Iraqi Kurdistan - Background information

Geography and natural history
People and culture


The history of the Kurds is the history of a proud, rebellious, tribal people who have resisted control by outside forces, and suffered for it throughout the ages. In the words of Teresa Thornhill, author of Sweet Tea with Cardamom: a Journey Through Iraqi Kurdistan, ‘it is a culture where almost everyone is standing on a mountain of pain and grief.’ A popular saying tells us that the Kurds have ‘no friends but the mountains’.

Find out more about the history of Iraqi Kurdistan here

Geography and natural history

Kurdistan is the northern, mountainous part of the state of Iraq, created by Great Britain after its mandate (League of Nations) in 1921 from the three old Ottoman provinces. A thin crescent around the upper rim of the country extending from Dohuk to Erbil and Suleimaniyah Kurdistan is a traditional area of refuge from the heat of the plains. The mountains of Kurdistan Iraq form a natural barrier between Turkey and Iran and are responsible for the nature and the character of the Kurds. The hidden valleys and traditional village houses have not only been a retreat from outside forces, but have fostered the traditional way of life and sense of community of the Kurds for centuries. Approximately 40,643km2 in area, roughly the same size as Switzerland, it is the home of over five million Kurds. There are three governorates: Erbil, Dohuk and Suleimaniyah. The capital of the region is the city of Erbil. Major rivers include the Tigris, Higher Zab, Lower Zab, Sirwan Zab, Khaboor and Kahzir.

In Kurdistan the scenery is magnificent, sometimes wooded and watered by turbulent streams, sometimes gaunt and bare, but always dramatic and often awesome. The bright dazzling colours of tulips, roses, hyacinths, gladioli and daffodils, which appear in spring, are reflected in the costumes of Kurdish women. The men also love flowers and take a special delight in growing roses. Love of nature assumes a spiritual significance: trees and ponds are full of colourful pieces of cloth used as a sign of vigil for a wish.

Some 56,000 years ago a Neanderthal man was buried in a flower bed in the area and today flowers are grown on graves to let the soul rest. They are also a constant feature of Kurdish art and decoration. The main crops are wheat and barley grown on the plains of Erbil, and Suleimaniyah is a traditional tobacco-producing region. Fruits such as apples, cherries, plums and pomegranates are also grown in Iraqi Kurdistan.

People and culture

Who are the Kurds?

The diversity of ethnicity in modern Kurdistan is due to history, religion and language. Ethnic groups dwelling in the Kurdistan region, including Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians and Yezidis, plus some smaller minorities such as Armenians and Palestinians, also consider themselves as Kurds. The very large number of Syrian refugees (2014/15) will inevitably alter this balance in some areas as they are ethnic Arabs, speaking Arabic as their first language. The sheer diversity of these peoples is what makes Kurdistan such an interesting place to visit.

Kurdish farmer Kurdistan Iraq by Eric Lafforgue© Eric Lafforgue

A widely held belief among historians, and the Kurds themselves, is that they are the descendants of the Medes of central Asia who helped to bring down the powerful Assyrian Empire. Some Kurdish Jews believe that Solomon sent genies to collect maidens for his harem. They succeeded the year he died, kept the maidens and lived in the desolate mountains. The Kurds are their children. There are also claims that the Kurds are the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. The name Kurdistan refers to the place where the Kurds live. Today this region cuts across the national borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Large numbers of Kurds are also found in the Khanaqin, Diyala and Baghdad provinces of Iraq.


Culture, media, sports and the arts have all been enhanced in Kurdistan through a policy of free press and media. Over 60 publications are issued monthly. Music, art exhibitions, theatrical productions and cinema are all popular pastimes.

The long Kurdish winters are ideal times for storytelling and many stories describe how to survive in an inhospitable environment. A rich oral culture has been encouraged by the frequent destruction of Kurdish villages and property, which made it unsafe to commit inspiring traditional tales to paper. Some stories detract from the worries of everyday life. There are plenty of satirical tales. Animal stories with a spiritual moral are common. Sometimes the animals are portrayed as intelligent beings with their own code of conduct. There are also plenty of legends with a supernatural dimension, and historical epics. Tales of Imam Khidir i Zinde (The Immortal) are among the most common. He is an omnipresent, supernatural being who can be called to come to a person’s help after elaborate rituals are performed. But he is the master of disguise and often goes unrecognised.

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