The tribal territory of the Kurds through Arabic medieval historiography

The tribal territory of the Kurds through Arabic medieval historiography

By Boris James

Before Nationalism : Land and Loyalty in the Middle East, (2007)

Abstract: Since the very early stages of Arabic historiography in the ninth century, the Kurds have been mentioned by several authors. According to the texts, these populations, described as being fierce and rough, lived in the mountainous regions of the Middle East from Fârs to the Taurus. The area or field of action crossed by the Kurdish tribes is an always shifting tribal and political space, not an area over which military domination or political sovereignty is necessarily applied. During the twelfth century, Arabic literary sources seem to describe a reduction of what might be called the “tribal territory of the Kurds”. This phenomenon follows a political reshuffling born of Turkmen infiltrations and the counter-crusades led by the Zankid rulers resulting in the emergence of the Ayyubid dynasty. During the Mamluk era, Mongols and Mamluks battled with each other, with the “tribal territory of the Kurds” lying at the boundary of these two entities.

This paper will address the problems posed by the textual approach. I will recall the polysemy implied by the word “Kurd” and discuss the question of Kurdish “ethnicity” during the Middle Ages, the criteria for it, and the manifestation of the sense of group belonging. The use made of the words bilâd al-akrâd and zûzân al-akrâd in Arabic medieval literary sources will be analysed. Which space do they designate? What do they imply? I will argue that these designations are not an administrative or a literary abstraction. I will also address another problem: the separation between Zagrosian and Ciszagrosian Kurdish tribal territory that appears in the texts. I will then describe the territorial dynamics and the spatial reorderings of the regions inhabited by the Kurds from the 11th to the 14th century, drawing a map of the Kurdish settlements or nomadic spaces and showing the changes inside a broader social and political configuration. Thanks to al-‘Umarî’s Masâlik al-Absar which lists many Kurdish tribes, I will discuss the anchoring of these populations and the rebirth of a tribal political anchoring in these regions during the Mamluk period. Lastly, I will try to embrace the subjective dimension of the attachment of the Kurds to a specific territory. Is there evidence of a sense of belonging to this territory? What is the link between the latter and the Kurds in Syria and Egypt?

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