Ancient History

(From Searching for Democracy by Dr. Douglas Layton and Dr. Stephen Mansfield) While the origin of the name “Kurds” is uncertain, it is most likely associated with the land of Karda or Qarda mentioned in a Sumerian clay tablet of the third millennium BC. Alexander the Great passed though the land and reportedly referred to the people as “Qarduk.” Pliny wrote of “the people formerly called Carduchi but now Cordueni.”

Most scholars believe the Kurds to be the descendants of various Indo-European tribes that settled in the area as long as 5000 years ago. These tribal groups were divided by geography, language and custom and war was frequent among them. These tribes of the Zagros Mountains eventually came to be known as Lullubi, Kassites and Hurrians to name but a few. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentioned the Bousae, Paretaceni, Strouchates, Arizante, Boudii, and Magi as part of a group of tribes ultimately united under the Medes who came to dominate the region.

Some historians maintain the Medes were led by ruthless dictators, but there is strong evidence suggesting otherwise. I. M. Diakonoff in the Cambridge History of Iran said, “The people were most likely ruled by “tribal chieftains elected for a term.” If so, this mountain tribe would have been among the first of the world’s peoples to taste of democracy as a form of government.

It is certain that the Medes migrated from a point further east into the Zagros and managed to unite the tribes of the region into a single people using rudimentary democratic principles as well as their ample military prowess. It was they who formed the people of the region into a full-fledged nation in approximately 727 BC, which at its peak ruled from Athens to Tehran, swallowing and sometimes assimilating such kingdoms as the Urartians and Mannaeans. It can be said that, with few exceptions, the people we now call the Kurds find their ancestry in the Medes.

The historian Darmatesta, in his Iranian Studies, supported this connection, as did Arnold Wilson in his Mesopotamia: Clashes of Loyalty 1918-1920 in which he said, “The Kurdish nation is a direct descendant of the Medians, and their language is one of the western Iranian languages.” In The Historian’s History of the World, Professor Cyes concluded, “The Medes were no other than Kurdish tribes whose linguistic affiliation was Aryan, Indo-European” Vladamir Minorisky agreed in The Kurds, Encyclopedia of Islam, and E. Sloane described the Kurds as “Sons of the Medes.” The evidence supporting the ancestry of the Kurds, as Medes is so great that, and the fact so fairly established one can feel free to exchange the words Kurd and Mede without reservation.

The Kurds believe almost universally that they are descended from the Medes. There is ample evidence to suggest this and none that effectively disputes the claim. There is no other people group in the region from which they could have logically descended and perhaps the greatest evidence is the fact that the Kurds themselves have maintained this heritage from time immemorial. Significantly, when the Kurds established a television station in Europe they referred to it as MED (Mede) TV. The renowned Kurdish poet Dildar wrote what became his people’s unofficial but de facto national anthem proclaiming, “We are the Medes!”

In time the term Medes fell into disuse and the label Kurd (related to Qurti or Karduchi) once again identified this mountain people. The fact remains, however, that the Medes so fully succeeded in imposing their language, culture, and physical characteristics on the ancient Kurds that the one became synonymous with the other.

The nations in which the Kurds live today (primarily Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Armenia) would sorely like to disallow the Kurds this heritage as they prefer to treat them not only a people without a nation but as a people without a history. The Kurds have a vibrant past claiming cultural achievements unknown to other peoples of the age. While e most often think of the Kurds as a group of warlike clans, the Sumerians referred to them as “painters of pottery” and Merhdad Izady, former professor of history at Harvard University, maintains in his The Kurds: A Concise Handbook, that the Kurds were the first to engage in animal husbandry, agriculture, metallurgy, common weaving and the firing of pottery.

It is also evident that the Medes (actually six tribes that united for common cause) were among the first peoples to utilize democracy as a form of government. Diakonoff wrote, “One gets the impression that while among their western neighbors discord and the shortsighted and grasping policy of individual rival princelings predominated, the Medes were united in a single tribal union headed by a common military leader. The division of the tribes appears to have gradually lost its former important social role with the Medes, for otherwise the Assyrian sources would have given it more attention. But presumably the tribal union of the Medes was not merely nominal. It is to this nation that the Medes must have owed the possibility of collective action.”

While neighboring Mannaeans, Sumerians, and even the Old Hittite Kingdom were experimenting with democratic principles, ruling with counselors and primitive senates in oligarchies, it was the Medes who successfully realized the region’s first vast empire based at least in part on democratic principles. Perhaps Medes learned of democracy from others beyond the Zagros or saw it practiced by their predecessors, the Quti. Whatever the progression of events, the Medes felt a compelling need to unite and either could not or did not wish to accomplish this goal by purely military means. They offered the surrounding tribes a chance to participate in the governing of the land where they lived. These tribes were inclined to accept this offer due to the brutal attacks of the Assyrians, Urartians, and Mannaeans who mercilessly destroyed villages, consigned adults to harsh slavery, burned living children, and skinned captured leaders alive.

Although there are many differences between the resulting government and that oftoday’s democracies there are also striking similarities including “republics” such as America. America’s government is not a “pure democracy” in the sense that a majority rules, but it is a “rule of law” based on principles generally accepted as rue by all the people in the land. It is the law that protects the minority and binds both rules and the people. The Medes and later the Medo-Persians employed this same form of government (republic) in a more limited manner and gave the world what came to be known as “The Law of the Medes and Persians.” This law is mentioned on several occasions in ancient manuscripts including the Torah.

The Persians who later conquered Ecbatana (Hamadan), then capital of the Medes in 550 B.C., extended to the Medes a continuing participation in government through a more southern seat of power, Babylon. One of the best-known rulers of this vast Medo-Persian empire was Darius who was renowned for his subjugation to the rule of law elaborated upon in the famous story of the Jewish prophet Daniel and the Lions den (Daniel’ tomb is located in the Kurdish city of Kirkuk).

Unfortunately the democratic experience of the Medes was diluted rather than strengthened over time and eventually democratic values gave way to totalitarianism. Diakonoff suggested that the ancient organs of self-government—councils of elders, popular assemblies etc.—most likely collapsed because greedy military leaders seized Assyria’s great wealth for themselves rather than sharing it for the good of the nation. In spite of the ultimate failure of Median democracy, they once ruled the world, and the question—“What made the Medes great?”—can be answered in two succinct points.

First, the Medes were brilliant warriors. They were renowned for their horsemanship and were the first to use “guerrilla warfare.” These fearless fighters, then as now, were called Pesh Merga or “those ready to die.” The Assyrians often referred to the Medes as “The strong ones.”

Second, the Medes employed a system of government that enticed their enemies to join them rather than fight. It was an early form of democracy, the heretofore-unique concept that people should not be ruled merely by the sword but by the law. Diakonoff said of Median local government, “The most powerful personage bore no higher title than ‘Lord of the township’ and was obliged to reckon with organs of self-government of the type of a council of elders and a popular assembly which may have elected him or confirmed his rank.”

Today’s democracies owe a debt of gratitude to these forebears of modern government. Even though democratic principles have been refined and polished over the centuries, “the rule of law” remains, without doubt, the foundation of all successful democracies in the world.