On the Medieval History of the Kurds

A valuable book, indeed a comprehensive encyclopedia, on the medieval history of the Kurds, whose title can be loosely translated as ''Kurdish Tribal Confederations and Dynasties in the Middle Ages'', written by Dr. Zirar Siddiq Tewfiq:
Kurdish Version (هۆز و ده‌سه‌ڵاته‌ هۆزه‌كییه‌ كوردییه‌كانی چاخی ناوه‌ڕاست)(Hoz u deselate hozekiye kurdiyekanî chaxî nawerast)
Arabic Version  (القبائل و الزعامات القبلية الکردية في العصرالوسيط)

Scythian Dancer

A Scythian male dancer in Kurdish clothes with the typical tall cap.
The stucco is from Qalaye Yazdgird, Eastern Kurdistan, Kirmashan region.

Memê Alan or "Mam The Alanian"

With regard to the Alans (a wellknown Scythian people), we have previously mentioned the large Alanian tribal confederations among the Kurds, such as Alans of Piranshahr and Sardasht south of lake Urmia or the Alan aristocracy who ruled for centuries over what is nowadays Iranian province of Kurdistan (Ardalan, or Ard-Alan), immidiately to south of the former.
We have also referred to the name of the mythological Kurdish hero of the Epic of Mem u Zin, "Memê Alan" (or Mam the Alan). This classic love story is considered to be the épopée of the Kurdish literature. One more interesting fact with regard to the story is pointed out by the French orientalist and expert on Kurdish literature, Roger Lescot. He rightfully identified the origin of the story in a narration by Chares of Mytilene, a Greek historian of the 4th century BC. Chares informs us that the love story which is about a prince and a Scythian princess, is originally recited by the Scythians of Caucasus mountains.

It is noteworthy that the story narrated by Chares was for a few decades ago thought to be related to Zoroastrian tradititions. Howerver, it is now believed to be originally a Scythian-Median love story.

The Ancient Scythian Festival of Sakaia

The Classical Greek sources mention a Scythian festival, named Sakaia, borrowed by ancient Persians and performed even in Babylonia. During the festival, a servant was elected as king for two to five days; the elected servant who was called ''zoganes'', was allowed to do as he was pleased and was entertained by the royal concubines.
But at the end of the period of the licence the masquerade king was dethroned and whipped. The participants who accompanied the carnival king, used to drink and dance. The festival was celebrated at vernal or autumnal equinox.
Interestingly, the Persians who attended the festival dressed in the Scythian garb.

The exact same festival is survived throughout Kurdistan. 
On of the characteristic of the New Year festival (Newroz/Newroj/Gulus) in Kurdistan is the election of the false “amir” (ruler), whom the participants choose from among themselves to rule over them for three to five days. During this time he engages in the most extravagant behavior, making wild promises of long life and wealth to all his “subjects” and, in the general spirit of fun, fining those he judges guilty of “crimes”. (read here)

The festival is even known among the Yezidi Kurds, and Kurds of the Transcaucasus and Khorasan, observed by the archaeologist and iranologist Jean-Jacques de Morgan.
The festival is not nowadays common among other Iranic-speaking nations.

Names of Corduene Kings

Corduene was a kingdom in ancient Kurdistan, often been neglected by scholars. Among their notable kings were Zarbienus and Manisarus, whose etymology of names discloses the nature of the Iranic dialect they spoke: a middle Scythian dialect, the same as neighbouring Adiabene to the south of the kingdom.

Zarbienus, also recorded as Zarbiene, and Zarbien, (early-mid 1st c. BC), made overtures to Appius Claudius, when the latter was staying at Antiocheia, wishing to shake off the yoke of Tigranes. He was informed against, however, and was assassinated with his wife and children before the Romans entered Armenia. When Lucullus arrived he celebrated his funeral rites with great pomp, setting fire to the funeral pile with his own hand, and had a sumptuous monument erected to him. His name is comprised of two components, the first part is ''zar'', middle Iranic development for gold/golden, deriving from the old Avestan and Scythian ''zaranya''. The old Persian equivalent of zaranya was daranya, while later on, Zar entered as a loan into Persian and replaced the original old Persian daranya.
Plutarch has even recorded the name as Zerbienus, which reflects the typical middle and new Kurdish development of /a>e/.
It is a cognate with name of the eastern Scythians (Sakas) queen, "Zarina". She led a rebellion by Scythians and Parthians against the Median King Cyaxares, who according to Herodotus had recovered his kingdom through intoxicating Scythian nobles; (that is after Scythian emperor Madius had counqered the Medes). The name of Zarina which means ''golden'', is still used for Kurdish females. The name has also been borrowed into Persian.

Manisarus (ca. 115 AD) took control over Armenia and Mesopotamia; therefor Osroes, the Parthian king, declared war against him; Manisarus sided with Romans. There are some coins extant, which are assigned to Manisarus. The etymology of his name is explained by linguist and orientalist Ferdinand Justi (author of "Kurdische Grammatik"), in his valuable book "Iranisches Namenbuch" to mean "unique and unparalleled lord/master".
The image above, shows an old drawing from one of the silver coins of the King Manisarus. Note King's headband (or diadem), typical for Scythian kings, such as King Izates II of Adiabene.

Scytho-Cimmerian Stelae

Some Scytho-Cimmerian stelae form ancient Kurdistan, 15th to 6th century B.C. ; (Hakkari region):

(see more examples...)

Following are some images of historic artifacts, including a stele, discovered by Kurdish guerillas from  remote mountains of Kurdistan, distributed on the net:

Female Warriors

A reconstruction of the Scythian warriors in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). Female Scythian warriors were known for their prowess at war.

Female Kurdish warriors.

Scythian Inscription

A Scythian inscription from Kurdistan, scratched in hieroglyphic signs; about two third of which can be identified with Hieroglyphic Hittite characters.

The text is transliterated as :

pa-tì-na-sa-nà tà-pá wa-s₆-na-m₅ XL was-was-ki XXX ár-s-tí-m₅ ś₃-kar-kar (HA) har-s₆-ta₅ LUGAL | par-tì-ta₅-wa₅ ki-ś₃-a₄-á KUR-u-pa-ti QU-wa-a₅ | i₅-pa-ś₂-a-m₂

it is transcripted as:

patinasana tapa. vasnam: 40 vasaka 30 arzatam šikar. UTA harsta XŠAYAL. | Partitava xšaya DAHYUupati xva|ipašyam

and translated as following:

"Delivered dish. Value: 40 calves 30 silver šiqlu. And it was presented to the king. | King Partitavas, the masters of the land property."

Scythian mythology and Yazdanism

Yazdanism is a conventional name for the pre-Islamic religion of the Kurds, before it developed into three branches of Ezidism, Yarsanism and Alevism, now practiced by small communities in central, southern and northern Kurdistan, respectively. A peculiarity of these religions which they share together and basically originates from Yazdanism is belief in a heptad of divine beings. In Ezidism for instance, the world is in the care of a Heptad of seven Holy Beings, often known as Angels or heft sirr (the Seven Mysteries). Preeminent among these is Tawûse Melek or Melek Tawus, literally meaning ''The peacock angel''.

In Scythian mythology, which is sporadically known through Greek sources, a heptad of seven deities are worshiped, greatest of all being ''Tabithi'' or ''Tabiti'' who was ''queen of animals'' and ''godess of fire''.

Besides the resemblance of the name which fully corresponds with Kurdish historical phonology (b> w, θ>s, hence: Tabithi > Tawus), both divinities have smiliar characters: being the greatest of the heptad and queen of animals (peacock has been often described as such).

One more amazing similarity is that in the Scythian mythology, the heptad divinities each represent a planet, as in Ezidism in which each divinity has been created in a week-day, (week-day names basically represent planets).  

Another Scythian goddess, "Api", depicted as having snakes instead of legs (image), precisely corresponds with the famous Kurdish mythological character, "Shameran". 

The Scythian dynasty of Adiabene

Above is the relief at Batas, depicting King Izates II (ruled ca. 36-62 A.D) of the Scythian dynasty of Adiabene, in what is nowadays Southern Kurdistan. Its capital was Arbela (Arbil) and included Garmakan (Garmian/Kirkuk), Duhok, Mosul, Shyarzur (Sharazur) etc.

King Izates II who is wearing a pointed tiara with a headband or diadem, ordered the carving after the unexpected retreat of the Parthian king, Vologases I, who had marched against him but had been forced to abandon the campaign when nomadic Dahi and Sacae (Scythian-related peoples) invaded the northeast of the Parthian empire.

The Parthians and Armenians called the kingdom "Nor-Shirakan", after the powerful ruling dynasty of Shirak, who were a well-known Scythian people. During Sassanid period, the kingdom was ruled by the "Suren" clan, who were related to both Scythians and Parthians. Both Shiraks and Surens have left substantial toponyms after themselves in Kurdistan.

Other inhabitants of Adiabene were Alans, Orontes (Rawands), Azones (Hazwans) and Silices (Selekei/Silki or Sidkan), these tribes are still there, in Kurdistan.

In the middle Persian language, the old Persian term "Saka", which meant ''nomad'' and was a generic term for Iranic-speaking non-Zoroastrian nomads (i.e. Scythians), had been replaced by "Kurd" (nomad)، which paved its way even into Arabic. After Muslim Arabs conquered the area in the 7th century, the Adiabane Kurds, (Arabic: ''Akrad al-Hadiab''), gradually expanded their dominion northwards to the areas around lake Urmia, taking Ushnu as their summer capital. They ruled the area for a while but later split to a few branches, spreading across Azerbaijan (at times Turks still had not invaded Azerbaijan), and Caucasus. Saladin the renowned Muslim ruler was descendant of one of the Adiabene tribal branches.

Saladin the Kurd, a descendant of the Adiabene Scythians.

Pointed hats

Scythians are known with and are shown on the ancient relics wearing pointy hats.
Kurds also have traditionally been known for their pointy hats.

Kurdish militia 1896

Kurds from Southern Caucasus (Armenia), 1840

Kurds 1840s

Kurds 1885

Kurdish warrior 1800s

Kurdish cavalryman, 17th century, showing a mounted cavalryman wielding a spear. From an unidentified 17th century German work

Representives of Kurdish costumes from six different geographical locations.

The list of images goes on, and give us a clear clue about Kurds traditional pointy hats.

Scythian Empire

Scythian dish found in Ziwiya (ancient Zibia, Izzibia /b>w/), 7th century BC.

Scythian statue; a king, probably Protothyes (Partativa)

Scythian staircases of an ancient castle, typical on hills in Kurdistan especially in east.

The Scythian Language

By the mid-seventh century B.C. the Scythians under Partatua reached the summit of their might in western Asia; and the region of Saqqez in Eastern Kurdistan was their political center. The very name of "Saqqez" is derived from "Skuδa", name of Scythians in their own language.

A notable Scythian group inhabiting ancient Kurdistan were the Cimmerians/Kimmerians. The Alans were another branch of western Scythians whose name is still largely preserved in Kurdish place-names such as "Alan", around Sardasht in eastern Kurdistan, the principality of "Ardalan", and  even in the name of the mythological Kurdish hero of the Epic of Mem u Zin (Mam the Alan). The toponym of ''Gerros'' is mentioned by Herodotus, which is also name of an area to the southeast of Saqqez, or more precisely the traditional name for the area including Bijar and Qurwa counties, that is the eastern part of Kurdistan province in Iran. Another toponym is ''Şakak'', designating a large Kurdish tribal federation to the west and northwest of lake Urmia, where the famous kingdom of Sakacene of classical sources existed. The "Budini" of Herodotus may represent the ancestors of modern ''Boti'' or "Badini" Kurds. Name of river Kubani, mentioned by Herodotus as Hypanis, is still used in Kurdistan as name of a city.

Of the language of the Eastern Scythians, (also known as Indo-Scythians), i.e. Khotanese, remains a considerable ammount of texts and written material.
It is generally assumed that the languages/dialects spoken by various Scythian-related groups, were to some degrees related to one another, but they were not homogenous and in some cases were considerably dissimilar.

In this post I would like to bring your attention to some Scythian and Sakan words spoken in ancient and middle Iranian period in western and central Asia, respectively, as well as to some of their common features with modern Kurdish, which could be important for understanding the historical development of Kurdish phonology. As stated above, one should not forget that eastern Sakan must have had significant differences with western Scythian languages spoken in Kurdistan.

Phonological developments:

Inter- and postvocalic p>v; compare with Kurdish p>v/w:
Avestan 'k$apa', Sakan '$ava', Kurdish '$av'/'$aw'

Initial v>b; (borrowed in modern Persian from Kurdish/Scyhian)

Avestan 'váta', Sakan ' báta', Kurdish 'ba'

plural suffix
Scythian: -ti
Kurdish -êt (as in Bahdini), or ''de'' (as in Mukri/Sorani)

The frequent metathesis of replacing /m, p, b, f, v, w/ after /l, r/;

The transition *d > *δ > *l in intervocalic position and at the beginning of words, which once was considered regular and proper to the Scythian language, are now proven to be sporadic and dialectal. In any case, Kurdish frequently demonstrates this feature: de > le ('in'), xuda > xula ('god'), Muhammad > Mamlan, name of a 10th century ruler in the house of kuricized Rawadid dynasty,  etc.

The previously-held hypothesis that Scythian knew the transitions /-nt-/ > /-d-/, /*xš-/ > /s-/ is now proven to be based on a misinterpretation of sources and is rejected.

/p>f/ which was attributed either to Scythian or Median, now is considered to be an Alanian, phenomenon. Yet, Kurdish occasionally demonstrates this feature; Kurdish: ''frî'' vs Persian ''parid'' (flied), Kurdish ''frê'' vs. persian ''part'' (throw); this may be explained as a remannat of the period when Scythians were in mutual contact with Sarmato-Alanians.

Some Scythian lexems:

Scythian: kuti
Kurdish: kuti (''se[g]'' used in some Kurdish dialects is a Persian loan)

to give
Old Persian: dada-
Scythian: da-
Kurdish: da-

Old Persian: bratar
Scythian: brata
Kurdish: bra

to cut
Old Persian: fra-jan
Scythian: brin
Kurdish: brin

Scythian: parsu
Kurdish: parasu

Scythian: nara
Kurdish: narîn

to go
Old Persian: shiyava (now /sho/ its meaning has changed to ''to become'' in modern Persian)
Scythian: chiyava
Kurd: chu

Scythian: karsa
Kurdish: qars/qals

Soghdian: pspryh (fix, repair)
Kurdish: pispor (expert)

Saka : aska
Kurdish: ask

Saka: pruha
Kurdish: prusha

son, boy
Scythian: kur
Kurdish: kur

Kurdish word for ear is go/goh, which according to Kurdish sound changes it must have derived from *gausa; Avestan and Old Persian had gaoshem and gaosha, respectively, Scythian had ''gaosa''.

light, reflection
Sycthian: sauka
Kurdish: şauq, (not be confused with Semitic ''şafaq'', meaning ''horizon'' rendered in Kurdish as ''shabaq'', which its native Kurdish equivalent is ''aso''. To make it more clear cf. the famous Kurdish poet: ''shabaq shauq dadatawa, meaning ''the horizon is reflecting the light of the sun''.)

Kurdish word for good ''xas'' fits well with a protoform ''*hvarz'' as was in Scythian.

Scytho-Sarmatian: tama
Kurdish: tam (as in "tam u mij")

Some Sakan lexemes:

Av: raogna
Saka: runa
Kurd: ron

PI: *didatai
Saka: diyare
Kurd: diyar

Av: pasu
Saka: pasu
Kurd: paz

Av: azəm
Soghdian: ǝzu
Kurd: az (ez)

Av: pouru
O.pers: poru
Saka: pharu
Kurd: fra

Av: taθra
Saka: tárra
Kurd: tarî

Av: yâkarə
Zor. Pah: yakar
Saka: jará
Kurd: jarg

Av: supti
Saka: suti
Kurd: asto

Av: su$i
Saka: svî
Kurd: sî

Saka: ruvasa
Kurdish: rovî

Saka: syuta
Kurdish: sêwî

Soghdian: erk
Kurdish: erk

Soghdian: ēžǝn
Kurdish: hēže/hēža (hêja)

Soghdian: ǝškurѳ:
Kurdish: qurs

Soghdian: frusht
Kurdish: frîn

Soghdian: γǝr (mountain)
Kurdish: xir (hill)

Soghdian: žār
Kurdish: žār (jar)

Soghdian žǝwān
Kurdish: žǝyān (jiyan)

Sogdian: rujhya
Kurdish: rijd

Soghdian: nǝβǝst
Kurdish: nûs-

Soghdian: nūkǝr
Kurdish: nūke

Soghdian: nǝwē
Kurdish: nǝwē

Soghdian: pǝšī
Kurdish: pašī/ paš

Soghdian: zwrt
Kurdish: zivirîn

Soghdian: zérnkǝrē
Kurdish: zêringer

Modern research in recent years has resulted in some radical changes of our understanding of the Scythian and Sarmatian languages and their descendants. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century it was thought that the Sarmatians spoke a northeastern Iranian language and was considered to be a predecessor of Ossetian language. The above-mentioned phonological features and lexical examples show that the Indo-European base of Kurdish language originates from Scytho-Sarmatian (Not to forget that Kurdish has a very strong Hurro-Urartian substratum, which makes it look like a creole language.).