The unofficial country of Kurdistan occupies a region steeped in history; a history, that is, of bloody turmoil, occupation and assimilation. When the Medes (descended from the Aryans) first arrived in the region around 1000 B.C. the stage was set for a protracted and arduous battle for supremacy against the neighbouring Assyrians and Persians. For centuries, the Medes fought against their would-be occupiers until, around 600 B.C., having already defeated the Persians, they overcame the Assyrians and formed the Median Empire. That Empire covered all of what we today call Kurdistan.
Various tribes living in the region were not forced to renounce their cultures and conform to their new hosts’. Rather their cultures were adopted and national values were formed. In 550 B.C however, the Persians re-emerged as the dominant force and from that time forward the region was rarely without conflict. Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Armenians, Romans and Byzantines have all waged battles in the region, and the local people found themselves driven into the mountains just to afford themselves a better chance of survival. Tribalism became very strong under these conditions and this, in turn, weakened their ability to form any meaningful, army of resistance against determined assailants. When the Arabs took control in the 7th century, Islam was introduced, and national identity irrevocably eroded, making it almost impossible for the people to resist future attempts at occupation.
The Turks first arrived on the scene in the 11th century and have largely remained in control to the present day, only relinquishing part of the territory to the advancing Ottomans in the last century. Existing, established cultures and Islamic ideologies continued. Throughout all of these bloody years, the people encamped in the mountains never fully fell under the control of the occupying forces and were always ready and determined to resist attempts at any kind of assimilation. This stance of resistance is an innate characteristic of the people still today, and from their mountain hideouts they proudly defy outside influence, and continue to fight to protect their existence and freedom.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the Turkish, British and French drew up and signed two treaties – the Treaty of Ankara in 1921 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The result of these treaties was the annexation of Kurdistan into its modern day host countries – Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Unfortunately for the Kurdish people, the condition of internal disarray and predominantly feudal, tribal structure precluded Kurdistan from being made its own autonomous state at the time, despite conditions looking otherwise favourable.
In Turkey, as the central government took hold, local authorities were abolished and a programme of intimidation and, in some instances, wholesale massacre initiated. The intention was to discourage the Kurds from political activity and harbouring any ideas of a revolt against the state; however, the sheer determination and resolve of the Kurdish people cannot be underestimated and in 1978, the PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party) formed and embarked on a violent retaliation against the Turkish military and Republic at large.
Over a period of 20 years, bombing campaigns in Ankara and Istanbul claimed many lives along with the disappearance of a large number of schoolteachers in East Turkey, claimed by the PKK to be government spies. The Turkish military, on
the other hand, weren’t so covert and engaged in a widespread “cleansing” campaign in which thousands of Kurdish mountain villages in the East of the country were systematically burned out and razed to the ground, leaving huge numbers of people homeless with nothing more than the clothes in which they stood. Reports of customary executions in front of burning homes were also common.
The capture of PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999; his subsequent call for a unilateral ceasefire, and Turkey’s aspirations of joining the European Union, have all had the effect of quelling hostilities on both sides. Sporadic forays still occur, but the undercurrent of tension is far more subtle now than in recent years. A foreign visitor to the region is most likely to be more concerned with events to the south, in battle-ravaged Iraq, than with the thought of his or her own safety in what was, until very recently, a no-go area for tourists.
The people, Kurds and Turks alike, are friendly and hospitable towards tourists, if not each other, and enjoy nothing more than inviting a passer-by in for a glass of tea. Of course, carpet sellers are the keenest to do this, for obvious reasons, and you know you’re being lined up for a bit of patter, when a dark room is transformed into a floodlit shop floor, and your gracious host starts instructing his staff to unfurl carpets, rugs and kilims at your feet. Steely resolve is called for if you are to resist becoming the proud owner of a new carpet, but regardless of the outcome, plentiful tea is a certainty and a friend for life a distinct possibility.
Azure lakes, snow-topped mountains, waterfalls, ancient churches and crumbling fortresses await the few tourists that venture this far east in Turkey, although five-star amenities are few and far between and are likely to remain so for many years to come. With the nearest sandy shore many hundreds of miles to the west, and Iraq only a short drive to the south, package tourists aren’t likely to be found in abundance here.
For some, that may be reason enough to come.
Photography – Charlotte Mann.