Armenian Kurdish Relations in the Era of Kurdish National Movements (1830-1930)


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Author: Garabet K. Moumdjian - E-mail


If until 1855-60 Armenian-Kurdish relations had a more or less friendly character, this trend did not continue unabashed. The scene changed dramatically after 1860. This was due mostly to the absence of Kurdish princes like Mohammed or Bedir Khan, who were true advocates of Armenian-Kurdish cooperation.

Ottoman authorities were greatly pleased with the newly established status quo, especially because with the demise of the Kurdish princes, the Kurdish tribes and clans were left in a state of anarchy. It was the religious sheiks who assumed the leadership of the tribes. The sheiks were not only unable to unify the Kurdish tribes under their rule, but, with time, themselves became the “ears and eyes” of the Ottoman Sultans.

One exception did occur, however. This took place in 1880, under the leadership of Sheik Obeidullah. In reality, this movement was different from the traditional movements of the previous Kurdish Amirs. Moreover, it was the first time that the Kurdish tribes of Iran took part in it. On the other hand, Sheik Obeidullah’s rebellion did not possess the potential and force of Bedir Khan’s or Yezdan Shers movement. Last but not least, it had a distinct religious overtone.

It was the Ottomans who tried to stir the religious pot. They constricted this policy with the perspective of achieving enmity between the Kurds and Christian Armenians. It is worthy to note here that until 1860 all across the Ottoman Empire, and especially in the Armenian vilayets of Eastern Anatolia, Armenians in general were considered a friendly element to the Ottoman Empire. As a matter of fact, the consecutive sultans did not fear this “Milleti Sadika” (friendly people)” which paid its taxes and conducted all its responsibilities towards the “benevolent” state. Instead, Ottomans purred their anger on the troublesome Kurdish tribes in their attempt to crush their various rebellions.

However, the rubrics of “peaceful Armenians” and the “friendly people” soon came out of circulation. Nationalist ideas had found fertile ground within the Armenian communities of the empire whose members were treated as second degree citizens in their own homeland for almost five centuries. In 1862, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire accomplished a major sociopolitical triumph, when they convinced the sultan to ratify their national constitution, Azgayin Sahmanadrutiun. The document enabled Armenians to bring some sort of organization to their communal life within the empire. In another words, with this constitution the Armenian Patriarch (Milletbashi) became the religious as well as the political leader of the Armenian Gregorian Millet (religious community) within the Ottoman Empire. The constitution capacitated Istanbul Armenians to establish ties and lines of communication with the Armenian communities of the Eastern Armenian vilayets. With the communication, the sad reality of Armenians living in Eastern Anatolia reached the Ottoman capital. A new network of Prelacies was soon established with a bishop appointed at the head of each prelacy. Thus, after centuries of seclusion and isolation, the different Armenian communities of the empire started to communicate with one another under the umbrella of this religious network. Armenians in Istanbul became active in projects involving remote Armenian societies. Schools soon started to operate with the intention of bringing education to the illiterate masses. With education enlightenment and notions of national belongingness started to flourish. Thus a new Armenian image emerged.

The Kurds viewed Armenian accomplishments negatively. The already developed enmity between them and the Armenians escalated to new hights, simply because they were deprived of such an organization. This was due to their lack of unity and especially their competitive tribal pattern of life.

After 1864, however, the Turkish government developed a more lenient policy in governing the Kurdish tribes. Ottoman armies were still kept stationed in Kurdistan, yet their effectiveness was greatly reduced. But Kurds had already lost a great proportion of their freedom loving spirit, and by this time they had reassumed their internal conflicts, vendettas, and booty raids.

During the rule of the Kurdish Amirs, each Armenian country was under the protection of a Kurdish prince to whom it paid tribute. By paying taxes, Armenian town and villages were spared the cruel raids of Kurdish tribes. When the religious sheiks came to power and stressed the religious difference between Armenians and Kurds, the latter started pointing their guns towards peaceful Armenian peasants and targeted them for their “traditional” booty raids.

The network of Armenian prelacies brought organization to the Armenian communities scattered throughout the Ottoman Empire. Soon primates started to send reports to the Patriarchate in Istanbul describing the difficulties and atrocities that Armenians encountered at the hands of Kurdish tribal bands. In their letters, the primates asked the Armenian patriarch to bring the matter to the attention of the Sublime Porte and to demand Protection for Armenians in the remote eastern vilayets.  However, most of these reports were literally kept in the Patriarchate’s drawers, mainly because conservative and well to do Armenians, Amiras and Sarrafs, whose effectiveness had been diminished by the National Constitution, but who in reality were still able to exert great pressure on the Patriarch, made him keep his silence so as not to endanger their, i.e. the Amiras’ positions and fortunes. The Sublime Porte not only pretended not to hear the Armenian demands, on the contrary, it approached the Kurds and tried to gain them to its side. It even encouraged them to increase their raids on Armenian towns and villages.

In 1877 a new Russo-Turkish war started. The Russians launched an offensive to erase the shame and humility that they encountered in their defeat in the Crimean War. This time the Ottomans were unable to depend on Europe’s help. Actually, most of the European powers were at odds with the Sublime Porte. Some of them even joined Russia against the Ottoman Empire.

By this time Armenians and Kurds had swapped their historical roles. The formers were now regarded as enemies of the empire while the latter were the obedient followers of the Ottomans. Kurds actually helped the Ottoman in their war effort. By not attacking the flanks of the Ottoman armies they eased security in the Ottoman backyard, thus gaining the government’s trust.

On the Northern front, the Russians planned and executed quick and decisive offensives and occupied all of Northern Anatolia. A second Russian army marched in a northwest and then Southern direction and after several victorious battles reached the gates of Istanbul. “The sick man of Europe” was once again rescued because of contradicting European politics, which now worked desperately to stop the Russian advance and to make Russia reach an agreement with sultan.

As a result of the 1877 Russo-Turkish conflicts, the “Armenian Question” came into existence as part and parcel of the broader Eastern Question. The war ended with the Treaty of San Stefano. Article sixteen of this treaty stated that the Sublime Porte was under obligation to bring about much needed reforms in the Eastern vilayets that were inhabited by Armenians, and that Russian troops were to be stationed in those areas until such reforms were met. The article also demanded that the Sublime Porte had to protect Armenians against Kurdish and Cherkez aggression.[1]

Evidently, the Russian victory could have secured a major victory to Armenian dreams of autonomy within a federative state. But the Turks used all of their canny diplomatic means and European ties to extinguish such Armenian hopes as formulated by article sixteen of the Treaty of San Stefano. Turkish diplomatic endeavors paid their dividends. After only one year the Armenian cause suffered a great defeat at the Congress of Berlin, in 1878, which was called upon by the European powers, on the request of Ottoman Turkey, which aimed at nulling and voiding the terms of San Stefano. Article sixty-one of the Congress of Berlin dealt with the Armenian Question. It was milder in context than article sixteen of the San Stefano Treaty. According to this new article, the concept of an autonomous Armenian state was altered. Russian Armies were not to remain in the eastern vilayets. The sultan was to initiate reforms as he saw fit.[2]

For Turks, Armenians could no longer be trusted as the “Milleti Sadika”, the subordinate element. They were preparing themselves for the cause of freedom. Realizing that the cultural, social, and economic advantages of the Armenian communities were diametrically opposed to the pastoral status of the highly nomadic Kurdish tribes, the Ottoman government saw it necessary to develop a strictly negative policy towards Armenians. In this regard, the Ottomans used Kurdish hatred towards Armenians as a means to carry out their policies. By having the Kurds dangling as a “Tamoglian Sword” over their heads, Armenians would be busy dealing with it and lose precious time that would otherwise be dedicated for their cause of freedom.

Ironically, a new Kurdish threat developed during this period. Thinking that they were finally able to control the Kurdish population and their rebellious spirit, the Ottomans had almost no armies in Kurdistan. In fact, the Russian offensive had demanded the utilization of all of the Ottoman military might. Therefore, the evacuation of Turkish troops from Kurdistan was a necessity. With no Ottoman threat in sight, a new rebellion started to take shape in Kurdistan, which also engulfed Kurdish territories in Iran. It originated under the leadership of Sheik Obeidullah who was the son of Sheik Taha, the highest religious authority in Kurdistan.

A. - Sheik Obeidullah and the Rebellion of 1880

The last Kurdish rebellion of the nineteenth century broke out in 1880. For the first time Kurds from Iran participated in it.

In December 1872, the Iranian government demanded the Kurds living in Khoy and the regions of the Sea of Urmia to pay taxes for previous years. Kurdish leaders objected by saying that they had already paid their duties to Sheik Obeidullah whose family enjoyed this privilege since 1836.

Not willing to tolerate such a Kurdish objection, the Shah sent an army to Khoy to punish the Kurds and to collect the proper taxes. Seeing the immediate Iranian danger, Sheik Obeidullah asked the Sublime Porte to interfere on his behalf and stop the Shah from destroying the Kurdish territory of Khoy. The Ottoman government sent the vali of Erzurum as an envoy to Iran. The vali was unable to accomplish his mission because the Shah rejected all of Sheik Obeidullah’s peace proposals.[3]

During the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War some Ottoman regiments acted cruelly against Kurds in the regions of Dersim, Hakkiari, Mardin, and Bohtan. Sheik Obeidullah asked the sultan to pull his forces back and bring an end to the atrocities. Realizing that the Sublime Porte was intentionally ignoring his requests, the sheik established secret ties with the Khedive of Egypt, the Sherif of Mecca and the Russian consuls of Van and Erzurum. He wanted to bring their attention on the Kurdish problem. Russia had newly signed a treaty with the Ottomans. It was not prepared to undertake a new venture. Having received no guarantees from the Tsar, Obeidullah dropped Russia from his plans and started to make preparations alone.

Yet what was the position of Europe and specially Great Britain towards the sheik and his activities? Of course England had almost always been a defender of Ottoman integrity. This policy was kept not because of love or admiration of the Ottoman Empire but for two other reasons: first, because Europe was not able to divide “the Sick man of Europe” peacefully among its states. Therefore, preserving it and the status quo it represented was the best way o secure England’s route to her Far Eastern colonies. Second, to have the Ottoman Empire as an enemy was to invite Muslim animosity against the British, since the sultan was after all the Khalifa, the successor to the line of the Prophet Mohammed. The British were really sensitive in this regard because of their Muslim colonies in India and elsewhere. They were not ready to confront the wrath of some three hundred million Muslim over whom they held sway.

Beside all these considerations, a free and independent Kurdistan would first harm the territorial integrity and the unity of the Ottoman Empire and also endanger England’s land route to its Indian colonies. So it was evident why England was never in favor of the creation of a free and independent Kurdistan. Sheik Obeidullah knew this, and he also knew that England was another power on the list of his enemies. But a power, which needed close surveillance, since, it could do much harm with all its military and diplomatic might.

Nevertheless, the English were quick to act as before with Yezdan Sher, they used not military but diplomatic means, since that was more likely to work again in such situations. Soon the British Consul of Van undertook the long journey and appeared at the sheik’s palace in Shamsdinan. The Consul told Obeidullah that Britain stood with the totality of the Ottoman State, but at the same time it wanted to encourage reforms for Kurds, Armenians, and Nestorian Assyrians living in Kurdistan. The Sheik assured the consul that all Sunni Kurds are faithful to the Ottoman Sultan. It seems that the British consul fell prey to the sheik’s words and returned to Van thinking that he accomplished his mission and gained the Sheik’s confidence. After his visit, the Sheik’s forces received weapons and ammunition from the British. These arrived under the cover of relief


It seems that Obeidullah was himself a gifted politician besides being a religious leader. He was ambitious, and he worked for several goals simultaneously. He also wanted to establish his rule over Kurdistan. On the other hand, Sultan Abdul Hamid II wanted to use the Sheik and manipulate him for his own purposes. The sultan had developed a Pan-Islamic ideology, which aimed at using of religious authority to unify the weakened empire and restore its greatness. Obeidullah and his alikes seemed to be important in carrying out such a plan. So the sheik’s part was to block Armenian resistance and thus help the sultan to destroy reform projects which European powers pressured him for. As for the question that such a part would increase the strength of the Kurdish sheik, Abdul Hamid was clever enough not to let the balance be disturbed. His politics worked in the direction of strengthening the various religious leaders, but on condition that none of them exceeded others in power and became a threat to the central government. Sultan Abdul Hamid did let the Kurdish Sheik grow strong, but he always balanced that strength and made sure that the sheik was under his control.[5]

Makhumtov views Sheik Obeidullah’s movement as strictly nationalistic. Such feelings are understood even if not shared, since historical research shows a different perspective. Makhmutov bases his opinion on one of Obeidullah’s speeches during which he is supposed to have said that: 

 “Ottoman rule was established five hundred and fifty years ago. Ottoman achieved their ruling positions by using all of the illegal avenues that they could think of. As long as the Shariah (Muslim religious code of law, derived from the writings and the Hafizes of the prophet-G.M.) demands that the sultan [sick, Khalifa-G.M.] must be of the Prophet’s lineage, Ottoman rule on the Islamic world is accordingly null and unlawful.”[6]

Being a religious leader, Sheik Obeidullah had to use religious overtones in order to strengthen his position. Even if the authenticity of the speech is put under question, its wording indicates no nationalistic feeling but rather a definite religious content. The mention of the Shariah alone is reason enough in this respect. Therefore, the nationalistic outlook with which Makhnutov tries to color Obeidullah’s movement does not seem to fit the historical record. Anyway, this could be proven by the fact that the Kurdish Sheik became the victim of his highly ambitious character. In the end he and his people came under the duel fire of the Ottoman and Iranian armies.[7]

How did this downfall happen? In February 1880 (July, according to Makhumutov), Obeidullah invited the Kurdish tribal chieftains to a meeting in his capital city of Shamsdinan. During the discussions, the sheik spoke out that he had abandoned the idea of fighting the sultan and the shah simultaneously, and that instead he had decided to attack Iran first (an indication of his pro-ottoman position perhaps). Warfare started in October of the same year. Obeidullah, with an army of eighty thousand, first occupied Sudjbulak (Mahabad), then Maraghi, and then the strategic city of Tabiz. The disorganized Kurdish army soon diverted from its real objectives and Obeidullah was unable to manage and lead an army comprised mainly of undisciplined tribal warriors. Soon booty raids became so frequent that Tabriz and its defense was totally neglected. The whole movement was endangered.

Frightened, the shah asked for Ottoman intervention in order to stop Obeidullah’s offensive. The sultan had helped the Kurdish sheik in his campaign, but now he was worried that the sheik had exceeded his limits. Soon Ottoman armies appeared on the scene. Obeidullah was now caught between the Ottoman and Iranian forces. He abandoned his newly conquered territories and fled to Shamsdinan.

The Ottoman government did not punish Obeidullah, because the sheik and his forces could still be of use to secure the Southern flank of the Iranian-Turkish border. Yet the sheik’s campaign had made him a hero. Eventually, his authority had grown too much. Abdul Hamid used politics and diplomacy to solve this problem. He sent valuable gifts to the various Kurdish sheiks and tribal chieftains. He invited Obeidullah to Istanbul. The sheik was not in favor of such an invitation, but he was encouraged to travel by the other Kurdish leaders. He finally accepted the invitation and traveled to the Ottoman capital, where he was welcomed by a special parade in his honor, contrary to the protests of the Iranian ambassador to the Sublime Porte.

Obeidullah returned to Shamsdinan. Yet as soon as he reached there, the sultan exiled him to Mecca. Obeidullah did not stay long in Mecca. He returned to Shamsdinan from where he was once again taken to Istanbul. After living there for a while, he was exiled once again because of his “liberal ideas”. With the declaration of the constitution in 1908, Obeidullah was allowed to return to Istanbul.

In 1925, Obeidullah was apprehended because of his participation in the rebellion of Sheik Said Ali of Dersim. The military court of Diarbekir (which was assembled for the purpose of convicting the Kurdish rebel elements) judged him. He was found guilty and was hanged with Sheik Said and his followers. Sheik Obeidullah’s movement was the last Kurdish insurrection of the nineteenth century. Abdul Hamid’s canny diplomacy was capable of changing the Kurdish character.

In 1885, the first Armenian political part, the Armenakan Party, was formed in Van, the heart of Ottoman Armenia. During the following five years, the Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Caucasus were in rapid change. In 1887, the Social Democratic Henchakian Party was formed, and two years later the first attempts towards uniting all Armenian nationalists in a single entity was achieved in Tbilisi (Tiflis), Georgia, where the Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries (Hay Heghabokhakanneri Dashnaksutiun) was formed. Two years later the federation of all Armenian revolutionaries seemed to be a futile experiment. Many abandoned it; the remaining members formed a new party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Hay Heghapokhagan Dashnaksutium, A.R.F hereafter). As a result, the Armenian Question entered a period of dramatic escalation. Abdul Hamid and his government fought with all their might to surpress this new movement for autonomy. And what could have been more useful than the Kurdish tribes with which to accomplish this goal…

[1] Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, p. 138.

[2] Ibid, pp. 139-140.

[3] Chaliand, People Without, p. 31.

[4] Ibid, pp. 31-32.

[5] Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin, pp. 145-146.

[6] Makhmutov, Kurt Zhoghovurte, p. 129

[7] Sources do not label this rebellion a “national liberation movement.” However, one must take into consideration the tribal status quo of the Kurds itself was a primary obstacle for the propagation of national liberation sentiments in the population. It is therefore important to look at the events from this perspective.







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