Written by Geoff Hann, Karen Dabrowska and Tina Townsend-Greaves
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.
There are two dialects of Kurdish spoken in the Kurdish Region, Kurmanji (spoken mainly in Dohuk and environs) and Sorani (spoken mainly in Erbil, Suleimaniyah and environs).
In Iraqi Kurdistan, religion and pagan superstition go hand in hand. Allied to the different ethnic origins from the region’s past conflicts, there is a great awareness of the invisible realm in everyday life, and blessings and endearing spontaneous prayers are part of the normal vocabulary. In line with the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, women are careful when pouring hot liquid into an empty container as a spirit (jinn) could be harmed. Angels are seen as God’s messengers who can bring rewards or punishments. Amulets for protection against the evil eye are common throughout the area.
© Eric Lafforgue
Kurdistan, along with the rest of northern Iraq (notably centres such as Mosul and Kirkuk), is a region of total fascination for anyone interested in how religion has changed history and influenced communities right up until the present day.
Kurdistan at present is 80% Sunni Muslims and 15% Shia Muslims. The Kurds embraced Islam during the time of the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD, motivated in part by a desire to avoid paying taxes imposed on non-Muslims. The remaining 5% are followers of minority religions Yezidis, Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, as well as Sufi Muslims (members of the Qadiriya and Naqshbandiya brotherhoods) and members of Islamic sects such as Ahl Al-Haqq (People of the Truth).