Author: Garabet K. Moumdjian - E-mail
II. A REBELLIOUS CENTURY
"If a throne was established, than we would have a future. We were not to be torn to pieces, and without any doubt were to flourish. These Turks were not to be victorious over us. Our homeland was not to be ruined by those owls."
17th Century Kurdish Poet
The first Kurdish rebellion of the nineteenth century broke out in 1806 in the Baban district of Ottoman Kurdistan, under the leadership of Abdul Rahman Pasha. Today, the Baban district is located within Iraqi territory. However, during the nineteenth century it enjoyed a rich and flourishing Kurdish cultural and economic life. Its leader, Abdul Rahman, was able to expand his territory by bringing under his rule minor principalities that were paying tribute to Ottoman and Persian rulers.
Abdul Rahman’s movements were viewed negatively by the Ottomans. The sultan appointed one of his followers, Khalid Pasha, as the new Amir (prince) of the Baban district. This was done to ridicule Abdul Rahman's influence and to belittle him in the eyes of the Kurdish tribes he ruled. Yet Abdul Rahman proved to be an experienced leader and a seasoned politician. He understood Ottoman intentions quite clearly. He advanced with his army against Khalid Pasha, defeated him in a momentous battle in the Sanjak
(county) of Khoy, and reinstated himself as the Amir of Baban.
After Khalid's defeat Kurdish princes and tribal chieftains joined Abdul Rahman. The Kurdish prince soon declared himself sovereign. However, Abdul Rahman was unable to endure. He was defeated by new Ottoman armies sent to Baban. In 1808 he was forced to flee from his principality and take refuge with the Kurdish tribes of Persia.
The Ottomans brought massive forces to the eastern vilayets (states) stationing most of them in Kurdistan, This was done to secure the border from Abdul Rahman. Rumors were circling that the rebel Kurdish Amir was gathering new forces in his exile. The Ottomans had yet another reason for stationing armies on their Eastern borders. Times were sensitive. The fear of a Russian offensive was ever-present. Nevertheless, the Ottoman armies stationed in Eastern Anatolia and Kurdistan did much harm to the villages and
their peasants. They were viewed suspiciously by the inhabitants, who, being tired of their cruelty and oppression, staged a number of minor rebellions in the different parts of Kurdistan. According to Kendal "many Armenians participated in these uprisings, because they were attempts by the population mainly to defend itself."
A. Amir Mohammed and the Unification of Kurdistan
The mountainous region of Southern Kurdistan continued to be the nexus of Kurdish rebellious movements. After the defeat of Abdul Rahman, Amir Mohammed of the Soran territory -- whose principality extended from the Great Zap River to the Iranian border -- benefited from the difficulties that the Ottomans encountered in Greece and Egypt in the 1830's. He too tried his luck in creating a free and sovereign Kurdistan.
Times seemed to be right for such a venture. The Ottomans were badly defeated by the advancing Russian armies from the north. In the south, the viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, grew in power and tried to expand his realm on behalf of his suzerain, the Ottoman sultan. Moreover, the Greeks were in a stage of rebellion which resulted in the severance of Greece from the Ottoman Empire and the creation of an independent Hellenic State. Encouraged by the example of Mohammed Ali, Mohammed, the Amir of Soran, began
preparations and established several military factories and arsenals in his capital city, Rewanduz. Those military plants soon supplied his army with vast amounts of ammunition, rifles, and primitive types of cannons. By 1833 Amir Mohammed brought all of southern Kurdistan under his rule. The Kurdish chieftain's army was comprised of ten thousand cavalry and twice as many infantry. With the new territorial gains,
his borders stretched to those of the Bohtan Emirate whose prince, Bedir Khan; himself entertained ambitious dreams of unifying Kurdistan.
Amir Mohammed realized the benefits of joining forces with Bedir Khan. For this reason, he approached the prince of Bohtan with a request to form a Kurdish federation against the Sublime Porte. Bedir Khan totally rejected Amir Mohammed's offer, since it meant that he and his forces would come under the command of the mighty prince of Soran. Bedir Khan's refusal was in fact a decisive blow to the cause of Kurdish unification envisioned by the Amir of Rewanduz.
Once the Ottomans had settled their problems, Amir Mohammed became the primary target of the Ottoman Sultan, who sent Rashid Pasha with an army against him. Rashid also received reinforcement from the Ottoman valis (governor) of Musul and Baghdad. He declared war against the Amir of Soran, and he fought him during the summer months of 1834. Von Moltke, who at the time was a German lieutenant serving in the Ottoman army, writes in his memories that the battles were furious. Kurds fought heroically to
defend their motherland. The Ottomans had many casualties. They often fought thirty to forty days to occupy just one Kurdish stronghold.
However, Kurdish resistance was destined to fail. Partisan Kurdish irregular soldiers were unable to resist the advances of regular Ottoman regiments that were rejuvenated with fresh recruits. Amir Mohammed relived the fate of his predecessor, Abdul Rahman. He took refuge amongst the Kurdish tribes of Iran, from where he returned in 1836 to continue his struggle. This time, the Ottoman Sultan used his religious authority as the Khalifa [literally the successor to the prophet, religious leader, G.M.] and encouraged
Kurdish religious sheiks to rebel against their Lord. Prince Mohammed was outcast by his own people. He was handed over to the Ottomans, who took him and his family to Istanbul. The Sultan's plan worked quite well. Depriving the Soran district from its ruler and protector, he ruled there with an iron fist.
After living in Istanbul for some years, prince Mohammed was granted permission to return to his country. However, he was mysteriously murdered on his way home (most probably by the assassins of the Ottoman Sultan).
Amir Mohammed's movement was different from all previous Kurdish attempts at freedom. It was for once a huge endeavor with a broad popular basis (at least in its initial stages). It is normal to conclude that this movement was the forerunner of Kurdish national movements. However, one problem which severely damaged the Amir's cause was the social culture of the Kurdish people itself. Based on tribal and clan organization, unity and national belongingness were still strange, not to say altogether incomprehensible, to the
Kurdish character. Amir Mohammed placed his bet on this sensitive issue. He lost because he did not realize that more time was needed in order to unify a tribal-pastoral society. Kurdistan was not yet ready to accept freedom and national sovereignty under the leadership of a single ruler.
The Soran district was a remote area in southern Kurdistan. Amir Mohammed was not able to establish ties with the Armenian vilayets. The only Christians who might have helped the Amir were Armenian and Nestorian villagers who had migrated long ago to these remote areas of Kurdistan. However, as will be related, Christian and Armenian aid was more readily available during the next Kurdish rebellion. The originator of the new movement was non other than Bedir Khan. The nexus of his revolt was his capital city,
B. Bedir Khan's Rebellion
Bedir Khan, the Amir of Bohtan, was born in 1802. he was the son of the most prominent feudal lord of Bohtan, whose family enjoyed the leadership of the principality since the fourteenth century. Bedir Khan was destined to play an important role in the history of the Kurdish liberation movement.
Most of southern Kurdistan had by now suffered dearly at the hands of the Ottoman armies. Kurds had no doubts about the intentions of the Sultan. An apparent hatred toward the Ottoman regime was gaining momentum. On the other hand, Ottomans encountered a great defeat in Syria where their armies were defeated against the forces of Egypt's viceroy, Mohammed Ali, at Nazib, in June 1839. Bedir Khan acted quickly, and by 1840 he brought almost all of Ottoman Kurdistan under his rule. The prince of Bohtan also signed a treaty of friendship with the Kurdish leaders of Iran and the district of Kars.
According to Safrastian, Bedir Khan was a just ruler. Within his territories justice prevailed to all Kurds, Armenians, Nestorians, or Khaldians. Christians enjoyed unlimited religious freedom under his jurisdiction. They were encouraged to build their churches and worship in them. Bedir Khan protected his Christian subjects and allowed no harm to be done to them. This tolerance toward Christians was something different than Ottoman or Persian policies towards "infidel" Christians, which were based on religious discrimination.
This humanistic character of Bedir Khan acknowledged him as a respectable leader. As a consequence, his popularity grew tremendously in the different parts of Kurdistan. The Amir was now able to rely on his popular base to accomplish his goal of liberating and unifying Kurdistan. Yet like other Kurdish leaders before him, Bedir Khan was confronted with the centuries old problem of Kurdish tribal disunity and rivalry which proved to be a major obstacle.
Kendal mentions yet another problem that is of prime importance, but whose accuracy is yet to be determined. He exerts the idea that missionary movements, British and American, operating in southern Kurdistan preached Christians into obedience to the Ottomans, and total neglect to the cause of their actual leader, Bedir Khan. Kendal continues by saying that the missionaries were quite successful in their attempts. They encouraged people and Armenians in particular, not to participate in battles
against the Ottomans or to pay taxes and dues for the military aims of Bedir Khan.
Kendal's arguments in this regard are interesting. The fact that missionary movements are by nature against violence, and, by this token, not encouraging towards war is well known. On the other hand, however, other authors insist that those missionary movements "did enlighten" Christians in those remote areas, and thus "generated the development of national consciousness amongst them."
Nevertheless, it turned out that Bedir khan possessed a political acumen and became experiences and seasoned leader who enjoyed the devotion and admiration of all his followers. Moreover his movement transcended the limited, sectoral understandings of Kurdish tribal thinking. Quoting from Hagop Shahbazian's book titled “Armenian-Kurdish History,” Sasuni states that:
"Bedir Khan's plan of action contained within it the eastern vilayets of Van, Mush, Bitlis and Diarbekir, reaching the Sea of Urmia (rather Lake Urmia). Moreover, Bedir Khan's plan demanded that those territories be defended against all outside enemies. For this reason, the Amir assumed direct negotiations with the Shah of Iran and asked for his help against the Ottomans. As for the Armenians, they had to provide help from Russia and Georgia. This could be a contrived as a ripe plan according to the
developments of those days, since in it the seeds of an Armenian-Kurdish federation against Ottoman rule are detectable."
In fact, Armenians living within Bedir Khan’s rule did provide help for the Kurdish prince in his struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Some Armenians even fought in his army, Yet history was to provide a decisive blow to Bedir Khan's cause.
Concerned with the fate of the Ottomans Empire, the "Concert of Europe" acted quickly and settled the question of Egypt's Viceroy, Mohammed Ali, by bestowing him with hereditary rule over Egypt, in 1840. This presented the Sultan with a real opportunity. Rescued from his primary rival, he momentarily sent an army under the command of Osman Pasha against Bedir Khan. Osman's objective was to restore Ottoman rule in Eastern Anatolia and Kurdistan.
The war continued for three full years, 1844-1847. However, by the end of 1847, Bedir Khan had exhausted almost all his forces and supplies. Moreover, a dissension occurred within his camp. Osman Pasha bribed Bedir Khan's nephew, Yezdansher, who was the commander of the eastern wing of Bedir Khan's army. With Yezdansher's defection the remaining Kurdish forces fell apart and the doors of the Kurdish capital, Jezireh, were wide open to Osman Pasha. Bedir Khan's final battle took place in the Eruhi castle. He
was defeated, captured and exiled first to Varna in Ottoman Bulgaria, then to Crete, and finally to Damascus where he died in 1868.
After about forty years of warfare, the Ottoman government thought that it had finally brought rebellious Kurdistan to its knees. It was mistaken, because after only few years the movement reemerged, this time under the leadership of Yezdansher, who benefited from the Crimean War of 1853 and took upon himself the call of arms.
C. Yezdansher's Movement
The Russian-Turkish conflict of 1853 was reason enough for Turkish armies to leave their bases in Kurdistan and to hurry to the battlefield in an effort to stop the Russian offensive from the north.
With the newly created vacuum, Yezdansher took the cause of his uncle upon himself. He endeavored to recreate the Kurdish spirit of freedom, which had died for almost a decade due to the massive presence of Turkish armies in the Bohtan Principality.
Early in 1855, with a small army comprised of two thousand cavalrymen, Yezdansher took Bitlis and drove away its Ottoman governor. This act brought the new Kurdish chieftain an immense popularity within the Kurdish tribes of southeastern Anatolia. Soon hundreds and thousands of Kurdish warriors came from all over the terrain to join his army and fight for his cause. Still in 1855, Yezdansher crushed the joined forces of the valis of Musul and Baghdad near the city of Siirt and obliged Kenkam Pasha, the commander of
the Turkish army, to flee away.
In four months, Yezdansher brought the whole territory from Van to Baghdad under his rule (including Diarbekir). By this time, Yezdansher's army swelled to over one hundred thousand soldiers.
Parallel to Yezdansher's advance, the Russian offensive had a partial success. Yezdansher tried in vain to establish communications with the advancing Russian armies. His numerous letters to the Russian command in this regard remained unanswered, since most of the advancing Russian armies operated far to the northeast and away from Yezdansher's field of action.
On the other hand, the European powers were once again in panic, since the unity and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire were in danger by the Russian armies in the north and Yezdansher's rebellion in the south. France and Great Britain joined the Ottoman Empire against Russia. They viewed Yezdansher's movement in the utmost
negative sense. After all, a free and sovereign Kurdistan under Yezdansher's rule would become a Russian puppet and thus endanger European interests in the Ottoman Empire.
Something was to be done. The British did find a way with which to silence the Kurdish chieftain:-
"The British emissary, Nimrod Rassam, set of from Musul in 1855 with plenty of cash in his coffers and demanded to be received as a mediator at the headquarters of the Kurdish movement. After visiting the tribal chieftains one by one, and offering bribes of guns, gifts and money, he set about persuading Yezdansher to settle the question of Kurdish independence from the Ottoman Empire by negotiating [with it] with the British acting as mediators."
Yezdansher was mistaken in accepting the British terms. He trusted English diplomacy and accompanied Rassam to Istanbul where he was immediately imprisoned. His army was left without a leader. Soon it was defeated by Ottoman forces.
With Yezdansher, the rebellious movements originated by the Kurdish feudal families during the first half of the nineteenth century came to an end. These uprisings represented a real threat to the Ottomans, since they had to supply costly armies to control the situation.
Yezdansher was the last Kurdish Amir to lead a rebellion. With him the rule of the Kurdish princes perished. Soon religious leaders known as sheiks assumed the role of the feudal lords. With their fanatic religious zeal, the sheiks changed the policies of the secular princes. They started to discriminate against the Christian minorities who lived within their territories, and thus defeated all hopes of future cooperation. Once motivated by their religious leaders, Kurds started to realize their difference as
Muslims from Christian Armenians, Assyrians, Nestorians, Khaldians, etc…They gradually developed hatred and enmity towards their Christians neighbors, something which proved to be disastrous for the future of both parties.
During the following decades, nationalistic feelings started to ferment within the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire. However, there seemed to be no way or means by which the two ethnic groups could join forces.
During the rule of the religious sheiks, the major movement that originated in Kurdistan was the rebellion of Sheik Obeidullah in 1880. Like its predecessors it was strangled in a bloodbath. After this defeat the status quo changed completely. Armenian-Kurdish enmity escalated and reached its peak after 1880, specially during the reign of the “Red Sultan,” Abdul Hamid II.
Gerard, Chaliand, Ed., People without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan,
Zed Press, London, 1980, p. 26. The quotation is from Kendal, whose paper appears in the above-mentioned volume, with the title “The Kurds Under Ottoman Rule.”
Ibid, p. 27. Also see: Arshak, Safrastian, Kurds And Kurdistan, Harvic Press,
London, 1948, p. 52.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 27. Also see: Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, pp.
In 1839 the Ottomans suffered a serious defeat at Nazib (in Syria) against the forces
of Ibrahim Pasha, son of Egypt’s viceroy, Mohamed Ali.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 29. Also see: Safrastian, Kurds and Kurdistan, p. 55.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 29. Also see: Sydney, Fisher N., The Middle East: A
History, New York, 1965, p. 331.
Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin, pp. 101-103. According to Makhmutov, Amir Bedir Khan did not enjoy friendly relations with the Christians living in his domain. Makhmutov implies directly that the Amir had no intention of establishing any friendly relations with those Christians. In
this author’s opinion, such an analysis is vague and confusing. The mere fact that Bedir Khan intended to establish communications with Russia and Georgia necessitated that he create friendly ties with his Armenian, Assyrian, Nestorian and other Christian subjects, even if he was not sincere in his intentions. It follows that Armenians even participated in his army (although in very small numbers), Makhmutov, Kurt Zhoghovurte, p. 30.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 120. Also see: Makhmutov, Kurt Zhoghovurte, p. 120. The major difference between Kendal and Makhmutov is that according to the latter Yezdansher had an army of one hundred thousand soldiers in February 1855. According to Kendal,
Yezdansher’s army grew to that number only late in the summer of 1855. There is a time gap of almost nine months. Kendal’s time frame seems to be more accurate. If Yezdansher had his massive army in February, why would he lose such valuable time and postpone the offensive (winter was not a problem, and the element of surprise was to be lost, G.M.) just for the sake of establishing communications with the Russians of which he was not so sure anyway?
The indication is of the Crimean War during which European powers joined forces
with the Ottomans to defeat Russia and thus preserve the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire. The defeat was a decisive blow for the Russians, especially for their southwestern expansion. The outcome of the war was a shameful treaty that compelled the Russians to postpone their expansion policy by some twenty years (1875-1876).
Chaliand, People Without, p. 30.