Kurdistan (Kurdish: “Homeland of the Kurds” or “Land of the Kurds”; also formerly spelled “Curdistan”; ancient name: Corduene or Greater Kurdistan, is a roughly defined geo-cultural region wherein the Kurdish people form a prominent majority population, and Kurdish culture, languages, and national identity have historically been based. Kurdistan roughly encompasses the northwestern Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges.
Contemporary use of the term refers to the following areas: southeastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Syria (Rojava or Western Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), and northwestern Iran (Eastern Kurdistan). Some Kurdish nationalist organizations seek to create an independent nation state consisting of some or all of these areas with a Kurdish majority, while others campaign for greater autonomy within the existing national boundaries.
Iraqi Kurdistan first gained autonomous status in a 1970 agreement with the Iraqi government, and its status was re-confirmed as an autonomous entity within the federal Iraqi republic in 2005. There is a province by the name Kurdistan in Iran; it is not self-ruled. Kurds fighting in the Syrian Civil War were able to take control of large sections of northern Syria as government forces, loyal to Bashar al-Assad, withdrew to fight elsewhere. Having established their own government, they called for autonomy in a federal Syria after the war.
Kurdish-inhabited area, by CIA (1992)
Prior to the First World War, the Kurds living in a region called the Mosul wilayat were subjects, like their Arab neighbors, of the Ottoman Empire. During the war, a drastic increase in the demand for oil fostered concern among the great powers about intense post-war competition for this strategic commodity. This concern was especially acute in Britain. By the end of the war 90 percent of the British navy and a rapidly increasing portion of its merchant marine had become oil-fired.
Kurdistan (shaded area) as suggested by the Treaty of Sèvres
The British saw their heavy dependence on oil imports from the U.S. as a direct threat to their supremacy on the seas and ultimately to the security of their empire. Determined to control a rich source of oil, the British defeated the Kurds’ struggle for national self-determination and made sure that the Mosul wilayat was included in Iraq, for which London had a League of Nations mandate. To secure this territorial arrangement, the British had to make deals and compromises with the U.S. and France. Britain and its western allies emerged as the immediate winners, and the Arabs of Iraq were well-placed to benefit in the longer run, especially after Iraq obtained its independence. The Kurds, however, have suffered terribly from the inclusion of Mosul in Iraq.
At the San Francisco Peace Conference of 1945, the Kurdish delegation proposed consideration of territory claimed by the Kurds, which encompassed an area extending from the Mediterranean shores near Adana to the shores of the Persian Gulf near Bushehr, and included the Lur inhabited areas of southern Zagros.
At the end of the First Gulf War, the Allies established a safe haven in northern Iraq. Amid the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from three northern provinces, Iraqi Kurdistan emerged in 1992 as an autonomous entity inside Iraq with its own local government and parliament.
A 2010 US report, written before the instability in Syria and Iraq that exists as of 2014, attested that “Kurdistan may exist by 2030”. The weakening of the Iraqi state following the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has also presented an opportunity for independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, augmented by Turkey’s move towards acceptance of such a state although it opposes moves toward Kurdish autonomy in Turkey and Syria.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Kurdistan covers about 190,000 km², and its chief towns are Diyarbakır (Amed), Bitlis (Bedlîs) and Van (Wan) in Turkey, Erbil (Hewlêr) and Slemani in Iraq, and Kermanshah (Kirmanşan), Sanandaj (Sine), Ilam and Mahabad (Mehabad) in Iran. According to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Kurdistan covers around 190,000 km² in Turkey, 125,000 km² in Iran, 65,000 km² in Iraq, and 12,000 km² in Syria, with a total area of approximately 392,000 km².
Historic map from 1721, showing borders of Curdistan provinces in Persia.
Iraqi Kurdistan is divided into six governorates, three of which (and parts of others) are under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Iranian Kurdistan encompasses Kurdistan Province and the greater parts of West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, and Īlām provinces. Syrian Kurdistan (Kurdish: Rojavayê Kurdistanê) is located primarily in northern Syria, and covers the province of Al Hasakah and northern Raqqa Governorate, northern Aleppo Governorate and also Jabal al-Akrad (Mountain of the Kurds) region. The major cities in this region are Qamishli (Kurdish: Qamişlo) and Al Hasakah (Kurdish: Hasakah).
Turkish Kurdistan encompasses a large area of Eastern Anatolia Region and southeastern Anatolia of Turkey and it is home to an estimated 15 to 20 million Kurds.
Subdivisions (Upper and Lower Kurdistan)
In A Dictionary of Scripture Geography (published 1846), John Miles describes Upper and Lower Kurdistan as following:
Modern Curdistan is of much greater extent than the ancient Assyria, and is composed of two parts the Upper and Lower. In the former is the province of Ardelan, the ancient Arropachatis, now nominally a part of Irak Ajami, and belonging to the north west division called Al Jobal. It contains five others namely, Betlis, the ancient Carduchia, lying to the south and south west of the lake Van. East and south east of Betlis is the principality of Julamerick, south west of it is the principality of Amadia. the fourth is Jeezera ul Omar, a city on an island in the Tigris, and corresponding to the ancient Bezabde. the fifth and largest is Kara Djiolan, with a capital of the same name. The pashalics of Kirkook and Solimania also comprise part of Upper Curdistan. Lower Curdistan comprises all the level tract to the east of the Tigris, and the minor ranges immediately bounding the plains and reaching thence to the foot of the great range, which may justly be denominated the Alps of western Asia.
A typical Kurdish village in Hawraman, Kurdistan
The northern, northwestern and northeastern parts of Kurdistan are referred to as upper Kurdistan, and includes the areas from west of Amed to lake Urmia.
The lowlands of southern Kurdistan are called lower Kurdistan. The main cities in this area are Kirkuk and Arbil.
The Kurds are a people of Indo-European origin. They speak an Iranian language known as Kurdish, and comprise the majority of the population of the region – however, included therein are Arab, Armenian, Assyrian/Aramean/Syriac, Azerbaijani, Jewish, Ossetian, Persian, and Turkish communities. Most inhabitants are Muslim, but adherents to other religions are present as well – including Yarsanism, which is an ethnically Kurdish religion, Yazidis, Alevis, Christians, and in the past, Jews most of whom immigrated to Israel.
Mostly Sunni Muslim, but also Shia Muslim and Sufism with minorities of deism, agnosticism,Yazdis, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism
Much of the region is typified by a continental climate – hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Despite this, much of the region is fertile and has historically exported grain and livestock. Precipitation varies between 200 and 400 mm a year in the plains, and between 700 and 3,000 mm a year on the high plateau between mountain chains. The climate is dominated by mountains in the zone along the border with Iran and Turkey, with dry summers, rainy and sometimes snowy winters, and damp springs, while to the south it progressively transitions towards semi-arid and desert zones. The northern mountainous regions along the border with Iran and Turkey receive heavy snowfall and they are more of an extreme version of the continental climate.
Flora and fauna
Kurdistan is one of the most mountainous regions in the world with a cold climate receiving annual precipitation adequate to sustain temperate forests and shrubs. Mountain chains harbor pastures and forested valleys, totaling approximately 16 million hectares (160,000 km²), including firs and countryside is mostly oaks, conifers, platanus, willow, poplar and, to the west of Kurdistan, olive trees.
The region north of the mountainous region on the border with Iran and Turkey features meadow grasses and such wild trees as poplar, willow and oak, hawthorn, Cherry plum, rose hips, mountain apple, pear, mountain ash, and olive. The steppe and desert in the south, by contrast, have such species as palm trees and date palm.
Animals found in the region include the Syrian brown bear, wild boar, gray wolf, the golden jackal, Indian crested porcupine, the red fox, goitered gazelle, Eurasian otter, striped hyena, Persian fallow deer, long-eared hedgehog, onager, mangar and the Euphrates softshell turtle. Birds include, the hooded crow, common starling, Eurasian magpie, European robin, water pipit, spotted flycatcher, namaqua dove, saker falcon, griffon vulture, little crake and collared pratincole, among others.
Canyon in Rawanduz in northern Iraqi Kurdistan
Mountains are important geographical and symbolic features of Kurdish life, as evidenced by the saying “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Mountains are regarded as sacred by the Kurds. Included in the region are Mount Judi and Ararat (both prominent in Kurdish folklore), Zagros, Qandil, Shingal, Mount Abdulaziz, Kurd Mountains, Jabal al-Akrad, Shaho, Gabar, Hamrin, and Nisir.
Zê river in Zebari region, Iraqi Kurdistan.
The plateaus and mountains of Kurdistan, which are characterized by heavy rain and snow fall, act as a water reservoir for the Near and Middle East, forming the source of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as other numerous smaller rivers, such as the Little Khabur, Khabur, Tharthar, Ceyhan, Araxes, Kura, Sefidrud, Karkha, and Hezil. Among rivers of historical importance to Kurds are the Murat (Arasān) and Buhtān rivers in Turkey; the Peshkhābur, the Little Zab, the Great Zab, and the Diyala in Iraq; and the Jaghatu (Zarrinarud), the Tātā’u (Siminarud), the Zohāb (Zahāb), and the Gāmāsiyāb in Iran.
These rivers, which flow from heights of three to four thousand meters above sea level, are significant both as water sources and for the production of energy. Iraq and Syria dammed many of these rivers and their tributaries, and Turkey has an extensive dam system under construction as part of the GAP (Southeast Anatolia Project); though incomplete, the GAP already supplies a significant proportion of Turkey’s electrical energy needs. Due to the extraordinary archaeological richness of the region, almost any dam impacts historic sites.
The kurdish city of Piranshahr, center of Mokrian district, northwestern Iran
Kurdistan extends to Lake Urmia in Iran on the east. The region includes Lake Van, the largest body of water in Turkey; the only lake in the Middle East with a larger surface is Lake Urmia – though not nearly as deep as Lake Van, which has a much larger volume. Urmia, Van, as well as Zarivar Lake west of Marivan, and Lake Dukan near the city of Sulaymaniyah, are frequented by tourists
Kurdish city of Batman, eastern Turkey.
Petroleum and mineral resources
KRG-controlled parts of Iraqi Kurdistan are estimated to contain around 45 billion barrels (7.2×109 m3) of oil, making it the sixth largest reserve in the world. Extraction of these reserves began in 2007.
Al-Hasakah province, also known as Jazira region, has geopolitical importance of oil and is suitable for agricultural lands.
In November 2011, Exxon challenged the Iraqi central government’s authority with the signing of oil and gas contracts for exploration rights to six parcels of land in Kurdistan, including one contract in the disputed territories, just east of the Kirkuk mega-field. This act caused Baghdad to threaten to revoke Exxon’s contract in its southern fields, most notably the West-Qurna Phase 1 project. Exxon responded by announcing its intention to leave the West-Qurna project.
As of July 2007, the Kurdish government solicited foreign companies to invest in 40 new oil sites, with the hope of increasing regional oil production over the following 5 years by a factor of five, to about 1 million barrels per day (160,000 m3/d). Gas and associated gas reserves are in excess of 2,800 km3 (100×1012 cu ft). Notable companies active in Kurdistan include Exxon, Total, Chevron, Talisman Energy, Genel Energy, Hunt Oil, Gulf Keystone Petroleum, and Marathon Oil.
Other mineral resources that exist in significant quantities in the region include coal, copper, gold, iron, limestone (which is used to produce cement), marble, and zinc. The world’s largest deposit of rock sulfur is located just southwest of Erbil (Hewlêr).
In July 2012, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government signed an agreement by which Turkey will supply the KRG with refined petroleum products in exchange for crude oil. Crude deliveries are expected to occur on a regular basis.
Kurdish demonstration against ISIS, Vienna, Austria, 10 October 2014