who the Gutis were nor of their achievements. If Gutis are such an enigma, and culturally such a non-entity, why would Kurds want them as ancestors; why do they point to these Gutis as the defining source to document their long history? Well, that is precisely the point. To the unknown, one is free to attribute all things, great and small, good and bad–and get away with it.

“Who were the Gutis? Among the many Hurrian-speaking inhabitants of the Kurdish mountains one does find a group by that name (also called Qutil, Quti and the like). They are ascribed by Mesopotamian records to a land, conveniently called after the Gutis, ‘Gutium.’ This Gutium was located somewhere in the central Zagros range, between Luristan and Lake Van. For about two centuries (ca. 2200-2000 B.C.) the Gutis maintained military superiority over the Mesopotamian (primarily Sumerian) states. In an impressive show of force, they succeeded in annexing Sumeria to their domain. Apparently they founded a separate Guti dynasty that ruled from Sumeria for over a century, until they were expelled. In fact, the biblical and modern Mt. Judi (between Zakho and Sirnak) and the Kurdish clan of Judikanlu preserve variant forms of the old name, ‘Guti.’ So far, so good.

“The Gutis were certainly not the only Hurrian-speaking peoples who overflowed the Kurdish mountains into Mesopotamia. What little we know of their language, according to palaeo-linguist Diakonoff, is that it is a Hurrian dialect similar to Urartian. (15) Hurrian ancestors of the modern Kurds were already populating entire cities in Mesopotamia (for example, the twin city of Kesh-Adab) and those on the foothills (such as Nuz/Gasur). By 1500 B.C., these Hurian multitudes had even created a form of pidgeon Akkadian to communicate with the Mesopotamian lowlanders. Akkadian tablets speak disparagingly of the Hurrian scribes, whose bad usage of Akkadian they brand ‘the Hurrian style.’ At the important nearby Hurrian centers like Arap’he (ancient Kirkuk) one does not find even the name ‘Guti’ in any record. One might argue that Arap’he’s archives are only 3,500 years old, and therefore about 500 years younger than the Gutis. Sumerian tables commissioned under the renowned king Enmerkar 4,200 years ago speak at length of the strong economic, religious, and political bonds between Sumeria and ‘Aratta,’ the famed, and thus far mysterious, kingdom in the central Zagros mountains, and presumably the heartland of the Gutis. Enmerkar lived about 200 years before the occupation of Sumeria by the mountain people we call Gutis. Nowhere, however, does Enmerkar make mention of the Guti or their land. One might argue that Enmerkar did not know the mountains and mountain dwellers well. But he did.

“A startling fact came to light when Sumerologist S. N. Kramer translated a Sumerian tablet revealing that Enmerkar himself was a brother of the king of Aratta, and therefore presumably a native of the Kurdish mountains. (16) How could he not have heard of the Gutis, if indeed they were a significant military force?

“Here is the paradox: No Sumerian had ever seen or head of a Guti before the Guti occupied Sumeria. Nor did natives of the Kurdish mountains afterward. In fact, we never would have heard of Gutis either, were it not for their 125-year-long occupation of Sumeria, which in fact forever destroyed Sumerian supremacy. The rising star of the Semites in Mesopotamia shone brightest under king Sargon I of Agade (Akkadia). Sargon did away with Sumeria and the ‘real’ Gutis with it some 3,800 years ago.

“After Sargon, the Gutis are not seen again. But for the next 1,500 years Mesopotamians called all inhabitants of the Kurdish mountains ‘Guti’ as a derogation. Let me re-emphasize that the Hurrian archives–that is, those of the native inhabitants of the Kurdish mountains–never note the Guti phenomenon. If the native cultures in the mountains did not know the Gutis and–except for the Sumerians in a single century–if the lowland cultures in Mesopotamia did not know the Gutis, how important could they have been?

“If the Gutis were so inconsequential, why all the fuss for so long a time? Gutis became big shots by accident; they inadvertently mingled with the proverbial ‘right’ people, the Sumerians, who would matter a great deal in millennia to come. Sumerian religion and mythology became the foundation of most subsequent religions and myths. The stories of Noah and the Flood, patriarch Abraham (a native of Ur of Chaldea, a capital of Sumeria), even English words such as ‘hallelujah’ and ‘abyss’ are Sumerian in origin. Therefore, what affected the Sumerians made an everlasting impact on humanity’s basic tenets of knowledge. What pained Sumerians pained everyone else–indirectly and for a long time to come. Fortune smiled on the obscure Gutis only when they pained the Sumerians. “Many otherwise obscure and insignificant peoples are familiar to us today for no better reason than they pained or pleased the Jews thousands of years ago (and now us through the influence of the Bible and the Koran). Who would have heard of the Edomites, Sodomites, Gomorrahns, Moabites and others had they not been incorporated into Jewish myth and religion? Surely Gutis would have no place in history had they not shown up in Sumeria at the eleventh hour.

“The Akkadians passed the Sumerian legacy to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians and on to us. Thus until the eclipse of Mesopotamia under Persian dominance in the sixth century B.C., the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians called everyone they didn’t like in the mountains ‘Gutis.’ Today still we refer to ill-mannered people as ‘Philistines,’ despite the fact that the ancient Philistines managed only to get on the wrong side of the Jews. Adoption of the Jewish legacy by more than half the world’s population since then is accompanied by disdain for the Philistines, despite the fact that no one has seen a Philistine in the flesh for about 3,000 years …

“Writing to dispel the Guti hang-up, I may well be accused of leaving the Kurdish ‘herd’ without a history. But banking on illusions to build reality is like building palaces on clouds …”


Palatial dreams may have something to do with another possible link in the Kurdish ancestral chain. When Dana Schmidt made his 1963 visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, he learned, from Kurds, that “it is generally accepted among educated Kurds that their ancestors were the Medes.” (17) In the early 1990s, the first Kurdish-operated satellite television channel in Europe was named MEDTV. In 2002 the publication of a Kurdish calendar was announced to begin with the date 612 B.C., the year the Medes captured Nineveh. And on April 12, 2002, a new airline to carry passengers between Urmiah in Iran and Dusseldorf, Germany, was founded with a name as amenable to Kurds as to Persians. It is called Medes Air.

And yet, if Kurdish history is a mystery, that of the Medes is an even deeper enigma. They founded and ruled an empire some six centuries before the birth of Christ and simply disappeared. Russian scholar Zenaide Ragozin explained why so little had been unearthed over the next 2,000 years. In his 1887 book on the topic, he put the problem this way: “Uncertainty confronts us at every turn when we attempt to enquire for details concerning the Median nation, its institutions and its life. Perhaps no other empire of like extent and power has left so few traces of its existence, so few handles for history to take hold of. This is certainly owing to the lack of durable monuments. Not an inscription has reached us; not one undoubtedly genuine specimen of arts or craft; nothing but legends of epical character, and those not in native form or garb, but transmitted through Greek writers, who got them in fragments, through the channel of ignorant, unreliable interpreters, and proceeded to impart them as history. Of the real value of such history, we have a sample in the accounts of Semiramis. But, though modern research has very well established what is not true in the old Greek stories, it has hitherto failed in procuring such positive information concerning the Medes.” (18)

Positive information or no, writing twenty-five years later, Maj. Ely Bannister Soane was not discouraged from insisting on a direct link between Kurds and Medes, unlike fellow officer Millingen, who had earlier mentioned the Medes only in brief among the peoples traversing and settling the region. “The territory we have ascribed to the Koordistan of our days embrace a great part of the country occupied once by the Medes, Assyrian, Parthians, & c … this extension of the Koordish territory from the mountains towards the plains to the south and to the north may have taken place at a subsequent period, as a result of the expansion of the population, through procreation and the fusion into it of the Median and Assyrian races,” Millingen wrote. (19) But Soane, having dispensed with Millingen’s Parthian hypothesis, and having admitted that of Kurds, “I suppose less is known than of any other race in the East,” was not about to relinquish his Median proposition. In these passages, he argued the linkage: “It is a long retrospect back to 1,200 to 1,500 years B.C., for it is there we are to see the kings of Nairi, who appear to be the forbears of those Medes who later gained renown, and again later, under the name of Kurd, remained a word of terror in the ears of the neighbours. In those days the Assyrians reigned in the lands about Mosul and between the rivers Zab. Following the course of the Greater Zab, from its middle to its source, was an obscure, little-known land, and here was the heart of the Nairi land. Here, too, later, were the Medes established, and here is still the heart and centre of Kurdistan … Armenia, or Urartu, was tucked away north of all this, behind the mountains and Lake Van, upon its plateau, and the kings of Urartu are not to be confounded with the men of Nairi. Nor were the Nairi lands confined to the upper waters of the Great Zab, for the people between the Tigris headwaters and the Euphrates north of Mount Niphates, that is, in modern times, Kharput and Darsim, in Bitlis and the Taurus range, were mentioned by Tiglath-Pileser and his successors (1100 to 600 B.C.) as the Nairi, that same land that later harboured the Invincible Gordyene, whose name appeared immediately after the disappearance of the name Mede at the middle of the Achaemenian dynasty of Persia (ca. 400 B.C.) and in reference to races inhabiting the lands of modern Kurdistan–which was Media.” (20)

Not surprisingly, Soane was as impressed with the modern Kurd as with the ancient Mede. “Judged as specimens of the human form, there is probably no higher standard extant than that of the Kurds,” he wrote. “The northerner is a tall, thin man (obesity is absolutely unknown among the Kurds). The nose is long, thin, and often a little hooked, the mouth small, the face oval and long. The men usually grow a long moustache, and invariably shave the beard. The eyes are piercing and fierce. Among them are many of yellow hair and bright blue eyes; and the Kurdish infant of this type, were he placed among a crowd of English children, would be indistinguishable from them, for he has a white skin. In the south the face is a little broader sometimes, and the frame heavier. Of forty men of the southern tribes taken at random there were nine under six feet, though among some tribes the average height is five feet nine. The stride is long and slow and the endurance of hardship great. They hold themselves as only mountain men can do, proudly and erect, and look what they are–the Medes of today, worthy, were they only united, of becoming once again a great military nation, whose stern, hard nature could keep in hand the meaner races among whom they live.” (21) Suitably impressed with Soane, yet another British officer, Capt. W. B. Hay, would simply state in his 1922 chronicle, Two Years in Kurdistan, “The Kurds are an Aryan race, and are supposed to be identical with the ancient Medes.” (22)

Not so the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. The section on Media opens with a disclaimer not unlike that prefacing its section on Kurds: “The origin and history of the Median Empire is quite obscure, as we possess almost no contemporary information, and not a single monument or inscription from Media itself.” But Britannica offers no support for Soane’s contention, as the following indicates: “Media, the ancient name of the north-western part of Iran, the country of the Medes, corresponding to the modern province of Azerbaijan, Ardelan, Irak Adjemi, and parts of Kurdistan. It is separated from Armenia and the lowlands on the Tigris (Assyria) by the mighty ranges of the Zagros (mountains of Kurdistan; in its northern parts probably called Choatras, Plin. v. 98), and in the north by the valley of the Araxes (Aras). In the east it extends towards the Caspian Sea, but the high chains of mountains which surround the Caspian Sea (the Parachoathras of the ancients and the Elburz, separate it from the coast, and the narrow plains on the border of the sea (Gilan), the country of the Gelae and Amardi, and Mazandaran, in ancient times inhabited by the Tapuri, cannot be reckoned a part of Media proper … The Iranian Medes were not the only inhabitants of the country. The names in the Assyrian inscription prove that the tribes in the Zagros and the northern parts of Media were not Iranians nor Indo-Europeans, but an aboriginal population, like the early inhabitants of Armenia, perhaps connected with the numerous tribes of the Caucasus. We can see how the Iranian element gradually became dominant: princes with Iranian names occasionally occur as rulers of these tribes. But the Gelai, Tapuri, Cadusii, Amardi, Utii and other tribes in northern Media and on the shores of the Caspian were not Iranians. With them Polybius v. 44, 9, Strabo xi. 507, 508, 514, and Pliny vi. 46, mention the Anariaci, whom they consider as a particular tribe, but in reality their name, the ‘Not Arians,’ is the comprehensive designation of all these small tribes … When the empire decayed and the Carduchi and other mountainous tribes made themselves independent, eastern Armenia became a special satrapy, while Assyria seems to have been united with Media; therefore Xenophon in the Anabasis … always designates Assyria by the name of Media.” (23)

Thereby the purity of Arian roots is further trampled. Additionally to compare the 1911 section on “Kurds” with that of 1950 is to invite further confusion. From the first we learn that after the fall of Nineveh the Kurds “coalesced” with the Medes, whereas from the second we will find that “On the downfall of the Median empire, the Kurds seem to have absorbed the remnants of Mede warriors as they absorbed later Assyrians, Armenians and the Turkomans, just in the same way as they have themselves been absorbed by their neighbours.” (24)

Once more we turn to Kurdish historian Mehrdad Izady for enlightenment, if any there is. Attempting to answer the question, “Are Kurds Descended from the Medes?” he wrote in the spring of 1994: (25)

“A few years ago, I was given a letter addressed to the Kurdish Library from an American non-academic. The writer asked, ‘Are Kurds descended from the Medes?’ I responded as best I could, avoiding the myriad of details, which might well have diminished rather than enhanced interest in the topic. With the proliferation of printed matter on Kurds in the wake of the Gulf war, the question–or presumption–increasingly arises in the media.

“It is difficult to set a side the political overtones attached to the question. Kurds and Westerners interested in Kurdish topics–scholars, politicians, reporters and the general public–have variously attempted to answer what is basically an academic pursuit. Unfortunately the issue is too often raised to serve a political agenda. And thus it cannot be answered now without crediting too much or denying too much of Kurdish history, a ‘history’ necessary either to bolster or to deny Kurdish political claims. Apparently there is an a priori assumption that if Kurds descended from the ancient and illustrious Medes their claim to an identity and therefore to a modern homeland is more valid than would be the case had they simply appeared from nowhere on some auspicious occasion such as the advent of Islam in the seventh century. Admittedly an outsider to the field of political gamesmanship, I can only attempt to respond to the question from an academic perspective.

“Do Kurds descend from the Medes? Well, yes and no–the same ‘yes and no’ response one might make to the question, ‘are Italians descendants of the Romans?’ Remember that the Italian peninsula (ancient Etruria) was well populated and boasted a sophisticated civilization before the coming of the Latin tribes who eventually established Rome and fostered what we know as Roman civilization. But they did not stop there. Latin-speaking Romans colonized and settled many lands in Europe and the Middle East. In the process, they imparted their language and many of their cultural traits to the local peoples. Linguistically, in addition to the Italians, the French, Portuguese, Spanish and Latin Americans speak Romance (Latin) languages. Thus, at least linguistically, all can claim to be the modern Romans.

“After the fall of the Roman Empire, many other peoples (primarily Germanic, but Slavic as well) came to settle in Italy superimposing new genetic and cultural material on what Romans left behind. Some of the most impressive examples of Roman art and architecture are found outside Italy in North Africa and the Middle East. The most important ‘roman’ thinkers and luminaries also came from outside Italy: from Greece, Spain, Anatolia, Syria, etc. If we were to honor the claim that the Byzantine Empire was in fact the “Eastern Roman Empire,” the Greeks and the Anatolians (now Turkified), who spent 1,400 years of their history under Roman imperial rule and ran the region for all but 200 years, are more “Roman” than anyone else. Italians ceased to be Roman subjects of Constantinople, ‘New Rome,’ by the 4th century A.D.

“If we were to call the Italians the descendants of the Romans, then it follows that we must also be ready to assume that the multitude of peoples and cultures who were there before the coming of the Roman (Latin) tribes, and those who arrived after the demise of the Romans, all vanished into thin air. Are not the Italians the progeny of all these peoples and cultures and of the Romans as well? Of course.

“Well then, are the Italians descended from the Romans? The answer remains ‘yes and no.’ No, because linguistically and culturally, many other peoples share this Roman heritage, not just Italians. All are equally right to assert that they are the descendants of the ancient Romans. Yes, because the Romans began their career in the Italian peninsula, and only then expanded out to form an empire and to cultivate their culture and language in other places. And when the Latin-speaking Romans were gone, their name and legend remained most tangible and concentrated in the region of their birth, the modern Lazzio (old Latium) surrounding the capital of Rome. On the question of Roman inheritance, Italians are therefore entitled to just a bit more, making them first among equals–or prima inter pares, as a Roman might have put it.

“The Italian example illustrates the complications that arise when attempting to apply simplistic questions to complex socio-cultural processes. A more fundamental flaw in this line of questioning, i.e., Kurdish descent from Medes or Iranians from Romans, emanates from the common assumption that, like movies, all peoples and cultures must have a “beginning.” Presumably Kurdish descent from Medes would then place their “beginning” with the reign of the first legendary Median king Dioces in 727 BC. What was happening in 728 BC, a year before Dioces ascended the throne? Where were the Medes? Or were there Medes before his coronation? To maintain that a populous ethnic group, a culture and a language all appeared miraculously from nowhere is at best presumptuous.

“Mesopotamian sources make reference to Medes nearly 500 years prior to this ‘beginning.’ Such sources also mention the Zagros and Taurus mountains teaming with other peoples, civilizations and governments with whom Mesopotamians conducted a bustling trade and cultural exchanges, and against whom they warred. What happened to all of these sophisticated native populations and states in the area when the Medes ‘began’?

“Median tribes first settled the areas between modern Hamadan and Kirmanshah in southern Kurdistan (the heartland of Media) and an area that came to be called in Assyrian records, Medaya, in recognition of this settlement. Medes were a nomadic group who ventured into the Middle East along with other Indo-European speaking nomads such as the Persians, Armenians and Afghans. Soon, however, their fortunes eclipsed all others. They first expanded from their heartland in southern Kurdistan and their capital, Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana), to cover the Zagros mountains, western parts of the Iranian plateau and eastern Anatolia. This expanded territory is what the term, Media, meant to classical authors. From here the Medes would ultimately establish an empire stretching from Asia Minor to Central Asia. Their empire was eclipsed in 549 B.C. by the rising star of the Medes’ cousins, the Persians, as well as other nomads.

“Another question. Where did the Medes acquire the civilization they passed on to the Persians and Armenians? Surely it was not their primitive nomadic heritage that was absorbed by the Armenians and Persians. At no time in history have nomads been known for civilized customs or cultural sophistication. And there is no reason to believe that Median nomads who arrived in the Zagros were any different. More likely the Medes inherited the culture which came under their suzerainty, and in time became its champions. Medes did however bring a language, which matters now, but in all likelihood did not matter then.

“Modern Kurds speak a language akin to the Medes, i.e., an Indo-European language of the Iranic branch. But so do most other ethnic groups in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Baluchistan. In a more restricted sense, the language of the modern Kurds belongs to a group of languages (Northwwest Iranic), which is concentrated, with the exception of the Baluchi, within the territories of old Media. We can only surmise that the Medes also spoke a language of this branch because except for a few words and proper names, there are no surviving records of the speech of the Medians. What remains can only affirm conclusive the Indo-European, Iranic identity of the Median language–nothing more. But someone must have originated the Northwest Iranic group of languages; and the Medes remain the best, if not the only know candidates to have done so.

“But linguistically, the Gilanis, Mazandaranis, Tats, Talishis, and Baluchis all have as much in common with the Medes as do the Kurds; they all speak Northwest Iranic languages. In fact, the now Turkic-speaking Azeris, if they so choose, can also lay strong claim to the legacy of the Medes. In classical times, Azerbaijan was nearly always included as a part of Media. Moreover the Azeris became linguistically Turkified only a few centuries ago. Their ethnic name remains Iranic. Clearly the puzzle cannot be solved linguistically, even if we knew precisely what the Medes spoke. Too many other ethnic groups share their linguistic past with the Kurds, and presumably all of them with the Medes.

“So how about geography or ethnography? Median territories included mountains as well as the neighboring plains. Strabo tells us that most of Media is cold and mountainous, particularly ‘those mountains which lie above Ecbatana/Hamadan,’ but he also recognizes the extension of greater Media into the balmier plains to the east where one now finds bustling Persian communities and cities such as Teheran and Isfahan. (Geography, XI. xiii.7)

“During the period of their ascendancy all the earlier peoples who inhabited the territories that came to be called Media were lumped together and called Medes by outsiders. On the other hand, when Strabo wrote his geography, the ethnic name “Mede” (if ever it had that connotation after the empire’s establishment) was already dead. Old ethnic names had re-emerged or new ones had appeared in place of those that died out. However, ‘Media’ as a geographical designator remained. And this geographical designator, like that of Rome after its demise, kept shrinking until in Islamic times it had receded to where ancient Medians began their expansive careers in southern Kurdistan–the area between Hamadan, their old capital, and Kirmanshah. Until about eight centuries ago, that region in southern Kurdistan was still called Mah (i.e., Media). Like Latium and Rome in Italy, what little remains today of the old name ‘Mede’ is found densely concentrated in southern Kurdistan. In fact there are also some Kurdish tribes, clans, and old families who carry the evolved form of the name “Mede” in their present names. Among these are the Meywandlu, Meymand, Mamand, and the Mafi, for examples.

“A composite past is virtually the norm for many old civilizations. The Persians, Arabs and (though they would prefer not to admit it) the Turks, all have similarly composite pasts. As do the Italians and all other peoples and cultures which have evolved in these, some of the planets oldest civilized parts.

“Considering this complicated picture, which ethnic groups can claim to be descended from the Medes? If it mattered–and I do not believe it does–then the Kurds along with a few others can make this claim. But like the Italians, who can claim a bit more of the Roman legacy than others on geographical and chronological grounds, the Kurds can do likewise. For like the Italians, they too are first among equals.

“The Medes add nothing of particular value to justify fighting over inheritance. The civilization and cultural luxe ascribed to these elusive Medes they had adopted from the indigenous peoples and illustrious cultures they found already in place when they arrived in western Asia. Kurdish culture, which identifies the Kurdish people, has its native roots in the distinguished legacy of all those who preceded the Medes and includes the Medes. Only for a relatively short time did those mountains come to be called Media. And the Medes who settled in the Zagros brought little but learned much from the local indigenous people with an ancient and sophisticated civilization. Before losing their identity to them, the Medes enriched the local cultures with one more layer of experience and one more addition of genes into their racial pool. And what they left behind after their ethnic name disappeared continued to evolve through those cultures and peoples who came after them, settled in the area and in turn disappeared into the local milieu.

“Yes, Kurds are descendants of the Medes insomuch as they contributed genetically and linguistically to the formation of what the Kurds are today. No, Kurds are not descendants of the Medes, as their civilized ancestors were already in place when the Medes appeared and remained when the Medes disappeared. Kurds need not have come at some given date from some other place into their present homeland; indeed they did not. They and their culture are the progeny of an evolution of native inhabitants and cultures of the Zagros-Taurus mountain systems coming to us from remote antiquity. The addition of the Median ingredient was only one of countless many.

“Let us conclude that neither the Kurds nor any other nation requires a discrete beginning. Only the most fanciful movie buff can think of the intricate processes of the evolution of a nation as one that needs a beginning, a plot and a finale.”


Yes? No? Maybe? On the other hand who wouldn’t want the Medes as ancestors? Faults aplenty, apparently there is much to be said in their favor. In 1870 George Rawlinson, professor of ancient history at Oxford University, included them in his three-volume work titled The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World. The following paragraphs reveal both aspects. (Note that Rawlinson suggests that of all peoples, the Medes are most closely linked, not to Kurds but to their “close kindred,” the Persians.):

“The Median Empire was in extent and fertility of territory equal if not superior to the Assyrian. It stretched from Rhages and the Carmanian desert on the east to the river Halys upon the west, a distance of above twenty degrees, or about 1,300 miles. From north to south it was comparatively narrow, being confined between the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian, on the one side, and the Euphrates and Persian gulf on the other … Its area was probably not much short of 500,000 square miles. Thus it was as large as Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal put together. (26)

“The ethnic character of the Median people is at the present day scarcely a matter of doubt. The close connection which all history, sacred and profane, establishes between them and the Persians, the evidence of their proper names and of their language, so far as it is known to us, together with the express statements of Herodotus and Strabo, combine to prove that they belonged to that branch of the human family known to us as the Arian or Iranic, a leading subdivision of the great Indo-European race … scarcely distinguishable from one another in any of the features which constitute ethnic type. The general physical character of the ancient Arian race is best gathered from the sculptures of the Achaemenian kings, which exhibit to us a very noble variety of the human species–a form tall, graceful, and stately; a physiognomy handsome and pleasing, often somewhat resembling the Greek; the forehead high and straight, the nose nearly in the same line, long and well formed, sometimes markedly aquiline, the upper lip short, commonly shaded by a moustache, the chin rounded and generally covered with a curly beard. The hair evidently grew in great plenty, and the race was proud of it … Of the Median women we have no representations upon the sculptures; but we are informed by Xenophon that they were remarkable for their stature and their beauty. (Xen. Anab. iii, 2:25). In accordance with his statement in this place, Xenophon makes the daughter of Cyaxares, whom he marries to Cyrus the Great, an extraordinary beauty. (Cyrop. Viii. 5:28.) The same qualities were observable in the women of Persia … The Arian races seem in old times to have treated women with a certain chivalry, which allowed the full development of their physical powers, and rendered them specially attractive alike to their own husbands and to the men of other nations.” He does however state that ‘probably the wild Kurd or Lur of the present day more nearly corresponds in physique to the ancient Mede than do the softer inhabitants of the great plateau …’

“Among the moral characteristics of the Medes, the one most obvious is their bravery … Originally equal, if not superior, to their close kindred, the Persians, they were throughout the whole period of Persian supremacy only second to them in courage and warlike qualities. Mardonius, when allowed to take his choice out of the entire host of Xerxes, selected the Median troops in immediate succession to the Persians. Similarly, when the time for battle came, he kept the Medes near himself, giving them their place in the line close to that of the Persian contingent. It was no doubt on account of their valour, as Diodorus suggests, that the Medes were chosen to make the first attack upon the Greek position at Thermopylae, where, though unsuccessful, they evidently showed abundant courage. In the earlier times, before riches and luxury had eaten out the strength of the race, their valour and military prowess must have been even more conspicuous. It was then especially that Media deserved to be called, as she is in Scripture, “the mighty one of the heathen”–‘the terrible of the nations.’ … Her valour, undoubtedly, was of the merciless kind. There was no tenderness, no hesitancy about it. Not only did her armies ‘dash to pieces’ the fighting men of the nations opposed to her, allowing apparently no quarter, but the women and the children suffered indignities and cruelties at the hands of her savage warriors, which the pen records. The Median conquests were accompanied by the worst atrocities which lust and hate combined are wont to commit when they obtain their full swing. Neither the virtue of women nor the innocence of children were a protection to them … Spoil, it would seem, was disregarded in comparison with insult and vengeance; and the brutal soldiery cared little either for silver or gold, provided they could indulge freely in that thirst for blood which man shares with the hyaena and the tiger.

“The habits of the Medes in the early part of their career were undoubtedly simple and manly … It was as being braver, simpler, and so much stronger than the Assyrians, that the Medes were able to dispossess them of their sovereignty over western Asia. But in this, as in most other cases of conquest throughout the East, success was followed almost immediately by degeneracy. As captive Greece captured her fierce conqueror, so the subdued Assyrians began at once to corrupt their subduers. Without condescending to a close imitation of Assyrian manners and customs, the Medes proceeded directly after their conquest to relax the severity of their old habits and to indulge in the delights of soft and luxurious living. The historical romance of Xenophon presents us probably with a true picture when it describes the strong contrast which existed towards the close of the Median period between the luxury and magnificence which prevailed at Ecbatana [Hamadan], and the primitive simplicity of Persia Proper, where the old Arian habits, which had once been common to the two races, were still maintained in all their original severity … Towards the latter part of their empire the Medes became a comparatively luxurious people, not indeed laying aside altogether their manly habits, nor ceasing to be both brave men and good soldiers, but adopting an amount of pomp and magnificence to which they were previously strangers, affecting splendour in their dress and apparel, grandeur and rich ornament in their buildings, variety in their banquets, and attaining on the whole a degree of civilization not very greatly inferior to that of the Assyrians. In taste and real refinement they seem indeed to have fallen considerably below their teachers. A barbaric magnificence predominated in their ornamentation over artistic effort, richness in the material being preferred to skill in the manipulation. Literature, and even letters, were very sparingly cultivated. But little originality was developed. A stately dress, and a new style of architecture, are almost the only inventions to which the Medes can lay claim. They were brave, energetic, enterprising, fond of display, capable of appreciating to some extent the advantages of civilized life; but they had little genius, and the world is scarcely indebted to them for a single important addition to the general stock of its ideas. (27)

“We do not find many of the products of Media celebrated by ancient writers. Of its animals, those which had the highest reputation were its horses, distinguished into two breeds, an ordinary kind, of which Media produced annually many thousands, and a kind of rare size and excellence, known under the name of Nisaean … They are said to have been of a peculiar shape; and they were equally famous for size, speed and stoutness …

“The Medes took a particular delight in the ornamentation of their persons. According to Xenophon, they were acquainted with most of the expedients by the help of which vanity attempts to conceal the ravages of time and to create an artificial beauty. They employed cosmetics, which they rubbed into the skin, for the sake of improving the complexion. They made use of an abundance of false hair. Like many other Oriental nations, both ancient and modern, they applied dyes to enhance the brilliancy of the eyes, and give them a greater apparent size and softness. They were also fond of wearing golden ornaments. Chains or collars of gold usually adorned their necks, bracelets of the same precious metal encircles their wrists, and earrings were inserted into their ears. Gold was also used in the caparisons of their horses, the bit and other parts of the harness being often of this valuable material …

“The favourite dress of the Medes in peace is well known to us from the sculptures. There can be no reasonable doubt that the long flowing robe so remarkable for its graceful folds, which is the garb of the kings, the chief nobles, and the officers of the court in all the Persian bas-reliefs … is the famous ‘Median garment’ of Herodotus, Xenophon, and Strabo …

“The chief amusement of the court, in which however the king rarely partook, was hunting. Media always abounded in beasts of chase and lions, bears, leopards, wild boars, stags, gazelles, wild sheep, and wild asses are mentioned among the animals hunted by the Median nobles. Like other Oriental sovereigns, the Median monarch maintained a seraglio of wives and concubines, and polygamy was commonly practiced among the more wealthy classes. Strabo speaks of a strange law as obtaining with some of the Median tribes–a law which required that no man should be content with fewer wives than five … Polygamy, as usual, brought in its train the cruel practice of castration; and the court swarmed with eunuchs, chiefly foreigners purchased in their infancy. Towards the close of the Empire this despicable class appears to have been all-powerful with the monarch.

“Thus the tide of corruption gradually advanced; and there is reason to believe that both court and people had in a great measure laid aside the hardy and simple customs of their forefathers, and become enervated through luxury, when the revolt of the Persians came to test the quality of their courage, and their ability to maintain their empire. It would be improper in this place to anticipate the account of this struggle … but the well-known result–the speedily and complete success of the Persians–must be adduced among the proofs of a rapid deterioration in the Median character between the accession of Cyaxares and the capture–less than a century later–of Astyages …

“The substitution of Persia for Media as the ruling power in Western Asia was due less to general causes than to the personal character of two men. Had Astyages been a prince of ordinary vigour, the military training of the Medes would have been kept up; and in that case they might easily have held their own against all comers. Had their training been kept up, or had Cyrus possessed no more than ordinary ambition and ability, either he would not have thought of revolting, or he would have revolted unsuccessfully. The fall of the Median Empire was due immediately to the genius of the Persian Prince; but its ruin was prepared, and its destruction was really caused, by the shortsightedness of the Median Monarch.” (28)

In agreement with Rawlinson on Median flaws, Zenaide Ragozin provided a description of Median art and architecture that only adds to their mystique. “The Medes were no longer the rough warriors, inured to hardships, careless of wealth, of which they had not learned the value, who ‘did not regard silver, and as for gold, took no delight in it’ (Isaiah xiii., 17),” she wrote. “The booty of Nineveh and the other Assyrian cities had taught them the uses of luxury, and the court of Agbatana (Ecbatana, the Median capital and today Hamadan) was not outdone in splendor by either Babylon or Sardis. The palace of Median royalty, too, was fully equal in magnificence to those of the older capitals; it is even possible that it outshone them in mere barbaric gorgeousness, such as the lavish use of gold and silver, though there is great reason to believe that it remained far behind in point of artistic decoration. For the Aryan conquerors had no art of their own, and had not yet had time to learn that of their neighbors, nor, perhaps, to find out that art was in itself desirable and worth learning–a notion originally foreign to the rather stern and practical Eranian mind. But as national dignity demands that royalty should be housed in seemly splendor, an effect of great magnificence and imposing majesty was produced by other means.

“For if they had not made a study of art, especially that of decoration, the Medes had brought with them a manner of building which was to be fruitful of artistic results, and inaugurated a style of architecture entirely different from that with which we have become so familiar in the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates. In the abundantly wooded mountains and valleys of Eastern Eran the building material indicated by nature is timber. The nomad’s movable tent or hut is imitated in wood, enlarged and becomes the cabin of logs or boards, with porch and gallery resting on roughly hewn trunks of trees. This, again, in constructions destined for public purposes, expands into the hall with aisles of columns supporting the roof, and with wide-pillared porch. The transition is easy to the combination of public and private apartments which forms the royal dwelling or palace. By devising the plan on a grander scale, by the choice of hard and handsome woods, of tall and stately trees, and by great finish of workmanship, it was possible to produce a building of real beauty, preserving the original and characteristic feature–a profusion of columns, to be distributed in every possible combination of aisles, porches, porticos surrounding the inner courts, etc. Exactly such a construction was the palace at Agbatana. The forests of the Zagros supplies fine timber as bountifully as those of Bactria, and the Medes could preserve their own traditional style of building without falling into the absurdity of the Assyrians, who went on heaping mountains of bricks, after the manner of flat and marshy Chaldea, when they had quarries of fine stone at hand all around them.

“The ancient Greek writers describe the palace of the Median kings (possibly begun by Deioces, and enlarged by Kyaxares), as occupying an area of fully two thirds of a mile, at the foot of Mt. Orontes (modern Elvend); it was built entirely of costly cedar and cypress, but the wood was nowhere visible, as not only the columns and beams, but the ceilings and walls, were overlaid with gold or silver plating, while the roof was made of silver tiles. Herodotus is filled with admiration at the effect produced by the walls which enclosed the palace, ‘rising in circles, one within the other. The plan of the place is that each of the walls should out-top the one beyond it by the battlements. The nature of the ground, which is a gentle slope, favors this arrangement in some degree, but it was mainly effected by art. The number of the circles is seven, the royal palace and the treasuries standing within the last … Of the outer wall, the battlements are white; of the next, black; of the third, scarlet; of the fourth, blue; of the fifth, orange; all these are covered with paint. The last two have their battlements coated respectively with silver and gold.’ The city was built outside the circuit of the walls. The only drawback to this picturesque and well-defended situation was the want of water. There was none nearer than the other side of Mt. Orontes, several miles from the city, where a small lake fed a mountain stream. That stream was turned from its course and brought by a tunnel, fifteen feet in width, which was cut through the base of the mountain for the purpose. This is the work which Median legend, followed by the Greeks, attributed to the fabulous Queen Semiramis. It is very probable that it was planned and carried out by Kyaxares.

“The general effect, as beheld from a distance, especially from the low level of the plain, must have been marvelously quaint and impressive. The graded height of the seven concentric walls and the combination of colors at once recall the great Ziggurat of Nebo at Borsip, and naturally suggest that the general idea may have been borrowed from there. This may well be, and, if so, we may be sure that the significance and sacredness of the number seven in the Eranian religion prompted the imitation. Besides, the legend of the original holy mountain, for which the Chaldean Ziggurat was a reminder, was common to both races, and Duncker no doubt comes very near the truth when he explains the peculiar construction and decoration of the Median palace in the following words: ‘As Ahura Mazda sat on his golden throne in the sphere of pure Light on the summit of golden Hukairya, so the earthly ruler was to dwell in his palace at Agbatana, in golden apartments, enclosed within a golden wall. The Avesta shows us Mithra in golden helmet and silver cuirass; the wheels of his chariot are of gold; his milk-white steeds’ forefeet are shod with gold, their hind feet with silver. So it was meet that the royal roof and battlements should gleam in silver and in gold.’ Nor can the account be rejected as improbable on the basis of extravagance. The booty from Assyria could surely cover the outlay, and that without materially draining the treasury. We are expressly told that when Alexander of Macedon conquered Asia, he carried away most of the silver tiles off the roof; yet seventy-five years later another conqueror still found at Agbatana booty to the amount of about five million dollars, in gold and silver-plating and silver roof-tiles. Yet the bulk of the gold and silver, to the value of eight and a half million dollars, had been removed by the Persian king before Alexander came. We must remember that the accumulation of wealth in Nineveh and Kalah must have far exceeded our powers of calculation …” (29)

Ragozin also took note of the ingenious military tactics of the greatest of the kings of Media: “Cyaxares, a Median King [Kei Kaoos of Persian legend] carried his arms as far west as the Mediterranean, and although obliged to retire in consequence of a total eclipse, 580 B.C., which threw his army into confusion, yet he made such an impression on the minds of the Greeks that for centuries later they called all Persians alike, by the name of Medes. It is recorded of Cyaxares that he was the first Asiatic monarch to introduce a regular organization in the conduct of war, dividing his troops into distinct battalions according to the arms they bore, and also making the infantry an important branch of the service.” And he noted as well that, “After their union with Persia, the Medians in turn instructed their conquerors in the arts of civilization.” (30)

As a rule, men freely believe what they wish.

Julius Caesar


The architecture, the gold and the grandeur have long vanished into history, but not the progeny of the ancients. In the mid-nineteenth century, well over 2,000 years after the Karduks, the Guti, the Parthians, and the Medes disappeared, Rev. Horatio Southgate happened upon a party of Kurds on the banks of the Kizzil Tchai and left this indelible image: “On its bank we met with a party of Kurds, gaily dressed, who were on their way to attend a marriage-festival at Kheunneus. An hour farther on our course we stopped for our morning repast in a green dell, where we found water. We had hardly seated ourselves before we heard some one hailing us from above, and a horseman immediately descended, followed by a single attendant. The former was a young Kurd in the full dress of his people. He wore a red tunic, reaching to his waist, and white shalvars, the great nether garment of the East. His sugar-loaf cap was bound with a turban of the gayest colours, and in its folds the long tresses of his auburn hair were twisted. He wore in his girdle a brace of pistols and a dagger, and, hanging from it about his person, were a ramrod, a small powder-horn for priming, a cartridge-case, and numerous little trinkets for the care and repair of his arms. In his right hand was a spear, with a wooden shaft about ten feet long. One end was pointed with iron, that it might be stuck in the ground, and the other was ornamented with a large black ball of light feathers, from the middle of which projected the head of the spear about five inches in length and of a rhombic form. At his back hung a small round shield or targe, intended to be used in single combat with the sword. It was studded with small pieces of brass resembling coin, and was decorated with silken tassels of various colours hanging from the circumference, and a larger one suspended from the centre. Thrusting his spear into the ground, he dismounted, and sitting down by us without ceremony, drew out his bread and cheese, and offered to join meals with us. We accepted the proposal and were at once good friends with him. We soon learned from him that, though his beard was not yet grown, he was the Bey of a village on the plain of Mush, which we were to pass. We therefore agreed to unite our forces for the way … As we rode along, our young Kurd amused himself with brandishing his spear and rushing down upon someone of the party, as if to run him through, then looking round and laughing at his own adroitness, he would point on the steel how deep he could make it penetrate.” (31)

One can only wonder how many ancestors generated this genetic composite. Or does it really matter? Of course. As we see today all around us, the past not only influences, it justifies the present.


(1) “Persia,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed., Vol. XXI, 235.

(2) John R. Perry, Kerim Khan Zand. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 17.

(3) Major Frederick Millingen, Wild Life Among the Koords. (London: Hurst and Blackett Publishers, 1870) 204 ff.

(4) Ibid, 207-208.

(5) E. B. Soane, To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise. (Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1912). Footnote 1, 369.

(6) Rev. C. H. Wheeler, Ten Years on the Euphrates (Boston: American Tract Society, 1868), 45; Rev. Isaac Adams, Persia by a Persian (published by author, 1900), 490; James I. Barton, Daybreak in Turkey (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1908), 73.

(7) Rev. James Wilson Pierce, Ed., Story of Turkey and Armenia. (Baltimore: R. H. Woodward Company, 1890) 307.

(8) W. S. Monroe, Turkey and the Turks. (Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1907) 98.

(9) Sir Edgar T. A. Wigram, The Cradle of Mankind: Life in Eastern Kurdistan. (London: A. & C. Black Ltd, 1922) 39.

(10) Dana Adams Schmidt, Journey Among Brave Men. (Boston: Little Brown, 1964) 46.

(11) “Kurdistan,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911, Vol. XV, 989.

(12) Soane, 386; 381-2.

(13) “Kurdistan,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1950 ed., Vol. 13, 520-521.

(14) Kurdish Life (Number 14, Spring 1995).

(15) Diakonoff and Starostin, “Hurro-Urartian as an Eastern Caucasian Language.” (Munchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft. New Series 12, 1986).

(16) Kramer, “Ancient Sumer and Iran: “Gleanings from Sumerian Literature,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 1, 1987.

(17) Schmidt, 46.

(18) Zenaide A. Ragozin, The Story of Media, Babylon and Persia. (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1887) 267.

(19) Millingen, 213-214.

(20) Soane, 368-369.

(21) Ibid, 398.

(22) W. B. Hay, Two Years in Kurdistan: Experiences of a Political Officer, 1918-1920. (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd. 1921) 36.

(23) “Media,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911 ed., Vol. XVIII.20-22.

(24) “Media,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1950, Vol. XV, 172.

(25) Kurdish Life (The Kurdish Library, Spring 1994, No. 10)

(26) George A. Rawlinson, The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1870) 428.

(27) Rawlinson, 308 ff.

(28) Ibid, 431.

(29) Ragozin, 262-266.

(30) Ragozin, 86-88.

(31) Rev. Horatio Southgate, Narrative of a Tour through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia. Vol. I. (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1840) 195-196.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

It is said that Nebuchadrezzar’s Median queen, Amytis, daughter of the great Kyaxares, pined for the mountains of her native land, with their cool shades and verdant bowers, in the wearisome flatness and prostrating sultriness of the Chaldean lowlands; whereupon her royal lord, with a chivalrous gallantry that would have done honor to a far later time, ordered the construction of an artificial hill, disposed in terraces, which, being covered with a layer of earth, were planted with the handsomest trees, amidst which, on the topmost terrace, a villa-like residence was erected for the queen, where she could enjoy, not only purer air and pleasant shades, but a vast and beautiful prospect. If this pretty legend be true–and why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of believing it, since there is nothing to disprove it?–the woman so loved might well feel compensated even for the loss of her native scenery in the Zagros wilds, for which, of course, her terraced bower, some 500 feet square, could be but a poor substitute.


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